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It’s 12am, and with a throbbing altitude sickness headache for company I’ve tumbled down a staircase in the dark, in a hut that clings onto a mountain at over 4,000 meters in Ecuador.

Cotapaxi, the world's highest active volcano

A vicious storm makes opening the hut’s heavy wooden front door hard – and I need to get outside to pee, or else I’ll have wet pants to add to the general misery list.

When I stagger back inside, a torch beam rudely shines in my  face, and in my stupor on the roof of the world, I feel disoriented, like I’m suddenly on some gruelling SAS survival-type TV show.

Through the shrill noise of my drilling headache, I barely hear what the grim figure says, but it sounds like “time to go.”

And shockingly, it is indeed that awful time when we must attempt to scale the world’s highest active volcano, the perfectly cone-shaped, snow covered summit that is Ecuador’s Cotopaxi.

We’re here to end our four month travel adventure on a high. Having visited one of the lowest points on Earth (Death Valley), we’re now set to scale one of the highest. Through our adventures, we have progressively exposed ourselves to more and more risk – and this climb certainly represents one of the biggest risks for us to date.

The objective: a dark terror
In Spanish, it’s name means “smooth neck of the moon” and in Quechua, “mass of fire”. This snow-topped fiery monster has also been worshipped since pre-Incan times as the ‘rain sender.’ None of which conveys the fear the actual climb can inspire.

Indeed, to me, it’s a brutal 9 hour return climb (although we hear, more accurately, that it takes complete novices around 12-13 hours), from over 4,000 meters (around half the height of Everest) to around 5,800 meters through dangerous weather (snow storm with gale force winds), clawing up shifting gravel before climbing onto a glacier, and picking a perilous path to the top with crampons and an ice axe in a race against time to beat melting ice bridges. And, oh yeah, in the dark.

Breaking point

We had decided to climb Cotopaxi without any experience because we wanted to end our adventure with a big mental and physical risk. We had invested a large amount of money, muscle and mental graft just to get to the refuge, or mountain hut, from where we begin our ascent.

Our only preparation was a crucial, but exhausting acclimatisation walk at altitude – the muscle tearingly-tough 5000m+ (over 16,500 feet) peak of Illiniza (South). Backing out would render all investment so far pointless. Yet pushing on to the summit would push us to breaking point.

Fear and dread
Earlier, I ascended to the refuge (mountain hut) – a tough little ascent – with little incident. Sure, there was some mild soroche – altitude sickness, low energy levels and mild exhaustion – however  I had felt surprisingly up for the summit attempt, if I could just get some rest and, importantly, sleep between 7pm-11.30pm.

Seeking refuge - Scot grabs a breather en route to Cotopaxi's refuge at 4000m+

During the evening, however, my nerves jangled inside my sleeping bag, as fear and dread gnawed nastily away at my pluck and optimism. Indeed, by the time the mountain guide’s wake-up beam smashes into my face, I already have prepared a list of excuses not to climb. At midnight, in response to my protestations, Hernan – who is such a good climber, incidentally, that he summited Cotopaxi 45 times in one week for a competition – merely laughs at me and lopes off somewhere into the darkness.

Hewn from rock
Our Ecuadorian mountain guide, Hernan, was born at over 2,500m. He came into this world a spent his entire childhood at an altitude far higher than Britain’s biggest peak, and now, as a man, he has a physique like a spider.

Having scaled some of the world’s highest peaks, and surely holding the record for speed ascents of Ecuador’s biggest mountains, he’s as adept a climber as I’ve ever met. He’s scaling Everest next May.

His face looks like it was hewn from Cotopaxi’s rock: the ridged Ecuadorian nose; sharp, high cheekbones; angular jaws; and sunken cheeks covered in a stubborn stubble like mountainside gorse.

He wears a long, pleated pony tail, which, like a monkey tail, is maybe useful for balance in knife-edge situations. While nimble ascents are his strong point, guiding beginners is surely his weak spot.

For he really lacks empathy with struggling beginners, does not give clear briefings, won’t teach any climbing techniques, and sometimes forgets key pieces of equipment. He makes you feel confident that he’ll ascend – and fast, but nervous that you won’t make it along with him.

Wishing we were there - looking downhill into the valley from Cotopaxi's refuge

Freakish and fidgety with soroche


The freakish and fidgety last 6 hours before Hernan’s rude wake-up call went something like this: eat barely digestible pasta before the sunset (i.e., before available light ran out), put on all seven available layers of clothing, wriggle into a stinking borrowed sleeping bag and clamber into a tiny bunk in the dark, inside a hut with no heating or light, and feel so bone-cold the entire time so as to never stop shivering night-long.

Gamely I attempt to get to sleep but between altitude sickness and noise – people constantly clump about in heavy climbing boots, and loudly snore, fart and shake pill bottles open to combat the brain-splitting symptoms of soroche – worryingly, I can’t get a single wink.

