Exploring the Colombian Amazon

“Let me tell you the story about the Amazonian fisherman,” said our guide as we shuffled our bums on the hard wooden bench of our little boat that was paddling down a tributary off the Colombian Amazon.

“The fishermen had an easy, happy and content life,” explained Sergio .

“One day he was approached by a business man who was holidaying in the Amazon. The man had watched the fisherman with interest before suggesting, ‘Why don’t you fish a little longer?’ The fisherman was baffled, ‘Why would I do that’, he asked.

‘Because then you would catch more fish,’ the man responded.

‘But I don’t need more fish,’ explained the fisherman. ‘I have plenty for my family plus a little extra to sell to help them buy anything else they should need. Then in the afternoons I play with my children, relax with my wife and enjoy a few beers with my friends in the village. I don’t want to fish for any longer.’

‘But if you caught more fish you could sell them and make money and buy a second rod,’ explained the man.

I caught a piranha... don't be fooled by the small size... It has teeth and will rip flesh off the bone.

I caught a piranha… don’t be fooled by the small size… It has teeth and will rip flesh off the bone.

‘But why would I want a second rod?’ asked the fisherman.

‘Because then you could catch even more fish,’ explained the man patiently.

‘Why would I want to do that?’ asked the confused fisherman.

‘Because then you could sell even more fish and use the money to employ someone to fish for you. With that money you could employ more and more people and set up a small fishing emporium,’ said the man.

‘Why would I want to do that?’ asked the fisherman.

‘You could export your fish to the United States and make a fortune,’ said the man. ‘But you might have to move away for a few years to make it work,’ he added.

‘But why would I want to do that?’ asked the man again.

‘Because after about 10 years you would probably be a millionaire,’ he explained patiently.

‘And why do I want that,’ asked the fisherman.

‘Because,’ said the man, ‘then you can retire as a rich millionaire, return here to the village. You could fish a little in the morning and spend your afternoons playing with your children, relax with your wife and enjoying a few beers with your friends in the village.’

But the fisherman just smiled, caught his final fish for the day and headed home.”

It was a wonderfully fitting fable for us to ponder as we enjoyed our stay in a small Amazonian community in Colombia. Young and old men from different families in the community took us out each day… piranha fishing, jungle hunting, midnight spear fishing. All worked for a few hours a day on different projects, whether they were being paid by our guide who leads this community based tourism project, or catching their fish for their family. One man even carved artisanal wooden animals to make his ends meet.




And after a few hours of working, they all came back home, spent hours with their families and friends and watched the sun fall over the Amazon each night. It was a refreshing reminder of what life should really be about. The age old phrase ‘work to live don’t live to work’ came to the forefront of my mind.


But is it changing I couldn’t help but fear. The village now has electricity in the evenings and small groups of families and friends would gather at the homes with TVs, while the teenagers walked around with big headphones round their necks and mobile phones in their hands. It’s only a matter of time until wi-fi reaches them.

“That’s the danger and the lure of the coke fields,” explained our guide. “For a lot of kids that are distracted by emerging gadgets and technology, the coke fields over the border in Peru are attractive.

“They promise big bucks,” said Sergio. “But the conditions are terrible and sometimes they don’t even get paid. If they complain enough to could even cost them their life.”

“We lose lots of children in the coke fields every year,” he sad sadly. “If the boss doesn’t want to pay sometimes it’s easier to just shoot the kid instead.” 

It’s just one of the many devastating impacts cocaine has had on this beautiful country. Sergio believes that the fable of the Amazonian fisherman remains true to most people growing up in this area today but as I watched some of the younger kids, clutching their phones with glee, I just hoped he was right.



Fables aside, the Amazon remains a truly magical experience. As we paddled down the Amazon, got stuck in a green lake of leaves, flowers and anacondas, hugged one of the biggest trees in the world, and camped in a treehouse surrounded by fireflies; it more than lived up to my childhood dreams of visiting the vast, impressive river way of South America.


But it wasn’t just catching a piranha the size of my head (ok, that might be a slight exaggeration) or sleeping to the sounds of the jungle, or even tucking into the freshest river fish that made this trip so memorable. It was getting to know Pablo and his family (who was particularly patient with our attempts at conversation in Spanish), playing with the village children in the afternoon, having a lazy beer with the men of the village as the sun set and coming to understand a world and a community that has everything the rest of us are constantly trying to strive for; happiness and love and a healthy work-life balance. And that’s something no picture can capture.


Travel Tips

After lots of research we decided to book a small Amazon tour in Colombia with local guide Sergio Rojas, who is from Leticia (the beginning point of the Colombian Amazon). Sergio runs Amazonas Jungle Tours with his father and sister and they only take a limited number of people on the tours – I think his maximum was 8 but no one else had signed up for our dates so it ended up just being Matty, I and Sergio. It was everything we had hoped for – Sergio has built up an incredible relationship with an entire community that live on the banks of a tributary off the Amazon. It is community sustainability at its best. Every day different people from the community took us to different areas (with Sergio as our English translator) we went spear fishing with the best fisherman of the village (his precision was a sight to behold!), we went jungle trekking with some of the younger teenagers who could hack at trees and branches relentlessly to carve new paths, went dolphin watching with the best ‘spotters’ of the village and we stayed with a wonderful family with small children. As the Colombian Amazon is so off the beaten track still, everybody was happy to see us (we didn’t feel like ‘another tourist’ invading their village) and they were patient with our bad Spanish for hours after dinner while we conversed. It was wonderful to see where the money goes in employing the locals support Sergio’s work and we honestly felt like we became honorary residents for a few short days and were sad to leave.

The mosquitoes are relentless. Take light, baggy clothes and don’t wear blue – I got attacked wearing a blue long sleeved top and they bit me through the clothing!

It cost $1,050 per person (about £300) and that includes all food, activities and accommodation for three nights. You need to fly in and out of Leticia as it is unreachable by land travel.  To contact Sergio email: amazonasdeturismo@gmail.com

Coffee Worshipping in Zona Cafetera, Colombia

Coffee. Oh coffee. You are the first thing I reach for in the morning, the first smell to tickle my nostrils, the first flavour to waken my tastebuds. Oh coffee, mornings without you are distinctively worse off.

I don’t sit on the fence with this one. So, it came as no surprise to me when the guide at a beautiful coffee farm in Colombia announced, “Of course, coffee has a story of its own.” Of course it does, I thought to myself – how could anything smell that good and not have a damed good story too?

And so, ladies and gents, pour yourself a steaming cup of the strong stuff and get ready to ogle at the beautiful bean and its lovely story.

