Posted by: vivalatinamerica | July 4, 2012

Country Notes and Tales From Travellers

Travel Advice for Latin America

While on the road, there’s nothing better than a bit of advice from fellow travellers. The people you meet may have varying standards, views and expectations, but their comments can be invaluable.

Travelling through Latin America is virtually impossible without coming across a travel delays, demonstrations, or bouts of crazy weather. Most people are armed with a guidebook of some sort, but this just isn’t enough. A guy who has seen the city for himself just the day before will have a fresher take on things, and the couple that just crossed the border from the other direction will have relevant information.

As a seasoned traveller and terrible gossip, I picked up plenty of tidbits along the way. Here are some of the best ones:

Venezuela:  Proceed with Caution

Beautiful beaches, untouched landscapes and amazing adventures lie in wait. But this turbulent country is usually the scene of extreme travellers’ scare stories. As much as they relish in telling people about hold-ups, violence and victimisation, it’s actually putting a lot of people off.

One girl told me her entire bus was forced to strip down to their underwear so armed bandits could take all their valuables without being tricked by concealed pockets and money belts. Not good.

Columbia: The Backpackers’ Favourite

This colourful country used to be the setting for travellers’ horror stories, but nowadays it’s a must-see on every itinerary. Those who skipped it were kicking themselves for being wimps. In the flesh, it’s a calm and welcoming place with enough edginess to keep the backpackers coming.

It was the star of most people’s trips and a standout favourite with almost everyone I spoke to. Whether they had hiked in the coffee regions, partied in the cities or swum in the Caribbean, they were hooked.

Bolivia: The Surprise Stand-out

Peru’s little sister and lacking a beach, Bolivia is forgotten all too often. Overlanders pass through not knowing what to expect, and are bombarded with tantalising sights, sounds and smells. It really is another world.

Fiercely traditional and with a rich culture, it’s both fascinating and authentic. It’s also the best place to explore the Amazon on a budget.

Argentineans Just Want to Dance

People who stay up late to watch Newsnight are often worried about the British/ Argentine situation. It’s probably not a good idea to make Malvinas t-shirts, but generally, people couldn’t care less if you were British.

To test the water, I tried to strike up polite conversation about it in a bar with some Argentinean friends. It was as if I had started discussing trigonometry. They knew it existed, but it bored them immensely. Impossibly cool, one well-dressed man stood up and took my hand. “Let’s decide this on the dancefloor,” he purred.

Too Many Theft Stories from Ecuador

By far the most common crime against tourists was pick-pocketing. Quito and certain areas of Buenos Aires were the main offenders, with one (albeit slightly inebriated) guy even proclaiming that if you haven’t been robbed, you haven’t been to Quito.

Plenty of people had wallets and iPods lifted from back pockets. Many had resorted to putting little padlocks on backpacks or actually carrying a fake wallet with old credit cards to trick would-be thieves. My favourite complaint came from a Canadian guy who had his fake wallet stolen: “It’s just annoying, because now I have to make up another one.” Missing the point, perhaps?

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | June 6, 2012

The Manrey Hotel, Panama City, Panama

Looking out across the breathtaking Panama City skyline with a cocktail in hand is the perfect way to end my trip. The city has been a bit of a culture shock after months on the road, but it’s a welcome one.

A tale of two cities, the quaint and cobbled Old Town (El Casco Viejo) is just a taxi ride away from the glittering malls and skyscrapers that modern Panamanians pride themselves on today. This country is out to prove to the world that ‘it’s not just a canal’, and the ambitious building and extensive polishing have made some big changes over the past few years.

Huge cars transport business people to meetings while shoppers carry tiny dogs in special carry cases. Albrook Mall houses every retailer you can imagine, and with so much fast food temptation around you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the States. But the vibe of the city is distinctly Latin, and as I pass beach parties on the outskirts of picturesque Old Town I’m greeted with huge smiles and waves. Out here, it’s always happy hour.

All the big players in the hotel world are keen to make their mark on this forward-looking city, so there’s plenty of choice for visitors. The first Hard Rock Hotel in Latin America opened here six months ago and Trump has a Tower here.