Instead, a migraine hammers away inside my head, nausea rails me, and my guts loll around on puke duty. So I’m hardly in peak condition. On top of this, our acclimatisation climb the day before had left me severely weak. So when I hear the grim words ‘time to go’,  I’m honestly on the verge of bailing out.

Yet, somehow, a little voice deep inside me offers a spark of resistance. Part of me still wants to fight through it, wants to do it. Another part of me has a morbid fascination with how the twisted scenario will turn out – what kind of pathetic figure will I cut, will I be hospitalised?

In effect, despite my sick feelings and protestations, by 12.45am, I grimly  hike into the dark night with H and Hernan, our party of 3, for the summit. Just one problem: Hernan has forgotten our head torches – we’ll have to climb with one flashlight between three.

Seeing stars
Outside, we’re greeted by a stunning sight – a skyfull of shining stars, studded with more distant glittering suns than I’ve ever seen in one place, and far brighter, too. There’s a reason for this – we’re straddling the equator so there are two constellations, from both the northern and southern hemisphere.  And being so high up and so far away from any light pollution means that you feel close enough to reach out and touch these sweet diamonds.

The delight doesn’t last, however, as the worsening weather rears up in the west and storms in with renewed vigour. Later, when we’ll leave the mountain, we’ll see the aftermath – a landscape covered in ice and snow, all the way down to 3,000 meters.

Left foot in, right foot out


The first hour is seriously strange, with body and mind trying to win the argument for going back to bed. That’s the normal thing to do, it’s the middle of the night after all. All I try to do is put one foot in front of the other. Left foot down breathe in, right foot down breathe out. This is all I do for an hour. Altitude sickness even subsides for a little while.

Heart like a hummingbird’s
The next thirty minutes is hard, but doable. Then it gets truly tough. Being higher than we have ever been, the upturn in altitude brings the soroche back in full force. With only 60% oxygen in the air (compared to 100% at normal level), the muscles burn a thousand burns on this hellish, shifting staircase. The ground underfoot is loose gravel, trying to swallow our feet and throw us off balance with every step.

All I can do is numbly put one foot in front of another, fragilely breath one breath with each step, stupefying pause when soroche makes my heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s, or makes me swoon with dizziness, or creates flashing head pains.

Join the dark side
By 3am, it’s a truly agonising climb, with wind battering us, ice solidifying our outer shell of clothing. Snow blasts us in the dark. Looking at my watch is alarming – time is moving as slowly as a glacier. What seems like hours passing turns out to be mere minutes. Don’t look at your watch. I try to empty my head and think of nothing, nothing but one foot in front of the other; breathe in, breathe out‘  Then it happens. A seed of negative thought,  you can’t you do this climb without a flashlight.

Rapidly, it starts spawning other negative ideas. What kind of idiot sets off on a dangerous climb without a torch? How are three of you going to ice-climb a glacier? Why didn’t you get glacier training like the others? Do you even know how to use crampons? Before long, I have practically joined the dark side – negativity dominates my thinking. Given that you have to climb exhausted and in pain anyway, mental strength is absolutely mission-critical.
I try my best to forge upward. Now gravity seems to have joined soroche, exhaustion and negativity as a blocking force. Gravity seems annoyed at me, for some reason, and angrily tries to push me down. It makes my legs feel pulpy and my feet feel embedded in quick drying cement. Left foot down – breathe in, right foot down – breathe out, seems harder than ever.

At 5,000 meters, negative thoughts are toying with me so much I feel like Darth Vader’s just told me he’s my father. Overwhelmed and defeated, the nagging annoyance of no torch beam thought somehow opened the floodgates. A torrent of negative self-abuse has flooded my thinking and telling me that a no-good failure. Then a spark of light penetrates the inky blackness.

Laughing birds


Then it happens. H finds mind strength for both of us – and how. Her trick is smart yet straightforward – with her English stoicism, she simply pretends that everything’s fine and dandy. Bombs could be dropping to each side of us – she’d pretend they were helping to prepare the ground for flowers. So instead of climbing terror, she sends little messages of love to me like laughing birds flying easily over these spiteful obstacles.
She cajoles, sets small targets, urges us on, treats all setbacks with laughing disdain, playfully knocks my stiff, frozen clothing and generally chivvies me up. Ah, it’s more magical than the stars.
She even screams above the wind – indeed, the wind momentarily acts sheepish, embarrassed at H having to shout so loud above it – at Hernan, telling him to slow down and stop to let us rest more frequently. Aye, what a woman, what a climber!

Hitting the wall
And somehow we make it. Well, to the glacier, at least, or to 5,200 meters, or not far off 18,000 feet. Here, in the worst weather we have ever been out in, at 3.45am, a weird euphoria grips us and hugs us and spins us around and dances with us.