Coffee was not born in Colombia or Italy or any of the countries we today associate with its loveliness. No, no, coffee was in fact discovered in Ethiopia by a group of humble goat shepherds. For anyone who doesn’t know – the coffee bean is found inside a deliciously sweet red cherry that grows on luscious green plants. The fruit of the plant is very sweet and tasty – which apparently is also what a bunch of Ethiopian goats thought after discovering it some 500 years ago. But, after eating the best part of the sweet fruit on a bunch of coffee plantations they began to act a little unusually. It is said they ran much faster that afternoon – as if dancing. Then the night fell and no sleep came. The shepherd looked onto his strange dancing goats in confusion and wondered what could possibly have stopped them from sleeping…

The next day he decided to try the red berry for himself when the goats all trotted back towards the coffee plants. A few berries later and he too started to feel a the effect of the bean – and he decided to take the mystery cherries to the local monastery to seek advice from the monks. Well, the monks had a field day – it was said they would purposefully eat the little red berries late at night and then stay up praying to God all night – they felt it enhanced their connection and made them better monks.

But one day the chief Abbott decided enough was enough. You can just imagine the scene – hundreds of monks praying in a jittery fashion with bad breath – so he took control of the situation and grabbed a whole bag of them and chucked them into an open burning fire. The monks were horrified to see their precious red berries go up in smoke but then they started to notice something – or smell something I should say – as the beans began to roast. Suddenly their sweet tasting berry had turned into the most delicious aroma their nostrils had ever encountered. It is said they then removed the beans from the dying embers of the fire and crushed them before adding hot water. And coffee was born.

Coffee on the tree and in its more recognised roasted form in Zona Cafetera, Colombia...

Coffee on the tree and in its more recognised roasted form in Zona Cafetera, Colombia…

I was already madly in love with this little brown bean but hearing this story sealed the deal for me. Also, I should add that while I was more than aware of how good it tastes and smells – I had no idea how good it looks in real life. Take a trip to the Zona Cafetera in Colombia and you will be greeted with miles upon miles of rolling hills covered in a luscious greenery that on closer inspection you realise is actually coffee.


The view from the back garden at Hacienda Venecia where we stayed in the coffee region…

And so we spent the next four days drinking coffee, smelling coffee and admiring coffee for mile after mile. There were some hammocks and hummingbirds thrown in for good measure and Matty and I swore to find a way to run away and become coffee growers, because really, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by this kind of beauty?!

PicMonkey Collage1

PicMonkey Collage2

PicMonkey Collage3

The good news, for at least those of you who have no immediate plans to visit Colombia, is that the Colombians export all their best stuff and keep the leftovers for themselves. So great if you’re shopping in Waitrose in London but not such great news for the locals (and travellers) here. We stocked up on the good stuff during our weekend away and are now spending most of our evenings dancing like mad goats. Well, that’s our excuse anyway!

Happy Christmas.






Travel Tips

We stayed at the lovely Hacienda Venecia near Maizales in Zona Cafetera (which is just a 4 hour bus ride away from our present home in Medellin). The Hacienda is picture-perfect setting, surrounded by rolling coffee hills and greenery as far as the eye can see. There are two accommodation options – the main house that still belongs to the coffee-making family today, and the hostel, which is in the same style as the main house. We stayed in the hostel and got a nice double room with breakfast for just £10 per person – not too shabby when you think it has a swimming pool too!

After a couple of nights at the Hacienda, where we took a brilliant coffee tour, we moved to the picturesque town of Salento, where the locals play a game called Tejo – where you throw a metal ball at a selection of gunpowder triangles across the room for points. Beer and gunpowder! What’s not to love? Be sure to visit the Los Amigos Bar for a genuine and unforgettable tejo experience!

From Salento, which has a smashing ‘wild west’ feeling to it we did a wonderful 5-hour trek into Valle del Cocora – also known as the valley of the Palm Trees where hundreds of sky-high palm trees (the tallest I’ve ever seen) tower around you. It is incredible and well worth the journey 🙂

Visiting the Galapagos Islands

It was a Monday morning shortly after sunrise and I was balancing on some slippery rocks in shallow water trying to keep myself upright. Clutching Matty’s hand, I attempted to move my left foot forward onto the next rock but then something soft, solid and slippery hit me, sending me off balance, causing me to slip waist-deep into the water.

“I just got head-butted by a sea lion,” I squealed, watching the pups swim around me and through my legs, before making their way to Matty to try their tricks on him.

There were about five of them playing in the water together, swimming, jumping and diving like dolphins through the waves. The day before we had watched them surf together – we sat for what felt like hours, mesmerised by their playfulness, as they waited for a big wave to come from behind before swimming with it, letting it carry them to the shore before diving over the surf as it broke in the more shallow waters.

Over the last eight days we have watched the pups take some of their first confused steps, swum and played with them underwater, observed how they sleep and live in their colonies and giggled at their quite human-like behaviours.

It was basically torture not being able to stroke this sandy beast's neck.

It was basically torture not being able to stroke this sandy beast’s neck.

This little beauty was stumbling all over his mamma.

This little beauty was stumbling all over his mamma.

We sunbathed with them...

We sunbathed with them…

And drank beers with them.

And drank beers with them.

I might have tried to take one home.

I might have tried to take one home.

It's impossible to take a bad photo of a baby sea lion.

It’s impossible to take a bad photo of a baby sea lion.

Even if Matty jumps in the photo with one.

Even if Matty jumps in the photo with one.

But it is not just the sea lions and fur seals that allow you a wonderfully close and personal insight into their splendid lives on the Galapagos – in fact there is not one species that does not seem to welcome you with open arms, or at least lazily open one eye to you.

When the Galapagos islands were discovered by accident in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, who drifted off course when sailing from Panama to Peru, he reported that the islands’ birds were “so stupid that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.”

And 500 years later it appears little has changed. They seem to regard humans as nothing more than a sometimes inconvenient shield from the sun as we peer down at them, blocking the sun’s rays as they sunbathe. Rest assured we did not ‘catch’ or touch the animals – we had a wonderful guide who ensured we were always two metres from the animals, as is the national park’s rules, but it was fascinating to be within an arm’s reach of some of the world’s most treasured and unique species.

It was only appropriate that the first animal we saw on the first day of our 8-day cruise in the islands was the giant Galapagos Tortoise, which gave the islands their name. Roaming the highlands of the islands, these huge tortoises dwarf everything around them. I stared at their huge, wrinkly legs and long, weathered necks as they slowly grazed their way across the land, and was struck by how pre-historic they appeared, as if lost creatures from a few Millennia ago. I giggled as one approached another causing it to hiss and tuck its head into its shell in a fairly defenceless manner.

Just hanging out, munching some grass.

Just hanging out, munching some grass.


Behind bars…

It was about half-way through the trip that I realised with some horror I was probably going to spend the rest of my years as a ‘twitcher’. Suddenly, I couldn’t believe I had thought it was acceptable to travel without a pair of binoculars and a bird book and made a mental note to add these to my travel kit at the earliest possible opportunity.

It started with the penguins. And they were marvellous. Sitting proudly on the rocks, our little dinghy floated right up to them and they barely gave us a sideways glance as they ruffled their feathers. But then came the boobies and the frigates; some of the most iconic creatures of the islands – I hadn’t dared hope that I might see them close up. But then we visited North Seymour Island, home to vast colonies of both birds, and my dreams were to be realised.

