Tag Archives: Mexico

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

4 Apr

Paula watching sunset

By Paula
[April 2016]

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – sometimes long-term travel is a bit hard. Because it’s a privilege to be able to travel for pleasure, it can be awkward to admit that. But there, I’ve said it.

But whatever down sides there are to living a nomadic life on the road, for us they were massively outweighed by the good stuff. If that wasn’t the case, we simply wouldn’t have kept going for nearly 1,600 days.

Like just about everything else in life, if it’s what you passionately want to do, you’ll take the rough with the smooth.  Via this blog we have been able to share so many incredible, unforgettable moments, and we thank you all again for coming along. We find it hard to absorb the sheer saturating volume of amazingness we’ve been lucky enough to experience, and the thought of trying to sum that up in this post is mind-boggling.

We hope you agree that we have also been truthful about the bad times, the irritations and the frustrations. We can’t stand shiny, shouty, dishonest travel blogging that makes out every single moment is a profoundly life-changing ‘awesome blast’, or that travelling is in some way superior to other lifestyles. The awesomeness is indeed present in an infinite number of big and small ways, and giving up a secure life to undertake a trip like this is inevitably life-altering, but let’s keep things in perspective please.

We get a lot of questions about why we did this, what’s great and what’s difficult – the thing is the answer can change depending on the day, the mood, the weather, the circumstances, the people. Sometimes a ‘bad’ thing leads to something fabulous. Some days you’re doing something fabulous and can still manage to be in a foul mood. Some of the best things are the hardest to convey because they are fleeting, silly moments that get lost in translation.

In this post, some of the good and bad things will literally overlap. How can we blather on about loving the freedom to be on the move, then bemoan the bad things about always being transient? Because we are all a bag of contradictions.

With our return home we’ve tried to focus our minds on the things we most treasured and the things we won’t miss so much.

They are those consistent themes that, for us, represent the truly Good, the Bad and the Ugly about our totally perfectly awesome blast of a drive to the bottom of the world.

[This is a huge blog post. If it helps, you can flick between the items you want to read from the list of clickable links below. But if you skip straight past all the ‘good’ stuff and go straight to the ‘bad & ugly’, please know that this makes you a terrible person.]

 


 

THE GOOD

1. Freedom

2. Being outside

3. Gazing at wildlife

4. Scoffing food

5. Feeling the ‘wow’ factor

6. Triumphing over adversity

7. Enjoying random surprises

8. Meeting people

 

THE BAD & THE UGLY

1. The toilet situation

2. The “f****ing wifi”

3. The vehicle maintenance

4. The lack of privacy

5. The transience

 


 

THE GOOD

1. FREEDOM

Long road, Patagonia, Argentina

Just me, him, a flask of tea and the road ahead.

This is the only word that comes close to summing up all that is good about a long road trip with a campervan. People so often ask what’s the best thing about the trip and, while we could list a gazillion cool things we’ve seen and done, it’s this.

Within reason, we could get up in the morning and go wherever we liked, and frequently changed our minds on the way. We didn’t have to get up and trudge to work. We didn’t have to plan much and almost never had to make reservations for anything.

Whenever we ‘arrived’ our house was there with us, so whatever was happening we had that little bubble that was all ours. No matter where we ended up, we could make a drink, cook some food and go to our own bed. If we didn’t like a place, we drove off. If we loved it, we stayed longer. If it rained we tried to head for the sun. If it was too sunny, we parked under a tree.

We had more time together than we could ever have hoped for in our previous life, which was one of the major things we’d craved before the trip. We found that to be strengthening, nourishing and fun.

It’s a massive privilege to have freedom and time – we never stopped appreciating that. We were almost always occupied with something or other because we still enjoy being busy, but we also had the headspace to read, talk, think and sleep more.

It took a while after we left London, but we learned to sometimes just be quiet and still, even bored. I know it’s stating the bleeding obvious, but that is seriously good for you.

Click to return to list

 

——

 

2. BEING OUTSIDE

Early cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Early morning cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

If you live the camping life for several years then, guess what, the majority of your time is spent outside in the sunshine and fresh air. We will miss this enormously because it made us feel healthier and improved our sleep quality.

When the weather was cold or wet we really loved having the option of slamming the van door and having a cosy indoor option. But for the most part the climate was great and we did most things outside whenever possible – reading, eating meals, barbequing, washing up, having a drink, fixing stuff, looking at the views and sunsets, swimming, hiking, people-watching, spotting birds and animals and wasting countless hours chasing them around with the camera, often to no avail.

In the mountains and national parks we loved heading off with some snacks for a good long stroll or a strenuous hike. If we were heading out on a particularly tough or long trek, we’d leave the bed out in the morning so we could come home and crawl straight in there afterwards with a reviving cup of tea. Bliss.

In the high altitude areas the light is particularly crisp, bright and unsullied – it truly is nectar for the soul. If only we could store it up for the grey days.

There were several phases of the trip when we did a lot of beach camping – especially Central America, Colombia’s Caribbean coast, northern Peru and southern Brazil. There’s nothing quite like sleeping to the sound of waves, waking up with the early sun, pushing back the door and stepping straight out onto the sand.

Some of our most precious memories are from camping on the beaches of Baja California in Mexico, back in 2011. Stingrays, leaping dolphins and massive azure skies that had to be seen to be believed. There are few better introductions to a life lived outdoors.

Click to return to list

——

3. GAZING AT WILDLIFE

Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

What you looking at? Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

We began our married life with an African safari and have always had a thing about any kind of wildlife. Even so, I don’t think we realised quite how geeky we were about it until this trip. We loved spotting the big mammals and exciting colourful birds but would also happily spend hours watching hermit crabs or leafcutter ants.

I started making a list of some of the main wildlife we saw on the trip, but it became ridiculously unwieldy.

So here are just a few of our favourite things:

– Swimming with sea lions in Baja California, Mexico, then snorkelling over a shoal of grouper fish that was so immense it gave us vertigo;
– Walking among blue-footed boobies in Ecuador. There is nothing not to like about a wide-eyed bird in bright blue flippers;
– Getting a good long look at a snoozing puma in the rainforest in Costa Rica.
– Watching Rockhopper penguins bounce around on the rocks in Patagonia. Boing!! (In fact, everything about penguins. Magellanics, Kings, Humboldts, whatever – our enthusiasm does not discriminate);
– Slowing down to allow a family of alpacas to cross the road in Peru;
– Spotting a lovely luminous yellow eyelash viper in Costa Rica, photographing it at close range, then later finding out it was a very dangerous, potentially deadly, snake.
– Looking on as herds of capybaras bathed in mud and water pools, in both Colombia and Argentina.
– Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys! So many monkeys. That is all.
– Managing to look up just in time to see, and photograph, a humpback whale leaping out of the ocean in Ecuador.
– Getting an up-close visit from a three-week old baby sea-lion in Chilean Patagonia. The little chap almost managed to upstage the King penguins we’d gone there to visit.
– Being happy to get a cricked neck from watching condors soar in the Argentinian lakes district.
– Standing on a cliff in the Bolivian Amazon, watching macaws flying beneath us in to their rocky nests. (actually, Jeremy hated the scary cliff, but he really enjoyed the parrots!)