What feelings of joy and release after such agonies! What a sense of accomplishment for us two! Even making this ‘summit’ feels like achieving the impossible. And, for absolute beginners with no experience of real mountain climbing, and minimal acclimatisation, it really is.
And, so it goes, this wall is to be our final objective. With the wind, and the equipment, we’re not going to summit Cotopaxi. The peak is only 600 meters away, but the conditions today are just too dangerous for beginners like us, and this current ‘summit’ is more than enough for us.

Glacier minted - serious elation back at the lodge as I realise we're heading down instead of up from here on in

We’re certainly ready to head down hill, race down in fact, to lower ground, hotter weather, warm showers, big breakfasts and soft hotel beds for hours of golden sleep.

Risk and ambition
When we decided to do this climb, it was a purely impulsive decision. The risk and ambition of it blew our hair back. Unfortunately, we learned from our acclimatisation climb on Illiniza that we had possibly made a dangerous move – we were taking a serious health risk, and we weren’t experienced enough for such a stiff challenge as Cotopaxi.

Yet, despite the overall a shock to the central nervous system, we feel good about our attempt. Still think it was a crazy, possibly stupid thing to attempt, but we’re glad we did it. We drew on much more physical and mental strength than we ever knew we had, and we’re confident about embrace more risk and ambition in our day-to-day lives.

We’re not, however, ready to tackle another mountain climb on this scale. Indeed, as I type, we’re headed to cosier climes – surfing in Florida to be exact. And back to sea level – that’s an altitude that’ll do for now. Cocoa Beach here we come.

Often, eating during round the world travel is purely about survival, and you might never know where or when your next meal is going to be – or whether it will even be safe. Indeed, you can go an entire day on nothing more than a pack of salty nuts and a Fanta, so rare might be the opportunity to chow down.

However, other times, food can be the Epicurean delight I love it to be. In Belize, for instance, despite being there for a mere 10 days, I was amazed by the variety and quality of the simple but tasty fare on offer.

Reliant on seasonality and availability, cooks prepare food that is by and large genuinely local and fresh. Let’s be clear – we’re not talking about meals of startling compexity, but the reality is they don’t need to be. Fruit and vegetables taste like they’re supposed to – not the hormone-pumped, artificially-ripened and preserved excuses for produce we suffer routinely in the East Dulwich Sainsburys.

Belizean food has three key influences – Caribbean, Latin American, and Creole. What could be better? Of course, you can sprinkle in a little French, American, Chinese and so on – you can literally taste the multi-ethnic cultural flavour of this hot, humid and wonderful land in its genuinely varied recipes.

Anyway, I’m bound to discover more delicacies along the way, and I’ll blog about ones that I think you might find interesting. Now, however, as I sit here in a darkened Nicaraguan hotel room wondering what my food experience I this poetic country will be like, I’m hustling together a quick list of the top five Belizean foods you must try before you can say ‘ready, steady, cook’.

1. Best street snack: Pupusas

These corn meal pancakes are stuffed with meat, cheese and beans. Originating from El Salvador, pupusas are soulful folk food snacks usually served on street stalls at night – and they’re insanely good. Anyone I have asked about them from from Belize, Honduras, or Nicaragua goes all misty-eyed on the subject. My favourites were in San Pedro, the scene of “the great pupusa war“. A young upstart faced off against an older mama in the classic youth versus experience food fight. Rather than take sides, I sampled both. Each was excellent.

2. Best breakfast treat: Fry Jack.

Of course, I should have put in some healthy fruit fare here, given the sheer quality and delicious flavour of the Belizean produce. That’d be to easy, however, so let’s stick with the unhealthy stuff.  This breakfast favourite, fry jack, is a puffed-up pastr. Flavourwise, it seems halfway between a brioche and a Yorkshire pud – with the flavour of the former and consistency of the latter, only a bit lighter. Have it savoury or sweet, though my favourite is served cashew fruit jam and cashew syrup. The best one so far is Stephanie’s at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree.

3. Best tastes-like-home dish: Mennonite steak

When it comes to meat, chicken rules the culinary roost (I have no shame) in Belize. No matter how many different ways you eat it, you will get bored of out of your clucking mind with the white meat. However, when you just gotta have some red flesh, decent steak is hard to find. That’s where French cook Valerie, at Chez Didi in Sarteneja, comes in handier than an horloge for timing a boiled oeuf.

This intense woman, who dropped out of rat race to live simply by the sea and cherish every moment of her life with her two men – husband and son – is a stickler for simple classics using using good quality ingredients. So where does she get them? It would be easier to stop Gordon Brown insulting his target voters than prise Valerie’s supplier details from her. She did tell us however, that she bought her steak and dairy from Mennonite farmers, two hours drive away acoss croc-infested rivers and past steaming jungles in West Belize.

The Mennonites live life as if they’re in the Little House on the Prairie, stuck in time living as they did so many years ago. Shunning technology in favour of traditional methods, they may look weird in their blue dungarees and stetsons, but man, they produce the goods like they’re the Jedi knights of farming. And their steak – which Valerie, unusually for a French cook, actually showed to the grill – was delicious. Who needs progress when the past tastes this good?