They didn’t even flinch as we approached them. The male frigates were blowing our their impressive red chests, which looked like gigantic balloons that could lift them into the air and carry them away. They made a fantastic sound as they drummed their beaks on the tops of their chests and sang loudly to attract the ladies. Meanwhile the boobies danced on their big, blue feet and nuzzled their white fluffy chicks, completely unfazed by our arrival.

For the next hour I had to remind myself to keep breathing as I snapped away, just a couple of metres away from the most beautiful birds I have ever seen. Not for the first time in the Galapagos, I felt like a fly on the wall – a fly on the wall of the most beautiful room in the world.

Look at the chest on that...

Just look at the chest on that…

"But I'm the Booby"

“But I’m the Booby”

The frigate mid-flight

The frigate mid-flight

Showing off his big red chest...

Showing off his big red chest…

Boob on boob

Boob on boob

And just a little too photogenic to ignore...

And just a little too photogenic to ignore…

But this one might just have the best name of all: The Galapagos Vermilion Fly-Catcher.

But this one might just have the best name of all: The Galapagos Vermilion Fly-Catcher.

In the Galapagos it is not just about seeing the creatures – but studying them – observing how they live, eat, sleep and mate. When we stumbled across the huge yellow land iguanas (that despite looking relatively menacing seemed as passive as a mouse) we watched in fascination as one rolled the fruit from the cactus in the ground with its feet to remove the spikes before swallowing it whole. Meanwhile, the marine iguanas, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, were a delight to watch at sunset as they bobbed in the shallow water for food before sunbathing on the rocks to dry off.

Not half as menacing as he looks...

Not half as menacing as he looks…

Although if you are a cactus fruit you will not be spared.

Although if you are a cactus fruit you will not be spared.

Pretty in yellow

Pretty in yellow

Hanging out with the marine iguanas for a spot of sea lion spotting

Hanging out with the marine iguanas for a spot of sea lion spotting

The techni-coloured dream coat of the marine iguana

The techni-coloured dream coat of the marine iguana

With no underwater camera, I was unable to capture the wonders that we saw below sea level. The Galapagos is blessed with abundant shoals of tropical fish, which we followed for as long as possible with our masks and snorkels. We were lucky enough to swim with the sea lions and even followed white-tipped sharks a number of times. But best yet was following the sea turtles that seemed to fly through the water with the ease of the birds in the sky.

What we did try to capture with our camera, was the impressive and varied landscape of the islands. I think the perception is the islands are tropical castaway islands with gorgeous beaches but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The islands are volcanic – they were created by huge volcanoes that erupted from the Earth’s core millions of years ago. We crossed black, hardened lava rivers, gazed into huge craters, walked across desert-like landscapes scattered with cactuses and of course, also strolled the beautiful beaches that were postcard-perfect.

The dry, mystical lands of the Galapagos

The green, mystical lands of the Galapagos

Winding paths to the highlands.

Winding paths to the highlands.

Us modelling the white sandy beach.

Us modelling the white sandy beach.

After eight long days of observing the landscape, the mammals, the birds and marine world, I felt ready to join the real world once more. I had enjoyed being rocked to sleep on the boat each night but was looking forward to having a hot shower in a proper bathroom and finding out the results of the Scottish referendum. But after we said goodbye to our wonderful guide Leo and took a seat on the bright red plastic seats of the departure lounge at the Galapagos Airport it suddenly hit me what I was saying goodbye to. I watched “Darwin’s finches”, as the little birds are known as, scavenge for food in the brightly-lit food court of the airport and felt my eyes well up.

I would no longer be waking up and playing with sea lions, I would no longer feel like the greatest bird photographer (as the birds in the rest of the world fly off when they hear my clumsy foot break a twig a mile away), and I would no longer watch the birds feed at sunset or watch the sun rise over the equator every morning.

This is a world where sea lions hog benches like the drunk old men of the west and where it is easier to trip over a camouflaged marine iguana than it is to stumble on a rock. And I realised I would never really be ready to leave it.

As I grumpily stomped around the airport, which is decorated in “I love boobies’ t-shirts, I glanced up at another t-shirt with a Charles Darwin quote on it: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.

It was here, of course, that Darwin made his great theories about evolution after studying (and eating) the giant tortoises and other abundant wildlife. And as I stared at the slogan on the t-shirt I realised the message is also true for travelling. Every trip I have taken since I was 21 has changed the way I look at the world and adapted who I am – some countries more than others. But perhaps nowhere has had such a significant impact on me as the Galapagos. I’m not sure I can even explain what has shifted – but something inside me has been stirred and I have fallen in love with nature in a way I never knew possible. And I realise I am really very lucky to have uttered the words “I just got head-butted by a sea lion.”

Travel Tips

We went on an eight-day cruise in the Galapagos with King of the Seas, which is an ‘economy’ boat. There are four different classes of boats and this is one of the cheapest ones – but it did not find it cut corners on the stuff that mattered. Yes the cabins are tiny and the electricity cuts out regularly, but the food was absolutely delicious (and plenty of it), the crew and captain were wonderful, friendly and helpful and our guide Leo was top notch. It attracted like-minded people and we had a superb group of travellers on board with us.


Our lovely group... jumping off the boat.

Our lovely group… jumping off the boat.

Deciding how to travel the Galapagos is tricky. We were told by a number of people that those who travel it overland (eg taking day trips from an island base) don’t see as much as people on the cruises and I think that this is probably true.

We woke up in a new location every day so wasted no time travelling as this was always done as we slept – we snorkelled twice a day most days and visited at least two locations a day on foot. We got into the nooks and crannies of the island with an expert guide, which would be impossible to do alone.

How much does it cost to go to the Galapagos?

It is not cheap. We struggled to justify it and almost didn’t go at one point because of the cost. One week in the Galapagos cost us what we normally budget for one month travelling (£1,000) but it was worth every penny and we were rewarded with an experience that I have never had in a whole month of travelling elsewhere. It costs about $500 before you have even got to the Galapagos – return flights from Ecuador are about $400 and then you need to pay an island tax of $100 when you land. Then comes the cost of the cruise… We got a last minute deal for King of the Seas for $1,200. (Snorkelling gear and wet suits hire is often not included on the cheaper cruises and we paid another $50 each for this when we boarded the ship). We booked the trip about three weeks beforehand at a great agent in Quito (Ole Expeditions in the Old Town) – we met a couple that booked it the day before, directly with the cruise liner to avoid agent fees – they got it for $1,050 – so we didn’t do too badly. The final cost to add into the equation is tipping – and any drinks you want on board. We were told to tip 10% of the cruise cost or $10 per person per day. Drinks on the boats are naturally expensive ($30 for a rubbish bottle of wine so take lots of your own booze on board!) Those considering to do it ‘over land’ should bear in mind that day cruises can cost anything from $80-150 per day per person – and food and accommodation is expensive on the island.

How long should your cruise in the Galapagos be?

Cruises tend to be four, five or eight days long. We initially planned to do a four day cruise but decided to go on a cheaper boat for eight days in the end. While everyone will have different feelings about what is the ‘right amount of time’ I loved that we finally decided to do eight days because it meant that we saw every single species I had hoped to see. If we had left after four days I wouldn’t have seen fur seals or swum with turtles and sea lions and if I had just done the last four days of the cruise I wouldn’t have seen frigates, giant tortoises or land iguanas. Eight days almost guarantees you’ll see it all – or at least it did for us!