Click to return to list

——

 

4. SCOFFING FOOD

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

Buying anticuchos (cow heart skewers) in La Paz, Bolivia – served with potato and delicious spicy peanut sauce.

In most parts of the world food is an integral part of the culture that’s all bound up with family, identity, history, the environment and climate, the marking of life’s milestones and more. To travel without an open-minded love of food must surely be a joyless affair.

Luckily we take no persuasion to sample whatever’s on offer, wherever we go. The less familiar the better – roasted guinea pig (Ecuador and Peru), beef heart skewers (Bolivia), fried fat-bottomed ants (Colombia), lamb testicles (Bolivia), llama and alpaca steaks (Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina) being among the more memorable moments.

Filet mignon with fried ants, Barichara

Getting ready to pop a crunchy fried ant into my mouth, Barichara, Colombia.

On a self-catering trip, plenty of meals are typically everyday concoctions – often the same as, or a variation of, things we’d eat at home. But as much as possible we’d seek out less familiar ingredients to cook with, or try a local twist to what we were making.

But eating out really gave us the chance to delve into the local flavours. For the most part that involved street food and cheap, substantial, set lunches which are usually the main meal of the day in Latin America. Occasionally we’d eat out in the evening, and a few times we splurged on a properly posh gourmet meal.

Everywhere we went, the local cuisine was an enormous source of pride and competitiveness between regions and nations. Food was talked about incessantly and we were happy to join in.

We were asked countless times how we were enjoying the food, what was our favourite thing, which country had the most tempting dishes. Be it on your own head if you don’t compliment the place you’re in at that moment.

Often the street snacks were the best. To name them all would take an entire book. We still salivate over thoughts of papas rellenas (stuffed potato) in Peru, arepas (corn cakes) with egg or cheese in Colombia, tamales (steamed, stuffed corn dough) in Central America, Mexican tacos of every variety, tajadas (crispy fried plantain chips) in Nicaragua and dreamy deep-fried coxhinas de frango (chicken fritters, sometimes with melty cheese) in Brazil. Just about everywhere has a version of an empanada (fried or baked, filled pastry pies) but Bolivia wins for its version, the salteña – biting through the crumbly pastry to find a juicy meat gravy inside requires it to be eaten standing up, leaning forward, legs apart.

For us the overall winners are Mexico and Peru for the best cuisine in terms of flavour, imagination, freshness and variety, and Argentina for being fabulous at the more limited things it specialises in, including steak, milanesas, chorizo and dulce de leche (caramel) with everything. Just don’t tell our friends in Bolivia that they didn’t make the cut…

Click to return to list

——

 

5. FEELING THE ‘WOW’ FACTOR

P&J, Fitz Roy mirador

Glorious views of the Fitz Roy range on our hike to Laguna de Los Tres, near El Chalten, Argentina.

The biggest ‘wow’ moments in travel aren’t restricted to the classic ‘must-sees’ and, in any case, everyone’s got their own tastes about what wows them and what leaves them cold. We can get ridiculously excited about something quite obscure or prosaic, but we are equally happy to be carried along with the hype of the massive sites like Macchu Picchu or Iguazu Falls.

I gave those two examples, because they are perhaps the most touristed destinations in South America, and we still loved them. Some travellers consider it a badge of honour to snub the ‘touristy’ places – erroneously believing themselves to be something other than tourists and preferring to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing a cultural or natural wonder because it’s ‘too busy / expensive / predictable’. We don’t feel that way. Yes, we always try to avoid the busiest times, we pack our own lunch, we loathe it when places have been thoroughly wrecked by tourism, and we sidestep the avoidable rip-offs. But most of those places are well known for a good reason, and sometimes you just have to embrace it.

A fair number of our wow moments fall into that busy ‘touristy’ category, some less so, and some we practically had to ourselves. There are others that couldn’t really be photographed well, like the mind-popping stargazing we did in the Atacama desert (Chile) and Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia).

Our little brainstorming session for this section could have lasted for days, had we let the list go on and on and on. Look down for an agonisingly small selection of some of the best big breath-takers.

Click to return to list

——

 

6. TRIUMPHING OVER ADVERSITY

Arriving in Ushuaia!

14 Jan 2015: Arriving in Ushuaia. Only about a year ‘late’ – not too shabby!

I sometimes think that people who love adventurous travel are a little bit addicted to the highs and lows that inevitably come with it. If you take on a long trip, especially with a vehicle, the chances of absolutely everything going 100% A-Ok smoothly are practically nil. You have to deal with some shitty and annoying stuff or, worse, some scary and risky stuff.

It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but – as long as we are still alive and more or less un-maimed  – I think we secretly kind of like it that way.

Because getting yourselves out of an adverse situation or solving a new tricky conundrum is like a drug. Those massive lows make the highs all the more exhilarating.

The great thing is, it doesn’t even have to be anything particularly major or frightening. It’s not necessarily ‘adversity’, in the context of some of the things people have to live through in today’s world, but it just has to feel like a challenge for you.

It wasn’t unusual to see us fist-pumping the air because a hot, sweaty, sweary, confusing, seemingly hopeless day of looking for a propane gas plant had actually ended with success – ie with a full tank of propane gas.

We’d celebrate with a drink and dinner that night as if we’d just managed to scale Everest in flip-flops.

Even taking on a trek we found difficult, pushing ourselves just a bit further than we were comfortable with, was something that would put us on a high. This was especially the case for Jeremy, who suffers from terrible vertigo and frequently had to push himself out of his comfort zone. One of the hardest walks didn’t even involve any altitude – it was a blindingly hot beach trek into the Costa Rican rainforest, during which Jeremy became a bit delirious, I briefly thought about lying down and dying, and we had to wade waist-high through a river not entirely unvisited by crocodiles. Arriving was utter bliss.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Waiting for yet another customs office to help us.

