Antigua, More or Less. Pt II: The Antiguan Hit List

Well I got the volcanoes out of the way pretty fast, and they were one of the big ticket items on offer when I got to Antigua. But then, that’s only 3 days. What was I doing for the rest of the time? Well, it isn’t necessarily a singular thing or destination. It’s more about settling in to a certain lifestyle.

Meeting people. Exploring local delicacies like Gallo, Cabro, Moza, Victoria, Botran, Zacapa, Quezalteca… Yeah, Antigua does have a good party scene, and the bars, clubs and hostels are fantastic. Many a day was spent hanging out meeting people from around the world, sharing stories and drinks. I’ll share some memories of these places though some are blurrer than others. This is my list of places in Antigua that I liked. In no particular order…

 

Cafes

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Muesli and fruit salad at Cafe Union
  • La Parada Cafe: My favourite cafe in Antigua, a black coffee cost 10 quetzales and damn it was the best tasting coffee in town. I also loved their pastries, and the cheeky baristas always made up for the occasional US invasion of businesspeople banging on about the best way to plan a ten step tour of hotels and rum tastings. It’s a lot more out of the way from the central tourists areas so generally, it had my favourite atmosphere ie. not having to hear other people talk
  • Fat Cat Coffee: damn good Japanese inspired iced coffee. Can get loud and pretty busy. That’s for a good reason.
  • Bella Vista Cafe: for the rooftop volcano views. Once got a cold drip coffee that tasted like wet old socks. Got informed that maybe I just wasn’t used to the flavour by the waiter… but he didn’t wanna taste it either. An otherwise good coffee spot with wifi and lots of people using it.
  • Y Tu Pina Tambien: for the McFucking Muffin and generally delicious and well priced brekky in a pokey little surround that kinda reminded me of home. Great service, and I really liked their cafe cortado.
  • Union Cafe- Fancy food and fancy surrounds. I liked it at first but then realised it was expensive and also if I get two free coffees why was it always so hard to get the second?

Hostels

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  • Three Monkeys: I booked three nights in this hostel. I ended up staying for nearly 3 months! Nice vibe hostel, not exactly a ‘party hostel’ but it was never hard to find party people when I was staying here. But there was always an air of mutual respect, an understanding that a lot of people come here to party, but a lot of people also come here to climb mountains or enjoy the quieter, finer things in life and everyone managed to get along just fine.
    If you wanted a 24/7 party hostel, this was not it, and for that I was grateful- there are enough places to go crazy in Antigua on any given night that I never saw any reason to let that part of my lifestyle invade the place where I slept. It was a hostel that showcased Antigua, rather than showcased a hostel. Antigua has a lot of great spots to see and I realised pretty quickly that the staff  and volunteers could put you onto something good, whatever you had in mind. The common areas really leant themselves to meeting other travellers and sharing experiences of Antigua and beyond. I had the pleasure of volunteering here after a month of staying as a guest, and I’m hard pressed to think of another hostel where the staff where as helpful as they were here. I made some good friends here who volunteered with me. Definitely a memorable place to stay.
  • Doozy Koala: Situated in the ‘Australian quarter’ of Antigua. I still haven’t worked out why so many Australians are drawn to Antigua, I guess there’s a lot of reasons. If you are Australian, and one of your reasons (like so many Aussies) is to party like a marinated goanna, then this is the hostel for you. They have a sick bar that opens early and offers a good way to get yourself acquainted with some partners in crime before heading out into town for a big night out. I think they had a mini golf course in their outside area too, and a nice garden.
  • Tropicana: Why did I end up at this hostel so often? I guess it’s because it’s in a great part of town, just a few doors down from some really good bars and it’s on the way to the main nightclubs in town. It’s definitely another party hostel, and if you see a big group of loud, drunk, recently post-teen uber tourists then there’s a good chance this is the hostel they came from.
  • Bigfoot: Friggin’ huge hostel with a bar inside that dwarfs most of the actual bars in town, and it’s not like they’re even just a bar. They also have table tennis, and are situated smack bang in the middle of town near pretty much any where you’d wanna go. I think their rooms were a smidge more expensive than the entry level hostels.
  • Selina: A franchise hostel business that seems to be creeping all over Central America with a pretty aggressive business model and seemingly very large piles of money to invest in a very lavish hostel with a swimming pool, restaurant, bar and shop selling overpriced snacks and souvenirs. Felt less like a hostel and more like someone’s vision of draining as much money from backpackers as possible. If you can get the bitter taste out of your mouth I have to admit this place would look good in Instagram photos.

