Hawaii

Ala Wai CanalChoosing to visit Hawaii had been an impulse decision made in Trailfinders. We had a free flight and were passing over that way, so thought we’d take the opportunity to visit somewhere we might never be again. We had originally planned to stay 5 days, but after doing some research on accommodation, we decided to cut it down, to save costs.

Waikiki BeachWe landed on the island of Oahu and stayed in Waikiki, a beach district of Honolulu. Making the most of this, we hit the beach both days, which was only a 5 minute walk away. Although beautiful, the sea itself wasn’t great for swimming, or much else, as nearly all of the ground was rocks and/or reef. To beat this, on day two, Paul hired a paddle board and I used it as a taxi, hopping on for a relaxing ride with Paul paddling the way. Once we got far enough out to pass the rocks, I had a swim whilst Paul touched up his paddle boarding skills.

Ihop All You Can Eat PancakesHonolulu was also host to our Ihop challenge. They had an all you can eat offer that we decided to take up. We worked up our appetites with a very hot 12km run in the morning sun and then went to work. I had (optimistically) set the bar at 12 pancakes, but only managed 6 and a bite. I was still the champion, though, as Paul only squeezed in 4 measly pancakes [excuse me, and the eggs/hash brown! – Paul]. I absolutely love pancakes, but after that, even the thought of eating another made me feel a little bit queasy.

We had hoped to get out and about a bit more, as Oahu is meant to be beautiful, and is also home to the Pearl Harbour museum. However, due to flight times and our complete inability to master the bus stop system, we didn’t manage to get any further afield. It was a nice taster though, and a lovely beach stop before Tokyo.

Los Angeles

LA Sun

America, America, I’m back once again. I do nothing to hide the fact I love America, the culture, the people, the weather and therefore was more than happy to stop here on route before heading west to Asia. We initially looked at stops in Cuba and New Orleans, but due to restrictions (Cuba and the USA still do not play nice) and flight limits on where we could stop without spending even more, LA was chosen as LAX is a hub and gateway to Asia. Leaving Mexico City, we flew to Dallas and changed planes there, we had the option to stay in Dallas but neither of us really saw that as a backpacking choice and were happy to connect through.

Although I love the country, I god damn hate the TSA. Connecting though Dallas Fort Worth was never going to be easy, but this was an utter piss take, queues and queues with the slowest staff running the lines. Add to the mix a massive airport, our two hour connection ended in a sprint across the airport to find out our flight was running late, rage!

Runyon CanyonWe chose to stay in West Hollywood, a handy hub for local pubs, the Farmers Market shopping area and a half an hour walk to Hollywood Boulevard. This being my third visit to the city, I was happy to see the sights again and spend the week shopping, eating and relaxing. After a slightly chilly winter in Mexico, winter in LA means clear blue skies, sun and 25c weather, utterly perfect city weather. Making the most of our location, I tried to get a good run in each morning, heading up along Hollywood to the Runyon Canyon behind. A large set of hills filled with buff runners, walkers and handbag dogs, its a tough run but with the sights and sounds around, it would be crazy not to make the most of it.

Central PerkingLooking at the tours, we took a trip to Warner Brothers to do the studio tour. I’ve been on the Universal Studios tour, which is fun but setup rather differently. Universal is in the theme park and you are on a trolleys going though sets and theme park style rides like Jaws and King Kong. With WB, you are on a smaller trolley and taken around a live working studio, which is less flashy but oh so interesting.

I had already checked for tickets to watch a filming of Big Bang Theory which was on that day, but it was full (no surprise) which also meant we couldn’t go in and see the set. The tourguide pointed out Johnny Galecki’s (Leonard) red Ford GT parked outside, lovely car. Ashton Kutcher’s (twat) Telsa was also outside the Two & A Half Men set, some well paid actors here. Lots of props, sets and TV magic was shown, a few stars were out and about making it a great tour ending on the set of Friends, which they have kept as a museum piece, everyone knows Central Perk which made for some fun photos, Annie was in her element.

CelebrateCatching a live sporting event was top on the list of our things to do, we scouted out the listings and decided to catch both Ice Hockey and Basketball both at the Staples center downtown. First up was the LA Kings vs Vancouver Canucks, I’ve been to a few NHL games over here and was looking forward to this one, unfortunately the Kings just were not playing that well and it was a bit of a disappointing game. Atmosphere was as usual great along with dinner and beers before at the Yard House, which claims to have the worlds largest selection of beer on draft, staring at , it was hard to disagree.

