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Baja California – A tasty Mexican introduction

Baja Backpackers #hoptgf

Pacific Beach San Diego #hoptgfAfter spending two days in Downtown San Diego at the Hi Hostel in the Gaslamp Quarter we reached our first stop in Mexico.  Ensenada, Baja.  San Diego was nice enough but the weather was crappy.  The first day we grabbed our first view of the Pacific by walking down Pacific Beach to Mission Beach, before heading for some tacos at Sandbar and then managing to get on an MTV candid camera show along the front.  The second day was uneventful but drink was taken at the Barley Mash bar where they had 34 TV’s in the bar showing baseball and football.  I may have got my ear pierced by an extremely nice man with tattooed eyeballs and holes in his nose where there are not meant to be.

If you’re bored already and just want the snaps just click here

A hard day at the....#hoptgf The Gaslmap Quarter San Diego #hoptgf

Strolling into Tijuana #hoptgfMexico Ahoy! #hoptgfWe took the Blue line tram down to San Ysidro and soon found ourselves walking straight into Tijuana without anyone giving us a second look.  It took us roughly an hour to get from our hostel to Tijuana.  We realised we would have to actually enter the country legally so we went back to a nice man in full camouflage and an assault rifle to ask him for passport stamps.  After Ollie’s Spanish degree started to pay off we were out into the melee and landed on a bus bound for Ensenada, 1.5 hours south of the infamous TJ.  Ron Burgundy sayings were soon replaced with Manu Chao’s ‘Bienvenida A Tijuana‘ but we were soon out of the bus and into the middle of this ‘Low Key version of TJ’ in Baja California Norte.

Ensenada #hoptgfAfter getting lost straight off the bus, as no Mexico streets seem to have signs, we found ourselves in ‘El Corralito’ where a Mariachi band were playing in the back. Tasting our first Tequila and Indio beer at 2pm was justified by toasting a new country with the five o’clock rule dismissed for yet another day.   We spent one more day there.  A Saturday.  A cruise ship came in at 11am.  By 12pm the street was full of excitable American and Chinese tourists.  By 12:30pm everyone (The Americans mainly) were smashed and whistle-obsessed.  By 5pm, the town was dead again.  Back on the boat, bound for north of the border.  “Hey guys, haven’t you missed the boat?” The street vendor shouted at us.  We seemed to be the only gringos left in town.  We went to see the ‘Festival De Catrinas’. Bored Catrina's at Ensenada #hoptgf Catrinas are the ‘painted skull faced ladies’ you associate with Dia De Los Muertos.  Usually looking pretty scary, most of these girls were just not that into it.  One just rocking a pair of jeans… Personally I liked the fancy dress dog competition that preceded this main event, but each to their own I suppose!

Baja wine and mugs on the balcony #hoptgf

If you do find yourself in Ensenada (or TJ for that matter) you can take a tour of the wine region.  Slightly out of our budget and time frame we passed and just drank a very nice bottle instead on our balcony from Ensenada Wines, where we managed to swap a tenner for a really nice bottle.  The nice dude was collecting sterling for his dream trip to London, and didn’t have an orange one so was happy to oblige, as were we.

Making plans for moving on.  Baja is roughly 1500km in length and has ‘Highway 1’ which connects Tijuana in the north with Cabo San Lucas at the south.  Trying to plan a journey to a small place 8 hours south was tough as the bus schedule didn’t seem to stop there, so we booked a nice 13 hour bus to a place called San Ignacio, leaving Baja Norte and entering into Baja Sur.  (We later discovered the bus stops pretty much everywhere)  The landscape we passed was unreal.  It’s practically all desert with scrub bush, cactus and rock formations dotted around.