Bars

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Flight of beers at Chermol
  • The Snug- Tiny crazy Irish bar, throw all your peanut shells on the floor and don’t let the bartender kick your glass over when they stand on top of the bar.
  • Reilly’s- Huge sports bar/meeting people bar they have three different bars under one roof, was a great place to watch the world cup but I paid 50Q for a flat gin and tonic so I can’t really forgive that. But nah really it’s a good spot for a quick and easy beer.
  • The Exit Inn- A cozy little spot situated inside a complex of four different bars/clubs, this one is a fantastic dive bar with enough seating to ensure everyone can drink past the point of being able to stand, shout at each other, shoot darts, share stories and then stumble home only to forget all of the stories so they can come back next time, see the same faces and tell the same stories again.
  • Chermol- Also a really good restaurant but they serve a lot of artesenal beers which can be bought as flights. Jamaica infused wheat beers? Interesting.
  • Cafe No Se- A serious love/hate relationship with this bar. Three bars under one roof, one serving tap craft beer, one serving mezcal (but this isn’t Mexico..?) and all serving some serious attitude to patrons who I guess must get a bit too rowdy from time to time. Or they’re trained to be shitty people because appparently that makes drunk people tip them more? Or it’s just me? And everyone else I’ve talked to about it…
    Something about this place definitely awakens the wolf within though. 3 metre high mountainous candles, dim lighting, bluegrass and all sorts of live music in the front bar. They serve greasy delicious chicken and what not from the restaurant next door. There is a black magic vibe going on here, and boy do we tourists lap it up. Hard to get in the door on a Friday or Saturday. I spent a lot of time here, and I’m still trying to work out if that was a bad idea or not.

Clubs

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  • San Simon- Where all big nights begin… this place looks like the work of a madman inside, with stark black scrawlings from enebriated tourists covering every piece of wall. Pounding bass from a revolving door of DJs pumps out enough energy to rattle the dried herbs suspended all across the ceiling. But it’s always worth stopping here for a drink; just tell the bartender what spirit you want and which mixer you want to take with it and they’ll make up a cocktail on the spot- just don’t expect to find them in any recipe books. Whisky with sour pineapple with burnt rosemary was a favourite of mine, and it’s surprisingly cheap too.
  • Lucky Rabbit- Big, hot, sweaty, loud… they have a rave cave. Everyone ends up here if they’re going for a night out.
  • Las Vibras- Similar to the above, but worse music. And it’s a much bigger place. You do feel like a kinda baller walking through the various levels to blasting 90s pop and reggaeton to be fair. They also have a nice terrace.

Food places

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I dream of this steak still today

 

  • The communal kitchen at 3 Monkeys: Yeah I know it’s technically not a restaurant but this was definitely my go-to for nice food, and some of the volunteers I worked with cooked some incredible things here. It was always nice to share a meal with friends, and hey at least you don’t have to make a reservation…
  • Cafe Porque No?: My last fancy meal in Antigua was here with a group of friends. I’d finally bitten the bullet the day before and went here on reconaissance. The steak was so good I had to come back for a second night. They have a fantastic ambience, great service and the best international food I found in Antigua. Definitely check it out if you can get a table in their cosy little loft.
  • Santa Rosa Burger Club: The best burger I had in Antigua. Juicy patties seasoned with herbs and they offer fried chicken and vegeterian options too, like Portobello Mushrooms. The burgers were stacked with all the best trimmings from melted tasty cheese to over easy fried egg and a lot of more exotic options to boot.
  • Rincon Tipico: For typical Guatemalan cuisine, definitely worth checking out for rotisserie herbed chicken and the like.
  • Pollo Enojado: So much chicken! Rotisserie or buffalo wings. They do sides like slaw and this place always hit the spot.
  • Toko Baru: Indian, Indonesian, Guatemalan foods at really good prices loaded up with garlic sauce, spicy sauce, salads and sides. They were always good to hungry backpackers. Just make sure your body is ready for a spice invasion.
  • Angie Angie: Yknow when you walk into a pizza place? Like a real pizza place? That smell, right? Yeah this place has it, and makes my favourite pizzas in town.
  • Santa Clara Bakery: Almost every hungry backpacker’s first stop when they came to three monkeys because it was so close. Tasty food for not much money and damn you got a lot of it per portion too.
  • Restaurante Mulan: If you ever needed delivery food (we’ve all been there) these guys operated a Facebook page so there was no hassle downloading apps or calling the wrong phone number to fumble through some bad Spanish. Some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. Sweet and Sour Chicken with pineapple was especially memorable.
  • McDonalds: The most beautiful McDonald’s I’ve ever seen for sure, reportedly one of the most beautiful in the world. Even if you don’t want to support a multi-national squillionaire corporate giant by wasting money on shitty food it’s still worth walking through here just to see it.
  • Pollo Campero and Pollo Granjero: Fried chicken franchises that make up for that dark part of your soul that always pines for KFC- this is done a little differently and it is very very good for very very bad desires.
  • The Market: If it’s real Guatemalan food at really cheap prices that you are chasing then this is the place. I shared some tasty chicken with a street dog here when I was hanging out near the bus station, and it cost less than half the price of one beer at any given bar in town. I think the dog agreed that I’d made a good choice.

 

Every day trying a new spot felt like a succesful day in my book. These are a few of my favourites, there’s probably a lot of spots I forgot to add and there’s definitely a lot of places that I sadly didn’t get to check out. These are great reasons to stay in a place for a time. Eating is a daily ritual, so why not take advantage of that fact by making it a focus of your touring?

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Antigua, More or Less. Pt I: Volcanoes

After spending two and a half months in Antigua Guatemala I feel like the town left enough of an impression on me that I can write a little bit about it. This is my rough guide to Antigua- what is worth seeing, what is worth doing, nice places to stay and good places to eat.

I’d preface by stating the obvious- I loved Antigua. It’s a wonderful trap to fall in to, turning days into weeks with ease with each day feeling unique and special even it was only because of trying a different cafe or walking down a different street. There are many things that bring and hold tourists here and everyone has different reasons for loving the old capital city of Guatemala.