4. Best regional classic: Rice and beans

With so much of the country situated in the Caribbean, how could rice and beans not feature in Belizean menus? There’s no doubt about who makes the best version – anyone who is a woman and over 40, a long-suffering wife and mum with a bottomless resevoir of love for her kith and kin. Experienced mum-food is often characterised by a small but tight repertoire of around 10 dishes, cooked countless times until highly personal and  perfected. So it goes with rice and beans.

It sounds so simple, yet it can be so tasty. I remember when I simply had to get a recipe, but shunned the regular cookbooks (pointless reference sources for this kind of dish). In a market in Caribbean Grenada, I practically accosted this lovely old lady and quizzed her about her recipe. Pigeon peas were her secret ingredient but even those little beauties couldn’t rescue my sorry gruel.

No, the perfect rice and beans is all about a ruthlessly-protected secret recipe made over and over again until you feel that it’s all you have lived to do. So my favourite version was from a random street stall in San Ignacio, deep in the West Belize jungle (where we saw our first Mennoinite farmers, coincidentally). Naturally, it was made by a glorious mama, who had clearly been serving it up to her brood for years. Sorry Ainsley Harriot, but your recipe is shite.

5. Best side dish: Squash and onions

Ah Stephanie, your warmth would see us through a Russian winter, but it’s your food I’m honouring here once more. And this particular side dish is a breakfast speciality of Stephanie’s, who happens to be one of the most charismatic and loving cooks I have ever met.

It’s not an easy dish to get your head around at 7am, when your brain thinks it should be eating cereal or something equally uninspiring. However, I was mentally prepared.  Previously, the most confusing breakfast I had was in Vegas. It was a salad  that cost about $15. The most perplexing element was actually eating salad for breakfast. However, it was a buffet and I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in a week in America – and my body was literally promising me amazing things in return for a mere leaf or two. It really threw my tastebuds though, they just weren’t expecting it – indeed, they later compared it to coming out of a coma (until I countered that they had no refernce point for such a claim). And, my body kept its promise to go the extra mile; ever since, I have occasionally eaten some suspect food in seriously unhygenic places in the past 10 weeks – and haven’t heard so much as a whisper of protest from my guts.

Creating a new food dawn, at least for breakfast, really paves the way for future surprises, so powerful is its trick on the mind. And it certainly helped me to enjoy Stephanie’s spiced squash and onion as a tasty brekkie side dish in Crooked Tree. Sure, spiced pumpkin in the UK feels like quite a warming lunch or dinner side dish in late Autumn. Yet here, squash is ubiqitous, during breakfast, lunch and dinner, and quite rightly so – it tastes amazing.

Indeed, the way Stephanie cooked it, mincing the squash, shredding the onions, adding her special Belize spice mix, and adding in some garlic powder (fresh would create too harsh a flavour) was pure heaven. And incredibly healthy too – so much so that it gave me license to down a case of beer before lunch. Kidding. Only a quarter of a case.

This ash thing in the UK is hilarious. Ah, a country, its media and its politicians always need to manufacture a crisis (bird flu, swine flu, maybe gerbil next) – and here’s a big grey one landed in their lap. I can almost sense their exhilhiration from here – their uncalloused, sweaty sausage fingers rubbing together in glee, their booze-swollen spongey noses twitching excitedly as they sniff out some new twist every day.

In the jungle I’m on a news blackout, so I heard the news from locals in Sarteneja in north Belize. Over here, even the Spanish-speaking guys speak ‘Henglish’ with a Caribbean haccent. So they when we learned of the Icelandic ‘hash’ grounding everyone, I thought it was the promising beginning of some laid back new era. Initially we thought that a kind of psychedelic cosmic event had caused an entire continent to suddenly snap to its senses and get stoned as one, making the whole concept of travel pointless – and also terrifying.

If so, the media would have unlimited crises to stoke up, as a hashed-up nation could be easily spooked. You could run scare stories, for instance,  about 24 hour garages shutting down, thus making urgent access to munchies and cigarette papers limited.

Having looked at the BBC news website only once or maybe twice the whole trip so far, the daily freakout passes me by – the news vulture flys by toward a pile of reader carrion whose nerves it can better gnaw on.

The President flies to Earth's rescue

Bless wee Willie Winy Walsh, hurling himself into the cloud, like the President of the USA of America in that corniest of popcorn flicks, Independence Day. Why the hell didn’t big Gordy Brown jump into a silver cat suit with red lightning flashes and jet into the heavens in a rocket-powered jumbo jet screeching Bible passages back to Earth via live satellite feed – crazed Earth saviour, David Icke, could have piloted him into the heavens. Surely, our political leadership couldn’t get any dafter than it already is. Big opportunity missed there, Gordy, and in an election year.

Aye it’s like Hell, in a way, being held in the grip of constant crises, the way the politicos like it fine enough. Fir me, it was a different kind of hell today – we went through the gates of the Mayan underworld.

