Travel Love: Food, Food and a Volcano

In my last post I blathered on about how much I adore the gorgeous colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala.  In this post I thought I’d actually give some kind of useful information, just in case you ever happen to find yourself passing through.

One thing I would absolutely recommend you do if you are even vaguely active is climb Pacaya Volcano.  It’s pretty cheap to join a trip and one of the easier volcanos in Central America to climb.  The first time I visited Antigua, there was real lava at the top of Pacaya, but it erupted in 2010, so now there are only hot patches to toast marshmallows on.  But in the future, the lava will no doubt be back!  I’d definitely recommend going on a morning trip (even though they leave at the higly unreasonable hour of 6am) because afternoons, especially in the rainy season, tend to have poor visibility, and there’s a pretty high chance that you will get rained on.  And getting caught in a Central American rainstorm is not fun.  Trust me.

Volcano climbing

One of my absolute favouritest things about Antigua is the abundance of awesome cafes.  Here are a few of my picks:

Cafe Condesa – On the main square, this cafe has amazing (and huge servings of) cake, great food, quick and friendly service, and a beautiful courtyard.  Perfect.

Luna de Miel – The most amazing crepes in a very cute cafe.  If there was a branch of this place near my house, I would absolutely be the size of a small house.  (Enjoy the mistranslations on the website – the crepes are definitely not made to disgust, I think they mean enjoy!)

Bagel Barn – A bit anglicised, but it really does make great bagels, and they show some good free films.  I recommend the mozzarella, tomato and basil bagel, proper mozzarella!  (Note: this was one of my favourite places, until one of the staff refused to give me more hot water to reuse a teabag!  This seemed a bit ridiculous, so just don’t have tea in there…)

La Casaca – Yet another coffee shop on the main square, there are comfy sofas and great teas (with unlimited hot water!), plus the usual selection of crepes and cakes.

Mono Loco – A sports bar that’s a bit more expensive but does wonderful comfort food and always has a great soundtrack.  The best internet cafe is there too.

WokCo – Great new restaurant that prepares custom-made, veggie-packed stirfries right in front of you.  Great healthy fast food.  Come to the UK please!

Restaurante Doña Luisa Xicotencatl – Incredible breakfasts!

Obviously a lot of these choices aren’t very traditionally Guatemalan, but those options are there as well!  I chose the places I truly wish were just round the corner from my house at home – I’m so sad to leave them…

There is a multitude of other things to do and places to visit in Antigua, but the guidebooks can fill you in on that, and I think this post’s long enough!  So I guess all that’s left now is to plead with you to go and see Antigua for yourself – get planning!

Travel Love: My Favourite Town in the World?

This blog is most definitely not a travel blog.  I can’t cope with the sheer pressure of having to report accurate details of every trip I take – I much prefer to enjoy them and then savour the photos.  This is part of the reason the blog has not be inundated with posts about random Central American villages, despite the fact I’ve been travelling between them for the best part of three months.  But I go home on Wednesday, so thought this would be a marvellous opportunity to share my highlights of the trip (and maybe a few holiday snaps, if you’ll excuse me).

In the summer of 2009, while waiting for my A-level results in that glorious commitment-free summer before starting university, I spent five weeks volunteering in Guatemala.  This is in the running for the best thing I’ve ever done.  The people running the charity were two of the most committed and inspirational people I’ve ever met, and I truly felt that what I was doing would change lives.  I was teaching in a volunteer-run school for indigineous children, all of whom were incredibly poor and would not otherwise have had the chance to go to school or even learn Spanish, as they all speak a local indigenous language.  When I was there, classes were taught by volunteers from developed countries, but the plan was always to make the schools self-sufficient, training ex-students as teachers.  And I was so so proud to find on returning that this has finally been achieved, after 10 years of hard slog!

In case you’re interested in finding out any more about the charity, it’s called Fly the Phoenix and their website can be found here.  It truly is  very worthy cause, and I’m so proud to be associated with them.

Anyway.  Getting back on topic.  As well as the amazing experience of volunteering, I had the chance to live in quite possibly the most beautiful town in Central America – Antigua, Guatemala.  I adore this place.  I’ve met so many people who complain that it’s too full of tourists and it’s true, there are a lot of foreign tourists about and a huge selection of language schools.  But the amazing thing about Antigua is that it still retains a lot of its Guatemalan personality.  There are cobbled streets, brightly painted buildings, and ladies in traditional indigenous dress all over the place.  And because there are so many language learners, people go out of their way to speak Spanish to you, rather than English.

So of course we simply had to make sure we visited on this trip.

As you can see, I was pretty happy to be back!

The town has the most incredible setting, surrounded by three volcanos that you can always see in clear weather.