Navigating our way through some of the bureaucratic mazes we found ourselves in ended in a similar self-congratulatory mood. We have particularly vivid memories of being horribly lost in Bogota, Colombia, being (unnecessarily) sent here, there and everywhere, trying to renew our visas and vehicle permit. This is not a city you want to drive in. Ever. It’s the only day I can remember us actually both crying whilst driving, but we genuinely laughed about it later.

Three months later we had to do the same visa run again, but in an easier provincial city in the south. We were so chuffed we’d got it all done, but by that time we were running late to get to a rural ranch (see Good things no.7: Enjoying Random Surprises), before dark. It was a part of Colombia that was only just opening up after being a dangerous no-go area for years. All we had was a scribbled map, a name and no phone or GPS. As we rushed to find our way out of town we did an illegal u-turn and hit a motorcyclist. When the police arrived it turned out one of the officers was the uncle of the woman we’d knocked over. We really thought we’d had it that day. But we got away with it – we miraculously found the un-signed ranch in the pitch black, we ate grilled trout for dinner, drank a lot of cold beer and sank into our beds that night feeling like we’d just lived a whole week in one day.

Then of course there was the van. There were periods when we felt like we were triumphing over adversity every other day. (See Bad things no.3: The Vehicle Maintenance). We wouldn’t have wished for all those things to happen, and life would have been easier if they hadn’t, but solving them did lead to a great sense of satisfaction. By far the ultimate challenge was smuggling the van out of Ecuador after we’d converted the gearbox – it involved months of planning, discussion and research, a lot of sleepless nights, some dodgy behaviour and quite a lot of nerve.

After it was over and we’d made it to Peru, we drank loads of cocktails, grinned a lot and danced a little. And for the zillionth time on the trip we said: “We can’t believe we just did that”.

Click to return to list

——

 

7. ENJOYING RANDOM SURPRISES

No, we hadn't anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

No, we hadn’t anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

When a plan comes together it’s lovely, but when something unexpected happens it somehow makes things all the more thrilling.

Travelling long-term gives you the freedom to follow the curve balls that come along. So many little unplanned events happened to us along the way, it’s hard to remember absolutely everything. But there are a few moments that really stick in our minds.

Finding ourselves with a van full of El Salvadorean revolutionaries: As we bumped along a dirt track in the van in the El Perquin region, we looked behind from the front to see three ex-guerilla fighters sitting on our seats and floor. We gave each other that familiar look that says ‘jeez, our life is strange sometimes’. We’d booked an informal guided tour of sites that were significant to the rebels during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, but we hadn’t really expected that we’d be the transport. Each time we moved on to the next place our guide would ask us to pull over and pick up yet another random revolutionary – each with a story of the war that was at once fascinating, horrific and inspiring.

Jeremy getting drunk with a bunch of Colombian gauchos in the relatively unexplored Los Llanos region – then me driving all of them, their wives and kids home in the van, via a stop-off for sausage and chips. We’d met a guy at a mechanic’s in Bogota, who invited us to stay at his ranch for a few days and be looked after by the families who lived and worked on the farm. Horse-riding, wildlife-spotting, fire-roasted beef and a taste of the cowboy life – it was one of the most special experiences of our whole trip.

Camping in someone’s living room in Colombia: It doesn’t get much weirder than parking up next to a stranger’s sofa, popping the pop-top and pouring yourself an evening drink. While looking for somewhere to camp in Espinal, we’d asked at a local sports club if we could stay in their grounds. They refused, but a local tennis instructor overheard the conversation and told us we were welcome to camp at his place. Obviously we assumed he had a garden, but when we arrived at his house it was in the middle of the town square! ‘Erm, we actually need someone to park because we sleep inside the van’ we explained. ‘That’s okay’ he said, ‘you can park inside the house….’ He pulled back the gates and we drove into his bizarrely laid-out home, with a covered courtyard that had been made into a living room. We squeezed the van in next to the sofa and settled in for the night.
This entry only just beats the night we ended a horrendously stressful day by being ‘rescued’ by a wealthy Colombian family who allowed us to camp in their garden, amid preparations for a massive posh 50th birthday party.

Dancing in a Bolivian folk festival: Of all the things we couldn’t have foreseen, this probably takes the prize. Few people in this world could persuade Jeremy to don flappy Andean trousers, a poncho and an outrageously camp hat, then dance through the streets waving pink hankies and jangling the spurs on his sandals-with-socks. But our Workaway hosts Emma and Rolando managed just that. I wasn’t doing too badly either, with my woolly dress, pinny and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons. During our fabulous four-month stint doing a work-exchange at Colibri Camping near La Paz – which was another unexpected turn of events in itself – we really loved being part of a small community. And part of that involvement included joining the team that competes in their annual dance festival. We’re only sorry our lamentable efforts failed to secure them a victory.

Click to return to list

——

 

8. MEETING PEOPLE

Panama

From fleeting interactions, to random acts of kindness by strangers, to making new and enduring friendships, people bind together the fragmented life one lives as a nomad.

There are the countless people whose names we’ll never know, but who made a difference to us in the moment – all the people who spotted our foreign van and waved or approached us to chat or offer help; the people in exceptionally friendly Colombia who invited us in to their homes; the folk who gave us, or helped us find, a safe place to sleep; strangers who gave us little gifts of food or souvenirs; the guys who rescued us when our (first) gearbox gave out in rural Honduras.

We meet dozens of other road-trippers and shared brief conversations, meals and wine, or several days of companionship. Some we met – by chance or design – several times over, while others we convoyed or lived with for a spell.

Our journalism jobs meant we were lucky to be able to meet some fascinating people for the stories we were writing – including ex-guerilla fighters, Bolivian cholitas, journalists under threat and social justice campaigners.

Family and friends visited, giving us a welcome glimpse of home and the chance to spend more time with them than we ever seemed to be able to afford when we lived thousands of miles closer.

Then there were the family members, friends, fellow travellers and strangers from more than 150 countries who followed the blog and often sent us encouraging and complimentary messages. We couldn’t see you but we felt like you were with us.

Stand by for the biggest gallery of all:

Click to return to list


THE BAD & THE UGLY

 

1. THE TOILET SITUATION

Toilet, Peru

Whose turn was it to clean the toilet?

Unsavoury toilet situations are possibly the ugliest part of travelling in such a way that you’re almost always conducting your functions and ablutions in either a public/shared facility, behind a bush or hunched over a bottle inside the car.

We’re not saying all toilets in Latin America are awful, obviously that would be ridiculous, but when you are camping you see a disproportionate number of the nasties. Only a few places have bathrooms that you’d really consider lingering in for longer than strictly necessary. We chose to drive a smaller vehicle without a toilet and that was the right decision for us, but there’s a price that comes with it – a lack of privacy and having to endure other people’s habits, noises, smells, excretions, skin flakes and hair.