Swimming into the underworld, in 'ATM' cave

Unlike being roasted over the devil’s bbq in the fiery pits, the Mayan underworld is cool, oh so cool, and an incredible respite from the oppressive, heat and humidity of the Belizean jungle. The entrance to the great Jaguar god’s kingdom is through Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, where we waded, swam and climbed through the 9 levels of darkness.

Here, we crawled and clambered back 5km through a rock, and hundreds of years through time, trancing out in our swaying torchbeams in the dark, and the Mayan shaman rituals and sacrifices to the great, dark god that sprang up in our imagination.

The Jaguar God awaits you

Anyway, it’s morning now, and as I plug this into the old jungle mojo wire (blog), the forest is screeching and the sun is rising. Another hot one in front of us and 6 hours of rickety old buses on dirt tracks criss-crosing the country.

Ah well, it’s a fine enough way to spend the day. As for you Britain, hang in there – get some hash goggles and stock up on munchies.

The water is around 80F, cobalt blue, darker in places, and the visibility is about 25 ft. We are seven divers, 90 ft (about 6 stories) deep down in the Carribbean sea, of the coast of Belize, on the second bigest barrier reef in the world, near San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) where we’re enjoying a fasntrastic holidasy.

The main pack of divers is in sight, but swimming about 15 foot away from me, some flailing enough to frighten away the fish. It’s my 50th dive, and I’m finning smoothly, trying to disturb the water as much as possible. Then it happens – something with fins of its own emerges from the gloom.


Sh-sh-sh-shaaaaark!

It’s a shark. Or should I say, sh-sh-sh-shaaaark!, as they say in Jaws. About 6ft long, with a large dorsal fin as well as a smaller one, and looks like the most confident animal in the water. Ignoring me, it either cares not a jot or is sizing me up. Its posture isn’t intimidating  but – with a perfect design that, fundamentally, has barely changed since the dinosaur era – that could change all too easily. With wild animals, I have an observe but don’t touch policy – I wonderwhat code of conduct the shark has?

Perfectly adapted

Its a real wonder to watch it its environment. Perfectly adapted, its long tail sways side to side rythmically, effortlessly moving the fish through the water. A quick flick turns it on a dime, and it powers off into the darkess, leaving me far beind in seconds. No-one else sees it. It disappears.

Then  it comes back for another run,  coming closer to me, and disappears again. Finally, the rest of the dive group sees what’s going on, and fin over to join me in witnessingn this graceful predator in motion…but then it disappears into the darkness. We’re just about to head back on course when it reappears. And it has brought a friend.

This time, the shark swims right at me. We’re on a chicken course, swiming at each other, me as hydro-dynamic as a Xmas tree, the shark like a torpedo. We’re practically nose-to-nose when we split.  It’s either not bothered or its trying to suss me out – friend or foe.  What’s shark for ‘friend’?

Fortunately, these guys are nurse sharks – harmless to humans. Unless you wiggle your fingers, that is, which they might mistake for squid, their favourite meal. As it goes, almost all sharks will only eat what they can fit in their mouth, and attacks on humans are infesstimally rare. Of course any attack is reported wih disproportionate drama thanks to Jaws, which has in turn made it socially acceptable to slaughter these magnificent creatures to the point of extinction.

Even these docile sharks give us a shiver, though – they just look sharky. Sharks are often bigger than other fish you see – and sharing the same water in such close proximity with such big creatures is a rare pleasure. Before long, we’re seeing more and more.

Where there’s big sharks, there’s big fish

Where there are sharks, there tend to be other big fish. We see the biggest reef fish in these waters, the goliath grouper. At about 6-7ft long, and really chunky, they are massive. Images of fish and chips keep flashing into mind – they also look tasty. There’s a big turtle having varous diseases removed by cleaner fish, and giant moray eels, one of which ugly animals comes righy up to my face,  inches away, as if for a twisted kissing experiment. I feel like I’m being stalked by a 10-pinter in a regional nightclub.

The dive ended on an even bigger high. In additon the to huge fish and large schools of smaller ones swirling around this mother of all aquariums,  more and more gentle nurse sharks appeared. Big and small, there were about 15 in total, some swimming in a school, others all alone, each one masters of their domain. Everyone is capivated, non-one terrified, in spite of the shouty propoganda.

Back on the boat, speeding away from San Pedro Canyon and Esmerelda dive sites on a twin 200 engine speed boat (fast), the group is buzzed. Munching on fresh pineapple and gulping down water, it’s all shark tales from the from the group that lived to spin the yarn. For my 50th dive, it couldn’t have been much better.

In the desert sun our bus does a jig along the road to a bouncy Mexican rythmn. Strange to tell, but this transit seems to contain some of the best of Baja life. As we learn however, outside of the bus, there’s a world of cold-hearted corruption that’s doing for this real town’s reputation with tourists what Jaws did for the fictional Amityville.

