Cheating Death…sort of

Death Road. Not the most comforting name is it. Especially when it is paired with the sub-title “World’s Most Dangerous Road”. Doesn’t exactly sound like a road you would really want to be on.

The 61km North Yungas road runs from La Paz to Coroico and it is legendary because up until recently between 200 and 300 travellers died on that route each year. The unpaved winding road cuts precariously into the sides of the in Cordillera Real mountain range and is fairly basic. Most of the time it is nothing more than a narrow bumpy track – in some places it is just three metres wide. Overtaking or just passing other cars would have been an absolute nightmare, only made worse by the the sheer drop of 800 metres on one side.

The road itself is now closed to traffic, there’s a new asphalt highway in place. But Death Road itself is still there and is now one of the biggest tour attractions in La Paz. Cyclists are the only ones tearing down that road, and while they are much more suited to the road, accidents still happen. At last count, 18 cyclists had died on the road.

Understandably I was a little nervous at the prospect of riding a mountain bike down this path. Even A was a bit concerned at the idea of me doing this, he’s seen some of my brilliant trips and stumbles, and I suspect he didn’t enjoy the thought of seeing his girlfriend lose control of her bike and go sailing off the edge of a cliff. He asked me several times if I was really sure I wanted to do the ride.

I was determined. It couldn’t be that hard. And though some may have their doubts, I didn’t think I was so retarded that I would end up riding off a cliff. So I signed up on with Madness Tours, partly because I liked the name, and mostly because they had really cool looking bikes.

The next morning we spent a half hour getting ourselves kitted out with our bikes and our safety riding gear. Pants, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards and a full face helmet; I could have ridden my bike into a brick wall and come away unscathed (though off a cliff, probably not so much).

The first part of the journey started at around 4600m above sea level. At our starting point, we could see altiplano lakes and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The ride started on a stretch of the new highway. Before we were allowed near it, our guide Hector gave us a safety talk. No overtaking the lead guide, single file, and stay to the right. Simple enough. We whizzed single file down asphalt highway, sticking to the far right to avoid the traffic. We barely pedalled, it was all downhill, and I hadn’t expected to be going so fast. I found myself using the brakes heavily because I genuinely felt like I was flying down the hill. Not even the fact that everyone was overtaking me would convince me to release my vice-like grip on those brakes.

After this section, we had to load the bikes back on to the support van, and then drive a short way to the next part, where the real Death Road began. Another serious safety talk from Hector and we were back in the saddle.

The road was bumpy, rough and littered with rocks and stones. To my right a the steep rocky hill rose, decorated with all manner of ferns, vines and flowers. To my left, the road fell away into a sheer drop. If you went over that edge, nothing would save you. Needless to say I rode on the extreme far right, practically running my shoulder into the cliff as I went. It took me a little while, but eventually I did relax. The road was plenty wide enough for a bike, wide enough to navigate around the potholes and larger rocks, and I learned to trust the bike’s ability to handle the smaller bumps. The riding was easy – virtually no pedalling – and the view was stunning.

As we descended down past clouds, and a vast green countryside opened up in front of us. Down and down we descended, navigating the corners and switchbacks, passing overhanging rocks, riding through cascading waterfalls that splashed over us and all the time taking in the view. Along the way we stopped for rest breaks, for lunch, for photo stops. I steadily grew in confidence, and began to release that grip on the brakes. I giggled to myself as I raced and bounced down the track.

There was never really any danger of an accident. The worst that happened was a 10-year-old kid lost control of his bike and steered it into a ditch. Which I found hilarious and somewhat satisfying, given this was one of the kids who had overtaken me in the first 15 minutes.

The whole ride took around five hours, and took us to the outskirts of the Amazon region. Down in Coroico we feasted on a hot lunch at a local hotel, and then swam in the pool. It was perfect weather for it – we had descended more than 3000m, and were now at 1200m. Where the altiplano is perpetually cool, down here it was hot and a swim was the perfect way to finish the day.

