Archive | Around the world

How I #Achievemore on my travels

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu-1

I’ve been on the road for over a year now. Exactly 420 days ago I said goodbye to Cape Town and headed off on the biggest trip of my life with my boyfriend, Joe.

Fifteen countries and tens of thousands of kilometres later, I feel like we’ve had a lifetime of amazing experiences that have changed my perspective on pretty much everything. I still can’t quite believe that we road tripped across the USA twice, danced on top of a Celtic castle at Burning Man, trekked over a glacier in Patagonia, hiked in the driest place in the world, did yoga in the world’s biggest salt flat, fished for piranhas in the Amazon, saw Machu Picchu, swam with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, learnt to scuba dive in Colombia, survived dengue fever, learnt to surf in Costa Rica, dived a cenote in Mexico, watched the sun rise over the rainforest from the top of a Mayan temple in Guatemala and dived between the continental plates in Iceland. 

I’ve learnt so much along the way – enough to fill reams of blog posts – but the very first thing I had to learn was how to be mobile. That meant giving a lot of my stuff away in Cape Town, packing the remainder up into boxes to store in my parents’ basement, and deciding what few things to fit into a suitcase to travel with me for over a year.

I’ve had to learn the hard way that travelling with a lot of stuff is not easy, and so right from the start of this trip I knew I had to pack light. I decided to go with a suitcase/backpack hybrid, so that I can wheel it around airports but also put it on my back when trekking across a beach to reach a remote backpackers.

My packing list was small and ultra-practical, with clothes that had to work for a number of different environments – from going out in New York, trekking in snowy Patagonia and surfing in Costa Rica to hiking in the humid jungles of Colombia.

This is what I call my #AchieveMore packing list:

Packing bag

– Uniqlo down jacket (which rolls up into a tiny pocket – doubles as a travel pillow)
– Black leggings (for yoga, exercise, wearing under a dress and as pants)
– Skinny jeans (essential)
– Denim shorts
– Black hoodie
– Black short dress
– Denim long sleeved shirt (remarkably versatile)
– Scarf and beanie
– Long sleeved thermal vest
– Hiking pants
– Comfortable shorts (for exercise, hiking, pyjamas)
– Trainers, hiking shoes, sandals
– Two bikinis
– Sarong (doubles as a towel, scarf, Burning Man head protector)
– A couple of t-shirts and sleeveless tops
– Yoga mat (this is bulky but I can’t travel without it!)

Add to that a bag of toiletries and that’s about it! Having less stuff means that catching lots of taxis/buses/trains/boats/flights isn’t a mission. It’s painful having to move around a lot when you are laden down with heavy bags.

Being mobile has also meant taking my office with me on the road, because I’ve been working right the way through this trip. Luckily as a travel writer and photographer, I don’t have too much equipment – just my Macbook, three portable rugged hard drives, my camera and a few lenses, my Kindle and an iPod for all those long flights and bus rides.

One of the most important things I have with my (other than my passport) is my smartphone. When I’m on the move, my phone – which recently has been a Lumia Device – is a camera, a notebook and a computer. While I shoot photos for magazine stories on my SLR camera, I take photos of little things to help me remember details for stories on my smartphone – anything from the writing on adverts on a noticeboard to the kind of sweets for sale in a market. I often don’t know what stories I’m going to end up writing about a place, so I have to be sure that I take down as many details as I can.

My phone is full of useful apps downloaded from the Windows Phone Store to help me #AchieveMore in while I’m on the road working.

One of my favourites is Evernote, an incredibly useful app that functions like a notebook. Evernote allows you to create notebooks filled with typed notes, photos and audio notes – perfect for a travel writer like me. I create a notebook for each place I travel to, and save things like photos of menus, audio notes describing a place I’m in and quick ideas or things I observe – the kind of things I would forget otherwise.

I always try to learn some phrases of a local language when I travel, and language apps are great for helping you master the basics. My two favourite apps are Duolingo, which helps you learn words quickly, and Babbel, which teaches you the basics, starting with easy sentences and grammar. Then there’s Translator, which is really handy if you’re completely stuck with deciphering a sign or a menu – the app allows you to take a photo of the words you don’t understand and then it translates them for you.