I’m a sucker for a glitzy rooftop pool, so I get in touch with The Manrey Hotel. This hotel is as cosmopolitan as they come. Slick designs, shiny surfaces, squishy bathrobes and immaculate rooms. High-speed wifi, iPod docks and enormous widescreen TVs are all big pluses, too.

The service is fantastic from the start, and as the smiling receptionists arrange an early check-in for me, I’m invited to have a little breakfast. An indulgent buffet of fresh juices, cured meat, cheeses, bread, fruit and pastries is a sight for sore eyes after an overnight bus journey. Once I finish my frothy cappuccino I head up to my room. Silent, sleek and spacious, it’s the perfect oasis in this buzzing capital.  Rooms here start at the oddly specific price of $246.40, which is not bad at all for a hotel this high spec.

Fast forward to evening time and I’m absorbing the atmosphere on the roof. Mother Nature is putting on an impressive light show, and while lightening skips about overhead the city below is alive with music and colour. Here at the rooftop bar, the pool is glowing and the luxurious cocktails are going down a treat. This would be a fantastic place for a party.

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | May 21, 2012

Zipline Canopy Tour – Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

‘Hold the line behind you, because if you hold it in front, you will lose all your fingers when you hit the end’. Our guide, Marlon, lets out a belly laugh at the thought of this.

We’re about to go 100ft into the air for a canopy tour of Bastimentos, one of the most beautiful islands in Bocas del Toro.

The jungle is vibrating with sound. Crickets, frogs, birds and monkeys are roaring away, and the humidity is intense. The area is famous for its wildlife, and the most popular beach on this island, Red Frog, is named after the tiny poisonous critters that populate this paradise.

With little effort, we spot two red frogs on our way to the course. Burning a bright red, they are easy to spot, and one even pauses for a photograph.

The zipline tour is a great way to get an adrenaline fix in this relaxing oasis. After a few days of sunbathing and lazy walks to and from the beach bar, I’m jolted awake by the prospect losing all my digits on my right hand.

The first zipline is relatively short and not very high, but I still need to be pushed off the platform to get going. I tuck my legs underneath me and glide through the trees, letting out a little ‘whoop!’ as I reach the other side.

It’s quite a rush, and the next line, higher and longer than the first, is a breeze. High up in the trees now, I get to see this ecosystem from a totally new angle. The view is spectacular, with lush green vegetation and sprinkles of flowers.

During the course, we spot a sloth. A safe distance away in some hanging vines, this famously lazy creature is swinging like a monkey as it readjusts itself into a prime napping position.

There’s barely time to stare at this amazing creature before I’m abseiling down a huge tree. Suspended on the wire and dropping sporadically (thanks to our hilarious guide), my heart is really going by the time we get to the obstacle course. Rope bridges, tightropes and wooden ladders challenge us at great heights, but we scramble through.

The final zipline allows you to pull out your best trick before gliding back down onto the final platform. I manage to go upside down, squealing the whole time until I’m lowered back down to earth. It’s time to get back to that beach bar.

Check out the tour company at; sign up for the canopy tour at (and it’s a good hostel, too).

Cath Millman




Posted by: vivalatinamerica | May 3, 2012

Peruvian Food at Saqra Restaurant, Lima

The food of the Andes is warming and hearty, but low on seafood and lacking spices. I’ve spent the last six weeks or so chowing down on quinoa, rice and llama and alpaca meat. There are hundreds of different kinds of corn and even more varieties of potatoes.

The soups are fantastic – nothing beats a homemade soup after a long day of walking in cold weather. Packed with plenty of veg and sometimes angel hair pasta, it’s usually my favourite thing on the menu.

Paprika makes an occasional appearance, but on the whole the food is pretty bland. I’ve met backpackers armed with vials of pepper and stock cubes along my travels.

Visitors wash down their breaded meat with Chicha Morada, a purple corn-based drink, or coca tea. Peru’s Pisco Sour is the tipple of choice, which includes whisked egg white, lime juice, and of course Pisco, a harsh spirit that packs a punch.

For me, the food so far here has been a mixed bag. But when I get to Lima on the coast, I’m invited to Saqra, a fresh and exciting restaurant that promises to change my views on Peruvian cuisine.