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Volcan de Agua behind Antigua as seen from “The Cross” viewpoint

The first thing I heard about Antigua was the volcanoes. And sure enough, the first thing that hits you smack in the face when you merge off the highway onto the cobblestone streets is the huge green triangle of Volcan de Agua. It towers over Antigua, and anywhere you walk in town you can look up and see it. There’s a crater lake on the top, and the Agua is often wrapped in fluffy clouds- no two photos of this volcano ever look quite the same. You can hike this volcano, but I didn’t try. Most tour companies don’t take you here, but you can brave it alone.

Agua is certainly the most obvious and imposing volcano when you arrive in Antigua but it probably isn’t the one you’ve heard about. The other three volcanoes are the big drawcards for the travellers and I’m going to go into some detail about each of them.

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Volcan Pacaya on a cloudy afternoon seen from the end of the trail

Volcan Pacaya is the most visited volcano in the region. There’s a few very good reasons for that- it is the least strenuous hike of the four volcanoes, taking only one and a half to two hours to reach the ‘top’. But this isn’t the kind of volcano you can summit. It’s a 2500 metre angry little complex shield volcano that spews out rivers of lava on the regular. There are steaming hot pockets of subterrenean gases so hot that you can (and should) toast marshmallows inside little natural ovens. Less than a week ago, hikers were taking great footage of glowing red lava ambling down black craggy crevices. You can go with a guided tour, which makes sorting out transport a lot easier- the drive to the trailhead from Antigua can take more time than the walk itself (depending on traffic it’s around two hours from Antigua). Going with a local guide supports the local economy and they can let you know if you’re about to put your foot in something hot when you’re near the top. If you want to take some really nice photos of glowing lava, there are options for camping overnight where you can really see what the volcano is doing. If you only have time for one volcano, this one is probably the one you should do right now, because of how active it is and for the fact you can tick it off in a half day if you have to.
If you’re a confident hiker you could rent camping gear in Antigua (see: Camping and Travel Hostel for gear rental) and organise your own transport and find a spot to pitch a tent and enjoy the evening volcanic performance plus get a nice sunrise the next day. Otherwise, most hostels in town can set you up with a tour company that will include transport, guide and (importantly) marshmallows. A good pair of shoes wouldn’t hurt if you have them.

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Volcan Acetenango (Right) and Volcan de Fuego (Left) as seen from Antigua

Volcan Acetenango is more of a pilgrimage. This is a proper hike up to nearly 4000 metres, with a trail that climbs 1500 metres through four different, diverse ecosystems. The trailhead starts in farmland, winding through corn fields then ascends to a ‘cloud forest’ of humid, lush and green life. Then it opens into a pine forest and finally, as you near the peak the trees start to look worse for wear and everything starts to look a little bit like the surface of the moon. It takes five to six hours to ascend to base camp, with most climbers opting to hit up the summit the next morning for sunrise. Most of the iconic photos taken from Acetenango are not actually of Acetenango. It’s not active any more- grey ashy mushroom clouds, cascades of lava and deafening booms heard at night don’t originate from here. Acetenango’s sister is Volcan de Fuego and, as the crow flies, the peak of Fuego is barely one kilometre away from Acatenango base camp, and it is Fuego that is the cause of all the fuss.

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Looking down at civilization from the forests of Acetenango

Because this hike is a bit more involved, I’d reccommend going with a tour company for peace of mind and making the trek a little easier. There are quite a few tour operators based in Antigua: OX (who I went with), Wicho and Charlie’s and Tropicana Hostel are the ones that come to mind. The prices and degree of experience vary with each company. They all provide camping gear including tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, rain jackets, warm clothes/jackets and all that. Food is provided, some companies offer ‘private toilets’ at their basecamps. I chose OX because they had a really good reputation online, but they turned out to be quite expensive compared to some of their competitors. They do offer some edges over their competitors; with these guys I had the opportunity to hike Volcan de Fuego on the same tour.

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The Acetenango team with Volcan de Fuego in the background

Volcan de Fuego is known for all the wrong reasons at the moment following a disastrous eruption in June 2018. It is an extremely active stratovolcano that rubs shoulders with Acatenango. Climbing this volcano felt like an ascent to Mt Doom, Lord of the Rings style. I climbed Volcan de Fuego some time after it had truly blown its top, and the only signs we saw of activity were a steamy, smoldering trail oozing from the peak from time to time. It was eerie, it was foreboding and it was really cold. You should never attempt to climb Fuego without an experienced guide because it is easy to get lost on the hike up or down between Acetenango and Fuego.

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Standing on the Knife Ridge of Volcan de Fuego

 

We made it to the Knife Ridge for sunset, had a cup or two of wine and watched the sunset over Lake Atitlan. The ridgeline towards the crater is narrow and blanketed in loose ash, which combined with the 70km/h wind and my fear of heights made for a pretty nerve racking experience. It’s probably something to do once in your life but not necessarily twice- after the 6 hours to Acatenango base camp, an extra 3-4 hours of strenuous hiking on an unmarked trail (that got darker and darker) to get to Fuego, I was feeling pretty broken- but then, that’s what a good volcano hike should do. OX was the only operator taking people to Volcan de Fuego when I was on the trail, and yes it cost extra to do the extra volcano but when you’re doing something with this much risk involved the extra cost didn’t seem extravagant.