My phone is also my link to friends and family at home. I often get asked if I’ve been homesick on this trip and the honest answer is that I haven’t once missed home, because I’ve never grown tired or bored of any place I’ve found myself in – the constant novelty of new countries is endlessly stimulating and exciting. I do, however, miss the people I love – a lot. The only way around this is to keep in touch, which I do as much as possible. It’s obvious then, that an app I can’t live without is Skype. I really don’t know what I’d do without video conversations!

Deciding to go on this extended trip around the world was all part of a plan to #AchieveMore with my life – more adventures, more experiences, more learnings, more fun. I’ve made travelling longterm work by fitting my freelance work in around travel – luckily being a travel writer, the more I travel, the more I can work! Having a Lumia smartphone has enabled me to do just that – to seamlessly blend work and travel so that I can fit it all in. Working on the road like this has not always been easy – there have definitely been some down points – but being equipped to deal with the challenges that arise is all about the #AchieveMore plan.

Tell me in the comments how you #AchieveMore when you travel and you could win a Lumia device!

 

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A road trip around Iceland

Road trip Iceland

I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, but I always saw it in the same league as Antarctica: the kind of place that I’d maybe get to later in my life, when I have more money. Like Antarctica, it seemed so far away and so expensive – a place you save up to see after you’ve gone to all the other, more accessible, places on your list.

So when I read about an Icelandic budget airline launching flights between the US and Iceland just at the time that we were planning our journey from Mexico to Europe, it was like the travel gods had intervened. There was no way I could not book that $120 flight.

It seemed the only way to really see Iceland is to drive right around it on the 1332-kilometre Ring Road circling the island, which is what we did, hiring a car as we arrived and setting out with a map and layers of thermals.

Day one – Reykjavik

We started off our nine-day road trip around Iceland in a sleeting Reykjavik, where we drank beer in the Big Lebowski bar, visited the penis museum and ate the best fish and chips ever and marvelled at how Nordically cool Icelandic people are, with their woollen knitted sweaters, thick hipster beards and thriving music and arts scene in a city of just 120 000 people.

Day two – Thingvellir National Park

The next day we got up early and drove into a snowy Thingvellir National Park to go diving at Silfra, a glacial river filled with some of the purest water on the planet. We donned cumbersome dry suits and plunged into water just above freezing to dive between the continental plates, at one point touching Eurasia and North America at the same time. This definitely made the uncontrollable shivering and my almost-frozen blue lips worth it. That afternoon, we took a scenic flight in a tiny plane over the Vatnajökull ice cap to see the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the famous one that disrupted European air traffic in 2010), which looked like a harmless white mountain, and steaming geysers surrounded by snow. From the air there were no signs of human life apart from power lines and a few hiking cabins nearly entirely covered with snow. It was a glimpse of just how wild and sparsely inhabited this island is.

Diving Silfra, Iceland
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Day three – The southeast

After driving for awhile through fairly featureless fields south of Thingvellir National Park, we suddenly started seeing the kind of epic landscapes Iceland is famous for: huge cliffs swathed in mist looming over tiny farmhouses below, the thunderous Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls dwarfing tiny tourists underneath them, white waves crashing onto the black sand beaches of Vik and then the magnificent sight of the Vatnajökull glacier from a distance (the biggest glacier outside of the polar regions) – a vast tongue of ice pouring out of the mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking with crampons on the Svínafellsjökull, an outlet glacier cut through with lines of dark clay like skeins of blue cheese mould, which looked strangely familiar. It turns out that the glacier was a location set for Interstellar and Batman Begins and it fills in for the world north of the wall in Game of Thrones.

Napping in the car with jet lag, I nearly missed the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, which in a day of spectacular sights, was a highlight. Iceland’s deepest lake collects icebergs that break off the Vatnajökull glacier. The icebergs melt at the mouth of the lagoon’s exit, and float down to the sea, about a kilometre away. In the late afternoon light the lake was magnificent. We sat on the black shoreline in silence watching the light catch on the edge of the icebergs and listening to the sounds of them bumping into one another and melting into the lake with crackles and pops.