What is the best time of year to visit the Galapagos?

We were in the Galapagos in September which is winter for the islands. Of course we are talking about winter on the equator so it was a bit like a British summer – gloriously warm and sunny most days, but sometimes cloudy, and chilly in the evenings. It was dry but the water was quite cold and we definitely appreciated having wet suits for the snorkelling. The hottest months are January to March, but this is also the rainy season. We have been told April to June are nice months to visit, and July and August are apparently the ‘peak season’ where the islands are much busier and you are more likely to have tourists in the background of your photos.

World in Pictures: Whale spotting in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

I’ve never been a great ‘spotter’. From failing to read the blackboard at school to desperately trying to see a leopard, which had taken a deer up into the trees to eat, on safari in Sri Lanka; I’ve just not had much luck. Everyone else in the jeep was squealing as the leopard devoured its poor prey in the trees while I scanned leaf after leaf with the binoculars trying to find the camouflaged beast.

And so it was with some trepidation I embarked on a whale-spotting tour off the coast of Puerto Lopez in Ecuador. Despite having been told by fellow travellers that the whales were everywhere I couldn’t help but think I would be the one crying ‘whale’ at a big wave or speeding boat. It’s just how my eyes seem to work.

We piled onto a small boat and whizzed across the sea towards Isla de la Plata, where the whales are said to gather, and spent the whole time squinting over the waves, trying to see something black and moving. I might have shouted ‘whale’ at a passing bird at one point but then suddenly something huge, black and shiny appeared right by our side. Even I couldn’t get it wrong – a mother and her baby were swimming right beside our boat.

Together the humpbacks glided through the water, their huge but surprisingly graceful moves completely synchronised, as they disappeared underwater before resurfacing a few moments later. It was completely mesmerising. We followed them for a while before spotting others in the distance.

The captain allowed us to climb onto the top of the boat as we made our way to the other whales, giving us the perfect 360 degrees view. As we approached the new whales we could see they were playing and slapping their giant fins against the water. Then they gave us the show we hadn’t dared hope for as they breached out of the water – their entire bodies coming out of the sea before falling back in just seconds later.

While I was too busy clapping my hands and squealing in excitement – and generally having a ‘whaley’ good time (groan), Matty was doing a rather wonderful job at taking some photos. Enjoy x









The Swing at the End of the World, Ecuador

I know you should never say never but… I never plan to jump out of a plane or do a bungee jump. Never. It’s just not my cup of tea. And talking about tea, that’s exactly where I’d rather be – with two feet on the ground below drinking a good cuppa tea watching the crazies fall from the sky.

But a swing? What could be so dangerous about a swing,  I asked myself as we made our way to the Swing of the End of the World near Banos, in Ecuador. Even with its slightly disarming name, it was not something I actually thought I could be scared of.


This is The Swing at the End of the World

Swings are for children after all. I still remember my childhood swing with great fondness; it had a big plastic red seat and hung from what looked like a giant metal structure (to my child-sized eyes anyway) that was nailed into the grass in the back garden. I remember having pre-pubescent tantrums about only being allowed one chocolate Penguin bar a day and burning off my steam and fury on that swing. Back and forth I would go…. Up and legs out, down and legs tucked under my seat, with almighty gusto to get me higher and higher. I wanted to get the bird’s-eye view into the tallest nests in the trees, I wanted to swing right over the metal bar at the top of the swing so my dad would have to use huge ladders to unravel it, I wanted to touch the clouds. But despite my very best and most earnest efforts I never quite sailed over the clouds.

So when my friends Coggleito and Marcito, who we are currently travelling with, told me about the Swing at the End of the World my eyes naturally lit up.

“I can swing as high as the clouds? Over the trees, as high as the birds?” I cried in the most high-pitched voice that I could manage (to anyone who doesn’t know me I often have a fairly ‘husky’ voice).

Either way, I was excited. Not scared. Or at least I wasn’t initially.

We drove from Banos, snaking up a mountain where the Swing at the End of the World sits. When the taxi came to a halt we climbed up a small hill and through a little wooded area. As we emerged from the trees we were greeted with a spectacular view over the forested valley below and, hanging from a treehouse, sat the Swing at the End of the World. It was swinging from a huge pole that went through the roof of the tree house. The long, long ropes, ended with a plank of wood for a seat and a man stood beside it grinning. He was the Swing at End of the World Pusher – and what a job title that is.

There were a few more tourists than we expected  – apparently word had got out – and we noticed a queue of sorts for swing, which we joined. (Well I say we – Coggleito and myself got in the queue while the boys got in position with the cameras).

I watched the girl at the front of the queue strap herself into the swing (and felt a sense of relief to see there was a small rope and clip that also goes around your front) and watched as the the Swing at the End of the World Pusher pulled her back high, higher than his shoulders as he leaned forward and gripped into the ground with his toes to steady himself. Then he raised her even higher before throwing his entire body weight against the swing and throwing her into the distance. She squealed as she swung over the valley below, before returning to the Pusher who sent her out into the valley even further with his next push.

My palms were sweaty and my stomach was churning as I asked Coggleito what “just a little push” and “stop” were in Spanish.

There was a fairly liberal queuing system going on, and as a large woman pushed to the front for the second time to put her two small children under the age of five on again (who looked like they were going to slide right off and down into the valley below) my nerves got the better of me and I shouted something in completely incomprehensible Spanglish whilst simultaneously tutting and shaking my head. My dear friend The Mongoose, who once declared, ‘the queue is the great leveller of society,’ would not have coped well.

The next girl to push in front of me placed herself on the swing backwards, so she was facing us and not the valley as she swung out. I looked at her face and saw to my horror that she was actually crying. Eventually the Pusher pulled her to a stop and she stepped off the swing shaking.

I looked around, trying desperately to find someone else to jump in front of me. But there was no one. The Pusher smiled at me and motioned for me to come forward. I gave him my manic-frozen grin that I reserve especially for these situations. It was my turn.

I placed myself firmly on the seat, clipped myself on and retained my manic grin.

“Ok?” asked the pusher.

“Si, si,” I managed to reply. I forgot to ask for a small push, as I was pulled back, I forgot what the words were for ‘stop,’ ‘I don’t like it’’ or ‘get me the hell of here’ and before I knew it I was flying forward over the valley beneath.

Here I am being pulled back by the Pusher before flying over the wilderness

Here I am being pulled back by the Pusher before flying over the wilderness

As I flew over the valley and tried to touch the clouds with my outstretched legs, I screamed, ‘Si, si’ and wished I knew the words for ‘faster, faster’. It was exhilarating and everything I had hoped my childhood swing would one day deliver.