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View of Agua from our base camp on Acetenango

So that’s the first chapter on why you should check out Antigua. True, none of these places are actually in the town itself (I don’t know how they could be). But that’s one of the strengths of Antigua; it’s a hub that connects you to some amazing places in Guatemala.

 

Office Charts 2

Here’s what I have been listening to and no I dunno why you’d care but hey I’m gonna write it for your benefit or mine. So here goes.

  • To My Love (Tainy Mix) – Bomba Estero
  • Dancing on my own – Robyn
  • With you Forever – PNAU
  • Help me Lose my Mind – Disclosure
  • Latch (ft. Sam Smith) – Disclosure
  • Hold on (ft. Sampha) – SBTRKT
  • Ingenue – Atoms for Peace
  • Too Insistent- Trentemøller
  • Cant do Without You – Caribou
  • She Just Likes to Fight – Four Tet
  • Nuits Sonores- Floating Points
  • Winter Linn- Clarke
  • Vamp – Trentemøller
  • Imaginary Air- Rüfüs
  • Always something better- Trentemøller

I miss working at the bar and being able to serve people beer and play music. I love Guatemala so far though.

Great lightning storm last night. Never gonna see anything like that again in my life. Well, never say never.

Earthquake a few days ago. Magnitude 5 somethin…

Volunteering relief work is not going well. I want to do more.

Food is aiiiiiigght but I think I am getting sick from it. Gotta stick to home cooking and save money!

Safety wise- Guatemala is a safer place than everyone warned me, provided you watch your back and don’t do anything stupid. The same rules apply here to almost any other big city in the world.

Anyway. They say blog early and often so I’m gonna write some more short articles like this one, more frequently.

Now I just need to find somewhere in town that sells good tea bags, then I can wait out this storm and drink tea.

Come to Guatemala

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I can sit in my seat in this cafe and watch the volcano, and from here it’s quite peaceful. The destruction and death wrought by Volcan de Fuego seems a world away from the puffing peak that sits above the clouds like a giant stony, coney dragon. There is no sound to be heard, no tremor to be felt. Here, it is safe. But the effects of Volcan de Fuego will likely be felt by a lot of people for many months to come- of that there is no doubt. But the doubt that I want to assuage, the fear that I don’t want you to have: it’s not true that it is unsafe to visit Antigua, Guatemala.

This place is a cornerstone of the tourism industry of Guatemala. The hike up Volcan Acetenango to see the fire and fury of Mother Nature that is the adjacent Volcan de Fuego has been one of Antigua’s biggest drawcards. Now, as the country heads into low season, I want to encourage any tourist in the area to do their part to contribute to the recovery of Guatemala after the large eruption of Fuego. And there’s a lot more to it than being a relief worker tipping water into the mouths of distraught and distressed villagers- to continue the recovery of the region we need to remind ourselves that this has always been a very active volcanic part of the world- that a large eruption occurred at Fuego is not unexpected.

The belt of volcanoes in Guatemala makes it a fantastic destination for hiking and getting up close and personal with active volcanoes. There are four active volcanoes in Guatemala, and two of them are easily accessed from the UNESCO heritage listed old capital of Guatemala- Antigua.

Antigua is a beautiful town, and even with the temporary closure of the Acetenango hike, there is still plenty to do in and around the area. The town is home to some great cafes, bars and restaurants serving up local and international tasty treats alike. There are numerous convents, churches and ancient ruins in the town. Chocolate and coffee from this region are renowned, and there are plenty of places that do it justice- chocolate liqueur, cacao tea, chocolate making classes, cold drip coffee and delicious iced coffees are easy to get your paws on.

The hike up Acetenango is one of the best reasons to come here. And already some of the most credible operators in town are starting to re-open hikes to Acetenango. I am seriously considering going soon, and I hope if you are reading this, you’d consider it too if you were in the region. Guatemala is reeling from the effects of the worst eruption of Volcan de Fuego in the last 100 years. To use this as a reason to justify avoiding or skipping Guatemala would be to do this place a disservice- we should all do our best to reinforce rather than abandon the tourism economy in Guatemala in a time where it needs our help more than ever. Disaster relief donations are extremely important- but a tourism industry that remains strong is going to make a big difference to this country.

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I see under my feet the tiny porthole in the pavement. It’s a brass lid about as big as a saucer, marked ‘agua’. I guess that’s the part that the guys in the water trucks must plug into, to help supplement Oaxaca’s water supply.

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Every day this city relies on water to be brought in- on water tanking trucks, in plastic 50L containers treated and ready for drinking. Everything that requires water, from showers to potable water- needs to brought in to a town where every day is over 30 degrees, and elevation is high- around 1500m above sea level. As far as I can tell, much of the water here is brought overland, but I do wonder how much is piped in from other places.

It’s going to be 31 degrees Celsius tomorrow. I don’t think it’s going to rain, but we are still at reasonable elevation here- perhaps not high enough for clouds and storms to rain down on the town, but maybe enough to form clouds, sucking the last drops of moisture from the harsh Mexican landscape. The air here is fuller and cleaner than Mexico City, but it seems every bit as dry.

Even small things- like showers- take a buyer beware approach to water consumption. A bathroom plaque reminds the showerer that water is a precious commodity in this part of the world. That’s not a statement that I question any more.

The question is- why do so many of us treat water as a near-infinite resource in a world that is getting drier by the day?