Bajan Landscape 1 #hoptgf On the road in Baja #hoptgf

#Yurtlife in San Ignacio #hoptgf

Arriving at San Ignacio at 11:30pm, and after 7 poor quality Spanish dubbed movies we arrived at the Oasis town that is San Ignacio.  A real life oasis like you see in the films… We splashed on the room.  Well, a yurt.  It was a great place and I can’t recommend it enough. San Ignacio Springs.  If not for the home cooked breakfast, then their access point to the oasis lake/lagoon with use of kayaks and paddle board.  Two nights spent here mooching around, checking out the small town and living it up in a yurt was followed by a 6 hour bus ride to Loreto further south.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA Juan Bautista de Luyando Mission In San Ignacio #hoptgf San Ignacio 1 #hoptgf

Loreto, we had been told by some snowbirds we met, was a beautiful place where they all seemed to have  Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto #hoptgfholiday homes.  After enjoying some extremely pleasant weather we arrived to rain and dark skies.  Loreto had suffered in the past from hurricanes and a recent one had caused flooding in some parts of the town. One hotel we looked at tried to do us a room even though the rest of the place was flooded…

We decided to stay one night (not the flooded place of course), enjoying some fine margaritas and tacos on the square being overlooked by the oldest mission in Baja from the first settlement in 1679.  Not much going on we headed south after one night.

The first Mexican Margarita #hoptgf  Loreto, Baja #hoptgf

Five hours later on the bus we hit La Paz.  We arranged a cheap hostel for one night.  It was awful.  Worse than the night I spent in the cells in SE London.  And there were many many mozzies.  Finding the concrete beds and lack of running water uncomfortable we headed out into a massive rain storm.  When it rains in Mexico it doesn’t mess around.  The next day we found a nicer hostel, Baja Backpackers, where we happily checked in for three nights.  The weather changed and the rain had gone, as had the evidence of the previous night’s storm.  The Bajans were out early and efficiently dealing with the consequences of having no drainage system.

Malecon pier in La Paz #hoptgf La Paz sunset 1 #hoptgf

Tecalote Beach #hoptgfLa Paz is a great place.  Strolling along the Malecon at night, each time we were offered a different beautiful sunset.  (I had to be careful not to turn this into a gallery of sunset photos).  Isla Espiritu Santo  is near and offers diving and the chance to swim with sea lions.  The sea was too rough so we couldn’t make it out there to hug a sea mammal.  We went out of town to Tecalote beach, which stares straight at Espiritu Santo  We hiked through the desert terrain and up some hills for a couple of hours before heading to a calmer beach called Balandra where the crystal clear shallows were Ollie makes a friend of a passing Catrina in La Paz #hoptgfas warm as bath water.  ‘Dia De Los Muertos’ brought another ‘Festival De Catrinas’ (a better one then Ensenada’s offering) with music, dancing and a selection of shrines in the local town. Fish tacos running you the equivalent of roughly $1US each at Super Baja Tacos, where you can cover them in as much slaw and salsa that you want was a top eat, and attended for nearly every meal.  It was a difficult place to leave but the ferry ride to the ‘mainland’ was booked and were already thinking of the next stop on the ‘mainland’.

Ollie Cactus #hoptgf Ballandra Beach #hoptgf SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

Baja was beautiful.  My advice would be if you are planning on going would be to get a car/van so you can see the rest of it.  Stop off in the desert overnight to gaze at the stars or drive out to those beaches unreachable to backpackers (unless you hitch of course).  Or just go and chill at the springs for a few days…

If you’ve made it this far, gallery link here!  Thanks for reading.

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“First time in New York?”

Manhattan #hoptgf“I’m sorry sir, I don’t think we stock Tom Selleck masks specifically,” the man lurking in the basement of a three floor costume shop in Downtown said while wearing a mask that echoed scenes from Donnie Darko at 10am. This was the only disappointment while in New York. (Sorry pops, we tried!)

Landing around 9pm at JFK via Reykjavik we breezed through the infamous CBP guardians without issue (in under 10 mins) and fell into a Yellow Taxi bound for Manhattan. Crossing over the Triborough Bridge at night we saw NYC for the first time lit up at night.