Ah the bus! Cheap and characterful, each one is a secondhand US school bus with no suspension, not built for these potholed, dusty roads. Every driver customises his bus to a lesser or greater degree. Ours is influenced by car modification TV show, Pimp my Ride. Hip stereo with huge, cymbal-sized woofer in the front? Check. Hip hop graffitti on the speakers? Check. Baseball-sized silver skull with red eyes on the steering wheel? Hell yeah! No law-breaking in here, hombre.

As we shake, rattle and shimmy through cactus forests down the burning hot Baja highways, cooling breezes dance beautifully in through the windows. We don’t expect to hear about sickening tales of tourist extortion in this place, but we’re about to. Instead, we’re entranced by the bus, which seems to have a story all of its own. Dear bus, amigo, what makes you dance along the highways so carefree? Is your fuel margherita mix (or at least gas cut with a little tequila). ‘El camion’ occasionally stops its hypnotic rythmn to let people off and wave them adios (gracias senor), and welcome passengers on: a mix of hotel workers and local and holidaying families returning still wet from the beach with dark skin and generous white smiles. Adults that you want to go to the pub with, children that you want to take home with you. These aren’t the bad people we’re about to hear about.

As we bob and shake along the road, we find out about the darkness enveloping the bright world outside this bus, Cabo San Lucas. Situated at the extreme south of the Baja California peninsula, it’s a relatively new tourist destination – mainly for Americans and cruise shippers – with glittering looks. Yet a widespread criminal element is biting the very hand that feeds it – tourists. Oh this fun little party and beach town has everyone from restaurant staff to police, and even doctors, ripping off the foreigners.

In restaurants in this swell-looking town, padding bills is simply routine, if not merely the tip of the iceberg. Listen, at one joint waiters pickpocket visitors – it’s pure routine. And, get this, at many more venues, credit card number theft is the norm. Often the cards are used to buy items before the victims even get home. Expect the same from certain hotels, too amigo. Most of this happens in the glittering marina area, where the cruise ships come in, and party central – downtown. Welcome to our town! Roll up and be ripped off!

Yet the tale gets darker yet – much darker. Amigo, the cops can’t help you – hell, they’re more crooked than the restaurant staff. If only their stick-up routine was as placid. These guys pull foreign drivers over just to extort cash from them, and they hustle pedestrians with aggressive threats of planting drugs on them.

Even the injured are cleaned out – doctors try to swizzle thousands pf dollars out of foreign accident victims. And if they don‘t cough up, the police are called into A&E, batons in hand. They hang these poor suckers out to dry until they splutter up the cash.

Spin doctors optimistically call Cabo “the Monaco of the Americas”. And all of the above tales of corruption were based on first-person accounts and compiled into an article by Carrie Duncan, publisher of the Gringo Gazette, the local English-language newspaper here for ex-pats.

It actually gets worse – to the point where it would be funny if it weren’t true. Carrie also reveals that the sleaze goes right to the top of the local law enforcement. In one example, the Ministerio Publico (a US district attorney equivalent), told a foreign realtor he could help solve some of his police extortion problems – for a fee $40,000 pesos. Ah Mexico, you’re so colourful and beautiful, but you’re so naughty at times.

Thing is, I’m sure there are horrible incidences of bad mojo, but we have had broadly good impressions of this wonderfully colourful, if not occasionally feral, town. Without diminishing – and at the risk of simplifying – the issue, there’s a real naiveity about the tourist crime. The Mexican government seems desperate to develop this part of the coast to boost the coffers with tourist revenue. So suddenly, an invasion of unprecedented wealth – cruise ships, yachts, Tiffany’s jewellers, expensive restaurants etc – wash up on the shores of these small, typically poor traditional fishing towns. Of course there are going to be problems.

Americans, Britons and Western Europeans seem so shocked by this kind of thing – and yes, it’s wrong. But, as travellers, as guests in this country, we must avoid thinking that we’re superior. Our country is hardly corruption free – Goldman Sachs, Fred Goodwin, MPs expenses – simply directed inwardly at the country’s citizens rather than its visitors. Indeed, Britain feels more like a sad, old man these days, rather than a youthful, Arcadian dreamer.

Ah but here, under azure, cloud free skies, next to the emerald and turquoise waters of the sea of Cortez and the Pacific, the corruption is aimed at the region’s main source of income – gringo tourists. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you – Cabo San Lucas really gnaws the thing off, spits it back in your face, and fines you for littering the pavement with it (or so we’re led to believe).

Oh Mexico, the cheek of it! Your tuneful mariachis play us songs of love on the sidewalks while the police lurk around the corner to smash us in the guts with billy clubs. A day after we learn about the scandal, H and I are downtown and walk past a parked rental car, when a motorbike-mounted policeman emerges out a dust cloud. He parks, brushes off the dust, approaches the car and nonchalantly starts unscrewing its license plates. Come and get them back gringo! $1,000 pesos or else we‘ll bang you up for driving an unlicensed car. Ha – all in a day’s work. We say nothing (obviously) and shuffle on, unease disguised as nonchalance.

