The India Saga: Leh and Manali

Welcome to part 2 of the India Saga! The first post covered the majority of our time in Leh with lots of details on the Markha Valley trek (read here). This post will continue on from the last post, covering our last day in Leh and the 4-day itinerary in Manali.

Manali is stunning and exceptionally chilled out, I’d recommend it if you’ve been struggling with the intensity of India elsewhere.

This was the oddest part of my time in India. It started with the worst bus journey of my life before I Couchsurfed with undoubtedly the oddest man I’ve ever met; all in 5 days.

Day 1: Leaving Leh

Having just finished the Markha Valley trek, we weren’t feeling up to doing much exploring. That said, we did want to try and climb up to Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist monument that looks down over the town centre. There’s a road leading to it but we tried a shortcut by walking directly up the hill; it didn’t end well.

The rest of the day was spent buying souvenirs (there are abundant cheap shirts and Pashmina scarves here) and getting the bus tickets to Manali.

There are three options regarding buses to Manali: a direct minibus in 17 hours, a 2 day tourist bus with an 77overnight stop in Keylong (only in summer), or take local buses (one to Keylong then one to Manali)

The 2 day bus is advertised at all the hostels and is really easy to book. You can book at any of the hostels you’re staying, or go direct to the office in the town centre to avoid paying commission.

Understandably, the tourist bus costs the most (around 2900INR) but this includes staying at Keylong in a tent and meals. The direct minibus should cost 1800INR but I had to pay 2250INR because we could not find the office to book and had to pay commission. The local buses cost about 700INR in total; but the bus system in Leh is chaotic and I wasn’t up to sorting out midnight accommodation in Keylong.

We opted for the direct minibus as the next day was my birthday, so I didn’t want to get the 2 day bus and spend the whole day on it. The bus predictably leaves from a bus terminal but, as it was a new bus schedule, hardly anyone knew the bus I was talking about. We spent an hour trying to find it.

You might be able to buy tickets here (they need to be bought in advance) and your ticket will have the licence plate on for you to search for your bus.

The bus leaves in the evening and should get to Manali by mid-day. We were lumped at the back and immediately the people in front reclined, crushing my legs, and an odd mix of Dance and Hindi music started blasting out the speakers.

The journey out of Leh was stunning, you can watch the sunset over the mountains as you start to climb up to the Rohtang Pass (~4000m). The driver was clearly a Grand Theft Auto fan and weaved along tiny paths, hugging the mountain, doing the occasional emergency brake when he encountered someone coming in the opposite direction.

After coming to the realisation that I no longer had any control over my life (much easier once it got too dark to see the edge), I fell into a nihilistic slumber.

I woke up a few hours later to find my stomach gurgling. Everyone had warned me that, when you go to India, you’re going to get diarrhoea at some point. Just my luck that it was at the start of a 17-hour journey. I went back to sleep.

My stomach woke me up again and I immediately leant out the window (over Yash’s passed out body) and vomited. This continued for several hours, the whole time I was concentrating on not defecating, before an Israeli traveller gave me an anti-emetic/sedative.

Day 2: Old Manali and Vashisht baths

Eloquent suggestion: If you don’t like poop maybe skip this day

I woke up at around 4am to hear a crash and find we weren’t moving. A landslide had happened ahead of us and completely blocked off the road. I started vomiting again.

The Indian army showed up en masse to start removing the debris (there was a surprising backlog of traffic for 4am) and I took the opportunity to have a cheeky poop. I slipped out the minibus and started scouting out where to go.

An official-looking guy shouted at me to get inside the minivan and I held up the toilet paper. He looked at me incredulously and said you can’t poo here. I ran off to the edge of the path, where it steeply dropped into the valley, and slid down it about 20m before setting myself up.

When you go to altitude, barometric pressure drops, causing the air to expand. This also happens in your gut and makes you need to fart. If you don’t fart it will make you burp and eventually vomit. What I thought was diarrhoea was just expanding gas.

Long story short, my 21st will always be the time my farts echoed through the valley whilst the Indian army and everyone else watched. Once I made my way back up to the road Yash admitted he’d been farting constantly the whole night. Moral of the story: don’t hold in your gas on high-altitude bus trips.

We arrived in Manali at around 1pm (there’s a mini border cross when you cross state into Himchal Pradesh but it’s not complex) and stayed in Old Manali- one of the two spots for backpackers alongside Vashisht.

View looking down onto Manali

Manali in the summer is a temperate climate, the green mountainous regions reminded me of hiking in Europe. However this area is a hippy haven because, in contrast to Europe, cannabis grows abundantly here. Everyone is smoking it, and everyone is selling it (don’t buy it from guys trying to offer you samples- they’ll charge you loads after you’ve finished).

There isn’t much to see in Old Manali aside from some temples and the nature park next to the river (don’t try to cross it)- it’s ideal for relaxation. Once you’ve had your fill head over to Vashisht to try out the baths there. A tuktuk costs 100-150INR or its a 45 minute walk.

If you’ve been to baths in Budapest or Japan then these baths will disappoint. It’s one pool and the water is naturally heated with a strong sulphur smell. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting experience going there.

The water is boiling and going in is a masculinity contest. If you jump straight in without preparation then you’re in for a shock. I spent a lazy hour steadily putting my legs in deeper whilst watching people scald themselves from jumping in.

There’s no photos allowed in the baths so here is a hot air balloon floating over the valley

Day 3: Canyoning and Jolgini waterfalls

Like I mentioned, old Manali and Vashisht are slow-paced and made for relaxing. However, the surrounding area is stunning so make sure to explore the outdoors; there are loads of adventure sports companies about.

We opted to go canyoning with Himalayan Yeti Adventure which is basically abseiling down waterfalls. It was a lot of fun if you aren’t scared of heights and is, like everything in India, relatively cheap.

We’d organised to spend the rest of our time in Manali Couchsurfing with a local guy, Chotu Baba. He took us on a short walk from Vashisht to see Jolgini Waterfall. The waterfall itself is impressive and the backdrop of the valley is stunning; it’s definitely worth checking out.

Chotu seemed to be something of a dealer in Vashisht, everyone knew him and would grab some weed. I’m not sure how it can be a profitable business when your product grows everywhere for free but he seemed to make it work, despite constantly being high.

That night he taught us how to make Mutter Paneer (like a pea and paneer curry) in one of the grimiest kitchens I’ve seen, whilst also washing the vegetables with dirty water. It was delicious but pretty spicy; my body started to prep itself for the inevitable.

I went to check out the toilet situation in advance to find out it was a classical hole in the ground, and there was no place for toilet paper. I was going to have to learn to use my left hand.

Day 4: Exploring Kullu

As I mentioned, the scenery of Manali is stunning and there are some amazing multi-day hikes on offer, but after Markha Valley we were trekked out.

Chotu wanted to show us his favourite temple so we got a bus to Kullu to do a short hike to Bijli Mahadev temple. It was supposed to take about 1.5 hours to get there but several road accidents pushed the time up to near 4 hours.

The walk to the temple is short and very pleasant- about 3km. The path winds through trees and is reminiscent of walking in an English forest.

We reached the top and Chotu immediately Face-Timed an elderly yoga lady who’d stayed over the night before. She started swooning over how romantic this gesture was and, in retrospect, the whole day might have just been an elaborate booty call.

Trekking to the temple at the top seems like a mini-pilgrimage

As nice as Kullu was, the time taken to get there was excessive, and we spent more time travelling than actually doing anything. There are loads of walks and hikes much nearer to Manali. I’d ask around at your hostel or one of the adventure companies for a suggested route instead.

My man Chotu

Day 5- Heading to Delhi

Chotu started our morning off with some omelette, subtly loaded with green chillies, before we lounged about in one of the many cafes serving chai.

If you’re in Manali to chill out then spend a day hopping between chai cafes and German bakeries; it’s hard to go wrong and some of the cafes have stunning views.

Up to now, we’d been using the Vashisht baths to shower but we permanently stank of sulphur. We decided to make our way to some more of the surrounding waterfalls and sacrificed warm water to not stink of eggs.

As it was our last day we wandered around New Manali whilst Chotu sorted our bus ticket to Delhi. Having learnt out lesson, we splashed out on a bus with reclining seats, for 1700INR, and set off in the evening. If I’d known how intense Delhi was going to be, I would have spent my whole time in Manali relaxing.