The moment we arrive, it’s easy to see why this place is so highly acclaimed. The atmosphere outside on the terrace is cool and relaxed. There are giggling twenty-somethings and well-dressed power couples, but there’s no air of superiority that you tend to find in trendy hangouts. It’s actually very welcoming, and a nicely quirky. Inside, every chair is different, and has been handpicked and lovingly restored.

The menu is quirky too. Saqra means “little devil” in Spanish, so every dish has a naughty twist or an edge to it. The menu tries to sum up what Peruvians are eating today: a mix of mountain wholesomeness, jungle fruits and coastal seafood, plus international influences. And it’s all reasonably priced.

I feel it would be rude not to order a Pisco Sour, and instead of the spiky infusions I’m used to guzzling, this delicate cocktail is refreshing and ever so drinkable. It’s presented in a glass made out of a wine bottle (sustainability is important here) and adorned with a slice of starfruit.

I start with black pudding squares. Chicken-based with Asian flavours, these little mouthfuls are delightfully moreish. Afterwards, Calamari and swordfish beckons, but I go for a pepper steak. Juicy and succulent with a creamy pepper sauce, this indulgence rivals anything I’ve tasted in Argentina.

The decision on dessert is just as difficult, with homemade sorbets and rice pudding on offer. I go for deep fried doughnuts filled with banana (I’m on holiday), and wash it down with another delightful Pisco Sour.

By the end of the meal, I’m not only a Pisco Sour convert, but a Peruvian cuisine champion in general. Gracias, Saqra!

Cath Millman

Saqra Restaurant

Address: Av. La Paz 646, Miraflores. LIMA – PERÚ

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | May 1, 2012

Mud, glorious mud – Volcán El Totumo, near Cartagena, Colombia

As I lower myself gingerly into the molten ooze, a pair of hands pushes me down further. But rather than sink into the mud never to return, I pop straight back up again like a cork.

It’s not every day you get to slop about in a mud-filled volcano, but Volcán El Totumo, a mud volcano outside Cartagena in Colombia offers just that. This mucky mountain draws visitors throughout the day, some choosing to hop on a local bus, and others opting for the faster but pricier tour bus.

Complete strangers rub shoulders in this bath for hours – it’s great fun. I opt for a massage and lie back in the ooze while a nice man rubs my aching back. It’s very messy and the photos are hilarious (don’t worry; another guy is on hand to take everyone’s photos on their cameras for them).

Once my massage is over, I’m pushed like a submarine into the middle of the pool. Feeling utterly relaxed, I lie there for a moment. It’s very easy to float, too easy in fact. When I try to sit back up again my legs refuse to tuck underneath my body. Another mud bather kindly pushes my knees down, and I stand up tall to feel the full effects.

About 20 meters high, this almost bottomless pit sinks down for 2,000m. But don’t worry, there’s no way of reaching the bottom. Rather than having to tread water, I just float there, suspending in gross goo. There are bits in the mud, and it starts to dry and crack around my face. I try and remind myself that rich women in Manhattan probably spend thousands of dollars on this treatment, but I can’t help but feel a bit icky.

It’s time to go, and as I yank myself out of the mud, another pair of hands gives me a rub down. This process is equally hilarious; one man’s swimming trunks completely slip off as the guy helps him get out. Still giggling and completely covered head to toe in gunk, I pick my way down to dry land.

Like every travellers’ point of interest the world over, this little volcano has brought enterprising families and salesmen to its perimeters. Little kids offer to wash your flip flops for you and a man is selling – wait for it – bottled mud.

But the place isn’t completely overrun just yet, and instead of showers at the end of the afternoon, we’re led to the lake. I sit myself down in the water and start to rub my arms, but before I have time to protest a bucket of water is tipped over my head.

A freakishly strong lady is washing me like a naughty kid. Sloshing water over me and rubbing me a little too hard, she is determined to get this shit off. I shriek as a knowing hand slides under my back strap and whisks of my bikini. Having stolen my top, she starts scrubbing it ferociously. Once again I have uncontrollable giggles, and by the time she claims my bikini bottoms I’m completely helpless. Hearing the other shouts and giggles doesn’t help.

Within minutes, we’re released back into society, still snorting with laughter and a little spaced out. I feel giddy, relaxed and dazed all at the same time. It’s been a funny sort of day.