Back at the Madness office we were already handed a CD with professional pictures of the tour and a t-shirt declaring that we were now all a “Death Road Survivor”. It was a nice souvenir, but I did feel it overstated the event somewhat. It was a wonderful, glorious ride, but hardly anything that needed to be survived. I might as well start wearing t-shirts saying “I survived crossing a busy road”… that’s really the difficulty level we’re talking about here. Perhaps that’s a tad churlish of me.

Let’s just say it was brilliant fun to race down gravel Death Road, and wouldn’t really think twice before recommending it to anyone.

A ghost of a town

For me, the word “ghost town” conjures up images of empty, dusty streets, abandoned homes, favourite toys left behind and machinery left to rust. There is always a hint of sadness that comes with the images.

Humberstone in northern Chile is – to me – the epitome of a ghost town. Once a thriving mining town it is now an empty place, an empty monument to happier times. The town’s sole industry was based on the mining and refining of nitrates, however when synthetic nitrates were developed these two industries quickly became redundant. By 1960 the industrial plants had shut down, there were no jobs, the families left and by 1970 the abandonment was total and complete.

There isn’t much more I can say about this town, other than it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ll defer again to pictures, in the hope that they will capture the feeling of the town.

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Hunting penguins

We signed up to the boat trip on the promise of penguins. Humbolt penguins to be exact. Who doesn’t love penguins? They are a ridiculously cute breed of bird. So a boat trip around the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt – a marine reserve just off the coast of Chile – sounded like a fantastic day.

We started out early, picked up from our hostel in La Serena, and spent the best part of the morning driving to Los Choros, a tiny fishing village where brightly coloured boats lined the shore. After negotiating our way from the jetty to the boat – which was being pushed every which wave by the rising tide – we were off. I was very excited at the idea that I would soon be seeing penguins.

As we approached the first island – Isla de Chanaral – our guide was cheerily giving us a basic lesson in biology, listing the animals and birds that could be found here. I was scanning the waters for the playful birds, but found none. Where were they?

We drew closer to the island, into a small cove, where we had our first animal sighting of the day – sea lions. They weren’t hard to spot, there were hundreds of these beasts lying prostrate on the rocks in the sunshine. A few of them eyed us suspiciously as we cruised by, and one or two roused themselves enough to bark a warning at us.

The next cove contained birdlife – cormorants and boobies (feel free to snigger childishly at that name, I do every time). Again they were interesting, but again they they were not penguins. I was starting to get quite anxious.

“Look there, a penguin!”

I turned my head in the direction our guide was excitedly pointing, and there on the distant shoreline, standing on a rock was a fuzzy grey blob.

“Donde?” I ask. Where?

“There, there,” said our guide. “You can make him out because his stomach is white.”

They steered the boat closer to the island, closer to the grey blob.

I looked again, staring hard and then yes, I saw the white spot, and then I saw him! He was small and greyish and even though I couldn’t make out his face, I am sure it was cute. And then just when I was getting really excited about seeing a penguin in the wild, the little bastard turned his back on me.

I doubt it was personal. But it may as well have been because the instant, he reverted to fuzzy grey blob. Without seeing the white spot on his stomach, I couldn’t distinguish his grey back from the grey rocks around him.

“That’s how they camouflage themselves,” our guide explained helpfully.

My short-sghted eyes stood no chance of against this highly-evolved back-turning camouflage technique; he was gone. My Humbolt penguin had humbly bolted, and I was left feeling just a little let down. Where were the hundreds of boisterous penguins tap-dancing on the shore? Why weren’t they waving and beckoning us over? I wanted Happy Feet and all I got was a shy fella who didn’t want a bar of us.

Ten minutes later, however, we did see two curious sea otters who made up for the lack of penguins. They were cute, really cute, and they swam around the boat once or twice before clamouring behind a rock and them playing peek-a-boo with us.

Shortly after we pulled up to the second island, Isla de Damas, the one island within the marine reserve that we were actually allowed to walk on. The waters were every shade of blue, and the beaches were marvellously untouched. We wandered all over the island, following sandy paths to vantage points where we could sit and watch the waves crash on rocks. A – ever the surfer – was giving me an appraisal of the waves. I was still looking for penguins. Unfortunately none came out of the water to wave at me.

On the way back to the boat I told A of my minor disappointment.

“What were you expecting?” he asked.