Ye Old Carlton Arms Hotel #hoptgfArriving at out Ye Olde Carlton Arms at 23rd & 5th we were faced with the agony of choice. The place is not the Plaza by any means, but it’s cheap and has ‘amusing attack cats’. It’s called the ‘Art Break Hotel’ because every room has its own theme by a different artist. Choices were three fold. The room with the luminous green paintings, the room daubed in bright red and yellow depictions of Ganesh or the small room that just simply smelt of sweat and shame….or possibly death. We settled for the spiritual depictions, and headed straight out for a few Brooklyn Lagers and a Burrito.

Chinatown #hoptgfSuitably jet lagged the next day we were up and out the door by 7am and into a diner where Ollie excitedly ordered her eggs ‘over easy’ and found to her surprise that this was her preferred way to cook eggs anyway. Feeling quite pleased with ourselves we ambled down 3rd Avenue towards Downtown passing through Chinatown with New York waking up all around us.

At this point I realize that my particular brand of rambling writing will be quite time consuming for both me and you. (If you’re getting bored and just want to see the photos, click here!) So in an effort to the get to the point I will try to list our activities on this first day:

We walked to Downtown past City Hall, 1PP and various other impressive and 9 11 Memorial #hoptgficonic buildings. Went to the 9/11 memorial and was taken aback by the sheers size. List of all the souls lost covers the side of each memorial, with roses placed in those whose birthday it is. Moving onto the Staten Island Ferry we took it across and straight back to see Lady Liberty. Back ashore, we walked up Wall Street and the braved the subway for the first time uptown to Lady Liberty #hoptgfTimes Square. Quickly walking away from that awful area with the touts at our backs we made for Central Park after having our first round of ‘Coke and a Slice’. (You really can’t get a bad slice of pizza in NYC.) After idling in the park for an hour, we walked up the Upper West Side and then down Columbus Avenue after a coffee to catch up with Ollie’s Brother John. Arranging to meet him after work we waited at one of his watering holes called PJ Clarke’s. After some beers and finding $20 on the floor, then moving onto a dive bar to spend it, we decided it was time to call it a night after too many beers to count. Confusing ourselves on the subway, we finally got back and had a second round of pizza.

Ok, that was still quite lengthy, so from this point on, I will just talk about highlights as each day was pretty much packed full. It’s easy to be out in the city for 16 hours each day and not realize it!

Times SQ #hoptgf PJ Clarkes with John #hoptgf

We just loved walking around. Manhattan is huge basically but everywhere you go, you can stumble across something awesome. NYC library, Grand Central, Empire State Building and the Flat Iron building to name but a few things we just happened upon. Saying that, you can see the Empire from most places in the city!Grand Central #hoptgf Empire state overlooking Grand central stn #hoptgf

NYC Library #hoptgf 30 rock 2 #hoptgf

Top of the Rock was a great thing to do. After an ‘Architecture and Art tour’ (yep, that’s right) we went up the 78 floors to look over the city. We did this twice, once in the day and once at night. Both are a good idea.Top o' the rock #hoptgf

Central Park is beautiful, and you can spend a day in there. We certainly did when we met up with the Zwarts, where we searched for the (seemingly elusive) fountain from Friends. Had a great day and not just due to the company and meeting little Skylar for the first time. October is the time to go with the leaves falling/changing.

C Park #hoptgf The illusive Friends fountain with the Zwarts #hoptgf

Another C Park #hoptgf C Park 2 #hoptgf

The Strand in Astoria #hoptgfTook the train to Astoria in Queens where John lives and drank $10 pitchers and played pool in one of the many Irish bars. ‘Mississippi Bob’ took quite a shine to Ollie but after politely turning him down twice he moved on, as did we. The Strand is a bar that is definitely worth the trip over to Queens. Back bar covered in casks of Bourbon and Ale, while serving up Smokey BBQ in the back.

The High Line #hoptgfThe High Line, a walkway park on a disused railway line running down to the Meatpacking District is pretty nice with great views of the city. Pretty busy on a Saturday though. Bleeker Street is great, one end has exclusive shops and the other has some nice pubs/bars where we spent a Saturday watching some live music and drinking $5 beer in The Red Lion Pub. (Always ask for what beer is on special in any bar you’re in)

Vue Bar (formally Me bar) in Korea Town on top of a Hotel offers one of the only places you can sit, drink and smoke outside in Manhattan I swear. Also with the Empire towering over you, the view isn’t too bad.