Wheeee, wheee, I screamed (inS pansih of course)

Wheeee, wheee, I screamed (in  Spanish of course)

The Pusher, sensing my enjoyment from my hearty cackles, sent me spinning on the next push, so I was turning on the ropes as I went hurtling through the air. On my return swing, now facing the waiting crowd instead of the valley, I nearly sent the Pusher to the ground with my feet – but like a Boomerang, I quickly swang back out over the valley.

That's me - the tiny dot - over the abyss below

That’s me – the tiny dot – over the abyss below

I NEVER wanted it to end

I NEVER wanted it to end

At some point, which in reality was probably just a few seconds after the fun had begun, I sensed myself slowing down and eventually the Pusher gripped my seat and pulled me to a hault.

I stepped off shaking and grinning, looking just as manic as when I had stepped on – but shaking with exhilaration. I may not be the next in line for a parachute jump or a bungee jump but anyone who says swings are for sissies need to get themselves to the end of the world before they make such claims.

We did it - we conquered the Swing at the End of the World!

We did it – we conquered the Swing at the End of the World!

Walking the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Once upon a time (16 months ago to be precise) four good friends exchanged some hearty hugs, some slaps on the back(pack), and wished each other Bon Voyage. For the four friends were going in two very different ways – two (who we shall now call Marcito and Coggleito) were bound for a South American journey while Matty and the Monk (that’s me – I’m now talking about myself in the third person – awkward) were embarking on our Silk Road journey.

But all four carried something in common as they trotted in different directions across the globe. For in the depths of their backpacks each had a small sandstone rock, swaddled layers of cling-film and buried in clothes. The rocks ‘may’ have come from behind the urinal of their favourite Nottingham pub, which is built into the sandstone caves of Nottingham. It may just have been removed by one of the four friends who, armed with his Swiss Army knife, cut it from the wall before being breaking it into four mis-shaped pieces, already crumbling in his pockets, to give to his three friends before they went their separate ways. That might be where the rocks came from, but obviously I can’t be sure, nor can I be held to any account regarding any of the rocks’ complicated and ambiguous history.

As they hugged and put their heads together, the rock-cutter cried: “This is not goodbye, the rocks will soon be together again.” Matty and the Monk went east. Marcito and Coggleito went west.

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

—————————————————————–Fast forward 16 months-———————————————————

After many eastern adventures and a hard summer of working in Europe, Matty and I finally made it west. Specifically Ecuador. And we were not alone. Our much-anticipated reunion with Marcito and Coggleito had been a frantic one as Matty and I rushed to the airport to surprise them (cursing at the local bus as it slowly chugged up the high altitude hills of Quito as if oblivious to our imminent reunion) but also an emotional one as we caught them at an ATM machine at arrivals.

A couple of days later of sampling the local beer, route planning and squealing, and we were on the road; headed for what is known as the Quilotoa Loop – named after the beautiful high-altitude Quilotoa Lake.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We walked for about an hour or so around the lake in an anti-clockwise direction before somewhat begrudgingly leaving the beautiful view and entering what felt like an isolated sand-dune scene looking down into the valley below. The wind picked up and Coggleito, who had chosen the exact same moment to run down the sand dune, found her legs being carried by the wind until she found a grassy patch to slow down.


The Coggleito pre-sand storm

We spent the next two days climbing down into valleys and up out of canyons, passing dusty small Andes villages and doe-eyed cows as we trekked over green, luscious hills, crossing snaking springs and gushing rivers. It was one of the most varied landscapes I’ve ever encountered and made all the more pleasant by our much awaited reunion with Marcito and Coggleito (who are actually called Marc and Gemma by the way, but when in Rome…)

The boys being turist... ahem.

The boys being turist… ahem.


Another beautiful valley only marred slightly by knowing we had to cross it.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Coggleito and me hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito and I hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito's 'camel pack' was much appreciated by the locals

Coggleito’s ‘camel pack’ was much appreciated by the locals


And when I said crossing rivers, I meant walking across precariously high logs.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Our guide book warned that dogs can give walkers a bit of trouble on the route and sure enough as we passed remote farm houses we were greeted with barking and aggressive looking dogs that sent us scrabbling in the dusty ground for rocks and sticks to arm ourselves. Apart from the time when Matty was growling on all fours brandishing his stick at a particularly ferocious look dog that had been following us, we emerged relatively unscathed.

After two long days of trekking we checked into a hostel that felt more akin to a luxurious ski chalet in the Alps than a backpackers pit-stop in the wilderness of Ecuador. Tired and weary after taking two wrong turns on the six hour walk, we climbed up the last mountain to reach the Llullu Llama hostel in the tiny village of Isinlivi. A friendly Swiss couple who were volunteering to run the place at the time, greeted us with  big grins and proudly pointed out the hostels’ namesakes – two happy-looking, fluffy llamas that were trimming the grass outside.

Our brief tour of the hostel revealed the cosy dorm room, which had beds set into the rafters of the roof; cosy, bright and clean double rooms; a sparkling clean bathroom boasting a hot shower and a log-cabin-like communal room with a burning fire and huge dining table from which we were to eat a delicious feast of mammoth proportions a few hours later.

But better yet, in the grounds of the hostel, which is perched on the side of the mountain we had just climbed up, was a spa fully equipped with a jacuzzi hot tub, sauna and steam room. We could not think of a finer way to relax our aching bones and immediately went for a pre-dinner soak (not before a scenic beer of course).

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.


The next morning we woke, feeling refreshed and scrubbed clean, and set off for the last section of our walk, a 14km trek back to the village of Sigchos to catch a bus to Latacunga, where we had begun the journey three days earlier. As we scurried down dusty donkey trails and across green pastures, we continued to catch up on the last 16 months and exchange tales of travel and adventure.

As we paused on a  bridge to frolic for the camera, the rock-cutter cried: “Rocks reunited!” We all reached into our backpacks to pull out our cling-film wrapped nuggets of sandstone. Carefully unwrapping the stones, sand spilled from the wrappers, as if each grain had its own story – of another bump in the bag, another bus ride, another adventure.

We held up our somewhat shrunken rocks and were amazed they still fitted together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw. It was perhaps a little bit like the four travelling friends – yes, time had passed, stuff had changed, adventures had been had – but they were still all cut from the same rock, so to speak.



Travel Tips

The Quilotoa Loop is the name that is given to the villages and towns that loop around Quilotoa Lake in the Andes, Ecuador.

We started at Latacunga, where we stayed for a night and left our main backpacks. The next day we caught the bus to Quilatoa, which runs from 9am in the morning. and takes a couple of hours It is only a short walk to the lake from here (be warned, it’s extremely windy and cold up here as it’s at 3,914metres above sea level and very exposed). At the lake we walked anti-clockwise and followed the trail to Chugchilan, which took about four and a half hours – here we stayed at a lovely hostel called Cloud Forest, which cost $15 for a dorm bed with dinner and breakfast.

The following day we walked to Isinlivi and stayed at the wonderful Llullu Llama hostel ($21 for a double with dinner and breakfast per person or $18 for a dorm bed). It cost $7.50 to use the spa for an unlimited time and was worth every penny.