Cath Millman

A tour bus from your hotel to the volcano starts from 35,000COP including lunch. A massage, photos on your camera, and a rigorous wash costs an additional 3,000COP each. Do not give to beggars or kids (not even sweets – they rot their teeth). The volcano is about 45minutes away from Cartagena on private transport. The local bus takes a lot longer but is much cheaper. Bring a swimsuit and towel with you.

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | April 28, 2012

Luxury in Lima – Hotel El Libertador

I usually sleep in tents, hammocks or bunk beds, so sinking into a huge bed with crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows while looking out over a fabulous city skyline is a real treat.

I’m in El Libertador in Lima, a slick skyrise in the heart of the business district. Clearly backpackers rather than bankers, my friend and I stand out like two sore thumbs, but from the bellboys to the receptionists to the smiley chambermaids, everyone is courteous and welcoming.

This classy hotel has all the little extras you would expect, plus a lovely pool. One of the good things about staying in a more corporate hotel is the fact that you are on a different timescale to everyone else. By the time you’re ready for a morning swim, everyone else is in on their second cup of coffee in the conference centre.

Wrapping up in dressing gowns and padding around the spacious room, it’s difficult to tear ourselves away and explore this amazing city. But we do eventually manage to browse the malls and cafes in the area.

Business folk are dashing about and families are guzzling ice creams together. People are cradling little dogs and wearing designer shoes. This is the shiny, prosperous side to Peru, and it feels like a different world.

My first bubble bath for three months was a perfect end to the day. And after one of the best sleeps of the trip so far, we wander down to breakfast. After plenty of fruit, fresh yoghurt, eggs, pancakes and mini pastries, we are ready for the day ahead.

Away from the touristy areas of Lima, this is a little haven of calm. And with great views and fantastic service, this is a chance to see a different side of Lima – a metropolitan, ambitious, business-minded place that would be a fantastic place to live and work, not just visit.

Cath Millman

Category: 4 stars

Address: Los Eucaliptos 550, San Isidro

Phone: (+51 1) 518 6300


Rooms from 180USD per night

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | April 24, 2012

The Thing About Coca

You may not have heard of coca, but these green leaves are a common sight in the Andes region. Whether it is boiled up as tea or held in mouths for hours on end, many men and women from the north west of Argentina to Venezuela couldn’t live without it. And if you’re a Coca-Cola fan, you probably couldn’t live without it, either.

Coca is wonderful stuff. It staves off hunger, thirst, pain and tiredness, and it gives you a mild buzz like caffeine. It contains calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins B1, B2, C, and E, and nutrients including protein and fibre. It has also been used in burials and other religious ceremonies for thousands of years.

A bag of leaves can be bought for about one US dollar, and will last an amateur the duration of their stay. Many travellers I met were saved from sickness and given much needed boosts thanks to the leaves.

It’s also a nice way to bond with locals – I haven’t met a single person who has refused a few leaves on a long walk or out on the farm. When embarking on the Inca Trail; or fighting socorro at high altitudes, the use of coca leaves is encouraged.

Coca is not chewed or sucked, but stored between your gums and cheek. With a little help from baking soda, saliva slowly breaks down the leaves, releasing the juices and the effects.

Depending on where you’re from, you’ll either rip the leaves and take out the hard stalks, or just roll up everything together and pop it in your mouth. The pack can stay there for hours, and people look like hamsters as they pack more and more leaves into their cheeks throughout the working day.

Routinely used in communities for generations, the coca plant is pretty innocuous. It takes about 300 grams of coca leaves to make just one gram of cocaine. Despite this, it’s still under sharp scrutiny.

In most countries outside of South America, the law sees coca as a Class A drug, the same as cocaine. It’s a bad idea to bring coca products including teabags and sweets out of the countries they are sold. Coca is also illegal in Argentina (except in some northern provinces where the practice is widespread), Paraguay and Brazil. So enjoy this magical plant while you can.

Cath Millman

Anyone with a passing interest in coca should head to the coca museum in the Witches’ Market in La Paz. This small but informative museum is thoughtfully laid out with plenty of information in English as well as Spanish.