Do I really need to take a 20 minute shower? Or is it just because I am hungover and it is cheaper to pay for a long shower than a short massage? Also who would I even go to a masseuse with? I am not on intimate terms with anyone around here. There’s no way I’d want to get a massage with or without somebody. It’s just weird. So yeah a hot shower sounds like a good option right?

I ask myself if I really need to use all that water. What about a wash basin and a towel? What about just giving my feet a wash when I’ve come in off the road after a long day’s travel? Do you really need to jerk off in the shower? Probably not. Do your feet smell bad if you don’t shower them at least daily? Yes.

I’m taking the piss a little in that last paragraph if you hadn’t guessed. But it is only when I’m tipping the last drops from the water cooler at 3am after day drinking in the Oaxacan heat that I start to appreciate that water- especially potable drinking water- is the single most important natural resource in the world. Come to think of it, there are millions of people who have worse stories when it comes to getting enough water to drink, but this is mine so I must tell it all as it happened. Yeah geez, and today I nearly didn’t get a nice coffee. God forbid.

Laundry Day Blues

I’m sitting at a bar above the Zocalo, and three of us have bottles of Corona- the Colombian went for a lemonade. Someone who works at a bar told me Corona isn’t really a Mexican beer. I know what he means, even though it says it’s from Mexico on the box. But it tastes good with the oversized slices of lime our snarky waiter brought to us. I think he knew they were too big to fit into the bottles, but the 19 year old German is a vegan, saving the world by sending back a plate of nachos that had a sprinkling of cheese on top of the guacamole.

We talk a bit, it’s still kind of comical trying to fit the pieces of the language puzzle together. I speak Spanish in bits and pieces, and when I let rip a full Australian drawl in the only language I can actually speak, even native English speakers struggle to understand me. But we all get along pretty well I think. This is the first time we’ve really spoken after our 2 hour walking tour of the historical sights of Mexico City. I really like the guy from Dubai. Senses of humor travel like trading boats across the seas of all language, and every now and again, for the sake of my sanity and good will, one comes to port. We talk shit for a bit and then get the bill.

The Bellas Artes is a theatre with an art gallery, and two of them want to go, and I could stay or go, and the Colombian doesn’t want to go so I go with her to appease everyone, and avoid any further seconds of being in a pulled apart by horses deliberation. I love travelling alone for times like this. That was a mistake and I end up walking past the grimy entrance of Chinatown to take her to a Pulqueria which she hates. She takes me to a hair salon, I assume it’s a payback kind of thing but luckily all the hairdressers are too busy. She doesn’t seem to understand why I don’t want to go to the hair salon with her and keeps holding me by the elbow as we cross the zebra lines block to block.

I offer to take the guys back towards the hostel. I guess I just want to go back to the hostel because it’s a known quantity. It’s more fun than the sleazy cantinas and strip joints that lie in the fallout of the golden dome of Bellas Artes. I show them the Revolution Arch on the way but no one seems that excited. Maybe they’d been tour-ed out.

We part ways in front of the Hilton or one of those other 5 star shitholes. Reforma Avenue looks gorgeous in the post rain sunlight. The sun kisses the treetops and draws the eye to sculpture after sculpture, fountain after fountain. Jacaranda purple and green lines the street.  I put my headphones on. Spoon plays and I can pick up the pace to this, even in sandals. I wanted to wear shoes. Laundry day blues, I suppose.

Yosemite

Looking from the outside in, a visit to California’s famous Yosemite National Park is a no brainer to visitors and locals alike.

Only 3 hours driving from San Francisco, I’d heard about the park’s monolithic granite rock faces thanks to a rock climbing movie called Valley Uprising. The name Yosemite has rung out in my mind since I was a kid. I guess that was probably thanks to Loony Tunes’ Yosemite Sam, and thank goodness I knew about that; I could pronounce the name properly.

That was a common theme of my travels through America- most of my understanding of American landmarks was through pop culture references and global media. In San Francisco I felt I knew parts of the city thanks largely to Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I guess that same child-like naivety was what caught my attention when I first looked at a map of California and saw the words ‘Yosemite National Park’ labeling a green mass of mountain ranges that run like a spinal cord along the interior border of the state.

And child-like is how I felt when I nosed my hire car round a steep bend just near the Tunnel View lookouts. I had to pull over, and while snapping away at distant peaks, overheard other tourists mentioning names that ring out all over Yosemite: ‘Half Dome’ and ‘El Capitan’.

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First ‘Tunnel View”; El Cap on the left of the valley, Half Dome in the Centre, Bridalveil Falls somewhere to the right

Just before the tunnel view was another thing that was exciting, at least for a skip like me- snow still lined the roadsides as I gunned my hired Hyundai hatchback through the peaceful forests at the tall edge of the valley.

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No chains needed- clear roads, snowy forest

Further down the valley, the friendly ranger outside the park had recommended I take a stop at Bridalveil Falls. It was a commanding force of nature. My camera agreed. It’s a two minute walk from the car park and gets you up close and personal with the fast end of the snow melt, with a mist buffeting you even at the boardwalk lookouts.

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Getting damp at Bridalveil Falls

After the waterfall sojourn which marked the start of the lower valley, traffic built up and speeds were down to walking pace. This was not a problem. I could not have driven slowly enough to spend enough time at each place, so I pulled up at a roadside parking spot. Walking around, there was a mutual air of awe and respect for what me and every other guest here had the privilege of seeing.