On our last day we trekked to Sigchos, which although was the furthest distance (14km) it was the shortest trek as there were more flat stretches. We left at 9am and then caught the 1.30pm bus to Latacunga to be reunited with our belongings and complete the circuit.

Most hostels offer packed lunch for the following day’s walk but we stocked up on tins of tuna and snacks in Latucunga and then bought the odd boiled egg and bread rolls from hostels.

The terrain is mixed an incredibly beautiful – wear decent walking shoes as there are plenty of steep uphill and downhill stretches. It’s quite easy to get lost on the route but most hostels have trekking instructions and maps available – don’t set off without these! Look out for the red marks on stones but we didn’t really notice these on the first leg of our journey.

10 Best things to do in Split, Croatia

“You’re going on holiday?” asked one of my friends, slightly incredulously. “Your entire life is a holiday”.

She had a point. The last year has been something of a wonderfully, long vacation. But we were travelling (aka throwing ourselves up mountains and taking cold showers at high altitude), then teaching English, setting up a business and finally, taking North American students on tours of Europe.

So to reward ourselves we decided it was time for a holiday. And so off we set with a Kindle full of books and a bag full of swimwear; vowing to do little but eat, sleep and sunbathe. We were on our jollies!

Our first stop was Split (before heading to the islands) and we instantly fell in love. With flights costing from £100 return, I thought it would be rude not to try and convince you to get involved with this gorgeous port city. So, once you’ve booked your flights, here’s my top 10 things to do in Split to get you started:

1) Gorge yourself on seafood. I’ll be honest, we found Croatian cuisine to be a mixed bag. Sometimes glorious, sometimes a tad bland – think, gnocchi with watery meat juices. However, the seafood on offer in Split and the nearby islands is absolutely wonderful. Many restaurants will offer a seafood platter for two and we ended up having some of the best fish of our lives at Konoba Marjan (Senjska 1, Split). For about £30 we were served sea bass, sea bream, squid, tuna steak, hake and large prawns served with marinaded roasted vegetables and homemade crusty bread. The white fish was superbly tender and melted in our mouth, while the tuna was perfectly seared and meaty. The waiter recommended the Bibich Riserva 5, a Croatian white wine that I was initially a little sceptic of as it blends five grapes – but it worked very well with the dish.

2) Find some locals singing under the naturally acoustic arches of the town. We were fortunate in that there was a big festival approaching in Split – whether that was why we chanced upon the teenage singers I don’t know – but it was quite a remarkable experience. Surrounded by Ozujsko beer bottles they were singing some traditional songs under some arches within the palace walls – and their voices carried powerfully – warbling and reverberating across the square.

3) Find a bargain lunch. I first visited Croatia 10 years ago and upon returning this time I was staggered by how much more expensive everything is. It’s hard to find a meal for less that about £7 these days (and that’s before you add the booze). But we found some great bargains. Firstly, head to one of the Billa supermarkets and buy the crustiest bread, local cheese, hams, salad and cold beers and enjoy an impromptu picnic on the waterfront. The ham here is like Iberico ham – delicious – and this is a much cheaper option than most restaurants. However, we also found a fabulous little restaurant near the waterfront called Dujkin Dvor on Obala A. Trumbica (also known as Pasta2Go), that had a really wonderful range of affordable dishes. We opted for the meatballs of the day (huge homemade meat balls in a delicious sauce and creamy mash) which cost just £4 and a lovely Mexican tuna salad that cost £2.70. Bargain! And tasty.

4) Take a Walking Tour. We had been in Split for a couple of days before we took the One Penny Walking Tour – and wow, I felt like I had been walking around with my eyes closed for two days! The tour costs 1 Euro per person and we were given a wonderful guide who expertly walked us around the Diocletian’s Palace for 90 minutes. The old town is set within the palace walls, which dates from 305BC and our lovely guide took us right back hundreds of years ago as she showed us where the ‘vomiting’ rooms would have been so that people could gorge themselves on 21-course meals without having to skip any courses. Man, I was born in the wrong century.

Split... where the pavements are made from foot-polished limestone

Split… where the pavements are made from foot-polished limestone

5) Get amongst the Croatian Wine. Croatia has a wine history that dates back to the Ancient Greek settlers and most of it is made on the islands off Split. We quickly deduced that only philistines would dare neglect wine on a trip like this. Our first supermarket bottle left us somewhat disappointed but then we decided to sign up to a walking tour (see point four) that finished with some wine tasting. Perfect. We ended up at the Diocletian’s Palace Hostel and Wine House, which did not disappoint. Set in one of the narrow cobbled alleyways of the old town, surrounded by stone buildings the atmospheric wine bar has cute wooden tables and makes for a pretty picture-perfect wine tasting setting. We liked the Cesarica white wine (made on Havr island) so much that we ordered a bottle of it (for about £12) alongside a platter of ham and cheese. We also heard great things about the Art of Wine, a shop which does tastings and trips out to the nearby wineries but with three taster glasses of wine and a nibble platter starting at 35 Euros a head we thought it was a little steep. The Diocletian’s Palace Hostel and Wine House is located at Ulica Julija Nepota 4.

6) If all the wine, cheese and fish consumption gets too much head to one of the fabulous galleries in town. We visited the Mestrovic Gallery, which was fabulous. Home to a huge selection of sculptures by Ivan Mestrovic (who is the artist behind the large-wizard like statue by the golden gates of the palace – which incidentally has a golden toe. The gallery is set in the most beautiful house overlooking the sea and nearby islands. He built the house himself as a home, gallery space and workshop before fleeing the country due to his anti-communism tendencies. The view and the building itself is just as impressive as the sculptures. We had a marvellous hour or so here.

The fabulous work of Ivan M

The fabulous work of Ivan Mestrovic

7) Stay in a funky apartment with a balcony overlooking the old town. We have used the apartment rental website of Airbnb throughout our trip in Croatia and have not been disappointed. We have not spent more than £17 – 30 on accommodation per night and have had lovely little apartments with balconies and light, airy rooms. We loved this little place in Split.

A small but perfectly formed balcony on our apartment on Split

A small but perfectly formed balcony on our apartment on Split

8) Climb up the steps of Marjan (west of the town) to be rewarded with the most fabulous views of the Split. And if you’re parched, fret not, there’s a bar at the top. Even better, hire a bike and cycle the peninsular around this area. It is gorgeous. We cycled up to a different viewpoint, enjoyed a fish soup near a gorgeous, rocky cove and just took in the gorgeous forested landscape around us. Bliss. There are a few places in Split hiring bikes, we hired ours from a place near the port – they tend to cost around 2 Euros per hour and we were impressed by the quality of the mountain bikes.

Matty working up a sweat...

Matty working up a sweat…

9) Visit the nearby islands. You cannot come this far and miss them. Vis, Hvar and Brac are the islands off Split, which are anything from an hour to 2.5 hours away by catamaran. We visited Hvar, which has the most beautiful town and apparently a happening night life in the peak season (be sure to have sundowners at the Hula Hula Beach Club on the ocean) and Brac which has the beautiful Zlatni Rat Beach near Bol.