SkogafossSarah Duff Iceland-5 Hiking Svínafellsjökull glacierJokulsarlon lagoon

Day four – Hofn

Pouring rain scuppered our hiking plans, so instead we took a slow drive to Hofn, winding our way around dramatic black cliffs. Hofn, a tiny harbourside town of 2000 people, seemed like a bustling metropolis after all the empty countryside. We bought some supermarket sushi and drove out of town to the ruins of a modern-day Viking village – the abandoned set of a Hollywood film that ran out of money. In the drizzle and biting wind, under heavy grey skies the village, set between mountains and sea, felt positively eerie, wooden shutters creaking in the wind, like an actual movie scene. In the afternoon the sky cleared up and we walked around the harbour, buffering ourselves against the wind. Hofn is famous for lobsters, so for dinner we went to the restaurant across the road from our guesthouse and tried not to look at the prices as we ordered baguettes filled with lobster tails – the best lobster I’ve ever had – and drank Vatnajökull beer made with glacial iceberg water and wild thyme that only grows in the summer months.

Sarah Duff Iceland-10Abandoned Viking village, Iceland

Day five – Hofn to Lake Mývatn

After a breakfast of creamy blueberry skyr, we headed off on the Ring Road on a sunny morning, hugging the eastern coastline as we looped around beautiful fjords and then headed up into the snowy mountains to drive north. It was 16 degrees and as we stopped for photos we could hear the sound of snow melting into the ground. For an hour or two we saw no one else and no other car as we drove through what felt like the edge of the world. Once we’d passed the town of Eglisstadir, the landscape became even wilder: high up on snow-covered volcanic plains, chocolate-brown hills were marbled with snow like white chocolate brownie mix and iced-over milky blue ponds looked like melted Hall’s cough drops.

We turned off the Ring Road and headed off a lonely country road to get to Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss, which poured down cliffs covered in snow and ice and created a thick banded rainbow in the sky. There were only a few other tourists there on a late sunny afternoon, and we all stood in silence as a chunk of ice the size of a house fell of a cliff with a resounding boom and huge spray, reminding us of the raw power of nature.

Sarah Duff Iceland-11 Sarah Duff Iceland-12 Sarah Duff Iceland-13 Sarah Duff Iceland-14

Day six – Lake Mývatn

In what turned out to be our favourite day of the trip, we explored the lunar-like landscape around Lake Mývatn: the steaming vents and piping fumaroles of Hverir, where we stood enveloped in the warm eggy steam to dethaw from the cold wind and drove up into the hills past Krafla, a steaming geothermal power station that looked like somewhere a James Bond villain’s lair. Here the road was snowed over, so we parked the car to hike through snow that came up to our knees to a sulphurous pale duck egg-blue sulphurous pool surrounded encircled by dark yellow sand and black volcanic rocks spewing forth steam. There was no one else around for miles, and everything was surreally quiet.

After lunch at Vogafjos Cowshed-Café, where you can watch cows being milked for the cheese on the farmhouse platter with smoked Arctic char and cake-like geyser bread baked in geothermal geysers, we hiked up the near-symmetrical Hverfell crater and explored the volcanic pillars of Dimmuborgir, which is supposedly home to trolls. A day of hiking called for a relaxing soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths, a natural open-air ice-blue hot pool with views down to the lake far below. The sun was only starting to set at 8.30pm, the outside air temperature was 8 degrees, and in the pool it was a toasty 37 degrees. I thought that was the most perfect way to end a great day, but then at midnight we spotted a flash of green outside our window. We hurriedly got dressed and drove our car out to an empty road, where we were treated to an hour’s lightshow: the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. It was eerie and magical and just as spectacular as I’d thought it would be.

Sarah Duff Iceland-15 Sarah Duff Iceland-16 Sarah Duff Iceland-17 Sarah Duff Iceland-18 Sarah Duff Iceland-19 Sarah Duff Iceland-20Northern Lights Iceland

Day seven – Lake Mývatn to Snaefellsness

A long and not very scenic whole-day drive brought us from Lake Mývatn past Iceland’s second biggest city, Akureyi, and right across the north west of the island to a sliver of land like a finger pointing west – the Snaefellsness Peninsula, where we checked into the incredibly romantic Hotel Búðir – the kind of place you’d want to be snowed into, which is next to a striking black church (one of the more unique places to get married in, if you’re ever looking for a destination wedding location).

Budir Church, iceland

Day eight – Snaefellsness Peninsula

On the coldest day of our trip, when the wind chill brought the temperature below freezing, we decided to do a horse ride. We’d been eyeing up Iceland’s beautiful horses, with their long blonde manes and thick furry coats, the whole way through the road trip, and wanting to ride some. In between bouts of hail and sleet we saddled up and froze our fingers riding horses (who seemed totally nonchalant about the weather) to the beach. It took much hand warming on our heater back at the hotel, as well as several cups of tea and some whisky to dethaw.