Posted by: vivalatinamerica | April 10, 2012

The Inca Trail – Peru

Scrambling up impossibly high and narrow steps, panting for breath and trying not to slip on the soaking wet stones, I launch myself up into the Sun Gate. The famous 15th Century ruins of Machu Picchu are tucked away in a bed of cloud, but the lack of a view doesn’t dampen my spirits too much.

This is the finale to a grueling three-day trek along the famous Inca Trail, and I feel fantastic. Peru’s iconic stretch of this ancient road has been followed by thousands, and having completed the journey I can see why.

The 26 miles of road passes through teetering mountains, babbling brooks, stunning landscapes and fascinating flora and fauna, before descending into cloud forest and thick jungle. Spectacled Bears, pumas and cougars inhabit this wild terrain. There are some fascinating ruins along the way, which add the magic of the place.

As well as being beautiful, the trail is a challenge. Reaching altitudes of 4200m above sea level it includes sharp descents, slippery terrain and imposing cliff edges. The killer for most is Dead Woman’s Pass, a five-hour climb up endless steps and stones.

The Incas used their intricate system of roads – which linked about 25,000 miles of roadway – to transport information, products and people. But it’s believed that the road to the mighty Machu Picchu was more than just a highway. Intentionally tough, it’s a pilgrimage to a sacred sanctuary. The Incas believed that by walking the walk, they would cleanse their souls.

Even today, the road is a life-changing experience for many. Whether they are achieving physical goals, or finding their spiritual side, it is certainly an unforgettable experience. Soon afterwards the clouds lifted to reward weary travellers with the awesome sight of the citadel, bigger and better than the postcards.

If you are thinking about taking the journey of a lifetime, here are my top tips:

1. Go with a reputable company. The trek would be impossible without a merry band of porters – local men who haul all the tents, equipment and food allowing tourists to carry just their day packs. Make sure they are well looked after. Also check environmental policies and safety standards.

2.  Bring some change. With a talented cook in the team, you will certainly be well fed during the trip. But a cold beer at the end of the day or a bit of chocolate at a summit will lighten your spirits no end. You may also want to try some coca leaves to help prevent altitude sickness.

3.  If travelling during rainy season, wrap everything in plastic bags and invest in a plastic rain poncho before you set off. Wool dries quickly and a little towel is also useful. You’ll need sunscreen all year round.

4. Don’t forget to tip the porters and the guides at the end. Also be prepared to share coca leaves, sweets and water with them along the way. Don’t be afraid to shout words of encouragement as they zoom past with their huge backpacks – a little bit of Quechua goes a long way.

5.  Keep smiling. Early starts, all weathers, exhausting climbs and crappy nights’ sleeps will test your patience. But that’s all part of the experience. Take photos of the bad bits as well as the good. You’ll laugh about it later.

6.  Invest in some decent walking shoes and take at least one walking stick for balance. The other essential items are: a torch, toilet paper and insect repellant. You also need your passport along with your permit to enter the park. Don’t forget to get it stamped for major bragging rights.

Cath Millman

We went with G Adventures as part of a three week tour called Inca Heartland:

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | March 21, 2012

Three-Day Trek with Condor Trekkers – from Sucre, Bolivia

Having spent a few days in pretty Sucre, I wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few days. Condor Trekkers offer treks for all abilities, and as a not-for-profit organisation that invests time and money into local communities, their three-day adventure is the perfect way to give a little something back to this magical place.

We drive to Sucre’s highest point and see the sunrise over breakfast. The food was healthy and fresh, complete with hot drinks. As the bus trundles back down into the city, it’s all on foot from here.

Peering over the other side of the mountain, I see the Inca Trail for the first time. Partly cloaked in morning mist, it is a work of careful engineering. Each stone has been specifically placed to slot into this ancient camino, and as we pick our way down I can’t help but think about the countless others who have followed this very path.

We pass a small farm and continue through emerald green fields and babbling brooks. The mountains in the distance are checkered with green patches, remnants of altitude-defying pre-Columbian farming. Cows and goats wander aimlessly and birds are singing in the forest.

There’s no denying it – this trek is tough. There are some steep ascents – the one-hour uphill struggle to escape the canyon on day three particularly stands out for me.

