“If you don’t have a Lebanese friend, go and find one.”

Lebanon, home to a glorious national cuisine, a string of sexy beach resorts and the Middle East’s most glamorous, hedonistic city (Beirut), this is also a country where the fiery orators and fierce foot soldiers of Hezbollah are based, and where huge populations of Palestinian and Syrian refugees currently shelter. Damaged by decades of civil war and the invasions and interventions of neighbouring nations, Lebanon is nonetheless blessed with magnificent mountain vistas, majestic ancient ruins and an indomitable, hospitable people. Lonely Planet Publications.

Byblos POP 35,000.

A pretty fishing port with an ancient harbour, medieval town centre, Crusader-era castle and atmospheric archaeological site, Byblos is a wonderful choice if you want a night or two out of Beirut, but it’s also an easy and enjoyable day trip. The seaside, good accommodation and eating options, and a lively party scene in the old souq make it a likeably hedonistic place that packs out in summer.

Baalbek POP 35,000.

Known as the Heliopolis or ‘Sun City’ of the ancient world, Baalbek’s ruins comprise the most impressive ancient site in Lebanon and are said to be the best preserved in the Middle East. The temples here, which were built on an extravagant scale, have enjoyed a stellar reputation throughout the centuries, yet still manage to maintain the appealing air of an undiscovered wonder because of their semi-rural setting.

Journey time from Beirut: allow 3-hours one way to take into account traffic and minibus changes. Route (from Hamra district): take minibus 24 to Cola, then a minibus to Choudra (saht shtwra) then a minibus to Baalbek. This last minibus may drop you off on the highway turning for Baalbek, in which case you will need to take another minibus for the final few kilometres. Total cost, for the whole trip, should be no more than 8,000 Lebanese Pounds ($5.00 USD). Entrance fee to the Baalbek archeological site is currently 15,000 Lebanese Pounds ($10.00 USD).

Where in the world.

Lebanon.

The Lebanese flag.

The old harbour in Byblos.

Byblos.

The Souk area of Byblos.

Baalbek.

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Food for thought and a feast for the senses (& the stomach).

The diminutive Mediterranean country of Lebanon is a fascinating nexus point of the Middle East and the West; of Christianity and Islam; of tradition and modernity. It’s a place where culture, family and religion are all-important, but where sectarian violence can too often erupt – claiming lives and scarring both the landscape and the national psyche.

BEIRUT – POP 2.2 MILLION

If you’re looking for the real East-meets-West so talked about in the Middle East, you need look no further than Beirut. Fast-paced, fashion-conscious and overwhelmingly friendly, it’s not a relaxing city to spend time in – it’s too crowded, polluted and chaotic for that – but its energy, soul, diversity and intoxicating atmosphere make it a vital, addictive city. A couple of excellent museums are the key sights, but exploring the character of the different districts, strolling the waterfront and diving into the city’s wonderful restaurant and nightlife scene are major attractions. As Lebanon is so small, and day trips easy, I based myself in the capital for the entire visit – apart from one night in Byblos.

Highly recommended in Beirut city:-

Accommodation: J Hotel and Spa – located in the Hamra district of the city. Great location, super clean hotel with great facilities, and extremely friendly and engaging staff. Mini-bus connections, to all parts of the city, are close by.

Sightseeing: Free Walking Tour Beirut – a great way to get to know the history and layout of Beirut. Our tour guide Elisa was knowledgeable and tremendously animated. The tour itself proved to be both informative and thought provoking.

Museum: Beirut National Museum – fascinating and a ‘must see’.

TRIPOLI – POP 315,000

Captivating Tripoli (Trablous in Arabic), Lebanon’s second-largest city, is famous for its medieval Mamluk architecture, including a bustling and labyrinthine souq that is the best in the country and full of atmosphere. The city is also blessed with incredible examples of Crusader and Ottoman era architecture.

Next stage: Byblos and Baalbek.

The Corniche Beirut.

New & Old Beirut.

Scars from the civil war – The Holiday Inn Beirut.

The National Museum Beirut.

The National Museum Beirut.

Remains of Roman Beirut.

The Great Mosque Beirut.

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Puerto Rico Public Transport – the lack of!

Apart from the excellent bus and metro systems in San Juan, transportation in Puerto Rico is heavily dependent on the motor car. Road congestion, all over the island, at peak times, is horrific.

Rail transport in Puerto Rico can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Puerto Rico’s rail transport system expanded significantly, becoming one of the largest rail systems in the Caribbean. However, the entire system was soon overshadowed by the arrival of the automobile, and by the 1950’s was completely abandoned.

Bus transportation between large towns is now non existent, something I found extremely hard to understand – considering the shear volume of traffic and the level of congestion. Arecibo and Ponce each have a building that once housed a very large bus terminal. Both buildings are now derelict and falling apart.