Icelandic horse on a road trip around Iceland

Day nine – Keflavik Airport 

We drove back to the airport, stopping off for a quick soak in the silica-infused waters of the Blue Lagoon surrounded by black volcanic rocks, wishing we had another month to explore Iceland.

I’d come to Iceland with high expectations, and fell in love with Icelandic culture and the raw, wild beauty of the dramatically diverse island. After nine days I felt like I’d only had a small taste of what Iceland has to offer, and can’t wait to be back – my plan is to visit Iceland in every season.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Planning a road trip around Iceland

Iceland is more accessible than you think (many budget airlines fly from Europe to Reykjavik in a few hours, and Wow Air flies from the US for under $200), but it’s just as expensive as you’ve heard.

However, you can save money by travelling outside of the peak summer months of June, July and August. Most hotels and car rental places drop their prices dramatically for the other nine months of the year. We travelled in April, which is early spring, and while it was cold, it was a great time to travel – nothing was busy and we paid low season rates. If you travel in the off-season you don’t need to book your accommodation ahead of time, so you can just drive around the Ring Road and decide where to stay each night as you go along.

You don’t need a 4×4 to drive the Ring Road, even in winter, but you do need one if you’re planning on exploring the highlands (which you can only do in summer). Renting a car is expensive in Iceland, but we found the cheapest option – a company called SAD cars, which has older, slightly scruffy cars in their fleet. Our car had quite a few dents and scratches but we had no problems with it at all.

Where to stay on a road trip around Iceland

Reyjkavik – Loft Hostel

One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, Loft Hostel has a stylish Nordic-minimalist look, really amazing breakfasts, a bar serving Icelandic craft brews on Reykjavik’s main street, close to bars and restaurants.

Near Thingvellir National Park – Hotel Ranga

Warm and cosy with friendly staff, a wooden cabin exterior, outdoor hot tubs and themed rooms (the traditional Japanese inn was my favourite) Hotel Ranga is surrounded by fields and only a few houses, which makes it a perfect spot to see the Northern Lights. The restaurant serves up gourmet food with Icelandic produces – wild mushroom soup with pickled wild mushrooms, pan fried souffléd langoustine with herb oil and puréed artichoke, creamed skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) with blueberry jam and berry sorbet.

Near Jökulsárlón Glacier LagoonHali Country Hotel

A simple, sweet little country hotel in an amazing location, close to the lagoon and sandwiched between mountains and sea.

Hofn – Guesthouse Dyngja

I liked feeling like I was staying in someone’s home in this family-run guesthouse, which is a few small cosy rooms and shared bathrooms, and a sunny kitchen overlooking Hofn’s harbour.

Lake MývatnHotel Reynjalid

The biggest hotel in the area, Hotel Reynjalid has spacious well-equipped rooms, friendly staff, a great breakfast buffet and excellent dinners in the restaurant – wild mushroom soup, pan-fried Arctic char, Icelandic fish soup, cod with barley, apples and celery root, and liquid chocolate cake.

Snaefellsness Peninsula – Hotel Búðir

Hotel Búðir must be Iceland’s most romantic hotel. Situated on a windswept, otherwise uninhabited stretch of the Snaefellsness Peninsula, the hotel looks like it’s straight out of a décor magazine with Gothic Victorian-inspired dark walls, quirky framed prints, faux-fur covered ottomans, shelves of National Geographics, leather couches and a stylish bar. The hotel is steps from the beach so you sit at breakfast watching waves crashing and seals swimming in the churning sea. The food here was fantastic, from the wild mushroom soup, cod and potato bake, shellfish soup and skyr with rhubarb compote to the salmon gravadlax for breakfast.

Iceland adventures

You could do a road trip around Iceland and just stop off to take photos and wander around waterfalls, but if you don’t do any of the many activities on offer then you’re missing out on Iceland’s greatest adventures.

Diving

Dive (or snorkel) between the tectonic plates at Silfra in Thingvellir National Park with Dive.is. Their diving instructors are great, and their equipment is top notch and the diving is superb – a truly memorable experience.

Flying

While it’s expensive, a flying sightseeing tour of Iceland is a great way to get perspective on the island’s amazing landscapes. There are a few companies that offer scenic flights; I went with Flightseeing, which offers trips from Reyjkavik, Bakki and Skaftafell.