Thoughts on Manali

When I first arrived in Manali I thought it was just a spot for stoners to smoke cheap weed. As true as that is, it’s also a great base to try out some adventure sports and do some hikes in a lush green valley.

If you’re heading south to Delhi and Rajahstan then take this as an opportunity to relax in the mountains before descending into urban carnage. Alternatively, if you’re heading further north then use this as a pit stop to acclimatise to the altitude.

Enjoying the blog?

I hope this was a fun read. It was a bit less structured than previous posts but, if you ever head to Manali, I hope it’s helpful.

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Tips When Travelling to High-Altitude

High altitude travel isn’t just people climbing Everest and K2. Lots of popular treks climb high enough to get altitude sickness and more severe, life-threatening syndromes.

In addition, popular travelling destinations across the world have capitals and airports at deceptively high altitudes (particularly China and South America) and warrant the same caution.

Having just finished a BSc degree in Remote Medicine, with a project on altitude sickness, I felt this was a good time to spread the knowledge. This post is going to cover my 10 tips when travelling to a high-altitude location.

Daocheng Yading Airport: Flights, Terminals, Transfers,Tips,Maps ...
Daocheng Yading airport (china): the highest in the world (4411m).
China claims 6 of the highest airports in the world, Bolivia has 3 and Peru has 1.

1) Start lower

The standard threshold for altitude sickness is around 2500m above sea-level. If you fly direct to a high-altitude location you’re going to feel it a lot, and in a lot of cases it’s not practical to descend once you arrive.

Instead, opt for a lower initial destination and see a bit more of the country as you acclimatise on your way up.

For countries in South America or around the Himalayas, where both tourist attractions and airports are located several thousand metres above sea-level, this is an easy preventative measure you can take.

See more of the country and work your way up to altitude slowly

2) Slow down

Maybe you’ve heeded my first point, maybe you’ve flown direct to altitude. Either way, once you’re at high-altitude, ease into doing any strenuous exercise.

The process of acclimatising to altitude can take several weeks but the first few days are key for stopping altitude sickness.

As soon as you reach altitude your breathing rate increases as does your heart rate and blood pressure; it can feel like you’re heavily exercising when walking. There are several other changes that help you deal with the low oxygen and you just need to let them happen.

Use the first few days to try new food, relax with a book, and basically anything that doesn’t involve exercise. If you’re planning a trek you can use these days to organise everything you need and sort out any missing equipment.

3) Be Flexible

When you head to high-altitude, make sure to avoid having a tight or fixed schedule.

People acclimatise at different rates. Some people will feel dreadful at 3000m and need several days to recover, others will be able to cope with mild exercise. If you don’t give your body enough time to adjust you won’t enjoy any of the amazing stuff you planned to see anyway.

There isn’t a reliable way to predict how you’ll cope at altitude, it isn’t significantly related to fitness or age. The best thing to do is to give yourself several days and respond to how your body feels.

In addition, if your route continues to gain altitude, trekking or otherwise, you may develop altitude sickness later on in the trip. Make sure to have a few days that you can be flexible with, in case you need a rest day before continuing on.

In order to accommodate this, try to avoid having fixed bus tickets and non-refundable hostel reservations. These can be costly if you do need to take an extra day. Being flexible also helps the budget- read my post on that here.

4) Know your enemy

It’s pretty easy to get knackered at altitude and think you have altitude sickness but the symptoms might not be what you’d expect. There are four main symptoms associated with altitude sickness:

– Headache (technically a requirement for diagnosis)
– Fatigue
– Dizziness
– Stomach upset (nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite)

Sleep disturbance and insomnia aren’t considered symptoms of altitude sickness anymore. However, don’t be surprised to find yourself struggling to get to sleep, or waking up exhausted. The low oxygen can interrupt your breathing whilst asleep, so your body can wake you up enough to start breathing again.

These symptoms can have a wide range of causes. Headache and fatigue can be from travel exhaustion, whilst dehydration can give most of these symptoms, and when you’re travelling rurally, an upset stomach could be from anything.

If you’ve just reached a new altitude then always consider altitude sickness, especially if you have never been that high before. It’s easy to dismiss a headache as dehydration and continue ascending, but that can be very dangerous and lead to further deterioration. If in doubt, stay at the altitude you’re at, or descend if possible, and see if our symptoms start to reduce over time.

Note: there are more severe forms of altitude sickness. These can affect the lungs (struggling to breath at rest and coughing froth sputum) and the brain (staggering, blackouts and hallucinations) and warrant immediate evacuation.

5) Stay hydrated

I’ve mentioned it before but dehydration mimics altitude sickness. Keeping yourself hydrated will have a lot of benefits at altitude including narrowing down the causes of any headaches you get.

It’s easy to get dehydrated at altitude if you’re skiing or trekking

It’s a lot easier to get dehydrated at altitude. If you’re trekking or skiing, you can sweat much more than you realise in the cold air. The dry air also increases water loss from breathing and part of the process by which your body adapts to altitude leads to increased urination. In a nutshell, you’re losing water from everywhere.

On an interesting side note, the increased rate of dehydration plays a role in the myth that alcohol hits harder at altitude. At altitude, the intoxicating effects of alcohol can be made worse by being dehydrated (then worsened by alcohol), already being dizzy from altitude sickness, or having eaten less (altitude suppresses the appetite).

For anyone interested in reading papers where researchers got the subjects drunk at various altitudes:
– This paper shows a decrease in cognition at altitude but no difference between the alcohol and placebo group.
– This paper shows no difference with increasing altitude.

6) Speak with your doctor

It’s a good idea to speak with your doctor before any trip abroad and that’s no different when travelling to high-altitude.

Some conditions can put you at increased risk of complications at altitude (conversely asthma can improve because of better air quality), so if you have any medical conditions it’s worth checking up on.

Additionally, if you’re planning on taking medication to help with altitude sickness then have a conversation with your doctor.

Diamox (Acetazolamide) is the most common drug used for preventing altitude sickness and has proven to be effective with doses as low as 125mg twice a day. I mentioned earlier that you pee more when your body is adjusting to altitude; acteazolamide speeds that process up.

That means that you’re going to get dehydrated quicker, so drink up. In addition, side effects include pins and needles and severe allergic reactions for people with allergies to certain antibiotics.

Your doctor can advise you on whether to take Diamox. It isn’t licensed for altitude sickness in the UK on the NHS but it is still common to get it prescribed by your GP.

Alternatively, you can buy online with Nomad Pharmacy who usually give a telephone consultation prior to prescribing. If you get on the plane and realise you’ve forgotten to get any medication, it’s easy to buy in most high-altitude destinations (however, with less rigorous pharmaceutical standards in many countries, this can be a less reliable option).

Some people prefer to use herbal remedies, the most popular being gingko biloba. However, there isn’t substantial evidence to suggest that it has any meaningful effect as shown here.

7) Slow and steady

This is fairly self-explanatory, don’t climb too high in one day.

A severe form of altitude sickness involves fluid in the lungs. This can frequently affect young healthy hikers who push themselves to the limit, usually with a high-level of fitness that allows them to keep going, and eventually end up struggling to breathe and coughing pink frothy gunk.

Save problems later by taking it slowly when trekking high-altitude, it’s not a race. The recommended ascent rate over 3000m is 500m/day with a rest day every 1500m.

It’s not always feasible to stick to this ascent rate if you’re moving between campsites or homestays. Instead, try to include rest days after ascending quickly and always try to sleep lower than the maximum altitude you reached in the day.

8) Know how to treat altitude sickness

So maybe you’ve followed all the precautions I’ve mentioned and you’ve still ended up with altitude sickness. What now?

The quickest way to deal with altitude sickness is to descend. This isn’t always possible, or necessary for mild altitude sickness. A lot of the time it can be managed by staying where you are, keeping hydrated, and taking painkillers and anti-sickness tablets as necessary. What you must not do is keep ascending.

If your symptoms get worse then consider descending and using supplemental oxygen if medical aid is nearby. If new symptoms appear including struggling to breathe at rest, any blood coughed up, or neurological changes (hallucinations, reduced consciousness, staggering) rapid descent is required or emergency evacuation if this isn’t possible.

9) Get insurance

A lot of the time when travelling it can be tempting to avoid getting travel insurance as you want to save money and you back yourself to treat any minor problems with pharmacy drugs.

Don’t do that. Treating tourists for altitude sickness has become a profitable business in trekking countries like Nepal and mountain evacuations can be prohibitively expensive (read here about Nepal evacuation scams). It gives a lot of peace of mind to grab yourself insurance.