This leaves only three ways to get around the island; hire a car, hire a taxi, or find a público. The first two options are not cheap and don’t facilitate the opportunity to meet locals.

Públicos, or public cars, are a unique choice for getting around the island of Puerto Rico. A cross between taxis and buses, públicos are privately owned vans designed to take travelers into hard-to-reach urban areas. A one-way trip from San Juan to Ponce runs about $25 USD, making públicos less expensive than taxis and a great way to meet locals. One drawback is that they tend to make frequent stops, so they are not the most time-efficient mode of transportation, but if you’re not in a big hurry, the price and experience can more than make up for this inconvenience. In theory you should be able to circumnavigate the whole island on a Público.

I struggled to get from Arecibo to Ponce and ended up paying an American guy £60.00 ($75USD) to drive me there. The other option would have been to pay a taxi £100.00 ($130USD). Uber is possible though the service is a little sketchy.

San Juan to Arecibo to Ponce to San Juan.

Top card: San Juan to Ponce ($25USD). Bottom card: Ponce to San Juan ($30USD).

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Puerto Rico.

Old San Juan.

“Puerto Rico: Scented by slow roasted pork and sea breezes, and coloured by swashbuckling history: this sun-washed medley of Spanish and American influences is a paradise-seeker’s pleasure dome.” Lonely Planet – Puerto Rico.

My route: San Juan to Arecibo to Ponce to San Juan.

San Juan.

Old San Juan is a colourful kaleidoscope of life, music, legend and history. It’s an unmissable sight, the crown jewel of Puerto Rico. From the blue-toned, cobblestoned streets to 400-plus historically listed buildings to the stunning ocean views, the visual treats seem boundless.

The best place to base yourself is Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan). Accommodation wise, you don’t get much for your buck here – but this is more than made up for by the sights, sounds, and smells of this incredible location.

Balcony at Hotel CasaTripGoGo – Old San Juan.

Old San Juan.

Sunday afternoon flying kites.

Banco Popular building – art-deco.

Hotel El Convento.

Bar scene – Old San Juan.

Fort El Morro.

Arecibo.

As you approach Arecibo, in the crawl of traffic, it’s hard to imagine that this sprawling municipality of nearly 100,000 people is Puerto Rico’s third-oldest city (founded in 1556). The major attractions lay outside of town. The colosal Birth of the New World Monument represents the explorer Christopher Columbus sailing for the Americas. Other spectacular sights include the the world’s largest radio telescope, the Observatorio de Arecibo – as featured in the James Bond movie – The world is not enough. Also very much worth a visit is Cueva del Indio where impressive cave formations have been chiselled and hollowed out by the elements.

Arecibo.

Observatorio de Arecibo.

Birth of the New World Monument.

Cueva del Indio.

Ponce.

Strolling around the sparkling fountains and narrow architecturally ornamented streets of the historic centre certainly evokes Puerto Rico’s stately past. Unfortunately the neighbourhoods that surround the central square exhibit woeful characteristics of Puerto Rico’s present: irreducible snarls of congested traffic, economic stagnation and urban sprawl. However, if you stick to the centre with its outstanding colonial architecture and the dozen or so excellent museums you only need to experience Ponce’s elegant side.

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La República Dominicana – part one.

Catedral primada de América.

Last year (2018) I visited Cuba, a country which shares many similarities to The Dominican Republic. This will probably come as no surprise as they are obviously, geographically speaking, very close to each other.

As with both countries, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. With both countries I was completely wrong. My opinion on both would probably be very different had I stayed in an ‘all inclusive’ hotel. However, I wanted to ‘back pack’ round these two islands to try and get a better understanding of the culture and it’s people. This I failed to do, both countries proved extremely complex.

The Dominican Republic – my route (highlighted in green).

Santo Domingo or “La Capital” as it’s typically called, is a collage of cultures and neighbourhoods. It’s where the sounds of life – domino pieces slapped on tables, backfiring mufflers and horns from chaotic traffic, merengue and bachata blasting from corner stores – are most intense.

At the heart of the city is Zona Colonial, where you’ll find one of the oldest churches and the oldest surviving European fortress, among other New World firsts. It’s an easy place to explore on foot. 3-days is enough to visit the many attractions that are on offer.

A Caribe Tours bus comfortably whisked me north to the delightful town of Jarabacoa (pronounced arabacoa), where I enjoyed a visit to the waterfall – as featured in one of the Jurassic Park movies. I also went white water rafting – a truly exhilarating and ‘white knuckle’ experience.

I then travelled further north to the coastal town of Cabarete. My hotel was gorgeous, as were the beaches. The town itself was hideous – VERY touristy and VERY expensive.