Such brass-necked mischief, dusty Mexico! Oh you really make us double-standard gringos blush as we try to avoid your challenging gaze on our lush green high moral ground. Still jiggling along in the bus, oblivious sitting next to beautiful mamas and Mayan-faced children with smiles to melt the ice caps, we pass a gringo car crash. Bad move, Americano, with your mucho dinero, you’ll be paying that one off for years.

Safe in the bus, no police in here, just people with no mucho dinero travelling by the cheapest transport known to Baja man. These cheap-ass gringoes in the bus aren’t worth bothering with. Damn cheapskates! They won’t rent a Hummer and stack the roof rack with totems of success that beg the police light to flash and siren to scream STOP and SPREAD THEM (the folds of your wallet).

Though safe now, wiggling along uncomfortably butt-numb, squeezed into this re-purposed school bus, hot, we recall that we came here with different . We had heard nothing about the scams, but it seems that Baja has bigger image problems. Foreign offices shut the book on the place to tourists: drug gangs in north Baja crazed with visions of Vlad, they warned, are slicing off heads of police and prosecutors to put on public display – and throwing grenades at children to show they are not to be messed with (and it‘s true, they were and are – 25,000 people killed by drug wars in as little as four years). Quakes up there in Baja too, big ones – the Weather Channel stirs up a storm of drama around the event. The distressing cracks underground mirror the deep fissures in society overground – perhaps Mother Earth is shaking violently with lament as the innocent blood soaks into her daily.

Either way, H and I have been safe till now, aside from a few slightly inflated prices (we only pay what we won‘t walk away from in some cases). No scorpion surprises in our purses or long snake-arms around our neck. Just golden days, warm breeze evenings, pearl dives and smooth rides on sweet surf days. We’ve even kept our lunch down. And if our stomachs aren’t corrupted, as the palm trees sway, we live well today. Don’t let the wheezes and stories keep you away. Just be smart about how you travel here. Adios, amigos!

Looks better than is

Yikes, looks like I’ve been doing too much travelig and not enough blogging. Ok, I didn’t undertake the trip to blog, but I do want to keep you folks updated. So here goes, week 2, Yosemite Valley and San Francisco.

Yosemite

Ansel Adams wrote that Yosemite Valley is “always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Between quotes like that and so many iconic images of the place, I wasn’t, however, expecting to be surprised when I arrived. Indeed, having visited so many beatific superlatives in the USA, I was worried that ennui would set in with a tell-tale shrug of ‘who cares?’

However, as I seem to discover time and time again in this country, I needn’t have worried. At the ‘Tunnel View’ viewpoint, where you stop to first set eyes on Yosemite Valley – and, trust me, you will stop – you look out at a picture you will have seen thousands of times, but still feel like you’re the first to stumble on this natural paradise. Even surrounded by crowds of equally stunned visitors, you’ll feel like the only one there.

Awesome peaks like El Capitan and Half Dome – which provide rock climbers with a vertical slice of heaven – wowed us, albeit from a comfortable distance (there’s no way I’m scaling those sheer faces). The spring snowmelt ensured the waterfalls showed their gushing best – Bridal Falls, for instance, shimmered sublimely in the sunshine, so I clicked away on the camera till my finger hurt.

We donned our crampons – cunningly kept from our Grand Canyon excursion, and beat a path up into the snowline of the hills and far, far away from the hustle and bustle of our pre-holiday lives. The only thing disturbing the calm were the thunder of distant avalanches and ominous signs that black bears were on the loose after hibernation. With a backpack full of ursine goodies like berries, fruit and chocolate, I had turned myself into bear bait.

Needn’t have worried too much though – the nearest we see to a black bear is, by the roadside, an overfed Alsatian which we nickname (unimaginatively) “Bear Dog”. However, we do see a bobcat stalking prey at dusk. Now, its name seems cute enough – a cat named ‘bob’. Don’t be fooled – these things are bigger than Dobermans and much more feral. They look like proper ‘big cats’ – and as I creep closer with my camera, it stares me out without flinching an inch. Spooked, I backed off and made my way back to the car. Aye, Yosemite is wild alright, but thankfully not dangerous. Just wild and beautiful.

San Francisco

What a city! I want to live here, now! Entering San Francisco for about four days, we’re blown away by how much untamed countryside surrounds it. In London, you can drive an hour and a half without seeing a single field, but not here. With giant redwood forests to the north, huge Pacific waves to the west, mountain ranges to the east, and rolling, green hills to the south, rugged nature is never too far. Like sexy-looking Sydney in Oz, San Fran’s vast harbour area leading out to the Pacific makes this town look good. But it’s not the wildlife we’re here for – it’s an uncut shot in the arm of pure urban fix.