Read the fine print on what’s included, high-altitude activities are rarely covered in standard insurance and the supplementary fees add a lot on. A tip to save money can be to buy a separate insurance, for the days you’re at altitude, and a standard insurance for the rest of your trip.

Helicopters don’t come cheap so get insurance.
Two good options: BMC and World Nomads

10) Quit the bravado

This is something I was guilty of on the Markha valley trek. I thought I could just walk off the altitude sickness and ignore it. Altitude sickness only gets worse if you continue climbing upwards on your trek (luckily for me, we reached the peak and descended before I could deteriorate).

Your health is worth more than completing a hike, or reaching a peak. If you’re getting altitude sickness, don’t be afraid to admit it and say you need a break. It doesn’t mean you aren’t an experienced hiker, or that you’re less capable than everyone else.

It’s a lot less embarrassing, not to mention cheaper and sensible, to take an unplanned rest day and adjust, rather than continuing onwards and ending up requiring an emergency evacuation.

Did you enjoy this post?

Those are my 10 tips for travelling to altitude. I hope they were helpful, maybe you learnt something new; let me know in the comments below!

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Everything you need to know about the Markha Valley trek

Hiking in the Himalayas is a must in India. Leh is prime hiking territory and marked the start of my five-week itinerary with my friend, Yash.

We opted for the Markha valley trek and this post aims to give a brief overview including how to organise it yourself, the cost, and my experience.

What is the Markha Valley Trek?

The Markha valley trek is one of the most famous treks in Ladakh. It’s officially an 8 day trek but can be shortened to 5 or 6 days.

Most travellers base themselves in Leh and get a taxi out to their start point; Spituk for a minimum 6-7 day trek or Chilling to skip 2 days. The main body of the trek passes through the valley and then climbs up to Kongmaru La Pass (5200m) before rapidly descending to Shang Sumdo.

The yellow line shows the entirety of the Markha valley trek with all the villages en-route
Credit: Ju Leh adventure

Organising the Markha Valley trek alone

It’s simple to organise trekking the Markha valley alone if you have hiking experience and are on a budget.

Don’t worry about bringing a tent or sleeping bag. It’s possible to use home-stays for the entire trek, excluding the last stop at Nimaling where there are pre-erected tents with sleeping bags. In 2018 it cost 1000INR/night including three meals.

In summer the weather is pleasant but it gets very cold at Nimaling so bring extra layers and a waterproof. Any kit you’re missing can be bought or rented in Leh, including a map of the trek (the route is generally straight forward).

You can hire a taxi to drive you from Leh to wherever you want to begin and, once you reach Shang Sumdo, there should be taxis around to take you back. Prices vary depending on your haggling skills but to drive costs down:

– Find people to share with
– Arrive early to hitchhike with locals commuting
– Find someone with a motorbike if you’re on your own

The last major point is insurance. It can be tempting to avoid insurance but when heading to remote, high-altitude regions, with a high incidence of altitude sickness, it’s essential.

Check what is covered, most standard travel insurance doesn’t cover high-altitude trekking and the add-on massively inflates the price. I used British Mountaineering Council Insurance which was comprehensive at a reasonable price.

How much does the Markha Valley trek cost?

Our trek was 6-days (plus one sick day) and should have cost 19,000INR. After a lot of back and forth between different companies and finding an extra person to join us, we got it reduced to 11,000INR.

If you’re doing it yourself your expenses are on accommodation and transport and you’ll save a few thousand rupees. For the same self-organised 6-day trek you could pay anywhere between 7000-9000INR depending on your transport options.

My itinerary

Day 1+2: Leh
Day 3: Leh – Zingchen – Yurutse
Day 4: Yurutse – Shigdo
Day 5: Shigdo – Sara
Day 6: Sick day
Day 7: Sara – Hangkar
Day 8: Hangkar – Nimaling
Day 9: Nimaling – Chogdo – Leh

Day 1: Arriving in Leh

Our plane touched down in Leh at 7am to the sound of an Indian army bloke wrestling a tourist’s camera from his hands. The surrounding landscape upon landing is stunning but several military bases are visible so photos are a no-no.

Leh airport is over 3200m above sea-level, well above the threshold for altitude sickness, and we felt it as soon as we stepped off the plane. Lundup, a guy from Couchurfing, wanted to show us around Leh so we went to a cafe for wifi to message him (SIM cards from the rest of India don’t work in Leh).

He showed us around the main spots, including Gompa Soma, a Tibetan monastery nearby the main square. We treated him to lunch and tried some of the local foods; it was hit and miss.

The centre of Leh is pleasant to walk around and you’re unlikely to get hassled.

Things to try: momos (dumplings), chow-mein noodles, and a vegetarian thali (lots of small dishes for a taste of everything).

Things to avoid: butter tea. It’s literally tea with a block of butter in and I ended up gagging to finish it.

Day 2: Dalai Lama’s Birthday

Our second day took a surreal twist when we found out out the Dalai Lama was in Leh for his 83rd birthday and giving a speech.

We rocked up to thousands of people surrounding the stage, listening to his speech (unknown language), whilst volunteers passed out different types of food. I’m proud to say I restrained myself from knocking a child over for a slice of birthday cake.

Happy Birthday DL

In the afternoon we walked (crawled) up to Leh palace, which has an amazing view at the top, before walking on to Tsomo Castle nearby. It’s absolutely exhausting doing this when you haven’t acclimatised to the low oxygen so don’t feel that you have to do it.

The evening was spent haggling over the trek price for in the morning. There’s so many companies you definitely don’t need to book online at inflated prices.

If it’s your first full day I’d probably leave this one out and just chill.

Day 3: Zingchen to Yurutse

We only had time to trek for 6 days, and so we skipped the first day from Spituk and added a long day in the middle.

The start of the walk is an underwhelming dirt path but it soon opens up into an irrigated valley, which provides a welcome contrast against the arid mountains.


We also got to meet the third person in our group, a Russian girl called Rosa. She started the trek with traveller’s diarrhoea and did the entire thing in chelsea boots. As ballsy as that is, don’t be like Rosa; bring hiking boots.

It’s a steady uphill walk with an altitude gain of about 750m over about 5 hours (~3400m-4150m). Once we arrived at our homestay we were greeted to some tea and biscuits before having a communal dinner and checking out the stars.

The view from the first homestay in Yurutse

Day 4: Yurutse-Shingo

This was a tough day. There’s no avoiding the Ganda La pass (4961m) and it’s a steep incline. Take it slow and don’t push yourself, or you can start getting serious altitude sickness.

Once we reached the top, the views were stunning and we smashed through our packed lunches. They generally consist of a savoury samosa, chocolate, a potato with salt (delicious), a boiled egg and juice.

The first pass is high and early on in the trek so take it slow.

The rest of the day was thankfully all downhill heading into the valley, and ended at a homestay that was still quite high up (~4100m). The days start early and you’ll likely get to home-stays early so bring something to read.

This homestay had facilities resembling hot showers and I definitely didn’t appreciate it enough; it won’t happen again. I passed the rest of the afternoon reading and playing with the family’s toddler before having chutagi for dinner (a vegetable stew with dumplings in).

Day 5: Shingo-Sara

I think this was the easiest day. The start of the day is downhill right into the valley until you reach Skiu. There are a few buildings, some tea huts to recharge in, and a gompa. It’s possible to stay here instead of Shingo if you’re feeling fit.

You have to appreciate their honesty

I think it’s also the furthest you can reliably get into the valley by car and is a route for evacuation. Once you’ve passed Skiu the route works its way along the bottom of the valley.

Rosa’s chelsea boots were giving her blisters on top of blisters (shock), and so our pace was snail-like in the baking sun. Having Thuduk as our guide was immensely helpful because he carried her backpack (his rucksack only included one set of clothes and a flask of tea) and he knew all the hidden spots of shade for breaks. Eventually we reached Sara (3619m) but it was late afternoon and had taken us about 10 hours instead of 6-ish.

The scenery in the valley is exceptional and the magnitude of the mountains dwarfs you. It’s easy to collapse on your bed after a long day but make sure to head back outside before sunset to take it all in when you aren’t exhausted.

Day 6: Sara-Sara

I woke up and started vomiting and I didn’t stop all morning.

We stayed at Sara and Thuduk offered to walk 20km to get some local medicines, or to take me back to Skiu and drive back to Leh. I was fairly sure I could self-manage this and declined, instead rehydrating with water, oral rehydration solutions, and occasionally coca-cola.