Glacier trekking

If you want to get on top of a glacier, there are lots of ways to explore Iceland’s icy worlds: dog sledding, snow mobiling, ice climbing or glacier trekking, which I did in Skaftafell National park with Icelandic Mountain Guides.

Horseriding

There are places to horse ride all over the island. I went on a ride with Lysuholl, a family-run horse farm on the Snaefellsness Peninsula.

Northern Lights Iceland

 

Three months of Central America and Mexico in photos

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Starting out a trip through Central America with six weeks of learning to surf on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica was a good beginning. From there on it just got better: road tripping around the bumpy roads of Costa Rica in a Suzuki Jimny, exploring Monteverde Cloud Forest, hiking up volcanoes and staying in a self-sustainable carbon-neutral organic farm where we did yoga classes in an open air forest studio.

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa RicaMonteverde Cloud Forest, Costa RicaSarah Duff Costa Rica-1

It was hard to leave Costa Rica, but Joe had already overstayed his visa (strangely enough, the airport immigration officers didn’t seem to notice when we flew out) and we couldn’t just stay in one country without seeing anything else in Central America. We decided to do a quick plane hop to Guatemala (rather than several days of bussing across Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador).

A country I knew barely nothing about before I got there, Guatemala turned out to be one of my favourites of the whole trip so far. I loved Antigua, a tranquillo historic town of cobbled streets and great street food and ruins from an earthquake 300 years ago and lovely little courtyard restaurants, and I could easily have spent a month or two there, brushing up on my Spanish with some lessons, hanging out in courtyards of coffee shops and eating a lot of dark chocolate, which Antigua has in abundance, thanks to the Mayans.

Sarah Duff Antigua
 Sarah Duff Guatemala-5Sarah Duff Guatemala-3
From Antigua we drove up to the beautiful Lake Atitlan – a shimmering mass of water surrounded by towering conical volcanoes and stayed in the most hippieish place I’ve ever been to – a tiny lakeside village called San Marcos inhabited almost exclusively with alternative healers and shamans offering everything from cacao reiking healing workshops to tantric sex retreats. Even the pizza restaurants have Mayan astrological readings. If I ever need to rebirth in the future, I’ll know where to go.
Sarah Duff Lake Atitlan
I preferred the Maya ruins of Tikal, in the jungles of northeastern Guatemala, which were once home to a massive population of people with complex astrological knowledge and amazing architectural skills and a bloody culture of human sacrifice. The ruins were truly magical – we saw them first before dawn, in the dark of the jungle – massive temples surrounded by mist and a sea of forest alive with squawking and screeching.

Sarah Duff Tikal
From Tikal we hopped over the border to Belize, a tiny pocked of English-speaking Latin America. We only had four days in Belize on a tiny island called Caye Caulker, which you can walk around in less than an hour. All the buildings are wooden Caribbean-style painted fruit sorbet colours and there are no cars on the island – just bicycles and golf carts. Everyone speaks English with a rad Caribbean accent and there are a lot of Rastas smoking joints and selling things made out of shells, and at night grills are set up on the island’s perimeter, where people braai seafood and fish, which they serve with sweet rum punch and coconut rice. We were only in Belize to dive, which we did, and which was amazing – clear waters, beautiful coral reefs, eagle rays, turtles, sharks and technicolour fish.

Sarah Duff Belize Caye CaulkerSarah Duff Belize-1
From Belize we travelled by boat back to North America, to Mexico, to the beaches of the Yucatan peninsula, the most visited part of the country, and totally overrun with cruise ship crowds and resort packaged groups. It was a bit of a shock for us after being in low key Guatemala and Belize to suddenly be surrounded by such mass tourism, but we did some cool stuff that made up for the Margaritavilles and the Hooters  – mainly diving and swimming in crystal-clear cenotes near Tulum, exploring the ruins of Chichenitza and doing our best dives so far on the reefs around Isla Cozumel, where we had visibility of 50 metres.
Sarah Duff Tulum, Mexico
Sarah Duff ChichenitzaDiving Isla Cozumel
As soon as we moved away from the coast (transported by Mexico’s wonderful first class buses of arctic air conditioning and huge seats) the foreign tourists pretty much disappeared. People have this idea of Mexico being extremely dangerous outside of the beach resorts, which means most tourists tend to avoid the rest of the country, sticking to Cancun the Yucatan peninsula. Everywhere we went in Mexico felt totally safe, and Mexicans are some of the most helpful, polite, unaggressive people I’ve ever come across. There are certainly some places in Mexico you wouldn’t want to visit, but the idea that the whole country is unsafe based of what you see on the news of the country’s drug trafficking problems is wrong.

