The northern tip of South America – La Guajira

desierto-de-la-guajira-8After a two day, bumpy journey through barren lands with only cacti and occasional coastlines, you arrive in the north of La Guajira. Your brain cannot keep up with your eyes and all you can do is take in every single moment grateful that you are getting to experience one of the most magical but isolated places in the world. After my 13 months traveling through South America, if I had to pick the single most amazing place I got to experience (and yes, I was in Patagonia and Macchu Picchu), it is this indigenous land in the north of Colombia – no contest.

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The journey commences in the Caribbean coast of Colombia, near the tourist playground of Santa Marta. From here, you take a local bus up to Riohacha – a good place to buy artistic Colombian handicrafts such as hammocks and handbags. In Riohacha, your best option is to find a tour agency offering a trip to La Guajira… normally these are 3 or 4 day all inclusive tours starting at about US $300.

Your tour begins in a 4WD that can seat 4 and you are introduced to your driver/ guide for the first section of the journey. Hopefully someone in your group speaks good Spanish because the Caribbean dialect is incredibly hard to decipher and it is going to be a long trip. Your driver takes you to a little store and tells you to stock up on candy. You are bewildered and curious but arrive back at the car with a nice supply of sweets.

364678As the journey out of Riohacha begins, the paved roads end and eventually you are actually driving through (for a lack of better word) terrain. There are no roads, no signs, just a lot of cacti, rocks and bumps. For a very long time. Now, the reason I recommend a tour is because La Guajira is the territory of the Wayuu Indians – it means normal Colombian laws do not apply here. When on a tour, your driver will be a local… he will know the area, the people, the language and you will end up in places doing things that you could never begin to plan as an independent traveler.

After a few hours, you will start to see some houses amongst the cacti. All of a sudden the car pulls to a halt. You stick your head out the window to see what is happening and realise that there are children on either side of the car holding a rope across the front. The driver instructs you to pull out the candy and hand it to the kids. You do, they giggle and drop the rope and onwards continues the journey. This happens repeatedly.

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The next few days are spent sleeping in the most beautifully crafted hammocks, eating fresh fish and lobster caught in front of you, frolicking in the bluest oceans, playing with countless sheep, running through endless sand dunes, experiencing the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets, doing handstands with local children on tiny little sand islands in the middle of the Caribbean Sea – all the while never seeing a single soul who isn’t in your group or with the Wayuu Indians who are hosting you for the night. You are well and truly off the beaten track and it is worth every single second, penny and bump.

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The Kingdom of Bhutan

Now here’s an intriguing country.

Trongsa DzongDid you know that in Bhutan, instead of a Gross National Product they measure the Gross National Happiness (GNH)? It’s an attempt by the government to define the quality of life in a more holistic, spiritual way . Bhutan is located between India and China and has a predominantly Buddhist population. Some interesting tidbits:

  • There is a king. It’s an absolute monarchy.
  • Skateboarding was banned a few years ago due to accidents with cars.
  • Televisions were only introduced in 1999 which makes Bhutan the last country in the world to have them.
  • Plastic bags and tobacco are banned on the grounds that they make the country less happy. Bhutan is the only non-smoking country on the planet.
  • In the capital, Thimpu, there is one junction where there is a man employed as a human traffic light. They did introduce the computer kind once upon a time but the people found them too frustrating so they had to bring the man back.
  • You cannot obtain a visa to travel independently in the kingdom, you have to be part of an arranged tour. You are also required to pay a tourist surcharge which is anywhere between $165-240 per night.

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How to get to Montanita

f0000018Oh Montanita. If you are on the South American backpacking trail, there is no doubt that you will hear tales of this mystical land. And let me tell you, everything is true. Really. And it is actually even better than that.

Great waves, spectacular sunsets, friendly locals and a party scene that makes the Thai full moon fiesta seem like a pizza party – this tiny surf village on the west coast of Ecuador is the stuff that dreams are made of. But how do you get there?

Your trusty English language guidebook will probably tell you that there are 3 buses a day from the bus terminal in Guayaquil. What I have seen most tourists (including myself) do is plan the entire journey to make one of those 3 bus connections, thinking that if they were missed you will get stuck in Guayaquil for the night. Ignore your guidebook completely.

DSC01428The truth is that you are in Ecuador and everything is possible, always. There are 3 direct buses a day from Guayaquil to Montanita but loads and loads of indirect buses leaving all the time. When you find yourself in the bus terminal in Guayaquil, buy a ticket on any bus to Santa Elena or Salinas. Santa Elena is a small little town abut 1h 45min away, the bus driver will announce loudly when the bus stops there. As soon are you are off the bus, loads of locals will be trying to hoard you towards Montanita.

If you are there during the day time, you can get on a local bus to Montanita (the locals will point you to the stop where more than likely loads of other gringos are waiting). If you arrive late at night, you will get pointed to a collectivo or a shared mini-bus taxi where you pay $4 for your seat to Montanita. A private taxi from Santa Elena is about $15.

Next stop, Montanita. Enjoy. I’m jealous.

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Happy Australia Day!

Getting into the spirit of Australia Day...

Getting into the spirit of Australia Day…

It is the 26th of January and if you are in Australia or planning a trip down under, this is undoubtedly the best day of the year to be in my adopted homeland. It’s summertime, a public holiday and everybody is celebrating.

The day usually begins at midday, the same time Triple J begins their Hottest 100 countdown. Every December, Triple J (a youth focused radio station) allows you to vote for your favourite 10 songs of the year. On Australia Day, they play the top 100 songs counting down to number 1. It is the largest music poll in the world, over a million people voted in 2011. So on Australia Day, you find a BBQ – be it down on the beach or at someone’s house – bring some beers, put on the Hottest 100 and celebrate Australia and life in general. The national Big Day Out music festival also usually coincides with Australia Day and for some reason, the Sydney Big Day Out is often the hottest day of the year in the city.

A little bit of history – Australia Day is the national day of Australia and celebrates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. The First Fleet was a group of 11 ships from Great Britain largely carrying convicts (they used to take prisoners to Australia). Australia Day commemorates the first British settlement in Australia. There are records of celebrations being held as early as 1808.

Today, Australia Day is an excuse to get into the spirit of Australia and have a big party, be it in Australia or overseas. I remember trying to get into the Australian pub in Paris one Australia Day only to find that it was completely full – of Australians, Kiwis and the French in equal numbers. Despite waving Australian passports at the bouncer, we were refused entry… because everyone gets to be Australian on Australia Day!

Australia Day party in Floripa, Brasil

Australia Day party in Floripa, Brasil

Last year, I found myself on an island called Florianopolis in Brasil. Somehow all us Australians found each other on Australia Day, hijacked a swimming pool, a stereo to stream the Hottest 100 and a BBQ in a hostel and used body paint and magic markers to turn everyone else Australian for the day.

On that note,¬†Happy Australia Day! I am going to return to the Hottest 100 now…