The porta-loo we bought at the beginning of the trip was ditched after a year as it was so impractical, and there was a diarrhoea incident in Guatemala that left us both mentally scarred for life. So apart from our magic Uriwell emergency pee bottle, we totally relied on external solutions.

Having to wash or go to the toilet in the great outdoors was the least of our worries – it’s often way more appealing than the indoor option.

In those moments where you’re brushing your teeth over a dirt-caked sink and trying not to touch anything, stepping into a shower covered in leaves, mud, insects (dead and alive) and scum-clogged balls of other people’s hair, trying to avoid inhaling as you hover over a shit-smeared toilet at a truck stop, desperately trying to avoid the pool of rancid urine under your flip-flopped feet, or trying not to look at the bin overflowing with a week’s worth of soiled toilet paper, you do have a little droll thought to yourself: “Yep, living the dream baby, livin’ the dream.”

Those nights when we woke up needing to pee and first had to sleepily remember where the hell we were, then schlep outside to face the elements, the barking dogs, the passersby, whatever, we might have fleetingly wondered why we do this to ourselves.

We do wish we had more photos of the worst toilet examples, but it’s never really a classic Kodak moment. Most are not really extreme – there’s just a fairly regular pattern of poorly-maintained facilities that make the whole experience feel a bit shabby – non-functioning flushes, lack of running water, broken and missing toilet seats, broken or non-existent doors, shredded stained shower curtains that always want to stick to your skin, smashed mirrors, broken lights, and crumbling, mouldy walls.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

In Central America and Brazil they have electric showers that usually have bare wires hanging from them – if you absent-mindedly raise your arms and touch the shower head, bbzzzzzzt! It certainly helps wake you up in the morning.

There were many periods of the trip when we just didn’t know when or where we would next find a shower. Mostly that’s fine, you get used to it and improvise as best you can. But some days you want to claw out your entire head of stinking, greasy hair.

Toilet reports are a regular topic of conversation, and plenty are great! When we found one that was clean and shiny, well lit, with running water, doors that lock, toilet seats, paper AND soap, it made our bloody day.

Sometimes it was a little bit extreme though. There was the time when I had to go to a drop toilet in the Peruvian Andes, and there was a dead cow in the next cubicle. There was the time that the only available toilet in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia, was so appalling that (sorry dear reader) we resorted to defecating in a plastic bag in the van. One day we met retired Kiwis Gary and Joan, in Patagonia. We were discussing our reasons for not having stayed at the other campsite in town. “We did actually go there and set up camp, but we left almost immediately,” said Gary.

Why was that?” we asked. “Well, Joan went in to the toilet block and someone had crapped in the shower.”

 

Click to return to list

—–

 

2. THE F***ING WIFI

Paula using laptop

See how unhappy and frustrated I look?

I know it’s not classy or intelligent to swear, but “the fucking wifi!” was one of the most commonly uttered phrases of our trip and I really can’t dress it up as something more polite.

If you imagine that we spent absolutely all of our days skipping through the mountains, sitting by rivers enjoying picnics, or frolicking in the sea, then you might wonder why on earth the internet was so important to us.

Well we didn’t, and it was.

Not every day, thankfully – we really came to appreciate the benefits of having so many days where we had no access, or chose not to access it. It’s good for your health and your relationship.

But when we needed it and it was either hard to find, didn’t not work or was woefully inadequate for the task, this was usually a head-bangingly frustrating waste of time, effort and money. For various reasons we chose not to bring smartphones and buy SIM cards and internet plans for each country, so we completely relied on free wifi in cafes, petrol stations, campsites and public areas, or on using internet shops with desktop computers.

We rented a few apartments and they always had wifi. On our two work-exchange stints in Bolivia and Argentina there was wifi in our accommodation but it was abysmal because the areas were rural.

Sometimes the internet speed was excellent, but you could never really predict when that was going to be – one of our most surprisingly clear Skype calls home was from a public square on an island off the Chilean island of Chiloe.

Plenty of tasks could be, and often were, put off for days or weeks with little consequence – blogging, uploading photos, researching stuff for the trip, reading the news or downloading podcasts. Other things were more important – our freelance journalism work, Skyping the parents, keeping in touch with home, and money matters.

We tended to try to plan the days when we’d go online and get our tasks done – that usually meant packing up the van and driving somewhere to do it, or fitting it in between destination A and B.

The day you’ve planned it will typically be the day when you can’t find a functioning wifi signal. How many damn coffees have we ordered before realising the wifi doesn’t work? (rookie mistake). How many free municipal ‘services’ have we connected to, only to find Nothing At All will load? How many towns have we driven round, hanging the iPad out of the window to try to find an open network? How many hours have we spent watching that spinning wheel as we try to upload photos for the blog or – even worse – for our editors? And, for the love of whatthefuck, how many times have we tried to speak to our parents on Skype and had to run around a campsite, town square or café, trying to locate a signal that will facilitate, you know, an actual conversation.

Am I starting to sound bitter? Well the answer is, a lot! A lot of hours, a lot of times.

But we’re so over it.

Click to return to list

——

 

3. THE VEHICLE MAINTENANCE

Van on the truck, Honduras

Please don’t leave, come back..! The first transmission breakdown in Honduras.

For some people, tinkering with a car or tackling a really difficult mechanical conundrum is a deeply satisfying hobby, a pleasure, even a joy. For us it was the steepest learning curve of the journey, and it was often stressful.

We will probably never be mechanics. Let me rephrase that – we will never be mechanics. But we now know the names of more car parts in Spanish than we will ever know in English. We now kind of vaguely know what’s going on under there. We became finely tuned to the van’s little ways and noises and gradually stopped completely dreading conversations with mechanics.

If you’re wondering what the level of our knowledge was when we left home in 2011, let me just say that until 6 months before our departure date Jeremy couldn’t even drive, and neither of us had ever owned a car.

My dad tried to give me a cramming lesson in very basic vehicle maintenance just before we left. My blank facial expressions gave him understandable cause for alarm and his face went a bit white. I was quietly thinking ‘oh wow, I didn’t know there was fluid for the brakes’ while he was quietly thinking ‘oh god, they are definitely going to die in a desert somewhere’.

Broken down in Ecuador

Broken down in Ecuador

If you have followed this blog long term you will know that for the first half of the trip we had an absolute nightmare with the van’s automatic transmission, which failed twice and was eventually converted to a manual gearbox in Ecuador. Trying to get our heads around solving those potentially journey-ending problems was, at times, overwhelming.