That said, we can’t resist a trip to Half Moon Bay to kind of transition from wilderness to city. About 20 drive from the financial district, this is the home to the infamous Mavericks wave, the biggest surfable break in the US. Adrenalin junkies risk life and limb paddling through frigid, shark-infested waters, to reach 20 foot monster waves, while we sip hot chocolates from the cosy confines of our car.

Next is must-see feat of engineering that is the groovy Golden Gate bridge, whose 2.5 miles or so round-trip we make on foot. We later discover that it’s a far better to rent bikes from the harbour and ride the whole way to Sausalito (in Marin county) for cocktails at sunset. We had sound advice from a local girl I know about the cocktails part, but not about the bikes. We blew it there – we enjoy the walk out, but it’s a blister-fest on the return leg.

Every city has its clichés – but you can’t be a snob, you have to see them. Preferably with child-like eyes, but without their lack of sensitivity to locals. So of course we check out the other tourist trails hot spots like Haight Ashbury, the far out epicentre of the hippy movement. Sure, the place is crawling with teens trying to ‘be authntic’ by being street urchins, and we overhear one such alt kid kid boast that his, like, dog had, like, taken LSD, man. Yet there are many human remains from the era, and we chat to mellow hobos who haven’t left the place since its hippy heyday – still living the dream, bearded and weirded but older. Most have hilariously honest begging signs such as “Let’s face it, I need a beer” and witty ones like “Father killed by ninjas, need money for karate lessons.” The place has a humour and civility about it. Colour bursts from every surface – I loved checking out the old and new street art from the 60s to present day on house, shop and street walls. We ate in lower Haight, at Burger Grill, which offers a burger “you must eat before you die,” according to Oprah Winfrey, of all people.

Locals loathe Pier 39, apparently, but we can’t resist this tacky tourist trap. The main reason was the shellfish bounty on offer here – Dungeness crab and clam chowder are must-eats in this seaside city sprawl. So we eat our fill, getting hands-on with crab and garlic fries – and pretty much reek of garlic for days afterwards.

San Fran also offers us a good ‘civilisation’ stop where we can sort a few things out. Same day opticians replace a lost pair of prescription sunglasses fast, a mobile phone store give me a new charger for free (San Franciscans are so nice, helpful and friendly), and we’re able to burn memory cards to disc to send back home for protection. We end up sorting so many things that we almost forget we’re on holiday. So we take advantage of the city’s excellent public transport system and visit other wonderful neighbourhoods such as Mission and Castro, sampling the excellent nightlife on offer. This would be a great city to live in, and it’s a fantastic one to visit. Next stop, the South Pacific!

Peace and love, 2010.

Wild, untamed and unashamed – and that’s just the town’s hippy population – Santa Cruz is a helluva beach town.

A fading breach front with a boardwalk defined by rollercoasters and somewhat tacky souvenir shops may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I kinda like it. Having grown up in a Scottish version – by ‘version’ I mean a vastly inferior version of a beach town (and by ‘grown up’ I mean Peter Pan syndrome) – I’m immediately fascinated by these kind of places.

What captivates me far more, however, is the ravishing scenery,so wild and untamed in places: redwoods colonise nearby hills and mountains; endless swells roll along miles of golden coastline to be share shared by surfers, swimmers and sea lions alike; thundering waves crash constantly into a rugged coastline, cutting it ever-changing shapes. Amidst all this, oceanic giants often appear.

Yesterday, as we watched the surfers, huge migrating humpbacks appeared from the deep to give us a stunning show. Thrashing their huge tails to thrust their hulking bodies out of the water, they were performing incredible mating displays – massive backflips to smash the water, creating a real splash on the dating scene. Not for them speed dating in dank cafés or nights spent uploading supposedly-seductive pics to their internet dating site. Hell no!

As we watch, minutes turn into a couple of hours. This natural wonder is the kind of thing you can never get tired watching. A typically friendly local mom says that, despite being a native, she still gets wowed by such impressive displays. Small wonder when such big beasts are routinely spelbinding. I only use my own pics on this blog, and naturally I was too spellbound by the creatures to hit my shutter. So no pics, I’m afraid! Aside, clearly word had gotten out that the whales were breaching close to the surfers – before long a hoard of snappers both underwater and land-based – appeared out of thin air.

Despite the town’s tacky tourist stuff – which, let’s face it, the child in all of us loves anyway, at least a wee bit – Santa Cruz has a real community feel. And, as I have found with everywhere in California, the average Joe and Jane seems forever relaxed, warm and friendly to us stiff Brits. As a result, I really enjoyed the time we spent here – but it was far too short.

Ok, Santa Cruz is a bit more boisterous than those places down the coast; it lacks the perfect poise of Carmel (the upscale resort town where Dirty Harry – Clint Eastwood – is mayor), or the groomed thoughtfulness of Pacific Grove. Mind you, those places somewhat lack the sheer adrenalin buzz of Santa Cruz.

Aye, it’s not for everyone with only a little – or maybe even a lot of time to spend here – but it’s a fine place for me, I like it. Give it a try.