I then moved on to Río San Juan, a small town with a lovely hotel (Bahia Blanca), a nice beach, and a multi national (middle aged) clientele who were extremely sociable. After a day relaxing and a day scuba diving I traveled further east to my next port of call – Las Terrenas.

If I thought Cabarete was bad, well ratchet things up considerably. Traffic here was on another level. As well as a plethora of motorbikes, we also had overweight tourists ripping up and down the street on quad bikes.

Some positives: the beach in Las Terrenas is very long and very nice. I stayed in a lovely boutique B&B, very clean and very spacious. Again, there was a multi national clientele. Breakfast was served in a communal area, which proved to be a great place to meet and chat with fellow guests. It also had a gorgeous garden in which to relax. My hosts were an Italian wife and Dominican husband. The B&B was unfortunately a 20 minute walk from the beach but this suited me just fine – it was well away from the noise and pollution of the town centre.

Travel around the island of The DR is relatively straightforward, and cheap – using buses, GuaGua’s (mini buses) or Moto Concho’s (motor bike taxis).

Some negatives: I have witnessed complacency, for a country that relies so heavily on tourism, on a level that I never thought possible. Whether in a hotel, a restaurant or in a shop, it felt like that my very presence was really just a major inconvenience. As for pollution (garbage); I thought India was bad. The DR is not far behind. I guess if you are bubble wrapped in an all inclusive hotel you would think quite highly of this country (?).

The goose that lays those golden eggs, tourists filled with dollars, could well be on her last legs.

Next stage: Puerto Rico.

Art work for sale in Santo Domingo.

Museo Alcázar de Colón.

Faro a Colón (Columbus Lighthouse).

Waterfall in Jarabacoa with my Moto Concho driver.

Cabarete.

Río San Juan.

Hotel Bahía Blanca – Río San Juan.

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Chihuahua.

Chihuahua, capital of Mexico’s biggest state, is a quirky but pleasant combination of norteño character, revolutionary history and bohemian studenty hangouts. Many travelers use it only as an overnight stop before or after riding the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico, but Chihuahua is worth more of your time. The city centre combines grand colonial buildings, several beautiful plazas, pedestrianized lanes and a crop of restaurants, cafes and bars. Its museums bear witness to the key episodes of Mexican history that unfolded here. In short, it is an interesting city with a strong sense of identity. Lonely Planet – México.

I very much enjoyed my time in Chihuahua; being in Chihuahua also meant being warm again.

The only negative was my hotel – a very odd place indeed. Run by a mother and son combo, they had a strange clientele of a somewhat dubious nature. They also insisted that their guests preferred breakfast from 10am to 1pm! Most unusual. Suffice to say I ate breakfast elsewhere, and spent as little time as possible at the hotel.

Next stage: La República Dominicana – The Dominican Republic.

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Creel – Zip Lining.

The Copper Canyon’s main tourism centre, Creel is actually no more than a low-key highland town strung out along the railway line. It’s a very likable place, surrounded by pine forests and interesting rock formations and it boasts several good hotels and restaurants. The Tarahumara, in their multihued dress, are commonly seen about town, and there’s a consistent tourist presence here, mainly in the form of tour groups. Lonely Planet – México.

At an altitude of 2330M, Creel gets very cold at night (during the winter). On my first morning in town I woke up to a hard frost – the town was white over. Thankfully, once the sun came up, the temperature warmed up very quickly. Nevertheless, this cold climate was an unwelcome interlude in an otherwise warm/hot vacation.

Zip Lining across the canyons.

The astonishing Parque de Aventura Barrancas del Cobre on the canyon rim between Areponápuchi and Divisadero includes Mexico’s longest series of tirolesas (zip-lines), suspended over some of the world’s most profound canyon scenery. The park’s seven lines take you from a height of 2400m to over halfway to the canyon floor and they include one single line that is an extraordinary 2.5km in length, the world’s longest.

A couple of heart-in-mouth wobbly bridges help you complete the cross-canyon odyssey. Safety standards are excellent: you’re always accompanied by a team of experienced zip-liners and all participants are decked out in full safety gear. Allow at least two and a half hours to descend to the spectacular viewpoint of Mesón de Bacajípare, as you have to travel in a group of around 15 people, meaning that there’s some waiting time as each person takes each line.

An early departure.

The cold temperature finally got to me. Hotel La Troje de Adobe was a great place to stay, my room was clean, spacious, had loads of blankets on the bed, and a small gas fire, which partially kept me warm. However, the lack of double glazing and any form of insulation meant that the room never actually got/stayed warm. After two nights (of a planned three) I had to move on to a warmer location – Chihuahua.

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Copper Canyon Railway – El Fuerte to Creel.

The simply breathtaking highland scenery in the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) region is nature on a very grand scale indeed. Of everything there is to see in northern Mexico, nothing comes close to the Copper Canyon, with its astonishing vistas at every turn, towering pine-clad mountains and the fascinating culture of the native Tarahumara people. Lonely Planet – México.