At another point we are scrambling along a narrow grit platform with nothing to hold onto, other than the hope that we won’t slip down into the waterfalls below.

What’s extra special about the trek is the people you meet. One lunchtime we stop at a farmer’s house, who gives us an impromptu concert, strumming away on his guitar while we dance in the sunshine. We also meet some really sweet kids, who have set up their own enterprises such as selling home-made bracelets. By the end of the trip, everyone is wearing a knotted band on their wrist and our packs are a little lighter from giving away fruit and other bits and pieces.

These were just small, spontaneous gestures, but by giving our money to Condor Trekkers we were also contributing to something much more long-lasting. The company works closely with local communities to support various projects. In one village, Condor Trekkers bought the pipes to plumb running water into the valley for the first time. In another, some beautiful holiday cabanas are being rented out by the community, which we had the pleasure of staying in. In the city, Condor Trekkers are also helping to support educational programmes and support networks for young families. Everyone works as an unpaid volunteer, except the local guides.

Our guide, Antonio, is an absolute star. He is great with the kids and is equally patient with the trekkers as we splutter and gasp to keep up with him through this amazing world.

He doesn’t announce the dinosaur footprints, allowing us all to do a double-take as we clap eyes on these prehistoric signatures. It’s as if they wandered past that morning – they are astonishingly clear and completely unmistakable.

The final stretch is much smoother, allowing us to take in the stunning views and reflect on the last few days. This is a beautiful place and Condor Trekkers are doing some fantastic things to help preserve the countryside and the traditional way of life out here.

Email to come along on a trek or enquire about volunteering. You can also like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter (@CondorTrekkers) to help spread the word.

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | March 12, 2012

Bowled over by Bolivia – Salta to Villazon border crossing

In the lovely northern Argentinean town of Salta, one of the main discussions over the hostel kitchen table is about making the leap into Bolivia. Argentinean bus companies will not take you into the country, so you have to travel to La Quiaca and then walk to La Frontera (the border) before going through security and hopping onto another bus.

Rumours and scare stories abound, and many backpackers grab a cab for the ten minute walk to the border officials. When we make the journey, it’s the morning after the night before Carnaval, and the town is dead to the world. We follow the stream of travellers through a mass of empty beer bottles and discarded silly string. It’s freezing cold, and everyone is serious about getting where they need to go.

We reach the border just as it opens at 6am. There’s a queue, but after an hour and a half we’re at the window. It’s really straightforward, and two stamps and one form later we’re allowed in for 30 days.

It’s within spitting distance of Argentina, but Villazon could be on another planet. The change is instant and fundamental. Old ladies are suddenly donning little bowler hats and brightly coloured shawls, and the roads are throbbing with life. Dogs are roaming, babies are bundled up on backs, old women are wielding carts filled with tasty empanadas and fruit juices, and you can buy everything from phone chargers to beach towels.

We are literally bowled over. After the quiet order of Salta, it’s a bit of a shock. We scramble to the bus station (just walk straight ahead along the main road and keep going through the main square) and everyone is shouting the name of their company’s destination. We listen out for Tupiza and begin an easy if somewhat bumpy journey through red mountains and cactuses. It’s possible to take the train, but the buses are more frequent.

Crossing the babbling river into Tupiza, things are slightly calmer but still pretty raw. Snacks and drinks stalls abound, and these little old ladies with impossibly balanced hats still seem to be running the show.

Bolivia is an adventure – it feels authentic and so very different from home. The people are genuine and kind, if a little more reserved than their Argentinean neighbours. They are probably sick of being reminded that Bolivia is the poorest country in the Americas – they’re more concerned with getting their kids to school and earning an honest living. Everyone’s just getting on with life, making the best empanadas known to man and somehow attaching 1920’s British millinery to their noggins. And why not?

Cath Millman

Buses in Argentina are generally much better than in Bolivia. Visit to check timetables and prices. Bolivian buses tend not to take bookings until the day, and once aboard the facilities are very basic. Most don´t even have a toilet. The best company for security and punctuality I’ve found so far is Copacabana Flota. Opt for a ‘cama’ seat if you´d like your seat to recline enough for a nap. Check for more information:

Older Posts »