Oh I don’t know. Hundreds and hundreds of smiling penguins tumbling and diving all around us? And maybe a penguin shooting itself out of the water, landing it the boat and giving me a high-five with it’s flipper? (Okay, no, I didn’t expect that. But how unreal would that have been!)

“Well, when you think about it, penguins are wild animals. Wild animals that don’t like humans and that can swim away as soon as they hear a boat. It kind of makes sense we didn’t see many.”

Damn you logic. Damn you Happy Feet.

Guess I should just be grateful for the fuzzy blob who was either brave enough, deaf enough or stupid enough to stay put.

Still, he could have waved.

The Streets of Valparaiso

The best part of this intensely colourful city can not really be adequately described in words. So here I will defer to the adage; I’ll give you the pictures and spare you the thousand words.

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This was some of the grafitti that was found on the walls – colourful, quirky, original. And clever – I think the piano stairs were among my favourites.

 

But then just even the town itself was beautiful….

 

Definitely a place I’d like to visit again. Even if it’s just to see more grafitti.

Steak and red wine; my new vice

I can’t talk about Argentina without mentioning two of the best things on offer there; steak and red wine. Both were unbelievably good.

The steaks were at the top of my list to try; several people I know had raved about the size and quality of them. So one of the first days we were in BA, A and I went in search of a good steak lunch. We had been told about a restaurant in Puerto Madero that offered an all-you-can-eat meat feast for lunch. Siga La Vaca (Follow the Cow) did not disappoint. For just over $20 were were given a bottle of wine each and invited to choose whatever we wanted – and however much we wanted – from the grill, which was loaded with an inordinate amount of steaks, sausages, chops and various other meat cuts. There was also a salad bar, but we had little use for that. We settled in for the afternoon, it was going to be a long meal.

Lunch that day took around three-and-a-half hours, partly because I tend to view all-you-can-eat restaurants as something of a challenge (doesn’t everyone?) and partly because the food was so tasty I wanted to try as much of it as I could. We waddled out of the restaurant sometime around five and caught a cab back to the hostel because we were too full to walk.

Our second – and to date best – Argentine steak was at a restaurant called La Cabrera. This restaurant in Palermo is well known, not just for the quality of their steaks, but also because they have a happy hour during which the somewhat pricey meals are discounted by up to 50%. Happy hour starts at 7pm and you have to be out by 8pm, so to be sure of a table we were lining up outside the restarant just after 6.30pm.

With one of the girls from the hostel, we decided on sharing a 600g ribeye fillet with a 200g chorizo as a side. Yes, it was meat with a side of meat. I can’t remember if we ordered vegetables, but once again they seemed fairly irrelevent.  The meal arrived and I can honestly say I’ve never seen a bigger slab of meat in my life. The steak was cooked beautifully, as was the chorizo, and as we started eating all conversation pretty much ended, as we were so intent on stuffing ourselves with this delicious food. After that dinner, no steak has really stacked up since, and this is despite enjoying several Argentine asados at various hostels and restaurants.

Then there is the wine. Those who know me would tell you that I am a pain to go to dinner with because I don’t drink red wine. I am the one ordering a pinot gris to go with a hearty steak. I don’t like the smell of red wine, I don’t like the taste of red wine, I just don’t drink red wine.

Well, I didn’t drink red wine. I didn’t drink it until I came across the Argentine Malbec. Very light, with a delicate flavour, this little grape has changed my mind permanently about red wine. After a few weeks in Argentina, I was regularly heading to the wine section of the supermarket to pick up a bottle of Malbec. At ridiculous prices I might add. When decent bottles of wine are going for about $4, it really just would be rude not to drink it.

After starting on Malbec – though this is still by far and away my favourite – I’ve happily broadened my tastes to Merlots and the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon. Turns out I don’t mind the smell, and I really don’t mind the taste. I think my friends will be pleased when I next head to dinner with them. The best thing of course is that red wine goes so well with hearty steaks…so I’ve been able to enjoy them,  a lot of them, together. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before!

Iguaza Falls; A justified World Wonder

I had heard the reviews. I had heard all the relevant adjectives. I had a general idea of what to expect when standing before one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. But then nothing quite prepared me for the magic and overpowering grandeur of Iguazu Falls.