Shoutout to Thuduk for volunteering to walk 20km to get me some herbal teas.

There’s a few things this could have been:

– Dehydration: acclimatising to altitude makes you pee more, and the combination of drier air and increased exercise also increases water loss. I was also taking Diamox tablets (diuretics) to speed up acclimatisation, so there’s a high chance it was this.

– Mild stomach bug: all the home-stays supposedly boil the water they give you and are hygienic with food but it’s an option. Also, the pit latrines are disgusting so I opted for nature poops after this.

-Altitude sickness: One set of symptoms for altitude sickness is stomach upset, nausea and vomiting. However, this was the lowest altitude we had stayed at since the start of the trek so it’s unlikely I developed altitude sickness here.

Day 7: Sara-Hangkar

This is the day to insert an extra stop-over because there are several villages en-route to stay at.

We passed through Markha and Umlung, each time looking towards Thuduk, hoping he’d give the nod to indicate we were done. As with the previous day of walking, the heat in the valley gets intense so aim to set off early.


In addition to Rosa’s disintegrating feet, Yash was getting a headache, (a sign of both altitude sickness and dehydration) and our 6 hour day became 10 again.

Once we reached Umlung I was sure that we were finished but Thuduk kept plodding along. The last stretch was short steep incline on a narrow path whilst donkeys chased us. Eventually we got to Hangkar (4000m) and were gifted this stunning view.

The homestay view was stunning

Dinner was a noodle soup dish with yak cheese (it’s got a strange chewy-meaty texture) followed by a shower with cold dirty water; I missed Shingo’s hot showers.

Day 8: Hangkar-Nimaling

There’s a lot of incline to reach Nimaling but distance-wise it’s not bad from Hangkar, about 4 hours.

There’s a stark change in the environment as you start to ascend, the irrigation systems stop and greens change to browns. It quickly starts getting cold too, so have additional layers handy.


Nimaling (4800m) has a strong community feel because nearly everyone has to stay here, compared with the valley where there are several villages to choose from.

Another great aspect are the donkeys. There are loads of animals on the route but the donkeys here are super friendly and love a selfie.

Can’t believe I met Donkey from Shrek

The river going past the campsite can look inviting when you’re sweaty after arriving but the current is strong and it’s very cold. Thuduk knew enough English to warn us some boys had recently died after jumping in so skip the shower for this day.

Tents are already set up but you can pitch your own further away if you’d prefer.

Day 9: Nimaling-Chogdo-Leh

I didn’t sleep at all at Nimaling. Insomnia isn’t currently considered a symptom of altitude sickness but it is a common issue due to a disruption in your automatic breathing when you’re sleeping.

I developed a headache in the morning and was definitely suffering from altitude sickness. Unfortunately, the quickest option to descend and get back to Leh was to go over Kongmaru La Pass (5200m).

So, doing the exact opposite of what’s recommended, I took some painkillers and set off uphill. It didn’t take long to reach the top (~1 hour) but it felt like eternity and was exhausting.

Once we reached the top we took some time to admire the view, including the nearby Kang Yatse peak.

After this it’s downhill but it’s very steep and hard on your knees. We finished at Chogdo (3900m) rather than Shang Sumdo (3600m) because Rosa was in bad shape and there’s a “proper” road to drive on.

After a few steep switchbacks, the downhill journey follows a riverbed.

Most of the taxis depart from Shang Sumdo so we were waiting around in Chogdo for a while. Once we arrived back we booked our tickets to Manali (post coming soon) and the rest of the evening became a hedonistic whirlwind of food, hot showers, and toilets you can sit on. Bliss.

Enjoying the blog?

That’s my guide on the Markha valley trek! I hope it was useful but if you have any additional questions put them in the comments below, or comment what treks you’ve done in Leh!

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Come back next week for tips on undertaking a high-altitude expedition!

How to Travel in Medicine

The structure of the NHS pushes doctors onto the UK training scheme to become a consultant. It’s implied that if you stray from this path to work abroad and travel, you won’t be able to rejoin and progress in training; you’ll be stuck in a limbo of part time jobs.

Wrong. Medicine and dentistry are the most employable degrees in the world and being a “travel doctor” alongside working in the NHS is a realistic career choice.

This post aims to highlight travel opportunities from medical school all the way through post-graduate training, with advice on how to travel and still eventually progress in the NHS.

Medical School

Gap Year

I’ve already written a chunky post gap years (read it here) so I’ll summarise. A gap year is one of the few times where universities and employers will actively praise you for travelling, with no academic motive, for a substantial period of time. Take advantage of it.

Do a your BSc project abroad

Most medical schools include or offer the opportunity to do a BSc. The final project takes up several months, of which a significant part is doing research. My university offered several opportunities to do these projects abroad, including Japan, Canada, and Nepal.

Make sure to also research what other universities are offering too, and consider joining as an external student.

In addition to a BSc, there are often additional opportunities to do research within your time at medical school. My second year included a 3-week research module, and I managed to bag a trip to Thailand out of it.

Depending how good your research turns out, you may be able to present it at a conference. Whilst most are in the UK, some conferences are abroad, and universities often have a funding pot for presenting students to attend.

Elective

The grand finale to medical school; an elective is an extended stint at a hospital of your choice. It can be anywhere in the world providing you can organise and finance it.

There are three main mindsets when organising your elective:

1) Going to a country with completely different healthcare to the UK for a novel experience that you won’t see back home. These are often in areas of Africa or Asia and can be very intense. Remember your limits and don’t take up procedures you aren’t capable of.

2) Going to a country where you’d like to work in future. Think places like Australia, Canada, USA. If you’re planning on doing your F2 abroad, or an F3, then doing an elective in that country is a fantastic opportunity to network.

3) Going somewhere for a holiday. It’s easy to get signed off on your elective in a few days and just go on holiday. No one will hold it against you after working through six years of medical school.

Meme] Bali not Boston - Imgur
There’s several ways to do an elective, consider what you want to get out of it

Foundation Years

Do your F2 abroad

You’ve finished medical school and been allocated the deanery you’ll work in for your F1 and F2 placements. Whilst F1 always takes place in that deanery, it’s possible to do your F2 abroad.

This is not offered by all deaneries and those that allow it don’t have a partnership set up; you have to organise it independently. If this is something you’re interested in then make sure to check if the deanery you’re interested in offers it.

This option isn’t as popular as an F3 because of the extra admin required whilst finding your feet in F1. In order to “pass” your F2 you need to meet a list of requirements. Therefore if you want to do your F2 abroad, it has to be at a hospital that the GMC deems adequate (often New Zealand or Australia).

You need to get approval from the GMC prospectively meaning you really have to start applying as soon as your F1 starts (here’s where those elective contacts come in useful). Another factor that puts people off is it’s you’ll probably need to start applying for registration abroad before confirming a job offer (typically in the new year).

It’s lot of organisation but with the bonus of allowing you to work abroad for a year and have it count towards your training.

If you want to read more then here is a post from someone who just finished their F2 in Australia.

A brief timeline of applying for an F2 abroad. The requirements are listed here

Do an F3

An F3 is becoming increasingly common amongst trainees, and is only going to increase with this year’s graduates missing out on their electives.

An F3 does not count to your training so you are unemployed. It’s up to you to sort out your yearly appraisal and be present for job interviews for core training posts.

Other than that, you have the year to do what interests you, including taking some time to just travel.

If you want to travel and work abroad then you can do locum work abroad, again Australia or New Zealand are popular, but it helps to already be in the country when you apply (there is a high drop-out rate from people who later decide to stay in the UK).

If you want to explore the US or Canada you typically need to pass an equivalency test. However, attending a fellowship or research post can sometimes bypass this requirement.

Read more about your options here.

Core/Specialist Training

There are two ways to approach the combination of travel and medicine in the later stages of your training.

Firstly, you can take “out of programme time” which is often a year or four months, but this is negotiable if you’re friendly with the higher powers. It’s separated into:

-Approved clinical training (contributes to your training)
-Research (can contribute to training depending on pathway)
-Clinical experience (does not contribute to training)
-Planned career break
You can read more here.

The alternative is to do a Certificate of Eligibility for Specialist Registration (CESR).

If you’re planning on doing a lot of clinical experience, research, and “non-traditional” training then you can compile it all into a hefty portfolio. You can present it to the GMC and re-enter the training pathway at an appropriate level. This is useful after taking extended breaks from the NHS whilst still practising medicine.