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First of many panoramas for the day

My first day here was something of a rinse and repeat- I’d drive a few minutes, then see something so mind-blowingly wild and awesome that I’d stop, walk around, take some photos and continue. I had a quick stop at lower Yosemite falls- another easy to access surging beast of a waterfall. I walked too close again, scrambling over the boulders beneath the waterfall hoping to see something other than a torrent of icy water in my face. But that was about the only thing extra I got for straying off the boardwalk. Well, that and not being surrounded by other people.

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Yosemite Falls fanging along

Bedraggled and satisfied, I walked back to my car at the Half Dome carpark and realised that every hour of the day brings new landscape photo opportunities, perhaps nowhere more than here.

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Half Dome from the Valley

I was happy that I’d been here. But as Into the Wild points out, ‘Happiness is Better Shared’ and I was looking forward to meeting up with some people from the hostel when I drove back to Groveland, a small town where I found my accommodation.

Yosemite International Hostel in Groveland gave me a really homely experience; we had an 8 bed dorm and two private rooms fit into a converted house. I made use of the communal kitchen and made some friends with pasta. We all shared some nice wines, beers, tales and all that good stuff. A few people I met in SF came down, and we planned a Big Hiking Day.

Nevada Falls was a 10km hike rated ‘strenuous’ thanks to the inclines. It took us about five and half hours with stops on the regular for photos, nibbles and lots of water. There were some crews fitted for back country hiking- they took the ‘closed’ path to the top of Nevada Falls, and we met them there after taking the more sensible ‘open’ path. They looked a little bit rattled when we saw them after their adventurous choice. We ducked back around the loop to see the trail they had crossed- and we decided pretty quickly that they close tracks around here for a reason. It was still snowed under- and if you slid from the snow, well… that could be bad in some spots.

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The view of Half Dome from the top of Nevada Falls was stunning.

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Just relaxing nothing taxing

I was glad to have shared such a great hike with a lovely crew of people, it really takes the experience to another level when you can look across at your friends, wide-eyed, and say ‘are you seeing this?’

I’d love to come back to do more hikes and climbs in Yosemite. I’d love to stay in the park next time, too. Guess training starts today! Errrr… make that tomorrow. I wanna go eat more Mexican street tacos today.

Ate: Pasta and protein bars
Drank: Lone Ranger IPA, cheap Californian plonk (not bad at all)
Slept: In a warm cabin with hot showers, which might have been hard if I’d stayed in the park
Saw: Something that nearly pipped Wilson’s Promontory as my new favorite place.

San Francisco

What a fucking place, man.

There’s a song that plays in my head every time I visit a big city. Paul Kelly penned it- the title “Every Fucking City’s Just the Same”. I struggled to see it from his point of view when I came here though. From go to woah, this city is engaging, accepting, dangerous, safe, friendly, uptight and most things go pretty much right, most of the time.

A week here isn’t too long a time to spend. There’s a lot to see.

Golden Gate Bridge- The first major touro thing I did. It was a lovely clear spring morning. They have pacific gulls here, too!

Walked up to Fort Point, an incredible building that gives a really nice viewpoint of the bridge, reminding you of the scale of the thing.

Walked down from Fort Point, through some wetlands to the major piers (major at least, in terms of tourist attractions).

The SF pier is certainly full of tourist traps, but In-N-Out burger, in my opinion, is not such a place. It’s simple, cheap and pretty damn tasty. I really just came here because of this place, so its nice to have ticked that off.

Up the hill and back to the hostel, then to the Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill which offers great views of the city and both bridges (no, the grey bridge is not the Golden Gate Bridge, and yes I did make that mistake when I first saw the Bay Bridge…)

Green Tortoise is a big hostel. I haven’t really stayed in a hostel quite like it. USA does seem to lag behind when it comes to hostel offerings for penny pinching travelers like me, but the affluence of SF means that the high price of rooms brings with it certain luxuries that you don’t get at many other hostels. The showers have complimentary shower gel. They have 3 free dinners every week. The local cafes donate the days  goodies that didnt sell; you can stock up before a day trip out to see the sights. The beds are comfy. There’s a big mix of people here, but this isn’t an international hostel so it draws plenty of other Americans too. Most are pretty friendly. The younger, spring breaker types still think its funny to laugh at accents or assume someone’s country of origin without even introducing themselves. I wonder if those people have ever left the USA. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of international travellers here too. They all probably think I talk funny too, I spose.

Dolores Park was a pretty cool place to sit on a hill and relax. Lotta people, not many locals. I guess the ones with dogs were locals? They have so many nice dogs here. You can see the whole city from Dolores Park, it’s near the Mission District which I thought was a great part of town- it reminded me of Melbourne, a little bit. Had some absolutely fantastic, real nachos here just off Valencia St.

Food here is mostly nothing to rave about, pretty expensive on a backpacking budget and what you get is often pretty sweet- sweet bread, extra sweet chocolates and candies, super salty burgers, fatty meats, even the carrots taste sweeter than at home. It’s hard to buy a salad without it coming with a tub of ranch dressing. I still like supermarket shopping for food here the most- it’s too expensive to make a habit of eating out all the time. A good loaf of bread and some stuff to chuck on it goes a long way. But damn, it’s tempting to live off pizza, tacos, burgers and fries. Calorie content is inversely proportional to price in a lot of things.