We had flown into the nearest town – Puerto Iguazu – the day before. A 20 hour bus ride from BA was just not happening; I drawn the line at 16 hours. So after one day of wandering around the fairly non-descript town, the next morning we were up and at the park gates early.

The falls themselves are not actually one continuous curtain of water, but are in fact 275 waterfalls of varying sizes strung out along 2.7kms. We decided to explore the smaller waterfalls first, walking along pathways that took us along the top and bottom of the falls. I began to get excited at the sound of the waterfalls, and then even more so at the first glimpses of the actual falls.

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They were beautiful, and to me looked like they belonged in a fairytale. A fairy kingdom would not have looked out of place sitting atop these waterfalls. While some of the falls were powerful torrents of white water charging downwards, others were almost delicate in the way they tripped and splashed over moss covered rocks. At the bottom of one part of the falls, a perfectly formed rainbow bounced from rock to rock and only added to magic of this place.

I also had in my mind that the jet boat ride beneath the falls would be a brilliant way of getting closer to the falls. So we signed up for the 12 minute trip – which cost something like $30 – and didn’t think too much of it when our ticket seller told us we were going to get wet. I thought he meant  we would catch the spray of the waterfalls, so I expected to get a little damp.

We were warned again by some other travellers, but again I didn’t think too much of it. I didn’t even click when we stepped on to the boat and saw a bunch of Brasilian men and women wearing boardshorts and bikinis. I looked on in slight disdain. “Posers,” I thought. “It’s not that hot.”

About five minutes later, I understood their motives. The boat sped up to one side of the falls and idled as well all took photographs, then swung around and sped to another point and idled again. Then it swung around and made a pass under one smaller waterfall, and we all got a little bit wet. That’s not so bad, I thought. Then the boat swung around one more time and headed back to the first waterfall and proceeded to drive into it. Not near it, not around it, straight into the waterfall. We were thoroughly soaked, I looked like I had gone swimming in my clothes. I may as well have. So while everyone else was cleverly wearing swimming attire, A and I were wearing cargo pants and t-shirts, which were now dripping wet. And given the lack of sunshine, they stayed that way for some time. Wandering along the pathways – wringing wet – we got a more than a few stares and some knowing smiles from other tourists.

But the main attraction was still to come. After drying out a little we hopped on to the park train which took us up to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). We had only caught a distant glimpse of these falls from the boat, and even then they were difficult to see through all the mist and spray.

A half-hour walk from the train station took us through the wetlands and across a lake, and it wasn’t too long before I could hear the rush of the water. We made our way to the viewing platform, and it was at this point that I became slightly dumbstruck. Big is an understatement, huge is an understatement, massive is better but still doesn’t quite capture the size of these magnificent falls. I’ve never seen anything in nature so awesome in size and power. The intensity of these falls and the sheer amount of water rushing over the edge is such that you do start to feel rather small and insignificant standing before them. Not that statistics mean anything until you’ve see the falls but to give you an idea, on average there is 1,700 cubic metres or 1.7 million litres of water tumbling down those falls every second. To give more perspective, that is equivalent to five Olympic sized swimming pools every 10 seconds.

Watching the falls is quite a hypnotic experience. At the top of the falls is something of a placid blue-green lake – not a raging river – and then the water simply slips off a sheer drop and transforms into an 80m high downpour. So we just stood there watching the falls, watching the water. Sometimes taking photos, mostly just standing back and contemplating the immensity of what was before us. It took quite a while to leave, and personally I didn’t want to.

So what was Iguazu like? Majectic, magnificent, beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring…yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Pick one adjective, pick five, pick ten. It still won’t come close to capturing Iguazu Falls.

Back to BA

So after our “quick” trip home – our holiday from the holiday – we stepped back on a plane to finish the South American leg of the journey. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, a city which has achieved somewhat legendary status in my mind thanks to the many stories I have been told by several friends.