Several people I have spoken to have done projects across the world and have managed to successfully enter back into the NHS several years further into their training. Furthermore, they mentioned getting a training post was simple because they had such unique and impressive CVs.

In a nutshell, if you’re working on your medical skills whilst you travel, you won’t have a problem getting back into the NHS. A comprehensive guide on a CESR is here.


Carry out research

This is a common theme throughout medicine and you can also do this in your foundation years (an academic foundation programme).

This requires a certain level of networking and/or proactivity to find a suitable programme abroad. Options range from public health to extreme environments, and it beats doing an audit in the UK.

An alternative is to undertake a PhD, an increasingly common requirement in certain areas such as surgery, with a project abroad. Designing a research proposal abroad is a possibility, with many anaesthetists and critical care doctors undertaking high-altitude trips to research the physiological effects of hypoxia.

Science and Research - Xtreme Everest
Xtreme Everest were doing ABGs on top of Everest.
ABGs. On Everest…

Do humanitarian work

Humanitarian work can broadly increase your skillset by exposing you to illnesses or mechanisms of injury that you won’t see in the UK. This work won’t count to your training if done via the out-of-program system but it can be contribute to your portfolio for CESR.

Essential requirements | Doctors Without Borders - USA

Organisations like MSF are available to join for several months to provide aid in crisis areas.

The medics required vary depending on the nature of the work (war/natural disaster/refugee camp) but doctors specialising in O&G, infectious disease, and HIV/AIDS are in high demand. Additionally, a diploma in tropical medicine is usually a requirement for working with MSF.

In warzones, demand for medics outstrips supply, but for natural disasters a different approach is adopted.

The international community has flocked to natural disasters in the past, usually several days later. The critical care doctors and trauma surgeons flying in then are of little use, as acutely ill patients have died. All that happens is they take up the limited resources available in the region.

This prompted organisations like the WHO and Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System to release details on how many teams are needed, and of what specialty. By adopting a proximity approach, where organisations from neighbouring countries are requested first, this minimises transport times and excessive medical support.

Humanitarian work can be exceptionally rewarding and helpful if done correctly. Whichever organisation you choose, ensure you’re adequately qualified, have enough time off to be of use, and refer to the sites mentioned to ensure someone of your speciality is actually required.

Be a military medic

The military offers a wide spectrum of opportunities on travelling, including deployment and training opportunities abroad.

In addition, if a military plane is flying somewhere you fancy going, it’s possible to get free travel if there’s a spare spot! It’s an appealing option (the pay is way better) if there isn’t a war going on.

Note that if you have any prior health conditions, you may be prevented from joining as recruitment is very strict. I applied last year and to defer for 12 months when I broke my thumb.

Furthermore, the majority of the time you will be placed in the UK. For the army, you’re main role is three years of Core Medical Officer duties after completing foundation training.

This is essentially being a GP at the barracks, and does not count towards core medical training for the GMC. If you return to the NHS after this, you will enter at the start of core training.

Whilst the army gives you unique skills with lots of opportunity to travel consider whether this GP style of work appeals to you and whether the added time to reach consultant is worth it.

This article discusses practicing in the army in more detail.

Be an expedition medic

Expedition medicine is a great option for doctors that want to travel. There are a range of jobs including being a medic for commercial hiking trips, diving trips, and remote holidays like Antarctica.

Adventure Medic posts jobs online but desirable ones can be very competitive. The best, and most common, way to get involved is through networking and it can be hard to get your first job (Johannesburg trauma electives are a frequently recommended for expedition networking).

You need to stand out from the crowd to get chosen for expedition jobs so, aside from being passionate about the trip that you’re applying for, it also helps to get additional diplomas too. These can be done part-time and cover topics like tropical medicine or expedition medicine.

Other things to note:

1) It’s arguably more important to be proficient in the expedition/activity as it is to be a good medic. If the expedition is going to 8000m and you get altitude sickness at 2500m you’re going to be a hindrance.

Get experience in doing expeditions first and start noting down recreational hikes/dives you do.

2) Just like humanitarian medicine and MSF, there are certain specialities which are more in demand for expedition medicine.

Specialties with experience in emergency and critical care (particularly trauma and basic airway management) like A&E and anaesthetics will stand you in good stead; surgery, urology, and haematology less so.

3) Expedition medicine is rarely a day job. The pay can be minimal and in some cases you will have to pay to join the expedition, however this should be discounted compared to customers.

What you will work for is up to you. It may be that you wanted to do a certain trek anyway, and being the medic means you only pay 25% of the cost.

Most of the time the expeditions run smoothly but consider the worst case scenario and whether your salary/contribution still seems fair (remember to also think of the medical screening and additional work you have to do around the expedition).

This post has a lot of useful links on getting into expedition medicine.

Be a flying doctor

AMREF Flying Doctors on Twitter: "Having the right equipment for a ...
Your workspace will be severely limited so working efficiently is key

Being a flying doctor opens up the opportunity to work all over the world.

A flying doctor is usually a medic trained in critical care, or emergency medicine, in remote areas that require air-transport to reach an adequate hospital.

Flying doctors are employed across the world, from rural Scotland to east Africa and the Australian outback. This job can take you where you want and can be very intense; patients can be in very critical states and you have limited resources.

Doctors usually need emergency medicine training but some of the jobs involve simple medical repatriation. It’s likely you’ll be the only doctor on board, sometimes with well-trained nurses, but there is a high level of independence and quick-thinking required.

Just take some time out

Finally, you don’t need to be doing anything medical to take time out. You can take career breaks when needed and, if you need some time to recharge, then take an out of programme career break.

Your mental health is important, don’t burnout on the road to consultant.

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So that’s my fairly comprehensive run through of opportunities to become a travel doctor.

Let me know what you thought, and what I missed, in the comments below.
Lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to the mailing list to stay up to date!




How to Plan The Perfect Trip on a Budget

If you search online about travelling abroad it can come across as overwhelmingly expensive and travel bloggers often quote budgets that make trips seem unaffordable. I refused to believe that I couldn’t travel for cheaper and, in the majority of my trips, I’ve managed to slash their quoted budgets; usually ending up with some money left over at the end.

This post details my 10 top tips on steps to take when planning your next big trip. Some of the points work better on a student schedule but are generally applicable to anyone determined to travel for cheap.

Affiliate disclosure: some of the links in this article are affiliate links. If you click on these and make a purchase I might make a small commission at no extra cost to yourself ,

1) Avoid choosing a specific location initially

This sounds like an odd piece of advice but, unless you’re very lucky, the place you have in mind doesn’t have the cheapest flights in the region. When I choose where I want to go I start with a large area (e.g Central America) or a single country if it’s big enough like India.

This means I can then search around to find the cheapest flights to that region and set that as my starting point. If you have a certain place you’re desperate to see then include it in your itinerary, but you don’t necessarily have to fly to the closest airport, and you’ll likely find some hidden gems on the way there.

2) Search for cheap flights

A fairly obvious piece of advice but often not adhered to as much as it should be. This goes hand in hand with point 1. I’ll choose a region and find which area has the cheapest flights generally. After this I’ll start searching on different platforms- my favourite being Google Flights and Skyscanner. Make sure you also look for the cheapest dates, these sites both let you search the prices for an entire month to maximise savings.

It’s also worth going on flight companies official pages as well because they often have sales where flight prices are slashed. Sign up to the alerts if flight prices drop and don’t get caught in the trap that the earlier a flight is booked the cheaper it is. Sometimes new options arise which are cheaper than before so be patient.

Sign up to get cheap flights- currently offers are all on airlines with flexible tickets (07/2020)


If you’re short on time or patience check out Jack’s Flight Club. This basically does the work for you and emails you flight deals once a week for free. They also send error fares which you’re very likely to miss on your own because they sell out quickly.

If you want a lot of deals specific to your chosen airport then upgrade to premium. Premium isn’t a necessity but is definitely worth the money.The free flight deals get sent here first (so good deals sometimes get snatched up before free members get the email) and there are three extra sets of deals a week. It’s not much for a year subscription and you’ll save it in one trip (I got a multi-city ticket on my US trip for under £300 in the summer holidays).

3) Sort out your finances

Budget travel means different things in different regions. When I travelled the US my budget was £65-70 a day (most of that was the car rental) and in Colombia my budget was £20 a day. Figure out what you can afford for your travel budget and choose your location accordingly. It’s often a better idea to go somewhere where your money can go further rather than areas with higher costs of living which will limit the activities you can do.