Buffalo Wings – They are awesome. Why must us Brits put up with pork scratchings when every bar here has these tasty little bastards on offer.

Manhattan in Manhattan first sip #hoptgf

“Every day is a struggle, that’s why we must be kind to one another” adorns the door of PJ Clarkes. After John took us there on the first night, we returned twice for the general atmosphere and high quality cocktails. Ollie enjoyed the Manhattans and I the Old Fashioned, but at $15 a throw, you certainly can’t live on them.

Londels Jazz and Soul Food in Harlem #hoptgfJazz in Harlem is something people say you should do, and we took the long Journey up to Londel’s for some soul food and Jazz on a Saturday. Great music, tasty home cooked style food and a pleasant relaxed atmosphere made this a wonderful evening. The journey home, put simply, was awful, with poor subway connections delaying us every step of the way.

A diner breakfast; What a thing! Without realizing it I ordered a stack of three large pancakes, bacon, sausage eggs and ham at the Sunflower Diner on 3rd and proceeded to eat most of it covered in butter and syrup. Good shit!

Dog from a cart! #hoptgf Coke and a slice #hoptgfFood in general, you can’t help but feel New Yorkers eat out for three meals a day as every corner seems to be selling Bagels, Pizza or sandwiches and every one of them is busy. It’s all cheap…and it’s all damn good! Especially the pizza which we tried many times.

A trip to Brooklyn took up Sunday where we walked across the bridge, ate some top burgers in 67 Burger situated in the Fort Greene area. We then took the subway to Williamsburg (Yes they are all hipsters there) where Bedford Avenue has the feeling of East London’s Broadway Market on a Saturday morning. After a coffee, we headed to the Brooklyn Brewery where we broke our no drinking before 5pm rule yet again, and again justified this by circumstances. The free ‘tour’ was simply a brief respite from the drinking for most, but was still quite interesting. Feeling merry we then went to ‘Mugs Ale House’ where Ollie enjoyed some Pinball, but claimed the pumpkin ale tasted of the sweet yams from the night before so we found a bar called ‘The Soft Spot’ where happy hour earned me 2 for1 beers and a chance to sit outside with a drink and a smoke like a civilized person for a change.

Ollie posing on the BB #hoptgf Artsy shot of the BB #hoptgf

Brooklyn Brewery bw #hoptgf Beer Quote #hoptgf

Bar Boulud after free squid ink pasta course #hoptgf Boulud Duck course #hoptgfThe last night in the city was exceptional, visiting Bar Boulud, the restaurant John has come to work for. The place is pretty exclusive with prices to match, but to our surprise we got the chance to sample over our budget. A free glass of the fizzy stuff on arrival followed by a charcuterie plate with all manner of terrines and pates along with finest ham I have ever eaten. This was then followed by a surprise course of squid ink pasta topped with a quail’s egg and trout roe. My last experience with small fishy eggs nearly ended with me throwing up at an East London art exhibition but this was delicious and plates were soon cleared. The steak, we did pay for but was outstanding and Ollie’s duck looked pretty damn tasty. Feeling like we couldn’t eat another thing, the kitchen then sent out three delicious desserts, one of which was a selection of small delicate cakes which we ‘bagged’ with the waiter assuring us it was in keeping with the tone. In the very rare chance that anyone from that restaurant is reading this, thank you. It was delicious and ended our time in the city perfectly.

There is so much more I could write, but there is no point. You need to go yourself if you haven’t already done so. And if you have, go back again. We will be!

All the snaps click here

Writing this on the plane to the West Coast, on a 6 hour flight to San Diego to begin our ‘Journey’ south. NYC was the holiday….

(p.s if anyone reading this is planning a trip and would like info please email us. I tried to keep records of spending and average costs, which I will endeavor to do throughout the year, as I found it pretty difficult to find any decent info on this subject when planning)