Walking around this city I felt at home right away, possibly because it has quite a Western/European feel to it. The city itself is enchanting. Wide avenues, tree-lined streets, bustling plazas, blooming parklands, not to mention some of the most gorgeous 19th century architecture you’ll ever see. Avenida de Mayo is lined with beautiful pastel-painted buildings decorated with curving wrought-iron balconies and window frames. They look positively Parisien, but then I think that was the general idea. At one end of this central avenue is the delightfully pink presidential palace Casa Rosada – famous also because that is where Evita delivered her speeches – while at the other end is the Palacio del Congreso, a hulking behemoth of a building that dominates everything in the vicinity.

We paid a visit to the famous Cementario de la Recoleta, the cemetary where the illustrious are buried. I don’t know if it is proper to describe a cemetary in this way, but was just fabulous. The tombs and crypts were so beautiful and so ornate they will hold you attention for hours. Everywhere you turned was another tomb crafted from fine marble, fixed with wrought-iron gates and inscribed with large golden letters. Then there were the statues that adorned the tombs. They peeked out from all angles; here a cherub weeping, there a guardian angel watching over a loved one, over there a saint giving an eternal blessing. The tombs were by turns stately, exquisite and at times just downright ostentatious but the whole place was just fabulous. They certainly know how to bury their dead here.

Then there is the BA nightlife. People in this city don’t go out until 2am – and that is early. I haven’t decided yet if that is super cool, or just super lazy. A few nights we fought our shocking jetlag and headed out, making it to a couple of bars and a couple of shows. The highlight was undoubtedly La Bomba Del Tiempo (Timebomb). This drumming group is something of an institution in BA, every Monday night the 17 member group gathers in a warehouse in Abasto and beat out an amazing hour of music – all percussion instruments, all completely improvised. The energy they create during their time on the stage is fantastic – I know I’ll be going again when I hit BA for the second time.

And of course what would a visit to BA be without watching a tango show. Argentina is renowned for this dance – they did invent it after all – and it is not uncommon to see people of all ages dancing a tango on a street corner or in a market square. Down at the Palermo Viejo milonga (dance hall) we watched as the some tango instructors strutted and glided across the floor in perfect tango step. They were elegant, they were sexy, they were wonderful and then they opened the floor up to our group of petrified Westerners. Thankfully the invitation came with a beginners tango class, and we all took to mastering the basic seven-step tango routine. It took a little while but I can now emulate something that, in a darkened room, might be mistaken for a tango.

We spent a week in BA, wandering its streets, exploring its flea markets, visiting its galleries and just generally soaking up the atmosphere of this amazing city. I could have easily spent months doing this, so I’m really glad that my return flight home is from BA, which “forces” me back to this city for a few weeks.

Fun, but hardly an enriching experience

Costa Rica; the spanish name directly translate to “rich coast”. The name is well deserved. From the moment we crossed the border from neighbouring Nicaragua, everything became a little richer. From greener pastures, to better roads, to the number of shiny SUVs on the road, the difference between the fortunes of Costa Rica and other Central American countries was stark.

Decades ago, while other Central American countries were experimenting with various forms of socialist regimes, Costa Rica hitched its wagon to that of  the US. And for this they have been rewarded in spades. The country is stable and prospering and has been able to make the most of its stunning cloudforests and jungles. And they are stunning.

Except after the heat, the crowds and the general hum and buzz of the rest of Central America, Costa Rica seemed just a little safe, and dare I say it, dull. In fact the most chaotic thing in the country seemed to be labyrinth-like border crossing with Nicaragua. Navigating that in the rain with a 20kg backpack was definitely a challenge.

One of our first stops was Monte Verde, a town that is renowned for its ziplining. I admit to some degree of disappointment while walking down the main street of this town…souvenir shop, souvenir shop, tour agency, souvenir shop, tour agency, Tex-Mex restaurant, souvenir shop. Where were the dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall cafes where every meal came with the thrill of salmonella roulette? Where were the second-hand clothes shops blaring out offensively loud and bad Latin-pop? Where were the rusting taxis with optional door-handles? There was none of that here, no it was all too nice for any of that.