Beer though… ahh beer here is great. Somehow, despite SF becoming one of the most expensive cities in the world, it is still a little cheaper to buy beer here than in Melbourne. And it’s gooooood. 7.5% IPA from a local brewery? 6 of those bad boys will set you back around 10 USD. Favourites so far include: Racer 5, Bear Republic Brewing, Anchor Steam, Drake’s, Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale, and so on… I want to drink them all. And thanks to the fact that a lot of bars around here have about 20 beers on tap, I can.

The California spring is in full swing now, there are wildflowers popping out on the hillsides and lots of people are getting sunburnt. It was fucking freezing when I first arrived, I made my first mission here to the REI store for a warm jacket. One week later- I don’t need it now. The blue sky here deserves its own landscape photography exhibit.

A few places that I liked in SF are: Mission District (especially Valencia St), Dolores Park, Golden Gate Park, the pier with sea lions near it, Castro district, twin peaks, telegraph hill, Polk St bars.

Ate:  In-N-Out (once was enough)
Drank: Lotta sweet sweet tangy IPAs and ales.
Slept: Well (although I was wondering if I felt earthquakes on a few nights- less scary than the alternatives that would be rocking my bunk bed, that’s for sure.)
Saw: Heaps aye.

Please check out the link to my SF album if you would like to see all the lovely photos.

Office Chart 4/3

True tears of joy -hunters and collectors
Holding On- Gregory Porter
Boards of Canada- Dayvan Cowboy
Blue Hotel- Chris Isaak
Paper Trails- Darkside
Dead in the Water- Calexico
Run Through the Jungle- CCR
Nara- Alt J
Andrew Bird- Cathedral in Dell
Chateau- Angus And Julia
Convenient Parking- Sun Kil Moon

Hawaii

‘Island Time’ feels like a misnomer when staying in Oahu. Despite its obvious applicability to the Hawaiian Islands, the phrase suggests Hawaiian changes are slow.

Historically, geographically and culturally this is not Hawaii.

In the middle of the Pacific it can go from hot and sunny to wet and raining faster than you can say ‘we should hire a convertible’. One moment I’m in the centre of Waikiki. In less than 15 minutes I am at a secluded waterfall. That first hour, I am appreciating the tranquility of a waterfall dotted valley. An hour later I am clinging on for dear life to a muddy trail atop the ridge of an extinct volcano with a thousand metre fall one misplaced step away. One day I arrived at Seaside Hawaiian Hostel, I’m a stranger. In less than a week I’ve made friends I’ll not soon forget.

Hawaii was not a place that I’d had on my radar. I am glad I stopped by. I came expecting tourist traps, crowded hiking tracks and vapid spring breaker types too cool to talk to outsiders.

I left wanting more- Oahu is surely just the beginning.

Day 1 part 1: Pearl Harbor

A somber atmosphere hangs in the hot morning air of the centre dedicated to the site that provoked the United State’s entrance into World War II. People are streaming in by 9am. I snap a few photos. The Star Spangled Banner plays. I forget to take off my hat.

The USS Arizona memorial site sits out in the harbor. A bright white building sits atop the water, hugging the untouched wreckage of a massive American battleship that could not be re-floated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese torpedo bomber’s armor piercing round hit a large ammunition store aboard the ship which set off a catastrophic chain of explosions that completely annihilated the ship and any chance of salvage. Thousands died here. Millions more died before and after this point of the Second World War. I wonder what world politics would look like today had this fuse not been lit.
Atop the memorial you stand over the moss and the rust of the battleship Arizona. The water is clear but oil drips constantly from a long ago ruptured fuel tank from the wreck, creating a murky film.

The USS Missouri looms nearby; another one of the four major sites which can be visited; the other two being the aviation museum and the USS Bowfin- a submarine dubbed the ‘Pearl Harbor Avenger’ for the massive amounts of ships it sunk after America’s entrance into the World War. I toured the USS Missouri too.

The Missouri is a hulking behemoth of a ship, bristling with massive amounts of firepower. The Second World War was formally ended on her decks when she docked in Japan for their surrender. It isn’t possible to tour the whole ship; however what is on show is immersive and impressive.

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There is no admission price for the USS Arizona, but there is for the other 3 sites. I think it’s worth paying to see the other sites if you’re coming all the way to Pearl Harbor; if you really feel like saving money though, the USS Arizona memorial tour is free so long as you can get a spot.

Being here, I thought about the terrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. The undignified deaths of so many young and innocent people who had so much more to the offer the world. In a world that is just, those who declare war should be the only ones fighting or dying. I feel fear at the thought that we are bound to repeat mistakes of the past, and hope that we as a race have learnt something. But I don’t hold on to that idea too tightly.

Day 1: Seaside Hawaiian Hostel

After Pearl Harbor I checked in to my hostel. This place was really cool- especially for the other people I met there. They have a nice courtyard area where you can sit back and drink til 11pm, which I made full use of with a bunch of travellers from Europe, the US and plenty of Australians too. The hostel was small enough to feel like a family-style, chiller place.

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Day 2: Lay day Waikiki

Plane sleep isn’t real sleep. I finally realized that a full day after landing. Hung out in the city and got some delicious udon, walked around Waikiki for a bit, decided that it’s a resort city like any other except it has really cool backdrops of mountains and a pretty beachfront. Cost of living here seems expensive- basic vegetables are 3-4 times the price I’d pay at home, so even if you’re cooking for yourself its not always cheap. Tipping is confusing too. At least beer is still about half the price of home.