Our second visit was for the NBA and the LA Clippers vs Dallas Mavericks, it was night and day compared to the hockey, the final quarter looked to be the Mavericks game but the Clippers brought it back as it went to the wire, superb stuff.

Beverly Hills SignA visit to Hollywood normally involves a tour of the stars homes, it’s really a bit of a stupid attraction as you can’t see much apart from fences and hedges, plus most of them are rumours or previous occupants. To put a different spin on it we took a cycle tour around Beverly Hills, may as well get some exercise and escape the usual tourists sitting on buses. The streets were fun to go around and cycling down Rodeo Drive was interesting, usual movie sets were pointed out (Pretty Woman Hotel). Stopping at one of the BH signs, we saw members from Cirque de Sole hanging sideways from it, fancy pants!

I’ve not moaned about beer in a while as the range and availability in Brazil and Mexico was awesome. A look at the beer isle in Wholefoods nearly brought me to tears, the bottle after bottle of great beers, Goose Island, Stone, Mikkeler all in fridges and so so cheap. I must have stood for about 20 minutes debating what to buy, six Stone IPA’s for $9 was an essential purchase. Every bar we went to had at least a decent beer, even the Staples center had many a good beer for sale, though we got turned down for not having passports with us; I took it as a sign that my liver needed a rest.

Mexico

Teotihuacan

Arriving in Mexico City at 6 am, our first impression was ‘holy cow, it’s cold!’. Having left the high 30s of Rio in shorts and t-shirt, the 9c in Mexico City reminded us what it was to be cold (and home). The hoodies were back with vengeance.

It was my insistence that lead us to Mexico, based on a gut feeling that it would be cool. Despite its reputation as dangerous, everyone we had met whilst travelling raved about the city and reassured us we’d love it. It didn’t disappoint. Mexico City is great; easy to navigate, lots of culture, beautiful architecture, and it felt safe. Saying that, there are police everywhere. On the streets, in the shops, directing traffic, on the metro – even following you down canals in ugly modern speedboats, totally killing the mood. We never actually saw them do any crime fighting, but their presence alone was reassuring.

We had 1 week in Mexico City, during which we tried to squeeze in as many of the sites as possible. First up was main plaza, which had the biggest flag I have ever seen, and is home to the Metropolitan Cathedral. The city is sinking, and this is most clearly seen in the sloping floors and leaning brickwork of it’s cathedrals.

Annie in traditional Mariachi costumeMexico City is packed with museums, but two that jumped out were the Memory & Tolerance Museum and the Tequila and Mezcal Museum. Two completely different experiences; whilst the first covered genocides throughout the 20th century in quite vivid detail, the second taught us about the history and processing of Mexico’s national drinks.

I think the Memory & Tolerance museum is probably one of the best I’ve ever been in. The hours quickly passed by thanks to the amazing (and often harrowing) interactive displays, and it is definitely something I would recommend to anyone visiting the city. On the otherhand, the Tequila museum gave us free shots (hooray!) and also let us dress up in traditional mariachi clothes as part of their brief history of Mexico’s traditional music.

Xochimilco CanalsAs well as museums, we visited parks, pyramids, a city amusement park, and the Xochimilco canals. For this, we hired a trajinera (kind of like a massive gondola) and took a tour of the waterways, during which passing boats offered us food, gifts, and musical entertainment. It was a very surreal experience, especially coming from the crowds of the city, and a lovely escape for a few hours.

Paul’s highlight was our evening of Lucho Libre. I went in to this not knowing what to expect other than fake fighting and over-acting, which is pretty much exactly what we got. Despite the arena only being half full, the atmosphere was brilliant, with the crowd really getting into the spirit.

The sun in Brazil had meant we had only been able to run crazy early in the morning before the heat kicked in. Mexico, being much cooler, resolved this problem, and so were were happy to take advantage of the Sunday tradition of closing the main roads to vehicles so that pedestrians, runners, and cyclists can take over. Given that the city is usually overrun with cars, it is quite amazing that this happens, and it was a great feeling running down the main avenue without having to worry about traffic lights or cars.

Paul and a TlayudaBefore arriving, the one thing we had been confident of was that we would love the food here, but it turns out, real Mexican food isn’t anything like what we get at home. Whilst Paul quickly became a fan of the bargain basement taco stalls, I struggled with mystery meats and corn tortillas. My saviour came in 2 forms: street stalls selling corn on the cob covered in chilli and cheese, and the most amazing patisserie I have ever been in. Our visit coincided with La Rosca de Reyes, a tradition to celebrate epiphany. This day (6 January) is celebrated with huge ring cakes. It meant eating cake, so we got involved (albeit a day late, hoping to get knock-down prices). Yum. They also love their spice, in everything. Even guacamole was a silent killer, quietly burning your lips off after a few bites.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain

After spending Christmas in Brazil we moved 10k south to the main city staying in Botafogo, an area located in the East side of the city within walking distance to most of the main parts that we wanted to see for New Year.