The ziplining was great fun. Hooked on to cables, we spent two hours whizzing through and over the Costa Rican cloudforest. The best part was the final cable – the “Superman” – where both our chest and our feet were hooked to the cable so that we were hanging horizontally. Strapped in, we were then sent flying super-hero style along am 800m cable that traversed a valley. As I rushed along the line, arms outstretched, I really could believe I was flying – the only reminder that I wasn’t being the metal whir of the bracket going along the cable. It was incredible, but A and I do remember having the same thought as we looked down at the lush valley hundreds of feet below: “I really really hope this cable doesn’t break…..”

The other main attraction of Monte Verde was the surrounding cloudforest and the animals within. We joined a nightwalk through the nearby Santa Elena Reserve, and I was delighted at the number of creatures we came across. We started at dusk, just as the fireflies were putting on their evening display. As we tramped through the forest, fireflies zipped and dashed past us, impressing us tourists. (Did you know fireflies aren’t actually flies? They are actually beatles, and bigger than you would think.)

It’s hard to pick a highlight of the night. There was the grey sloth we saw snoozing in the tree tops, the coatimundi that dashed past us, the tiny blue hummingbird that we saw protecting its eggs in its nest and then the baby green viper which almost looked cute until our guide told us it was the most deadly animal in the cloudforest. The highlight was definitely not peering into a hole to see a hairy squat tarantula peering back at me. Those things just make my blood run cold.

After Monte Verde it was time to go to La Fortuna. Once again we were confronted with a town that seemed to have the sole purpose of serving tourists. We signed on for a standard day tour of the area which included Arenal Volcano and some hot springs. What we got was an afternoon of unintended hilarity thanks to our over-enthusiastic guide.

Listening to him as we walking through the cloudforest reserve,we could tell this guide thought he was a cross between Bear Grylls and David Attenborough. He was patently neither and in reality was much much closer to Russel Coight. (For the unintiated click here for some brilliant clips). At one point, spying some wild limes he proceeded to try and knock them from a high branch by throwing a stick at them. He completely missed the first and second time, but undeterred tried again, and managed to get the stick lodged in the tree. Solution? Another stick! This time it ricocheted back at him, forcing him to quickly dodge it. All the while he was completely oblivious to a handful of low-hanging limes within easy reach. A nice US tourist helped him out with that. It went on like that for much of the day.

Our last stop of note was Turriabla for some white-water rafting. Thankfully this town seemed to have a reason to exist beyond the tourists, and there were cheap restaurants and cafes aplenty along with a really really good icecream store. Our white-water rafting took place on the Lower Pacuare River, where we had Class III and IV rapids to contend with. I had no idea what that kind of classification meant – and still don’t. I just know there was lots of rushing water, lots of rapids and lots of paddling at the direction of our guide. We spent three hours paddling down the river and leaping left or right or down into the boat at the command of our guide. In between the rapids we jumped into the cool water and floated downstream by ourselves, taking in the beautiful rainforest that lined the banks. It was a great day.

Costa Rica was the last stop on the first part of our trip. It was lot of fun, but all very safe and, despite the posters advertising “adrenalin-fuelled adventures”, all very supervised. It was also a hell of a lot more expensive that the rest of Central America, and I’m not convinced the price hike is that justified. Costa Rica is a nice place to see, but not really my ideal destination and not a place I’ll be heading back to anytime soon.

Cruising through a colonial city

After hearing so much about Granada, Nicaragua’s “colonial gem” of a city, I have to admit I was a little defalted when I saw it. Not that it isn’t beautiful, because it certainly is. Colourful colonial houses line the streets, a gorgeous bright yellow church and town hall preside over a shady town square, and on every second corner men are offering rides in horse-drawn carriages decorated with flowers. It is indeed a lovely place to roam.

But the city seemed to be lacking in something. Perhaps it was because every resturant and bar seemed to be unashamedly geared towards tourists, perhaps it was because doing anything seemed to involve signing up for a tour, perhaps it was travel fatigue. But for me where Leon was loud, hot and bustling, Granada was sedate and even a little bit soulless.

We did inevitably join a tour. Three of us spend the morning being ferried around the shady green islands of Lake Nicaragua. The lake itself was beautiful, with all manner of tropical plants and trees lining the banks and covering the islands. But for me the real interest was in looking at the houses. The islands were actually tiny, with most only big enough for just one house and a backyard. But not just any house. To own one of these islands is quite the status symbol, so the houses have to reflect that. We cruised past luxury mansions and stately homesteads belonging to Nicaragua’s parliamentarians, prominent business owners and – of course – US expats, with our guide pointing out the homes of the country’s rich and famous.