Day 3: Waikiki beach and a carnival

Hung out with some good folks by the beach at Waikiki. Sadly (life’s hard) the surf was pretty small so it was a swimming day. The water was clear, the beach was clean and I didn’t step on any sharp rocks or sea urchins. There’s a lot of beachfront so it wasn’t too hard to find a patch of sand but yeah; right in the thick of things.

Took a cab out of town and got my first taste of the gorgeous mountaineous backdrops in Oahu- dramatic rises in elevation punch lush greenery up to the sky, steep enough to be almost completely hostile to any building or development. Beneath, on the flatter outskirts of the island, civilization. We found a carnival and I intensified my hangover enourmously on too many carnival rides.

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Day 4: Ka’au Crater Hike

So when you get the opportunity to do a hike in Hawaii, make sure you prepare yourself- some places, like Diamond Head, are well developed and easily accessed by the public. Many others though, like this hike, are a bit more unhinged.

Our hike started in a lush tropical rainforest set in a valley only 15 minutes drive from central Waikiki. We got out of the Uber, accidentally poked around a few suburban driveways before a friendly local directed us to the entrance, with an intense, knowing look and a few wise words: ‘be careful’. The sign at the entrance further helped to set the scene for what came ahead.

Tracks like these are not maintained by any kind of federal or state authority so the path is quite gnarly but once you get into jungle mode and watch your step, this part of the journey was quite pretty. We followed a river through three waterfalls. The last was the biggest. We then proceeded to hike directly up the waterfall with ropes secured and maintained by other hikers to assist.

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This part of the journey was when the term ‘adrenaline hiking’ or canyoning came to mind. We all looked out for each other, carefully clambering our way up the stepped, soaking rocks to the top of the waterfall.

Our ascent continued out of the jungle to the beginning of the top- a saddle created by the caldera of an exctinct volcano. The wind blew hard from accross the ocean, and after the initial cooling relief, it really started to bite hard given we’d just emerged from a sweaty jungle trek. Good underlayering and a rain jacket to cut the wind and the elements are a great idea here for that very reason.

A slippery, muddy climb to the first peak and teeth were starting to chatter if not from the cold then from the apprehension at the lack of any safety net were someone to fall. You had to consciously make note of which side of the trail was the ‘safe side’ to fall to, and always have some kind of plant, tree root, rock or other secure handhold ready, not just because it was necessary for the climbing but also because it might be your only lifeline. The first views of what lay out our feet, however, were stunning. We had views of everywhere from Waikiki to the east coast, as well as of the green Ka’au crater itself.

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Before we could descend we had to scale the lip of the caldera across a narrow ridge that turned my previous apprehension to all out fuck-this-shit-im-outta-here kinda vibes. A step to the right- sheer drop, and a step to the left- certain bone crunching. Did I mention I don’t do heights?

After a much happier hike downward through some gorgeous botanical life we linked up with the river we’d found at the beginning of our hike and- covered head to toe in mud- jumped right in to the stream.

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Our Uber driver must have had his work cut out for him to clean his car after our bedraggled selves got out. Nonetheless he was a great guy and seemed pretty happy to have driven a car full of internationals around a place he’d called home for many years.

I’d definitely recommend this hike to anyone excited for a rough and ready trail that combines hiking with a bit of canyoning. There was a huge amount of lush green life and impressive terrain, as well as several awe inspiring viewpoints of both Waikiki and Honolulu as well as the North Side.

Day 5: Stang to the Botanical Gardens, North Shore and East Coast

Determined to have a day that didn’t involve too much walking, we rented a car to drive to the North Shore. Thinking about the fact that I wouldn’t get this opportunity again and not thinking about my budget I picked up a Ford Mustang for the day. Thing drove like a tank and screamed like bloody hell when there was an opportunity to plant it- shame there wasn’t many of those, as the speed limit on the major highway around Hawaii is only 45mph. They drive on the wrong side of the road here which was a mind bender, and in retrospect a sports convertible might not have been the best first car to drive in the USA.

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Before we journeyed to the North Shore, we visited the Ho’oamaluhia Botanical Gardens. Totally epic drive. Really good camp sites, in contrast to a lot of the other camp sites that have become haunts for less savoury types. Beautiful views as seen below.
North Shore had a big-ass traffic jam on the way in, ironically. It took a while to get in. When we got there the Bansai Pipeline was pretty small, not that that stopped dozens of really fucking good surfers working every last bit of what they had there.
The east coast was wild- sheer drops along the coastline, a lighthouse out on a rocky point, seaside, beaches, little towns.

It’s definitely possible to do day tours out of Waikiki like we did- mind you there’s probably a lot to see on the north shore, just that my legs were a little sore from the day before and I wanted to drive this car, so yeah.

Day 6: Outta here.

Packed my bags, paid my dues and said my goodbyes.

Short summary

Ate: Good Udon noodles and huge pizza slice that was a meal in itself.
Drank: Wacky mango infused India Pale Ale brewed in Hawaii by Kona Brewing.
Slept: Minimally.
Did: Nature, war history, beaches
Made: good friends!
I’d come back here. Hawaii’s sweet.