For students it’s essential to find yourself a reliable source of income that fits around your studies and pays well. For my most expensive trips I was working at my university student union bar and tutoring during term time, and then working with recruitment agencies in the holidays. These were the jobs that I found were the most flexible around my studies yet also were always available for more shifts if I had extra time. Out of the three I focused more on tutoring because I could earn the same in one hour of tuition as I would for an entire evening of bartending.

Job opportunity for London university students (otherwise skip to point 4)

I’ve spoken to the agencies that I work for and came to agreements with two of them.

1) PASS Tutors- based around Wandsworth area. Base pay £25/hour for GCSE, 35/hour for A-level.
Offer: email info@passtutors.co.uk with the subject “Tom Hughes referral” and skip the application step requiring a CV. Whilst the base pay rate is lower here than other agencies, there are many more jobs available and I’ve consistently turned jobs down due to a lack of time.

2) Chelsea&Fulham Tutors- based in (you guessed it) Chelsea and Fulham. Base pay £40/hour, average pay £60/hour.
Offer: email alison@chelseaandfulhamtutors.co.uk with the subject “Tom Hughes referral” to get an interview. The competitive rates mean jobs are harder to come by but once passing an interview you will be on the database to apply for any relevant jobs.

For both offers cc: 1997tomhughes1997@gmail.com

4) Time is money

The more time you have available, the more flexible you can be with your travel arrangements, and the more you can save. With some exceptions (RIP 5th and 6th year medics), university students get ridiculously long holidays. Use that to your advantage and add a few days onto the time you think you need for your trip.


This allows you to take the bus instead of a domestic flight or expensive train as well as being somewhat flexible with your departure dates. It also gives you the opportunity to buy cheaper flights that have longer stopovers, with the extra bonus of viewing these as mini-holidays.

5) Travel around the peak season

When choosing where you’re travelling, choose a location that is in the shoulder or off-peak season. A lot of the time this will be in the “rainy season” and prices are slashed from flights to hostel prices. However, the rainy season often means heavy periods of rain (for a few hours a day or a few days per month) with the rest of the time being clear and sunny. If you have the spare time and flexibility to adjust your plans around the weather then this can be a great cost-cutting technique.

The long holidays also give the opportunity to book outside of term time. Ideally choose a departure and return date outside of term time but, if not, make sure at least one of the dates is outside of term time (check the term times for where you’re travelling to as well). Together, these steps can have one of the biggest effects on lowering your budget and have the added bonus of reducing the crowds.

6) Don’t pack too much in

Once you’ve figured out where you want to go and you’ve booked your flights, it’s very tempting to try and organise to visit as many spots as possible. Not only is this going to mean you spend less time exploring and more time looking out of a bus window, it’s also going to harm your finances.


Consider two separate days of your trip, one in which you’re travelling most of the day and maybe seeing some sights in the afternoon, and the other where you stay in your original location and go on a hike. The second day is always cheaper; transport eats into your budget.

Additionally, you can spread the sights that require you to buy a tickets over several days. Whilst it doesn’t save you money, it does get better value for money, as you will be have longer to see each sight rather than seeing several in one day for a few hours each. In a nutshell, going to less places will save you money and lets you really explore an area.

7) Be flexible on accommodation

It’s very tempting to choose your accommodation, book it well in advance, and forget about it. Whilst this is necessary for places like Yellowstone or Kruger, often your plans will change and then you’re either stuck to your original plan, because of an expensive booking, or you lose the money having to rebook. Treat the extra few pounds to make your booking flexible as a sort of travel insurance. You won’t appreciate it until you need it but when you do you’ll thank yourself.

The more important reason for getting a refundable booking is the opportunity to do Couchsurf. Couchsurfing is an online community of travellers, many of whom will offer the opportunity to stay with them and possibly show you around their city. The times I’ve used Couchsurfing have been some of my most memorable moments and, even without accounting for the free accommodation, it’s definitely worth doing. A lot of Couchsurfers won’t know if they can host you until a few days before your arrival and having a refundable booking means you can always take up last-minute offers to reduce your accommodation budget.

8) Thoroughly research your location

Once you’ve figured out where you’re heading you can begin doing thorough research into the places you’re planning on going. You’ll soon realise that a lot of the tours your hostel offers are massively overpriced and easy to organise yourself. Whilst some trips require going with a tour-group, or are much simpler to do in a group, many tours will just organise the transport and tickets; these are the tours to organise yourself.


I use a travel guide and blogs to get a baseline level of knowledge on where I’m going and how to travel around, before moving to online forums to fill the logistical gaps in my knowledge. I’ve found Tripadvisor is the best place to get these niche details such as where buses leave from/what time because you can just ask the locals directly.

It’s also worthwhile looking into the best places to eat on a budget. Lonely Planet guides in particular usually include any deals that restaurants operate, or the best places to go for cheap eats. If you really want to get away from tourist spots then Couchsurfing is a great resource. When I put my trip online for hosts to view I always ask for recommendations on where to eat on a budget. Whilst I might not get any hosting offers in countries where accommodation is pricey (and Couchsurfing is consequently more popular), I always get messages filled with recommendations.

9) Take advantage of your student status

Enter the Louvre (and skip the lines) for free if you’re under-25

This pairs with doing your research because being a student/under-25 will affect the cost of your trip in different regions of the world. For example, lots of the sights to see in Paris are free for under 25s and, throughout Europe, a lot of the tourist attractions offer student discounts. However, if you’re hoping to do a US road-trip you’ll find that being under 25 adds an additional young driver surcharge to the rental cost.

Surcharges for car rental can be a significant cost and, when choosing where to go, have a look into how your age is going to affect your daily budget. Consider whether it might be worth changing location and pushing back certain trips (especially road trips) for a few years.

10) Learn the language

I hate this bloke but he does the job

There’s so many reasons to learn a few phrases in the local language of where you’re going (check out the issues I had in Honduras and Guatemala). I often use Duolingo for a few weeks before I go somewhere to get a grasp and I’ll look up key phrases too. In purely monetary terms, learning the language has several benefits:

1) You can check with locals if someone is offering an extortionate price (“how much does this cost”)

2) You can find out the local way of travelling/doing things which is often cheaper (“How should I get to X/What should I do at X”)

3) When haggling or negotiating prices, speaking the local language will get you further by removing you from the stereotypical tourist image, especially if the language is uncommon (Can you give a discount/that’s too expensive).


Those are my 10 top tips on how to start saving money when you’re planning your trip. Don’t forget to like, comment your own tips down below and subscribe to my email list to get future post in your inbox.


The Perfect 5 Day Itinerary in Zadar

Croatia is rapidly becoming a go-to destination in Eastern Europe because of its mix of beaches, national parks, and culture all with a reasonable price tag. Zadar sits on the middle of the coastline with good access to Krka, Plitvice and Split, making it the perfect base for a short break to explore Croatia’s natural wonders.

Quick note- some of the links in this article are affiliate links to products I’ve used/recommended. They cost you nothing extra but give me commission if you buy them from my link: win-win.

When to go?

I went to Zadar in August with Nicole for her birthday which is the peak season for Croatia. The weather is stunning but the cost of everything is inflated, from flights to national park entrance fees, and everywhere is busy.

If you have a flexible calendar then consider visiting in the shoulder seasons (May-June and September-October). You’ll save a chunk of money without losing out on the weather, and you won’t have to compete with as many tourists.

Itinerary

Day 1- flight to Zadar

The trip started with us working our way across London, bleary-eyed, to get to Stansted airport. Upon arriving at the check-in, Ryan Air informed me that check-in is online only and closed 2 hours before the flight, and so we had to pay £55. Fantastic.

To get to the city centre you can get an expensive taxi (or a cheaper Uber) or get the bus for 25 Kuna (~£3). We were staying at an AirBnB just outside the city centre and decided an Uber would be easier.

Give yourself several hours to explore the old town and read up on what you’re seeing.

After we’d unpacked, we jumped on a bus to the old town (the buses are frequent and well-organised) which costs 16 Kuna for a return ticket. The old town is the centre of tourism, including Roman ruins and Venetian walls (now a World Heritage Site). It’s a great introduction to the Zadar and the region’s history; definitely worthy of half a day. If you don’t want to splash out on a paid tour it’s likely your travel guidebook will include some of the highlights- I’d recommend the Lonely Plant Croatia guide.