That breakdown let to a horrendous cycle of bureaucratic problems that ended with us risking everything to smuggle the van out of the country. It was, by far, the most stressful, pant-wettingly scary thing we had to do on the whole journey.

Big catastrophes aside, the day-to-day maintenance of a vehicle that is also your home just adds an extra layer of pressure. There’s more at stake. Problems cannot be ignored, they have to be dealt with asap and always in a place that you don’t know. Once you do find a mechanic you don’t know if he’s going to be competent. Sometimes they break the very thing they are supposed to be fixing, or fix one thing and break something else just to keep you on your toes. Sometimes they are excellent – it is a lottery every time.

When we needed work done we couldn’t just leave the van and go home. Our home was there, suspended in the air on a hydraulic lift or jacked up with its wheels off. We didn’t even have a cell phone. We had to wander the streets, sit in cafes, or in the yard just waiting, waiting, waiting.

It was difficult to explain the concept to mechanics who didn’t often get people driving their houses into the workshop.

They were frequent conversations like this – mechanic says: “So how long are you in town?” We’d say: “Weeeeell, as long as this takes. We can’t leave until the van is fixed, because we live in it. So basically we’re waiting for you to do this as quickly as possible (subtext – but not so quickly that you cock it up by rushing it).”

Mechanic says: “Okay leave it with us and we’ll let you know.”

We’d say: “And go where? We live in the van. Just to reiterate – we are waiting until you give us our house back because we have nowhere else to go.”

It was tedious. Sometimes we waited all day then bailed out at closing time, having to get things reassembled in order to go off and camp, or abandoning the van to go to a hostel – the work uncompleted, the part untraceable or undelivered.

Mechanic looks at the brakes, Perquin

Another day, another mechanic

Oh yeah, car parts. That’s the other little thing. We couldn’t always find the ones we needed in Latin America and they had to be shipped from the US or Europe (such as a whole transmission – twice). More expense, more long waits. After a while we got wise to the things we might need, bringing things from the UK, or having other stuff shipped while we were ordering something else. We tried to stay one step ahead and largely it all worked out well in the latter two years.

Of course we knew looking after a vehicle would be pretty much the biggest occupational hazard of going on a 50,000-odd mile road trip, but we probably didn’t envisage just quite how consuming it could be at times. We don’t mind saying that we’re proud we not only made it, but learned a hell of a lot along the way.

Click to return to list

——

 

4. THE LACK OF PRIVACY

Wayuu woman and baby in our van

People quite often wanted to be photographed with the van.

This is quite a tricky one to describe, because many genuinely good things came out of the fact that we lived much of our van life effectively in the public sphere. By being out there on display, we met countless interesting, helpful, amusing, curious, friendly people.

When you are camping in a small van, unless the weather is totally freezing or you are asleep, the door is pretty much always open and everything you are doing is visible to whoever happens to be around. That varied hugely depending on where we were camping – from quiet bush camps free of anyone, to privately-owned campsites, to petrol stations, village squares, restaurant car parks, tourist sites or beaches.

The vast majority of the time it was great. We had some of the best interactions of this trip precisely because people could, and did, approach us to have a look around and a chat about the journey. We were videoed, photographed and questioned more times than we could count. Children were obsessed with the pop-top and always wanted to climb in it. Sometimes people would hang around to watch us from a distance, to see what the strange gringos would do next. We could actually hear them giving a running commentary to each other.

Occasionally we did feel self-conscious about it – more so in the countries where camping and motorhomes were much less common. If you’re frying up some chicken inside your car or trying to relax with a glass of wine in a village square in rural Bolivia, people will understandably stare at you and you might not always be in the mood for it. We had a classic comedy moment quite recently when a young boy was strolling past, gazing open-mouthed at the van’s pop-top. As he lifted his hand to wave at us he walked face-on into a lamppost. Oh how we all chuckled!

There are those days when you feel hot and sweaty, grumpy, or a bit stressed because you can’t find somewhere decent to camp, and being on public display is just not what you want. Those days are a small minority, but they really matter in that moment. If you’re hormonal, knackered, feeling a bit meh or just need to wallow with a ‘duvet day’ it’s harder to hide unless you happen to be in the middle of nowhere, or can find a peaceful private campground in which to relax and be alone.

Talking of being alone, as a couple we were pretty much always together. This is one of those overlapping good and bad things. Given our previous life, being able to spend so much time together has been one of the top-ranking good things about this trip. But we also appreciate that it’s not entirely normal to have virtually zero time away from your partner. Often our only ‘me time’ was when one of us went to the loo or had a shower. And even that wasn’t a guaranteed solo activity.

If there were any taboos left in our marriage when we left home, their demise probably began around the time of the Guatemala diarrhoea incident (see Bad things no 1. The Toilet Situation) and continued with every use of the emergency night-time pee bottle. If you’re thinking of doing a trip like this and don’t fancy the idea of loudly peeing in to a plastic bottle 6ft from your partner’s face, get a bigger van.

Click to return to list

——

 

5. THE TRANSIENCE

Desert driving, Peru

Off we go again…

There are a few down sides about being nomadic (but see also Good things no 1. – Freedom). Yet again, how much you care about this depends on the mood and the circumstances.

I’d love to know how many hours we spent packing up to leave, arriving somewhere new and moving all the stuff around again.

For us one of the hardest things about being transient was when we needed to get things done. We were continually starting from scratch because our environment changed so often we were always the newbies in town and didn’t know where things were. Sometimes we’d literally be driving randomly around the streets of X town or village, hoping to stumble across a mechanic, launderette, ironmonger, internet shop, food market, water or ice seller, some obscure piece of something for the van, an actual campsite or somewhere to stop for the night. It can get tiresome because everything requires a bit more time and effort.

Roadside camp

Packing up, moving on.

Sometimes we were lonely too. Over four and half years we met a lot of people, some of whom we now consider to be great friends. But it was all so temporary. We, and they, were always moving on. It was nice when we bumped into people more than once – we got a little taste of that familiar feeling that is so rare when you’re travelling.

Despite all the great folk we met, a massive majority of our time was actually spent à deux. Here’s a guilty secret – having no friends or social life to speak of is often really quite nice, in that life is just very simple. But most of us thrive on our connections with other humans, and we did feel the absence of our family and friends very strongly.

We’d crave a spontaneous night out or a long lazy brunch with people we loved and with whom we had a shared history and outlook – those people in your life that don’t require introductions or explanations.

Some days there were down times – especially during the long Argentinian siesta – when we felt incredibly ‘baseless’. Just hanging around waiting for things to happen before we could move on to the next place or return to our campspot for the night.