The lovely island of Hvar

The lovely island of Hvar

Zlatni Rat beach near Bol, Brac

Zlatni Rat beach near Bol, Brac

10) Last but not least, pack your running kit. Early morning runs around a town as beautiful as Split is every runner’s dream. I can’t think of a nicer way to see the town.

Marche Saint-Quentin, Paris: The perfect lunch near Gare du Nord

I think I may have already told you how much I adore train stations. There is so much to love; the air of expectancy, the pitter patter of well-heeled boots rushing across platforms and the beauty of the large antique clocks that take centre place – never falling to remind us that we must move on, that time will not wait, the train will depart and the show must go on. Hugs, kisses, perverts and thieves. So much history, so many moments.

Take Liverpool Street Station in London, which has been around for more than 130 years; where162 people were killed by a single bomb in World War I, and where hundreds of children left with just a name tag and a suitcase in World War II. Imagine the stories it has seen since then – did it raise its bricked eyebrows at the acid-addled passengers of the 1960s? Sigh in despair at the generations of homelessness? Admire different tactics of pickpockets and wonder why now everybody walks with their eyes glued to a small screen in their hands? Yes, if walls could talk, train stations would be among the most interesting invites at the party.

And it is for all these reasons that I find it especially disappointing that most of the world’s major train stations are surrounded by nothing but sleazy bars, dire cafes and shoddy hotels. Leave Nottingham Station and you’ll follow a neglected road of greasy spoon cafes to an almost derelict shopping centre. Leave London Kings’ Cross and find yourself in a seedy 24-hour off license (or is that just me?) and exit Gare du Nord in Paris to find a plethora of over-priced brasseries. It’s so tragic.

And so, somewhat unintentionally, I have made it my mission to find great places near train stations. It is amazing how useful they can be. I think I pretty much wrote my university dissertation at Big Chill House near Kings Cross after weekends with friends in London.

My latest project has been Gare du Nord in Paris. Having frequented the station six times already this year, I am ashamed to say I have visited the McDonald’s (read free wee and wi-fi) over the road almost as much.

And so it was, with a heavy booze-laden suitcase in one hand and a flimsy umbrella hoisted into the air with the other, we hurried into the rainy, puddled streets of Paris to find somewhere ‘cool’ to kill a few hours. As my hair began to expand in the moist air and my suitcase turned a darker shade of soggy grey, I found my mind wandering to the dry plastic benches of McDonald’s and questioning whether we had been in a little rash in our scathing rejection of the place, which does after all sell macaroons.

“Let’s have a look in there,” said Matty. I lifted my gaze from the wet, shiny pavement and pulled my umbrella back just enough to catch a glimpse of him pointing towards what looked like an indoor market over the road. And somehow instead of yelling: “Last time I checked indoor markets did not have cafes, wi-fi and toilets”, I just nodded, glad to get out of the rain for the moment.

And so we shuffled over the road, into the dry, sheltered space and were immediately greeted by an impressive cheese counter. I felt instantly soothed. It never fails to amaze me how even the most fancy-pants impressive cheese delis in England just pale in comparison to the simple market cheese stalls of France. The shapes, the sizes, the smells. I could sense the cheese oozing from within their pretty little circular wooden boxes, while the dry cured meats dangled from the ceiling in an alluringly tantalising manner. We gushed and ‘ooh la la’’d’ over the huge slabs of cheese in bad French and splashed out on a few slices that were embarrassingly small for the amount we paid. C’est la vie.


But that was just the beginning. As we made our way across the market space, we passed more fromageries, an array of fresh fruit and veg and bakeries – and to my delight I realised the stalls also had tables and chairs besides them as if set up for those who cannot wait to get their feasts home. Then we passed a funky sushi bar, all lit up in blue lights, an African restaurant, even a bar where people were sat drinking pints of beer, and an assortment of bistro-like cafes that in London would be declared ‘pop-up restaurants’ and full of hipsters. This was, I declared, the best indoor market ever. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Borough Market and the food stalls at Camden Market but this felt so much more undiscovered – a sparkling little gem in the ghetto, so to speak.



We marvelled some more over the endless options before settling for an Italian ‘restaurant’ that went by the name of Cafe Toraldo, which boasted a wide section of lasagnes in the counter (even a salmon lasagne dah-ling), as well as fresh ravioli, salads and cheeses. We took a seat on the wooden bench in the attached room next door as a pichet was filled with a rather good red wine for us.



It was the end of a five-day French food binge and so we opted for a light salad of cannellini beans, tuna, roasted vegetables and rocket, tossed together with a tasty olive oil and balsamic glaze. Small crusty artisan bread rolls appeared in a little wicker basket and we tucked in immediately.



Deliciously fresh and served with a smile, the lunch was one of the tastiest salads I’ve had in a while. And unlike most of my favourite lunch spots in the city of love, it did not come with a hefty price tag. The salads, bread and pichet of wine set us back only 10 Euros each.

Matty didn’t want me to tell you about this. He wanted to keep it all to himself but I believe there is a need for a where’s-good-to-eat-drink-and-be-merry-near-train-stations-movement and that is one I am only to happy to front. Bon appetit!

Travel Tips

Marche Saint-Quentin is open from Tuesday to Sunday and seems to be busiest in the mornings and around lunch time. It’s located on Boulevard de Magenta near the junction with Rue de Saint-Quentin, just a few minutes walk from Gare du Nord.

Another favourite spot of mine is along the canal of Saint-Martin, which is full of wonderful little cafes and bars. It’s a 10 minute walk from Gare du Nord and the perfect option for a sunny day.

If you’re looking for a good hotel or apartment to rent in Gare du Nord I really recommend this wonderful place – we stayed here for a few nights earlier in the year and it really is every bit as wonderful as the pictures suggest. After all, what more do you want than a sunny balcony space on the top floor of a beautiful Haussman period building?

Goodbye Vietnam: Sapa and Mai Chau

I boarded a sleeper train for the mountainous north-west region of Vietnam clutching a large can of Heineken, a pack of chocolate Oreos and a bag of rice crackers (that I was later to become addicted to). This was a send off… Vietnam-style.

After spending the eve of the Lunar New Year in central Vietnam with the lovely Duyen and her family in central Vietnam, followed by a couple of very special days with Diep and her wonderful family in Hanoi, it was time to take my final ‘research trip’ for work. As I left the cosy surroundings of Diep’s family home, her mother thrust me a can of beer, talking avidly at me, with a sparkle in her eye.

Diep laughed. “My mother says you like beer, you must have a big beer for the long train ride,” translated Diep as she put cookies and rice crackers in my bag. I was not to go hungry on this journey.

The first destination was Sapa, where terraced rice paddies and beautifully-adorned tribal women paint the scenery in a riot of colours. Irrespective of the season, and whether the rice is green, yellow, gold or brown, the rich coloured fabrics of the H’mong and Red Dzao tribes set the fields ablaze.


From Sapa I travelled southwest to the region of Mai Chau – but this time in the company of Diep and two of her friends. Here I was treated to miles and miles of unspoilt beauty – from vibrant green tea plantations and acres of rice paddies to crystal blue lakes and deep jungle – the horizon was only broken by the occasional small wooden house or women working the fields, often with water buffalo trailing behind them. There was not a tourist in sight.