Not every island was like this though. In fact many weren’t. Many were home to local Nicas, who were often squatting on the island in basic mudbrick homes. We stopped on one island where a local family lived – in basic accommodation – and were promptly served up fresh coconuts. Sipping our coconut water, A and I launched several poor attempts at a conversation in Spanish, before giving up and relying on our guide to help us out. It wasn’t long before the father and the son of the family invited us to see their baseball field. I was slightly puzzled. Baseball field? What? Here? Well, yes, actually.

A series of strategically placed logs and planks led us back to the mainland and to a clearing, where yes, there was a baseball field. Basic and far from anything professional-looking, but the baseball diamond was there. It came complete with two large and irritable cows who stood guard. Both the father and the son were keen baseball players and their team was competing for the championship. This was their place to practice. A mansion they do not have, but then I doubt many people can say they have their own baseball field.

During the cruise around the lake I also had the pleasure of meeting Lucy, a monkey with a serious taste for coconut. When we pulled up to her island, she leapt into our boat in a heartbeat, quickly snatching all the coconut we offered to her. A few hundred photos later, and it was time to shoo her from the boat – except Lucy wasn’t so keen to leave. We pulled away from the island, thinking she had left the boat, and had driven for some time before Lucy made her re-appearance. Back to the island we went.

Cruising the islands, taking in the scenery and listening to the bird calls, was a really pleasant experience. Which probably best sums up Granada for me; pleasant. Not amazing, not eye-opening, not buzzing with life. Just pleasant.

Volcano boarding!!!

I said I wouldn’t do it. In fact I had decided I wouldn’t do it. I had heard the stories from other travellers, and had seen the unsightly scars that went with them. I was not going to get on a sled and scoot down the side of a volcano.

Except.

Well after speaking to a tour guide – who went to great lengths to reassure me that I could go as slowly as I wanted to – I changed my mind. After all, when would I ever get another chance to get on a sled and scoot down the side of a volcano?

So the next day I found myself scaling Cerro Negro, a volcano just on the outskirts of Leon. It is still active, and when it last erupted in 1999 it coverd itself, and most of Leon, in a layer of black ash and fine gravel. The ash is the reason you’re able to slide down, though there are enough rocks to make it very uncomfortable if you come off.

The boards we were given weren’t exactly high-tech pieces of sporting equipment with advanced steering and brakes. The boards were just a plank of wood with a piece of polished metal nailed to the underside. Steering was by leaning left or right, the brakes were our feet. Easy enough.

The hike up to the start point took 45 minutes, which wasn’t exactly an easy stroll with wooden planks strapped to our backs. Huffing and puffing we reached the top where, after a few snaps of the view, it was time to suit up in our dashing protective gear. Then we were ready to go.

I watched as two others set off before me, sliding at what seemed a surprisingly sedate pace. A and I were up next. I settled on my board, held on to the rope grip, pushed off…pushed off again…and again…and finally the board began to move and pick up speed.

With tiny pieces of gravel flicking past me, it felt like I was tearing down the slope. But I’m under no illusions that I was any kind of speed demon. To be honest on the first run down, my one and only concern was staying on the board. I even tore up part of my trainers, so firmly were my heels dug into the ground. No matter, it was brilliant fun to fly down a volcano , spraying ash and dust in my wake.  (And no, that isn’t me in the picture, but you get the idea…)

At the bottom of the slope we were then invited up again for a second run. Forty-five minutes later and we were there. This time I was determined to go faster (but not too much faster) so I made a conscious effort to keep my heels up, and even dared to lean forward every so slightly. A decided to take it one step further, standing up on his board and literally surfing it down the slope. Show off.

Despite having to wash my hair twice (under a cold shower) to get all the gravel and dust out, volcano boarding was a blast. It was absolutely worth the 45 minute hike – twice – for the exhilerating 45 second ride. And even better, when people ask me what I’ve been up to, I get to say: “Oh you know, volcano boarding…. You?”