Perversely, despite the occasional frustrations our transient lifestyle didn’t necessarily lead to a desire to have a permanent settled home. In fact I think our boredom threshold became progressively lower. At the very end of the trip we stayed in a lovely apartment in a great, lively part of Buenos Aires for a month. After three weeks of it Jeremy looked quite alarmed when I said one morning: “Jeez, every time I go out it’s just the same streets every time…!

As we begin the process of finding somewhere to live again, this is probably an attitude I need to address.

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Where is home?

Click to return to list

500 days!

24 Mar

Today we celebrate 500 days on the road!

People often ask, ‘what have been the best bits?’ Impossible to answer. They range from huge awe-inspiring sights – like hiking an active volcano, gazing at Mayan ruins, or looking a snake in the eye – to little moments that would be lost in translation.

It’s been 500 days of exploring, learning, making friends, being rescued by strangers, having more time to be silly, to read, to think, to look around, to travel without a plan. It’s involved spectacular beaches, mountains, jungle, wildlife, and indigenous culture. There have been ill-advised ferry journeys, crazy cities, sanity-stretching bureaucracy, a lot of food, even more beer, unhinged drivers, a few scary moments and more mechanics than we could shake a catalytic converter at.

Here’s a slideshow, not selected for its artistic merit, but because it might go some way to summing up some of the sillier moments of life on the road.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Demonisation of a nation

16 Jan

PD & JD, Xela, Guatemala

We have so much to say about what’s happened in our first week at Spanish school. Not least there is the shocking news that Jeremy is pregnant. That’s what he told his teacher anyway. She informed him it was impossible, so he turned to his dictionary to see where he’d gone wrong. Turns out the words for embarrassed (embarazarse) and pregnant (embarazada) are very similar.

But more of our schoolboy and schoolgirl errors in a few days. For now, if you don’t mind indulging us, we’d like to briefly rewind to a subject that has been in our minds for several months – and now we are out of Mexico we want to address it. It’s a subject that came up in almost every conversation we had with north Americans in California, and then in Mexico itself.

Grim reaper at roadside shrine

It's not all grim down south, you know

The brutal drugs war in Mexico has led to the entire nation being demonised in the eyes of much of the outside world, but particularly by those north of its border. It’s a deadly, grim situation – no doubt – but no one who actually travels there believes the hysteria is justified.

We were shocked at the level of fear in the US about going to Mexico. Almost everyone – there were maybe only a couple of exceptions – warned us how deadly it was, how we could be caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out, how we would be robbed in the street or in our van, how we would be car-jacked, how we would definitely be “shaken down” by corrupt police or military officials at some point, how we should carry a gun to protect ourselves, how we could be scammed by people faking road accidents, how we could have our tyres spiked by bandits, how we’d get sick on street food… the list goes on.

This wasn’t just the usual over-cautious official warnings about things that could happen – and, to be fair, all of those things can happen, in many countries in the world. It was every conversation we had. And it was hard not to be infected by it.

Most went like this:
US: “So, we’re planning on driving to Argentina in our campervan.”
THEM: “What, through Mexico?”
US: “Well, yes, there’s not really another way from here to Argentina.”
THEM: “Is it safe to drive through Mexico? I’ve read/heard/been told..” [Cue long list of things that would happen – see above].
US: “Well, thanks for the tips, we’ll let you know how it goes or perhaps you’ll read about it in the newspaper.”

One particularly worrying conversation was with a Latin American guy, Angel, who worked at the dealership at which we bought our campervan. When we told him of our plans he said: “What, through Mexico? Wow, that’s brave.”

I asked which country he was from. “Mexico,” he said. Gulp.

Iguanas, Chichen Itza

I forgot to mention that iguanas are another fabulous thing about Mexico. What's not to like?

Once we were on our way the evidence of fear was all around us – there has been a huge drop in the number of tourists coming from the US, and it shows. While many places were still thriving, we did see virtually abandoned trailer parks where campers and cars sat gathering mildew, rust and leaves because their owners – who would normally go south to Mexico every winter – had obviously not returned for years.

Those that continued to travel there, and US expats that had remained, said they always received the most dire warnings from friends and family who had never actually been to Mexico. They usually blamed the media for its reporting of the drugs war as being over-the-top and terrifying the hell out of everyone.

However, the conflict is real, and we don’t want to try to diminish the effect it has had, with thousands dying every year because of a brutal gang warfare and the government’s response to it. We also don’t want to be so naïve as to claim that just because we spent three months there without incident that there are therefore no problems at all.

The point is that it does not affect every area of the country, and the violence is not targeted at tourists. Many parts of Mexico rely on tourism and it is sad to see people struggling because of a problem that is not of their making. Drugs are a global issue. What market are these gangs feeding? Where does the root of the problem really lie?

Mexico is a vast, varied, modern, culturally-rich, beautiful, welcoming country – a country that is more like several nations within one. It also has loads of problems and its share of crime – who doesn’t?

To characterise it simply as a homogenous violent, dangerous, brutal place is just plain lazy.

Days: 105
Miles: 5740
Things we now know to be true: We love Mexico

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

8 Jan

PD, Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

Hello country number two.

We finished off three months in Mexico with a few days of spectacular stuff in Chiapas. Spectacular mountain scenery, lakes and waterfalls, some spectacularly bad weather (and some good) and a spectacular near-miss involving a falling tree.

After new year we set off from San Cristobal to check out a few of the more rural parts of the region, starting with the “turquoise lakes” of the Lago de Montebello area. We drove through torrential rain and misty mountains – it felt like the sky was almost touching the van at times – and pulled in to a place on the edge of Lago de Tziscao in the late afternoon. The camping area was by the lake, which – judging by the fact that some of the waterside cabins were half-submerged – looked like it had risen rather a lot in recent weeks.

We pulled up and dithered for a while about stopping nearish to the edge of the water. But it was raining hard and we were worried about getting stranded in mud, or ending up in the lake, by the next morning. We pulled back about 20ft and settled in to hide from the weather for a while. A nice wee cuppa and a relax for a bit, ahh. Our peace was interrupted when about 45 minutes later a 40ft tree crashed to the ground right across the spot we’d originally parked in. We stared, looked at eachother, looked back at the tree, looked at eachother again and laughed nervously. “That’s where we were parked wasn’t it?” I said. “Yes”.

Tree falls in front of van, Lago Tziscao

Crash! Jeremy ponders what might have been

We turned around and drove back up to a concrete parking area, away from the trees. Good decision, because the next morning two more came loose in the soggy ground, creaked, groaned and slammed to the ground. Oh!