We explored the beaches near the old town later on, but they’re packed and not that impressive. In the evening we sampled Dalmatian cuisine, I tried the black risotto which was fantastic but stained my teeth for the evening. If you’re on a budget then head outside the old town for cheaper prices.

HelloTravel Trip Packages
The Greeting to the Sun after sundown
credit: https://www.hellotravel.com/croatia/monument-to-the-sun

At sunset head to the northwest of the old town to check out the Sea Organ. It’s a cool sculpture that plays musical tunes dictated by the waves hitting against it. We got there just before the sun set and were baffled by the large solar panels on the floor called Monument to the Sun. We left a bit perplexed but when we returned later, ice-cream akimbo, we found it had started a light show once it was dark. It uses the solar energy from the day so come after sunset to actually see anything.

Day 2- Sakarun beach

Having just finished an intense 6-week American road trip I needed some R&R on this holiday so we set out to Sakarun beach based off our AirBnB hosts advice.

To get here, you can get a Catamaran to Dugi Otok; this is the quickest way. It departs from the harbour near the bridge entering the old town and drops you off at Božava, but it is apparently only one-way except on Sundays. Once the ferry arrives there’s a tourist “train” that drives to the beach. When we arrived, there were enough people to fill at least two trains and people ran off the ferry to get a space. That’s because it departs every two hours. So if you learn one thing from this post- run for the tourist train.

The local bus stop looked abandoned and people waiting there were paying the locals to be taxis. The queue of people waiting was growing so, instead of waiting around in the blistering heat, we decided to walk in the blistering heat. The walking route just cuts across the island and is actually quite nice, aside from that blistering heat I keep mentioning; it takes about an hour but gives a great view of the island when you reach the top of the hill.

The top of the hill and halfway to Sakarun beach

We arrived at Sakarun beach slightly delirious and I semi-collapsed into the water. The beach is white and pebbly and the water is crystal clear; it’s stunning. There’s a bar on the beach and you can pay for a sun lounger and umbrella, but we settled on lying on our towels and using our giant avocado lilo as a makeshift umbrella.

Getting back to the mainland was a challenge. The catamaran was not returning and the alternative was the ferry (it goes to the ferry harbour which is not near the old town). This departs from Brbinj and is not walkable and meant we needed to get on the mysterious local bus. No one at the beach knows when the bus is coming; apparently you ask the driver when you get off on the outbound journey. We ended up having to wait for an hour to make sure we didn’t miss it and this was my first lesson to rent a car for next time.

The water at Sakaran is so clear.
P.S if you want a giant avocado lilo (the stone is a beach ball) find it here

Day 3- Krka National Park

The national parks were the part of Croatia that I was looking forward to the most and they were exceptional. The four big options from Zadar are: Krka, Plitvice, Paklenica and Kornati National Park.

Getting to Krka from Zadar was just one bus from the main bus station and dropped us off at Skradin where we got a boat across to the park entrance. Once inside we followed the crowds and ended up at Skradinski Buk, the main waterfall that is associated with Krka.

We spent a fair while relaxing in the water here and swimming around (bring water-shoes– the rocks can be sharp) before deciding to wander further into the park. The route around here is mostly a loop with a few dead ends and it didn’t take too long for us to make our way around.

It gets busy at Skradinski Buk in August so get there early.

What we didn’t realise is that we couldn’t access the rest of the park without a car or a boat trip. The boat trips from Skradinski Buk costs either 100 or 130 Kuna and we were limited on time and money.

If you do want to explore further consider heading to Roški Slap and the Oziđana pećina cave or Visovac monastery. Despite not covering as much of the park as we wanted to, this still took up the majority of the day. It also meant we weren’t rushing around the park to cover everything, so don’t feel the need to get the extra boat tickets if you’re limited to public transport.

I’d recommend coming via car to Krka. It gives you more freedom to explore the park and to see more of it, and also means you can get there before the bus-loads of tourists.

Day 4- Queen’s Beach

The decision to split my love for national parks with Nicole’s desire to get as tanned as possible meant we alternated between beaches and national parks and headed up the coast to Nin.

Nin is home to some amazing beaches and we spent the day at Queen’s beach. It’s on the edge of a lagoon (the water doesn’t get very deep at all) and the beach isn’t the typical strip you get on the coast. It’s a relaxing day and if you’re looking for a sandy beach over pebbles then it’s worth coming here.

When we arrived we saw everyone walking around caked in jet black mud and found that the beach is also known for it’s medicinal Peloid mud. Whilst it’s a fun novelty to cake yourself in this (I’d put my picture up but it’s pushing the boundaries of blackface) the water from the lagoon mixes with it and that means the water can get disappointingly murky compared to the crystal clear waters of Sakarun beach.

We spent the evening walking around the centre of Nin and trying local food (basically a giant plate of different meats) for a much lower price than Zadar’s old town. Overall, it’s a pleasant day and Nin has a charming old fashioned feel. However, if you’re short on time then this is the day to swap for an extra day in Krka (travel further into the park or do hikes that aren’t possible for day trips) or for a trip to Kornati or Paklenica.

Queen’s Beach in Nin
credit to http://croatiatraveller.net/queens-beach/

Day 5- Plitvice National Park

Plitvice is considered the big dog of Croatia’s national parks and it’s easy to see why. The water is a magical shade of blue and, because no swimming is allowed, the stillness of the water adds to the aesthetic. We spent the whole day there, but we didn’t get into the park until midday due to ticket availability (they give specific entry time) and the bus schedule.

Definitely a place to bring a drone (this was the highest we could get on foot)

There’s conflicting advice online about whether to book in advance. It was very busy when we arrived and, even if it was just the time saved from queuing, I think it’s worth booking ahead in August (make sure you don’t miss your entry time- they’re strict).

In stark contrast to Krka it’s cold in Plitvice so bring an extra layer. Once you’re in, there are several walking routes of varying distances and free shuttles if you decide you’ve walked enough. There’s a boat that covers a sizeable chunk of the park and this is included in the ticket. If you’re day-tripping then you won’t be able to cover it all and don’t feel the need to rush yourself. Appreciate the sights, take in the details and enjoy yourself.

It’s hard to get tired of pristine lakes and waterfalls whilst making your way around Plitvice.

Top Tips for Zadar

  1. Hire a car- This makes accessing the national parks much easier, gives you more freedom, and stops you having to rely on a slow tourist train/mysterious public bus when going to Sakarun Beach.
  2. Try the local food- The old town has cuisines from all over Europe but try some of the excellent sea food and local dishes. Head outside the old town for a more authentic experience and smaller price tag.
  3. Learn the history- it’s easy to be distracted by the proximity of the national parks but Zadar has a rich history so don’t neglect it.
  4. Know your limits- This is a five day itinerary and you can’t fit everything Zadar has to offer in, so don’t try.
  5. Choose your dates carefully- August is very busy and everything costs more so aim for the shoulder seasons if possible.

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On the ferry back from Sakarun Beach

8 Best Parks and Green Spaces in London

International tourism has ground to a halt with COVID-19 and I’ve missed four trips in the last 3 months, so I’ve taken the opportunity to undertake some domestic exploration. London is full of attractions and free museums, meaning the nature on offer is unfortunately frequently overlooked by visiting tourists.

In the past few weeks, I’ve stumbled across a lot of parks so here’s my list of the best parks and green spaces to visit in London.

1) Hyde Park

Nearest tube stops
Central line: marble arch, queensway, lancaster gate
Piccadilly line: knightsbridge, hyde park corner

If you’re in London for a day or a month, Hyde Park should be on your list of place to visit. It offers similar vibes to Central Park due to its location in the centre of the city and is a fantastic spot to wander through if exploring the city centre.

If you wander to the centre of the park, you’ll find a lake, the Serpentine- which is also the name of a free art gallery in the park. I’ve yet to muster the courage to do so, but it’s possible to swim here (although this may be restricted to members only post-COVID). However, if you prefer to stay dry, relaxing by the lake can be very tranquil, and along the northern side there’s often some roller-skaters showing off their skills.

Serpentine lake

The vast number of paths criss-crossing over one another makes it a great park to get lost in. Whenever I go for a walk here, I’ll come across a new statue, or sculpture, or end up in an area I didn’t know existed, like the flower beds in the south-east section.

Biking is allowed too but only on the main paths (it’s well-marked on the floors of the smaller paths whether you can cycle) so it’s usually only worth doing if you want to get through the park rather than explore it.