Sarah Duff Palenque
Our favourite places in Mexico were the jungle Maya ruins of Palenque (not as mystical and remote and undervisited as Tikal, but nevertheless pretty spectacular), the highlands town of San Cristobal, home to Argentinian hippies, Mexican bohemian artist types and revolutionaries, Oaxaca – a beautiful small town that is Mexico’s gourmet heartland – where we tried mezcal for the first time, ate chilli-and-lime crickets, learned to cook a mole sauce and celebrated Semana Santa (Easter week) with processions and concerts in the street, and finally, Mexico City. Mexico City is really underrated – it’s not as unsafe as it’s made out to be, and it has loads of great restaurants, amazing museums (my favourites were Frida Kahlo’s house and the Museum of Anthropology, which packed with Aztec and Maya treasures), huge street art murals, and friendly village-like neighbourhoods that make you forget you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world.

Oaxaca Oaxaca
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3

Riding waves: a New Year’s pledge

Learning to surf in Nosara

My big pledge this year is to be braver and make myself do the things that scare me most. My first challenge was set to be surfing. I was in Nosara for almost two months, a great surf spot in Costa Rica with a beach break and warm water (read more about how much I love Nosara here), so there wasn’t ever going to be a better time to try. With the help of Lumia sponsoring my surf board rental and surf lessons, I made the proverbial plunge.

Learning to surf was definitely not easy. It started out well though – riding the whitewash of tiny waves that my surf instructor, Gerald, pushed me onto (no paddling required). I stood up on my second try and was thrilled. Wasn’t standing up the hardest part of surfing? I thanked years of yoga for my balancing ability, and assumed it took much longer for most people to get on two feet on their surf board.

Surfing nosara-54

I was wrong. Gerald said that almost every student he’d ever taught had stood up on their first lesson. It turned out that standing up was actually the easiest part of surfing. After a few lessons of practising on ankle-high waves next to four year olds, and feeling good about my board riding skills, we moved into deeper water and bigger waves, just as the “magic swell” that all the surfers had been looking forward to for a week arrived.

To get into real surfer mode, I downloaded a surf app, Surfline, for reports on surf height, wind speed, tides, and sunrise and sunset times – to maximise surfing time, of course.

Now I was paddling into waves and trying to catch my own rides, getting smashed in the face and bashed by the board, tumbling in the whitewash and inhaling and swallowing water, clearing out my sinuses each session. My legs started looking like blueberry muffins, with black and purple bruises marking my skin. On one particularly windy afternoon, my board flew up hit me hard on the head twice when I bailed. My arms, shoulders and back ached from paddling. Every day I woke up with different deep pains in my body. Surfing had became exponentially more challenging.

Learning to surf in Nosara

I spent a good part of my lessons feeling scared of catching what I perceived as monstrously big waves, ignoring Gerald when he encouraged me to paddle and let go of my fear. It was at this stage that I realised how surfing is a metaphor for life (some people actually say the way you surf is the way you live life).

I started to learn that surfing is about letting go and being ok with knowing that you don’t really have control over what waves come your way (just like life). It’s about being humble and knowing that you are tiny and insignificant and that nature is much bigger and stronger than you are and that you can never beat it (something we all forget a lot of the time). Surfing is about having the determination to keep paddling out when things aren’t going your way (a really important lesson in how to deal with failure).

Learning to surf Nosara

In between catching waves, Gerald and I would philosophise about the connections between surfing and life, and discuss how to Become One with the ocean. Living in a backpackers in a surf town meant that a lot of my discussions out of the water were about surfing, too. Almost everyone in the hostel was a surfer or trying to learn how to surf, so over meals in the communal kitchen and beers on the beach at sunset we’d all have long chats about every possible aspect of surfing – particularly getting over fears. Sometimes I felt like I was actually in a surfer movie. Everyone had their own take on surfing philosophy.