The lakes were beautiful, not really turquoise in that weather, but more like moody Scottish lochs in the winter. After visiting them we drove on the next day to a gorgeous little community eco-tourism place, Las Nubes, built around a gushing river and dramatic waterfalls. Jeremy swallowed his vertigo and bravely crossed the very wobbly bridge traversing the most dramatic canyon and falls.

The skies cleared, sunshine again! It was so lovely we stayed an extra night, walked, and dried out. The friendly night guards were fascinated by our van and came for a long hard look inside. Some people seem to find it hard to believe we live in there. When we ask for a space to “camp” for the night in our “casa movil” (mobile home) they often look around as if to say “ok, but where is it?”.

We have been through many routine and military checkpoints on our trip so far, and when the vehicle is searched there is usually more interest in our little “casa” than a serious quest for contraband. We are always careful to be polite and sensible though, as you never know if the conversation is going to take a turn.

One of the more thorough military checks was while we were in Chiapas, an area known for political tensions, so we wanted to give a good impression. Jeremy got out and answered the officer’s questions, showed our paperwork and whatnot. After it was over we pulled away. Jeremy looked down at his feet and realised he was wearing two different shoes – a Converse boot on the right foot, a walking shoe on the left. Those kooky Brits! I’m not going to explain why, you can make up your own theories.

Our last night in Mexico was perfect, pretty much summing up the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the country. We were cutting it a bit fine again, trying to find a camping spot before dark. We followed a sign off the road, near the Guatemalan border, to a laguna we hadn’t heard of. As we pondered over whether to park in a public car park area, an old woman appeared from behind a little shop and beckoned us to drive in behind their gates. At the back of the shop was a little lakeside area, with basic rooms plus palapas, tables and BBQs for daytrippers. For £1.50 we camped there, safe and sound, birds tweeting and bats swooping, with the laguna right in front of us, shining in the moonlight.

P has a rinse at Lagunas de Colon

Quick head rinse in the Laguna before we leave for Guatemala

Next morning we said goodbye to Mexico. The old lady said: “Can’t you stay another day?”. But we couldn’t, we had to get to Guatemala, we had school on Monday!

The border crossing was mildly chaotic and confusing, but we were prepared for it and survived the hoopla of paperwork, getting through in a couple of hours. As we pulled off, having completed everything, we were directed towards a detour around the village which took us down, around and then back up, one of the most terrifyingly steep and narrow streets we have yet encountered. Could this really be an international border? For the umpteenth time we thanked our lucky stars that we had chosen a small vehicle with a bit of oomph to it.

So here we are in Quetzaltenango, more commonly known as Xela. We have booked one month of Spanish classes, and have opted to live with a local family. We will register and be taken to the house later today, and then start classes at 8am tomorrow.

The school is an non-profit organisation which uses its surplus to work with human rights groups and social projects. As well as learning Spanish, students are also taught about the economic and social problems in Guatemala.

It might be a tough four weeks for our ageing brains, but we’re really looking forward to it and are determined to make the most of the experience.

We’ll let you know how it goes. Hasta luego.

Days: 97
Miles: 5597.4
Things we now know to be true: Just because we’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean the trees aren’t all out to get us.

Even bees wear balaclavas in Chiapas

2 Jan

PD, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

We’re not used to big nights out any more. These days it’s usually a couple of beers as darkness falls at 6ish, dinner and early to bed. But for new year we made an exception, of course. We started off as usual at 6pm, to toast the UK new year, and carried on right through to the Mexican one.

The latter part of the evening was spent watching a fantastically energetic Chiapan band at the Cafe Bar Revolucion in San Cristobal – we’re nothing if not predictable. The night finished off with a spectacularly ill-advised tequila when we got back to the van. Ouch. What I would have given for a greasy sausage sandwich with HP sauce on new year’s day morning.

Wedding ceremony, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

A Mayan wedding ceremony was taking place in front of the cathedral on New Year's Eve, San Cristobal de las Casas

Here we are at the centre of Zapatista territory, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. We loved the sprit of the place when we came 10 years ago and it hasn’t disappointed this time. New Year is the anniversary of a 1994 uprising that grabbed the attention of the world, so what better place to see in 2012? 

This town has everything – the revolutionary vibe, a thriving music scene, great locally-grown coffee, and an amazing mountain setting with colourful buildings that glow in the evening sun. And it’s gone all trendy since we last visited, with oh-so-cool wine bars, cafes and restaurants and shops selling EZLN paraphernalia to people like us. We’ve even bought some honey made by a Zapatista co-operative. The bee on the label is wearing a tiny balaclava.

All-in-all it’s been not a bad little haven for a few days after several weeks of being on the move. Even the chilly evenings and mornings haven’t been enough to drive us away, although getting into the erratic hot-cold shower has required something of a superhuman effort.

And after a few quiet weeks we have been glad to meet some fantastic like-minded people here. First we had a night out with some UK friends who coincided with us for one day on their way home from a three-month trip in Guatemala. And on our lovely wooded campsite we’ve had great chats with two other road-tripping couples from Arkansas and British Columbia, and spent New Year’s day evening chewing the fat around a fire, accompanied by hair of the dog.

To add to all that San Cristobal has, there are also some fascinating indigenous villages in the surrounding hills. We returned to one, San Juan Chamula, this week. It’s known for its central church, at which people of the indigenous Tzotzil group practice a curious blend of Catholicism and traditional pre-Hispanic ceremonies. Inside, small groups of worshippers were huddled on the floor, which is carpeted with fresh pine branches and lined with hundreds of little candles, creating a heady aroma.

In one group a man chanted and rubbed eggs and herbs over a little girl’s head. They each swigged from a bottle of Coke, to induce burping which they believe cleanses their bodies. As they rose to leave we heard a cluck-cluck-squawk and noticed the grandmother was carrying a live chicken, which had stayed inexplicably quiet during the whole ritual.
But, for us, the most bizarre part of the ceremonies at this church is the relationship between the group’s religion and Coca Cola. Crate upon crate of the stuff is drunk every day in the church, truck loads of it are present around the town square and people sit around the little cafes supping on it. It’s hard not to let the cynic in us wonder if some marketing man at Coke really has done the unthinkable and convinced this population the drink has health-giving and spiritual properties.

Band playing at Cafe Bar Revolucion, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

The band played out 2011 at Cafe Bar Revolucion

New year is traditionally a time for both reflection and looking forward. We’ve been three months on the road in Mexico now, and are preparing to cross into Guatemala next week to start a month of Spanish school in the highland city of Quetzaltenango. More of that later.