A labyrinth of seven main canyons covers an area four times larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and the canyons are, in several places, considerably deeper (over 1800m) than the Grand Canyon’s. The canyons have been gouged out of the sierra’s 25-million-year-old volcanic rock by tectonic movements and rivers.

Of all the train journeys I have enjoyed across the world this has to be one of the best. The scenery along the way, especially between El Fuerte and Divisadero, was absolutely incredible. Check out this video Copper Canyon Railway.

Ticket price for the 8-hour journey, between El Fuerte and Creel) was £57.00 (one way).

The CHEPE web site for bookings and timetables can be found here.

Next stage: Creel – Zip lining across the canyons.

El Fuerte.

The start of our journey.

Source: fineartamerica.com

Source: fineartamerica.com

The start of the breath taking scenery.

The ultimate view of the canyons – Divisadero.

The route.

The incredible climb of the railway can be appreciated from this chart.

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Los Mochis to El Fuerte.

A budget is a budget.

My 2018/19 trip to Latin America will not be cheap. This is partly down to the poor exchange rate, and partly down to this years destinations. As well as Mexico, my trip will also include the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico; hardly backpacker destinations it has to be said!

My pet hate in any country is having to use taxis – I avoid them whenever possible. However, when the situation dictates I now try and use Uber, which has saved me a small fortune thus far. It’s also helped an ageing traveller avoid humping his back-pack (now with an option to ‘wheel it’) on and off local buses.

Los Mochis airport does not like Uber, as I soon found out – with three drivers cancelling my request and the fourth explaining the reason why. The airport taxi wanted to charge me £15.00 for the 15 minute journey into town. My considered solution was to walk outside of the airport and try Uber again. Once outside the airport perimeter, and before I could even open the Uber app, an airport taxi appeared and offered me a 50% discount. I accepted the offer.

Los Mochis is an underwhelming city with very little to offer even the most inquisitive traveller. That is apart from the opportunity to enjoy an excellent fish restaurant – El Farallón, and to tuck into an amazing breakfast – Restaurant Panamá.

The following morning I took the bus to El Fuerte – the starting point of the Copper Canyon Railway. The train also departs from Los Mochis but the journey is not so spectacular and it adds a considerable amount of money to the ticket price.

“Clustered around a striking plaza and with a centre packed full of brightly painted colonial houses, El Fuerte oozes historic character. For many centuries the most important commercial center in north-western Mexico due to its proximity to the silver mines in the canyons, this is now a picturesque little town surrounded by one of Latin America’s last-standing dry tropical forests. Far preferable to Los Mochis as a place to start or end a trip on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico, it’s worth a stay of more than just a night to take a trip on the Río Fuerte and explore the unique sub-tropical countryside”. Lonely Planet – México.

El Fuerte proved to be a really nice place to spend a couple of nights. There is an interesting museum, a couple of nice restaurants, and a lovely walk to (and along) the nearby river.

Next stage: Copper Canyon Railway.

Restaurant Panamá – Los Mochis.

A selection of local breakfast dishes.

El Fuerte.

El Fuerte.

El Fuerte.

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La Paz to Los Mochis.

As the sun sets on La Paz, so draws the end of my travels in Baja California (Mexico). It has been an amazing journey. It truly is an extremely diverse and beautiful part of Mexico, and I’m so pleased that I made the effort to check it out. The next stage of my journey will take me from the peninsula to mainland Mexico.

“Baja, the earth’s second longest peninsula, offers over 1200km of the mystical, ethereal, majestic and untamed. Those lucky enough to make the full Tijuana to Los Cabos trip will find that the Carretera Transpeninsular (Hwy 1) offers stunning vistas at every turn. The middle of nowhere is more beautiful than you ever imagined, and people are friendly, relaxed and helpful – even in the border towns.” Lonely Planet – Mexico.

The high points: Whale watching in Guerrero Negro, the sleepy town of San Ignacio (and spending Christmas Eve with the Alford family), the beautiful town of Loreto, and finally – buzzing, but pleasant, La Paz.

The low points: Mexicali (soulless), Ensenada (just another big city), Christmas Day in Santa Rosalia, the absence of fellow back-packers (most people visit here with a car and so it’s not really a budget destination), some locations proved to be very expensive.

“Some people simply sip drinks and watch the sun disappear into the Pacific. Some choose to feel the rush of adrenalin as they surf that perfect wave. Others walk through sherbet-colored canyons or stare up at the night’s canopy of scattered-diamond stars. Whichever way you choose to take it, you’ll discover some of Baja’s many joys”. Lonely Planet – México.

Next stage: La Paz to Los Mochis ( mainland Mexico).

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