Sugarloaf MountainRio is very very hot. It was hot over Christmas in Recreio but in the city the temperatures neared 40c with a 85% humidity. Sweat was a common theme; I spent most of my time in shorts and flip-flops, sounds great in theory but limits what you can do, sadly running was not an option for me.

Botafogo is a nice area of the city, and you can see both Sugarloaf Mountain and Cristo Redentor. We decided to head up Sugarloaf Mountain first as it was just a short walk from the hostel to the cable cars. It turned out to be a good choice as the views across the city are spectacular. We timed it quite well and got to see sunset from the mountain, but also caught a warm rainstorm.

I was keen to take a tour of one of the Favelas, the slums that Rio has more than its fair share of. They can be dangerous places but during the day organized tours run through them without any issues.

Rocinha FavelaThe tour started with a drop off near the top of the Rochina Favela which has a population of 70,000. Rochina means “Little Farm”, it was a big maze of streets and people, very few roads run through, the residents just wander around on foot. The streets are residential mixed with shops, small cafes and schools; a fully functioning society lives up there.

Notorious for drugs and gangs, the government is making efforts to “pacify” and clean them up. It was interesting to see but due to a mess-up by our hostel, we were put on a crap tour with a guide who was rather disinterested, just seemed to walk us through at speed, stopping mainly in places he had lined up to sell us something. Annie complained and we got a fair refund, so it was not all bad.

Hang Gliding Over RioWith amazing scenery [Annie says the city has the most beautiful natural setting she has ever seen] and clear blue skies, we decided to splash out a bit and try Hang Gliding from one of the mountains over the city. Heading out late in the afternoon, we were driven up the mountain before arriving to what is like a mini airport. Loads of Hang gliders being prepared by various companies, I had a look over the runway’s edge, spectacular view ahoy! A quick five minute lesson on how to hold on to the guide and how to take off, we were running towards the edge, looking at the horizon and following strict instruction not to stop or jump. What a rush; spectacular views of the city; the beach; it was great fun and really quite calming. I did have a little concern about landing, though it turns out the passenger doesn’t need to do much as the instructor does the work for you.

Rio from Cristo Redentor

What is billed as an essential stop in Rio is Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer in English), the statue that peers 2,300 feet over the city on Corcovado Mountain. You can see it most of the time from the city. We were warned about the queues, two hours for tickets and then two hours to get up and therefore decided to set off at 7am to try and beat the tour groups. One metro and one local bus later, we arrived at the train that runs up and down the mountain. There was what appeared to be two queues and a big neon sign saying “no trains available” but nothing was explained any further. As more and more people joined the queue, news came back that tickets for the train are already sold out for the next two days, bummer.

An alternative route to the top is using the minivans that were available just a short walk up the road, sounds fine! Walking up and joining the 15 minute queue, we paid our way and started the ascent. That would have been fine if not for the fact that the van does not take you to the top but instead it drops you less than half way up in a chaotic mess of cars and people. Joining another queue, this time 30 minutes long, we got our tickets and walked to the next queue for the second minivan, which over the last half hour had tripled in size, gah!

Us at Cristo RedentorWe waited in what turned out to be a frustrating hour long queue, with tour guides pushing their groups to the front. We had a calm exchange with one who seemed to think we were stupid and would not accept the fact we saw him skip in, asshole. Boarding the minivan and continuing to the top, we arrived to find hundreds of annoying tourists surrounding the statue, all trying to get a photo of themselves with their arms out mimicking Christ. We pushed our way around, got some photos and got the hell out of there, all to start the queues in reverse to get back down to the bottom. It wasn’t only us who felt the frustration – a riot nearly broke out when a tour guide pushed his luck too far on the way down. A horrible excuse for an attraction and a waste of six hours.

Rio was picked as our final destination in South America, where we would see the year out. New Years Eve in Portuguese is called Réveillon, which translates as “Waking”. The city becomes full, the streets are closed and the party focuses on Copacabana Beach. We saw the preparations days before, roads were closed and large ships are moored in the bay where the fireworks will launch from. Two and a half million people were expected to line the beach for the firework display and concerts, it is one of the biggest parties in the world.