The lovely Diep with some of the local villagers.

The lovely Diep with some of the local villagers.


Thanks to Diep’s infectious personality and fabulous translation skills, I found myself learning all about how to make the perfect pig feed from an elderly lady in a remote village, eating various plants and leaves as we walked through forests and even drinking rice wine with an ethnic Thai family, who kindly showed us their house before sharing their home-brew with us. Seeing their kitchen, I hasten to add, was a personal highlight – a huge cauldron bubbled away in the centre with buffalo meat and chicken hanging from the blackened bamboo ceiling above it. Sitting on the bamboo in the ‘loft’ were dozens of tightly bundled spices and herbs, gently flavouring the meats as they smoked for days on end.


I want a kitchen like this.


A sneak peek inside the Thai home.

It’s been a very special five months and Vietnam is a country that has got under my skin. With the sound track of a thousand whizzing motorbikes, the smell of burning incense and the taste of sweet spices and rich coffee; it is addictive. I feel honoured to have stayed here long enough to know that you shouldn’t leave your freshly squeezed lime in your bowl of Pho, that chopsticks are turned the other way when taking food from a communal plate and that the man who shakes the clacker on his bicycle is actually offering massages.

But more than anything I feel blessed to have met some very special people who have made me feel so welcome in this beautiful country. Before leaving Diep’s family house to board my flight to Sri Lanka – and eventually back to the UK – Diep’s mother invited me to pray to their ancestors at the family shrine on the top floor of the house, so that they could look over me.

I bent my head three times with Diep to the smell of the burning incense. As the warm morning sunlight streamed through the large windows, her dad held my hand and urged me to return soon as her mother handed me a bag of bananas and Diep tucked a jar of home-made dried sweet coconut slices into my bag. I was not to go hungry on this journey. It was, of course, a send-off… Vietnam-style.

As I handed over my passport a few hours later and heard the exit stamp make its mark on my visa, I couldn’t help but bite my lip. It’s not goodbye, but more of a ‘see you soon’ but I already miss weaving through the traffic on the back of a motorbike marvelling at a world that is hypnotic, exciting and passionate (not just in it’s horn honking!)

See you soon ‘Nam x

Swimwear is for Sissies: Champa Lodge, Kampot, Cambodia

As I waded into the crystal clear river fully dressed, towards Kanika, I thought to myself, “I don’t think normal travel consultants behave like this”.

I hadn’t even attempted to take off my clothes and change into swim wear. As I arrived at the Champa Lodge, a gorgeous little retreat near Kampot in Cambodia, I was immediately drawn towards the river.

The lodge is perched on the bend of a gorgeous river and there is even a small beach that leads into the clear shallow waters. That’s when I notice Kanika floating around in a lifejacket.

She waved me over enthusiastically and told me to join her.

“But I’m wearing my clothes,” I said motioning towards my silky skirt that I picked up in Hanoi for about £3 about three months ago and have worn ever since.

“Me too,” she said, now standing in the shallow water that only came up to her knees, revealing her t-shirt and denim shorts under the life-jacket.

My argument had been shot to pieces. It was so hot. The water was so inviting.

“Ok,” I said, throwing down my backpack and wading in. My skirt billowed around me, with huge water pockets floating to the surface and sticking to my legs at the same time. It was so cool and so refreshing.


Swim Wear is for Sissies

Here we are making a ‘heart’ with our fingers, which I have seen the cool kids do on Facebook. Unfortunately I am not quite achieving the desired look with my eyes closed.

It was around that time that Yan, who runs and owns the lodge with her Belgian husband Stephane, wandered over with my ‘welcome drink’, looking slightly bemused by my sudden river antics.

But, as I was about to find out, that’s The Champa Lodge for you. Anything goes.

The lodge has three gorgeous traditional Khmer houses on stilts – Yan and Stephane purchased them from other villages before dismantling and lovingly rebuilding them on their rather spectacular plot of land, which is surrounded by mountains, mangroves and rice paddies. While everything about their structure and design is original, the couple have kitted them out with plenty of little luxuries like piping hot power showers, funky square ceramic basins and even made-to-measure wooden furniture and big beds. Finishing touches include Khmer silk scarves strewn across the beds and fabulous photographs taken by friends of the family.

Inside one of the lovely Khmer houses

Inside one of the lovely Khmer houses

One of the 'posh plastered' rooms under one of the stilt houses

One of the ‘posh plastered’ rooms under one of the stilt houses

I was staying in the Sugar Palm Lodge, which has one big bedroom and en-suite upstairs with a huge comfy terrace overlooking the rice paddies, and a chill out zone equipped with hammocks under the stilts. Aptly named the Sugar Palm Lodge thanks to the towering trees to one side which a man climbs twice a day to collect sugar palm.

With plenty of work to catch up on I eyed up the daybeds on my terrace, which made for the perfect ‘office’. But with only 24 hours to experience this hidden gem of Cambodia, there was no time for such thoughts.

The office.

The office.

Instead, Stephane fixed a brand new engine to his local-style wooden boat, packed a cooler-bag of waters and beers, and together with his adorable five year-old daughter in tow we headed upstream. The river must be one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen, it feels more like a massive spring. As the sun lowered we passed the fishing boats heading down to spend the night at sea, and saw the shiny gold steeple of a pagoda emerge from the deep mass of mangroves.

It was about this point that Stephane’s ‘steering stick’ (I’m sure there’s a more technical name for this but you’re not going to find it here) floated downstream.

“Oh did you need that?” I asked naively. He nodded gravely. After scooping up a few bits of insufficient sticks of floating bamboo, there was only one thing for it. This time it was Stephane’s turn to jump in the river. There’s a theme here I thought as I held onto the mangroves trying to pull the boat round into the right direction.

In safe hands...

In safe hands…

That was just the beginning. Within a few hours we had dried off and were drinking ice cold Belgian beers and eating Stephane’s mother-in-law’s special Khmer Curry (which very much had a if-I-told-you-the-recipe-we’d-have-to-chain-you-to-our-kitchen-forever feeling). My favourite kind of curry.

By the time we had moved on to the 10% Belgian beverages, Stephane and Yan had convinced me that it would be a great idea to go caving and rock climbing the next day.

“Yeah, I’m going to conquer all my fears,” I slurred, clinking my bottle enthusiastically.

By morning, I cowardly traded in this experience for a 1.5 hour kayak trough the mangroves with a lovely Swedish family.

As we paddled through the tranquil waters, as if carving our way through a shiny mirror, we watched a group of women appeared from nowhere and wade through the river before disappearing into a mass of mangroves. They were, of course, fully dressed.

And I smiled to myself. Happiness is wading into a river with your clothes on and just not caring, I decided. And Champa Lodge is the perfect place to do it.

Travel Tips

If you would like to stay at Champa Lodge, or combine it as part of a holiday to Cambodia contact me at delia@fleewinter.com or click here to read more.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.