What a three months it has been. We’ve had so much to learn about living in the van and all that entails – keeping the vehicle happy, mastering the quirks of the ‘house’ appliances and working out how to fix the things that have broken – or, to be more specific, that Jeremy has broken! As well as all the sight-seeing and galavanting most days involve waking up somewhere unfamiliar and having to find one or all of the following – food, water to drink, water to wash in, toilets, petrol, propane, and – most importantly – a safe place to bed down for the night and the right road to get there.

Those accommodations have ranged from the blissful sunny beaches of Baja and Yucatan, to gorgeous mountain towns with freezing mornings that make it hard to part with the duvet, to sleeping at a noisy petrol station/truck stop in the pissing rain and wondering where that leak is coming from… and many things in between.

Do we feel unbelievably lucky to be able to do this trip? Yes. There have been so many amazing highs, incredible sights and lots of laughs, and we’ve barely really begun. By the end of 2012 we should have reached the northern part of South America, and it’s hard to imagine all the adventures ahead.
Are there frustrations, little tantrums and scary bits? Sometimes. Is loud swearing sometimes heard in the van? Yes. Do we miss our lovely families and friends, and cat? Absolutely.

Do we have any regrets about taking this leap? Nope.

Happy new year everyone

And here are some more pics for your perusal:

Flickr: Patzcuaro to Mexico City

Days: 91
Miles: 5,152.2
Things we now know to be true: Socialist honey tastes much sweeter.

Feliz Navidad

25 Dec

PD, Campeche, Mexico

Christmas day, Campeche

Taking it easy - 25 December 2011, Campeche, Mexico

Merry Christmas to all! Thanks for following the blog so far, and to those who are lucky enough to be off work, we hope you all have a relaxing and delicious holiday. We’ve de-camped to a hotel in beautiful Campeche, and have enjoyed a Christmas morning swim. It’ll be chocolate for lunch, and something tasty involving refried beans and tortillas for dinner.

And as our gift to you, here’s the latest (albeit belated) set of pics, charting some of our exploits between Mazatlan and Guadalajara last month. You might notice I particularly enjoyed taking pics of cowboys at the rodeo..

Flickr pics: Mazatlan-Guadalajara

Is a snowman made of sand still a snowman?

21 Dec

JD, Chelem, nr Puerto Progreso, Mexico

We had calculated that driving a white VW van would help us blend in – but we never counted on this. We do blend in. The collectivos which run between and around every town, village and city are all white, many are VWs.

So on an almost daily basis someone tries to flag us down to help them home with their shopping. Once or twice we’ve even stopped, explained we’re not a collectivo but that if they are going the same way as us they are welcome to jump in.

Snowman made of sand

Not so much frosty the snowman, as sweaty the sandman

Being mistaken for a Mexican bus is just one of the strange happenings we’ve had to contend with over the past couple of weeks. Dogs that enjoy chasing cars, or napping on the road, are a hazard we could do without.

How to avoid crashing in to thousands of people – young and old, many barefoot – pounding the narrow city streets, running over mountain passes and cycling along the motorway with huge statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe tied to their backs and flaming torches in their hands was not something that was in my driving test.

But all that’s as nothing compared to the coconut which plummeted to earth inches from my head and smashed on the ground seconds after Paula uttered the immortal words – “apart from the obviously bad things about having to tell people you were dead, imagine how embarrassing it would be if I had to say you’d been killed by a falling coconut”.

That, and her whacking me with a book whilst I was driving – on the flimsy pretext of killing a mosquito – has got me worried.

In between dodging falling fruit and unwelcome rain storms we’ve hit the heart of the Mayan world on the Yucatan peninsula. Suddenly there are tour buses and package holidays and lots of touts and whilst none of that is welcome the amazing white sand beaches and incredible ruins more than make up for it.

The jungle-shrouded ruined cities at Balamku and Calakmul were amazing. Forty-metre high temples with incredible views across forests that echoed to the sounds of monkeys and woodpeckers in the upper reaches of the canopy. And best of all they were almost deserted.

Not so at Tulum – one of the major Mayan sites – which is spectacularly located on a cliff above a white sand beach and turquoise sea. Later that day we swam and snorkelled in a picture-postcard cenote – basically a large sinkhole with amazing colours and caverns so deep you are sure some mythical creature MUST live down there.

At Coba – described by our guide book as like being in Raiders of the Lost Ark – we climbed Nochol-Mul, at 42m high the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Regular readers of the blog will realise when I say we, I mean P. She climbs, takes the picture and that way I get to see the incredible view without the vertigo.

At Chichen Itza we again rose early to beat the tour buses and took in the full splendour of the most perfect 25-metre high pyramid and temple virtually alone. The site, unlike many others, has been extensively restored, but it is spectacular and you can see what all the fuss is about.

Mayan ruins at Tulum

The Mayan ruins at Tulum have got a pretty spectacular location

In between lapping up Mayan culture we’ve had a few days basking in the sun at lovely beaches – Xpu-Ha and El Pescadero – and stopping off to sample a bit of life in smaller off-the-beaten-track towns such as Izamal, Isla Aguarda and Laguna Bacalar.

At the latter we were lost in the dark, again, looking for a ‘campsite’ of which we had read – a un-signposted field in which a Mexican family lived, next to the laguna. Cynics that we are, we don’t believe in guardian angels as such. But as we circled the area despondently a car came up close, weaving slightly, and started flashing its lights behind us. We pulled over reluctantly. Wasn’t this kind of thing in the book of ‘things not to do in Mexico?’.

We waited. A white-haired man got out and approached us, then started singing ‘California here I come’ – in reference to our licence plates – as he bounded up to the window. It was Tony, a very drunk Liverpudlian-Canadian who lived in the area and had seen us cruising around looking lost. He knew what we were looking for, he said, got back into his car and guided us there to a friendly welcome from the owners.

We offered him a tequila to say thanks. Appreciating he was already well imbibed, he politely refused and slunk off into the night as suddenly as he had appeared. Earthly angels do exist then, and they are Liverpudlian apparently.

And as John Lennon once said… and so this is Christmas. Well, not quite but you get the laboured journalistic link there. And, in keeping with recent events, for us this will be a strange one… thousands of miles from home.

It seems somewhat incongruous to see a ‘snowman’ made from sand on a blisteringly sunny beach or a light-up Santa adorning the edge of the swimming pool at our current camp site in Puerto Progreso. But don’t worry, in keeping with tradition we intend to eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep in front of a film.

Days: 79
Miles: 4,494.2 [We have put in a bumper crop of miles since last blogging. We’d like to show you that on a map, but ours is currently broken and awaiting repair.]
Things we think might be true: Just because your wife puts your chair under a coconut tree, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s trying to kill you.