Did Someone Say White?Our hostel gave us tickets to a night club with an open bar, considering the price we paid for a dorm room, that’s the least they could do. We headed down early with our Metro tickets, to help with crowd control we had to pre-purchase these days before, selecting a time slot as no tickets were on sale on the day.

What we did not know until arriving in Brazil is the Brazilians wear white as part of Réveillon which symbolizes purity, peace and renewal. Travelling rule 101, do not pack anything white as it will just discolour… Arriving at the nightclub, we didn’t quite blend in.

Réveillon 2014 Fireworks on CopacabanaHeading down to the beach for the main event, I was surprised that it was not as busy as expected, probably due to the size of the beach. We easily found a space to watch the fireworks and enjoy some drinks.

Unlike home, there is no countdown to the bells; the fireworks just started which always seems a little odd. The display was very good, after it finished the Brazilians head in to the water for a dip, in our merry state we decided to join them, good fun but I now need a new watch as mine did not agree with the antics.

After a few more beverages at the club, we started the walk back to Botafogo, I did wonder if the beer scooter would get us home but did not need to worry, as all the roads are closed, it was just a mass of people walking down motorways usually choked with traffic. In what seemed like no time we were back at the hostel for some much needed rest.

Time to depart Rio, Brazil and South America, what an amazing three months. Now we begin heading towards Asia, with a few stops on the way.

Christmas in Brazil!

Recreio dos Bandeirantes Sunset

Our next stop, Ubatuba, was picked on the basis that there was a bus available that could take us there, and also that accommodation wasn’t too expensive (and a little bit because it had a funny name). So when we arrived there, we had no knowledge of the town, no map, and absolutely no idea how to get to the hostel. We were completely at the mercy of our host, Vinnie, to show us around. Fortunately, he was the most accommodating hostel owner we’ve met, and after picking us up from the bus station, he quickly whisked us off to a remote and beautiful beach for an evening swim in lovely warm waters. An excellent welcome.

Ubatuba is a coastal town between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. We had 2 days there to swim, surf, and generally relax. Our first attempt at surfing on the hostel board was less than successful. It was a short board, probably designed for people who can surf, i.e. not us. Not long into my attempt, it hit my nose and gave me a nose bleed, whilst Paul sank pretty much every time he sat on it. We agreed then we definitely needed lessons.

Day two, and we decided to try paddle boarding. This is something I’ve been really keen to try, and Vinnie kindly arranged a lesson for us with his friend. It was much harder than it looked, especially as we had to contend with the tide and waves, but great fun. By the end of the lesson we were happily coasting across the sea, whilst our poor tutor desperately tried to keep up, swimming behind us.

Other than watersports, Ubatuba didn’t have much else to offer. Paul did have the biggest burger of his life – what they call here a lanch – and we found an amazing gelateria, but after exploring and getting very lost, we were quite confident there wasn’t much else to see. However, it was a great pit stop between the two biggest cities of Brazil, and we were ready to move to Recreio for Christmas.

Due to lack of planning on our part (apparently we never learn), the only bus we could get to Rio left Ubatuba at midnight and arrived at 5am. This meant we had to sit around Rio bus station for 2 hours before trying to navigate city centre buses out to our hostel. The buses suggested by the hostel didn’t seem to exist, so we had no choice but to take the advice of a grumpy tourist info lady and take 2 buses, guess at where to get off and then walk. Normally, this would have been a reasonable journey, but given our lack of sleep and the incredible heat, we arrived in Recreio grumpy and ready to collapse. As our room wasn’t ready, we chose to collapse on the beach instead.

Recreio is about 40 minutes out of Rio, a spot famous for its excellent surfing beaches. We had planned to be surfing on Christmas Day, and sure enough, we were. We were a lot more successful this time, mainly because we were using giant foam boards. Although the waves themselves weren’t huge, the biggest battle was getting into the water, as they often crashed right on the shore and totally wiped you out before you even started.

SurfboardsOur hostel in Recreio was a lovely laid back surfers hostel, and after our morning surf the hostel owners made all the guests a Christmas lunch.

Sitting outside in the baking heat eating your lunch with a santa hat on was quite a surreal way to spend Christmas Day, and a million miles away from the usual layers and cold. More than anything else, it just felt like a normal day.

Paul PaddleboardingWe also had another chance to try paddle boarding, this time on a lake. With no waves to contend with, plus having the right equipment (our first lesson was on windsurf boards), we now feel like pros.

After a week in coastal towns we’re now ready to return to the city. Our last 5 days in South America will be spent in the bright lights of Rio de Janiero. I can’t wait.