Volcan Fuego

One of the reasons I don’t mind all the tourists is that, because of them, Antigua has some pretty great cafes and bars.  In fact, we spent most of our time there this time stuffing our face with cake and crepes, and drinking extortionate amounts of tea.  If, like me, you are an addict of both tea and chocolate, this is pretty much heaven.  I’ll pop another post up with my top places, in case you’re interested.

This chilled out atmosphere means that I count Antigua as one of the places I could happily live, regardless of where it is in the world.  I probably wouldn’t ever actually up sticks and move there, since I’ve discovered this year that I don’t cope well with being far away from my family and friends.  Even so, I can definitely see myself coming back here yet again in the future, it’s one of my places.

My favourite town in the world?  Very possibly.

Book Love: I get surprisingly attached to some easy reads

Next stop on my reading mission was a quick and easy read – Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida by Catherine Ryan Howard.  I actually read the sequel to this book (Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America) about a month ago after discovering it on an aimless browse through the Kindle store, where I always lack the self control to resist buying anything with decent reviews and priced under £2.  I don’t actually have a Kindle, but the free PC software has come in useful for passing the time with free or cheap reads, especially since being in Italy.

Now, I do love the chance to be a bit nosey and get a look at other people’s lives, so I did enjoy a couple of fun memoirs.  If you don’t like either a) people talking about themselves or b) light reading, I’d advise you to skip these books.

Backpacked caught my eye because I’m planning a trip to Central America at the moment, backpacking from Mexico City to Costa Rica with one of my best friends for 2 and a half months.  I thought that reading someone else’s (very similar) experience would get me in the right frame of mind, and it did.  The actual experience of travelling is obviously different to the one you read about in guidebooks, and Catherine sounds about as different to your typical Lonely Planet writer as it is possible to get.  Right from the start, she makes clear that her only reason for backpacking in Central America is that it’s a good chance to spend time with her best friend instead of going home to Ireland after working at Disney World for a year and a half.  She loves chain stores, Starbucks coffee and expensive hotels, so is understandably not thrilled at the prospect of less-than-clean hostels and stomach bugs.

Now, while I wouldn’t say I’m quite as attached to the luxury lifestyle as Catherine paints herself to be, I’m not exactly a seasoned traveller.  As such, the vast majority of my worries for next summer involve dirty accommodation, food poisoning and having things nicked.  I also tend to worry, especially when doing things for the first time, that “I’m not doing this right” and that other people who are doing it right are judging me.  For me, it was a relief to read the travel experience of someone travelling with an 80 litre backpack instead of a 30 litre one, who isn’t always determined that everything should be done “like the locals” and that taking more than two t-shirts is a waste of space.  After reading too much advice from expert travellers on the internet, I was starting to think I was mad for wanting to take hair conditioner and more than 2 days worth of clothes!  There are a fair few moments in the book when things don’t go as planned (the most notable being when they try to do things exactly like the locals) and I found it reassuring to read that everyone was fine and unscathed coming out of the other side, and that you really do always cope somehow.

I read Mousetrapped because I quite liked the preview at the end of Backpacked, and it was also cheap in the Kindle store.  It is the prequel to her Central America trip, where she works at a Disney World hotel in Florida and builds a life in Orlando.  I really wasn’t expecting to relate to it in the same way.  I have no desire whatsoever to stay in the US for any extended period of time (although I did love my holiday in New York) and really dislike most of the things Catherine seems to love about Orlando.  Shopping malls and coffee, to name just two.

But Mousetrapped turned out to be completely different to what I was expecting.  Rather than filling a book with great stories and bragging about her Mickey Mouse life, Catherine deals with some real problems while living abroad.  She gets genuinely homesick and says that she’s looking forward to leaving the US for almost the whole book.  She also picks herself up and stays determined to make the best of it while she’s there.

Personally, I could completely relate to this.  Since living in Milan, I’ve been having a lot of very similar feelings and it’s great to hear that other people feel this way too – sometimes it seems like everyone that’s moved abroad is having the time of their lives.  It’s also good for me to see her dust herself up and get on with it.

However, I’m not convinced that I would have enjoyed this book so much if I wasn’t in the situation I am.  Catherine’s writing didn’t really make me understand how she was feeling; it just so happens that our feelings match up.  If you’ve never experienced living or travelling abroad, I don’t think you’d find the writing particularly emotional, or even necessarily interesting.  But if, like I am

Both Mousetrapped and Backpacked turned out to be exactly what I’ve been missing since my obsessive years of reading sugary-sweet teen fiction: well written, easy reads that I can lose myself in for a couple of hours when I fancy relaxing and not thinking too hard.  They’re both fun memoirs with enough problems to be interesting, with situations and feelings I can relate to without turning into a complete emotional wreck.

Overall verdict so far:  success!