My favourite surfer of them all was Charlie. I was surfing by myself one windy morning, near the end of my stay in Nosara, and was not doing very well. Out of nowhere, a deeply tanned, heavily tattooed man swam over to me and started giving me a few pointers. He then started pushing me through the waves to help me paddle out. He then ended up giving me a full-on lesson for an hour and a half and somehow said all the right things to help get me over my fear. He coached me into catching the biggest waves I’d ever caught before, which felt euphorically amazing. I tried to offer payment to Charlie (who turned out to be Californian, and has surfed for 34 out of his 44 years) for my impromptu lesson, but he said that he doesn’t think anyone should make money off the ocean – that sharing surfing is sharing this beautiful gift that we all have. We ended up having a long chat about surfing, living close to nature, trying to have a positive impact on the environment around you and the Meaning of Life, which convinced me even more that this world of the surfer is one I’d like to join forever.

Surfing nosara-49

I’d like to say that after six weeks of trying to surf I’d be super confident to paddle out to the back line and catch big waves. The truth is I’m still scared of big waves on the back line, and often when I’m just about to catch one, I peer over the top, picture myself nose diving and then pull the board back the last moment. I’m nowhere near overcoming my “kook” (newbie) status, and I still only stick to the small waves I feel I can handle, but I still get a thrill every time I catch a good one, and I love the “stoke” I get after a great session – I have a big smile on my face for hours afterwards. These few weeks in Costa Rica were just the beginning of my surfing journey. I just need another long stay in a great surf spot – here’s looking at a trip to Indonesia!

Surfing nosara-47

Pledging big commitments are not just for January; making a commitment starts with one step. With the help of Lumia, you can make it happen too. Above offering bi-weekly advice to help you achieve your goals, Lumia is also giving you the chance to win a Lumia device. Watch their latest video below to see how it’s not done!

4

What I love about Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

On my second visit to Costa Rica, I grew to love this tiny country even more than I did before.

I experienced what it’s like to live in a beach community, learned to surf, practised yoga surrounded by jungle, drove around winding roads in a 4×4, hiked through a forest at night to find sleeping hummingbirds, a bright orange tarantula and a kinkajou, walked on suspension bridges and ziplined through the canopy in Monteverde Cloud Forest, hiked up the steep and muddy slopes of Cerro Chato Volcano to get glimpses of a cloud-free, smoking Arenal Volcano and milked cows at an organic, carbon-neutral, self-sustainable farm surrounded by rainforest.

What I admire most about Costa Rica is not its beaches, volcanoes, forests, adventure activities or even the “pura vida” life philosophy that suffuses every interaction you have with a Costa Rican with warmth and friendliness – it’s the country’s commitment to conservation. In the last 30 years, Costa Rica has reforested 26% of its lost forest areas and now more than a quarter of the country is protected, with new parks and reserves being established, and the plan is for the whole country to be carbon neutral by 2021. The rest of the world has a lot to learn from this tiny Central American country.

Nosara, Costa RicaPlaya Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Sarah Duff - Costa Rica-1

Sarah Duff - Costa Rica-2

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Finding surf and yoga zen in Nosara

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Nosara is one of those places that you arrive in and on your first day you think “I could live here”. It’s the kind of place that makes people change their flights, cancel other travel plans, or, in many cases – decide to relocate.

On the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, Nosara is a small low-key village of yoga studios, juice bars, laidback restaurants, surf shops and small hotels surrounded by trees and flanked by Playa Guiones, a wide, gently curving stretch of golden sand with a legendary surf break. There are strict rules on development, so there are no buildings near the beach, and there are no big resorts, tourist touts or rowdy bars.When parties do happen, they’re usually over by 10.30pm – everyone goes to bed early to get up for surfing. The tiny grocery store sells homemade hummus, raw chocolate spread, vegan chocolate bread and French cheese.  The notice boards around the village advertise drawing classes, yoga workshops, massages and reggae band gigs. People get around by quad bike, bicycle, golf cart and tuk tuk, and everyone you pass walking on the streets (which are sprayed with molasses and smell like sugary treats) greets you with a friendly Hola! Each day, just before sunset, everyone in Nosara – including all the dogs in town – gathers on the beach to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean together.

Nosara is the kind of beach paradise I’ve always fantasised about living in. I’m not the only one – many people who live in Nosara are expats who either live there full time, or for a few months over the northern hemisphere winter. Many are people who came to Nosara on holiday and just never went home.

I could see why after just the few days it took to get into a Nosara routine: waking up early to the rasping growls of howler monkeys, walking on jungle paths to a yoga studio set in the treetops, drinking a coconut water and eating a bowlful of delicious tropical fruit for breakfast, sitting under a ceiling fan writing stories during the heat of the day, and then heading out to the beach in the late afternoon. After a couple of failed attempts at surfing in Cape Town, I decided to give it another go in the warm ocean in Nosara, so I added surfing lessons to my routine after the first week there.

Learning to surf is challenging and scary (read more about my surfing learning curve here) but so much fun – and the best thing about it is seeing the synergies between riding the waves and practising yoga (breath, focus, connection with nature, meditation), and realising that within surfing you can find a lot of life’s great lessons.

It didn’t take long to feel part of a community, getting to know restaurant owners and surf instructors and yoga teachers and the Argentinian guy who sells empanadas from a picnic basket, and the ever-friendly Warner, who sells his jewellery at a little stand right by the beach. I even got to know Nosara’s dogs, greeting my favourite ones with a hug on the beach every sunset.

Travelling is about seeing new places, but it’s also about getting into the rhythm of a place. After four months of traversing South America, stopping for awhile in Nosara and getting a taste of a simple beachside life, was just what I needed.

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Playa Pelada, Nosara, Costa Rica

My guide to Nosara

My favourite places and things to eat in Nosara.

La Creperie, a 10-minute walk from Playa Guiones, serves up proper French crepes and delicious casados. My favourites were the caramelised leek and zucchini savoury crepe and the number six – homemade dark chocolate, shredded coconut, hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream.

La Luna is the only restaurant in Nosara with a beachside setting, right above Playa Pelada. It’s a pricey spot, but you’re paying for the glorious view (go just before sunset) and the tasty food – paper-thin pizzas, Middle Eastern platters (the baba ganoush and hummus are amazing) and the delicious cocktails.

La Luna Restaurant, Playa Pelada, Nosara, Costa Rica

Dee’s is a small, well-priced Vietnamese restaurant close to Guiones Beach with great veggie pad thai, summer rolls and fish curry.

Rosi’s Soda is one of the only Costa Rican restaurants in Nosara, and a great one it is too. The casados, packed with fresh salad, fried plantains, avocado and delicious beans, topped with homemade salsa piccante, were the best I’ve had anywhere in Costa Rica.

Go Juice is a colourful little food truck parked just by the northern end of Playa Guiones which serves up delicious juices and smoothies (love the coconut water with lime and watermelon) and iced coffee (the one with banana was my favourite) which are great right after a morning surf. On Wednesdays they also offer a Costa Rican take on Hawaiian poke, with fresh raw tuna in sesame oil with spring onions and avocado.

I cooked a lot of my own food while I was in Nosara, and loved shopping for organic fruit and veggies (and amazing vegan pesto) at the weekly market which took place on Saturday afternoons at the skate park.

I tried a couple of different yoga studios and classes while I was in Nosara, but the Nosara Yoga Institute was my favourite (especially Yali’s classes).

I rented my surf board from Juan Surfo’s surf shop, a short walk away from Playa Guiones.

Juan Surfo's surf shop, Nosara

Where to stay in Nosara

Most people stay in rental houses or apartments in Nosara, and there are loads to choose from, but they’re all pretty pricey.

I stayed in the 4You Hostel, which was the nicest backpackers hostel I’ve ever been to, and one of my favourite places to stay on my whole eight-month trip so far. It has a sleek Bali-esque design, a huge communal kitchen, airy bungalows and a big outside couch under a ceiling fan for afternoon naps. The immensely lovely Swiss couple who run the hostel (and live on the property) became like family after my six weeks there.

4You Hostel, Nosara, Costa Rica

If you’ve got the cash to splurge, Harmony Hotel is Nosara’s best luxury boutique hotel, with immaculate palm tree-shaded grounds, a big swimming pool, stylish rooms, a beautiful open-air yoga studio and a great juice bar.

Harmony Hotel, Nosara, Costa Rica

How to get to Nosara

Flying to Nosara on Nature Air

There are direct international flights to Liberia airport, which is two hours from Nosara.

If you’re coming from Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, the quickest and easiest way to get to Nosara is to fly on the carbon-neutral airline, Nature Air. Flights are around $60 one day and take about an hour – a beautiful flight in a tiny plane with huge windows to make the most of the aerial scenery.

There’s a bus from San Jose to Nosara, which takes five hours, or you could drive yourself in a rental car.

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