2) Holland Park

Nearest tube stops
Central line: holland park

I think this park gets overlooked because of its proximity to Hyde Park but it packs a lot into a small area. It’s right next to the design museum which can make the perfect addition to your day.

I was initially underwhelmed at the park after walking up the straight path starting at High Street Kensington. However, once you make your way to the middle of the park it really opens up and the paths diverge. It’s bigger than it looks and it’s definitely worthwhile exploring some of the small statues hidden around the park before heading over to Kyoto Garden and Fukishima Garden.

Kyoto Garden credit: https://secretldn.com/kyoto-garden-tranquil-japanese-london/

Whilst it is currently closed due to COVID, Holland Park is also home to a performing arts theatre which occasionally performs open-air opera performances. Pair this with a meal at the Belvedere, a modern restaurant situated near the cafe, and it’s a perfect evening.

3) Richmond Park

Nearest tube stop
District line/SW rail/overground: Richmond
Note: the station isn’t particularly close and buses are also quite time consuming. The best way to get here is to drive or cycle.

Less central than the previous parks, Richmond Park is huge. If you have the whole day by all means go for a walk, it’s large enough to get a sense of isolation if you stray from the main paths. Cycling can be a more forgiving experience and the route from central London, cycling along the Thames, is a nice break from the busy centre.

Not as neat as the other parks but feels completely removed from London’s busy centre

I found Richmond Park had a less developed feel. It seems more like a wildlife reserve and the opportunity to horse-ride adds to this (some of the riders are learning and seem to run sideways so watch out). The paths are well-paved and you can drive through, but the vast areas of overgrown grasses are a stark contrast to the meticulously groomed areas of Hyde Park.

A more significant reason for the wildlife vibes, and the reason I love this park, are the many deer (630 according to their website) that wander round the park. Coming in the early summer months is amazing because it’s the birthing season, so make time for Richmond if you’re a Bambi fan.

As with the other parks, there is a pleasant cafe at the centre and the only other point to note is the Royal Ballet School, which I originally thought was a restaurant until I tried to go inside.

4) Battersea Park

Nearest tube stop
Overground/Southern Rail: Battersea Park
Note: These lines aren’t as accessible as underground lines so consider taking a bus from the other side of the river or cycling.

Pushing south of the river, I find myself continually returning to Battersea Park. There is a road around the circumference of the park for cycling and a weird type of pedal go-karting (you pay for 30 minutes but by 15 I’d done 2-3 laps and the novelty had worn off) and as you head to the centre paths start branching off and the exploration begins.

There is a bandstand centre-ish with a few maps to orientate yourself, and the boating lake (you can rent a rowing boat or pedalo for here) is also a good landmark if you find yourself lost. This was one of my favourite parks to explore because it’s big enough to get lost in, but small enough that it doesn’t take to long to find your way again.

Get out onto the water with a pedalo

The first time I went here I was stunned by the London Peace Pagoda. It’s a hefty monument along the river bank that wouldn’t look out of place in Asia, so much so that when I took a photo, and tagged the location as China, people didn’t question it.

The London Peace Pagoda is stunning

Because of its proximity to the river (it’s on the river bank) and the lack of major tube stops nearby, I’d recommend incorporating Battersea Park into a walk or cycle along the river bank and then heading across Chelsea Bridge where Sloane Square tube station is not too far from.

5) Regents Park

Nearest tube stops
Bakerloo line: baker street, regents park
Circle/Hammersmith&city line: baker street, great portland street
Jubilee line: baker street
Metropolitan line: baker street, great portland street

Regents Park continually surprises me with how varied it is. The park is surrounded by a ring road for cycling and driving and inside is walking only. Key highlights are London Zoo, Queen Mary’s Rose Garden and Primrose Hill.

The first time I went was to go to London Zoo (in summer they do over-18 twilight zoo visits which is a great date idea) and I couldn’t believe the entire zoo fit inside a park. It’s definitely worth checking out during your time here, especially if you’re with children.

Check out Nights @ London Zoo in the summer time.

I came across the Rose Garden by accident on my second visit to the park. It’s very impressive and well-groomed, and large enough that it could be an entire park on its own. Take it as an opportunity to stop for a breather, set up for a picnic, and just admire the scenery. Aside from the roses, there’s also a selection of more exotic looking plants, some topiaries and a few water features too.

I’m not sure if Primrose Hill is part of Regents Park but it’s only separated by one road, so I’m counting it. I stopped here on a cycle through London for an ice cream and the view from the top is amazing (only the second best on this list though). Not only does it give a great view over Regents Park, but you can see a fair bit of central London too. It can get very busy on hot days so consider coming for sunset (maybe pair it with the twilight zoo viewing on a date. Or don’t. I’m not your personal Cupid).

My one true love at Primrose Hill

6) Brockwell Park

Nearest tube stop
Victoria line: Brixton

For the Londoner’s reading this, this is likely the one park on this list you haven’t heard of. I hadn’t heard of it either and I came across it accidentally on a cycle through London.

It’s located near the diverse and edgy Brixton– an area with a strong Caribbean influence and a cultural centre on black heritage. So grab yourself some lunch nearby and head into the park. I cycled to the peak of the hill to check the view out which isn’t great but in general it’s well maintained with a lot of open space

There’s a lot of open space at Brockwell Park and old flyers suggest they the circus sets up here

What surprised me most was the outdoor BMX park that’s located near the top of the hill and looks awesome (I didn’t think my second hand crappy hybrid bike was up to the challenge). Nearby there’s some tennis courts and an old manor house that now sells delicious looking cakes and ice cream.

If you have a BMX/mountain bike head to Brockwell park to try it out

Down the hill there’s a lido for swimming but it was shut when I was there due to COVID, so I just stewed in the heat instead. The outdoor play area looked impressive if you’re with children, but I decided as a solo adult male I probably shouldn’t be taking pictures, so take my word for it.

7) Hampstead Heath

Nearest tube stop
Overground: Hampstead Heath, Gospel Oak
Northern line: Hampstead, Golder’s Green, Tufnell Park

Not an easy one to get to but definitely worth it. Primrose Hill has a pretty amazing view but Hampstead Heath’s knocks it out the water. The first time I came here everyone I was with rushed to the hill to take in the view, and it was all the more impressive because I had no idea it was there. It gives a complete view of central London, and the houses of parliament are often visible, construction dependent, hence the name: Parliament Hill.

I didn’t know Parliament Hill was known for its view so I didn’t bother taking a camera (taken from Wikipedia)

The view alone is worth visiting Hampstead Heath but it also hosts a series of ponds open for swimming in (Update 08/08: the ponds are open again but require pre-booking with a small fee for a 60 minute slot). It boasts mixed, male and female swimming areas, complete with changing rooms and lifeguards. It’s a great place to come for an outdoor dip in the heat, cold but refreshing.

If you’re coming to Hampstead Heath, make sure to go for a dip. Credit: Timeout

I found relaxing with a view and the occasional swim was a great way to spend the day. Come on a hot day with a picnic, find a spot for yourself, and take a dip whenever you need to cool off. I made my way here via bike from west London and my route went through Hyde Park and Regents Park which I’d highly recommend.

8) Kew Gardens

Nearest tube stop
Overground: Kew Gardens
District line: Kew Gardens

I wasn’t sure whether to include Kew Gardens because it’s not free entry (discounts for students and NHS though and season passes available) but if you’re searching for green spots in London it’s a must-see. Even if you’ve been in summer, definitely come back in the winter for the Christmas lights.

The gardens host a mix of indoor and outdoor exhibits and it’s large enough that you’re given a map upon entry. Even in the outdoor sections, the plants are split up into mini-exhibitions like the Bamboo Garden and Waterlily Pond. The indoor exhibits (closed for COVID but glass walls so…?) allow for more exotic plant growth due to better control of the environment and temperature. I found Palm House and Temperate House to be the most impressive and the Treetop walkway (even though it was closed) gave me flashbacks to Singapore Supertrees.

Palm House- no prizes for guessing what’s inside

When you enter the gardens, take a minute to plan a rough route, it can be pretty tiring and disorientating if you start going backwards and forwards between different areas. My favourite points were the Japanese Gateway, Secluded Garden and the Syon Vista (great picnic spot). Of all the places I’ve mentioned, this is definitely the best for photos, unless you’re into wildlife photos and deers, so remember your camera and give yourself enough time to really appreciate the detail.

So, those were my top 8 parks and green spots in London to explore. I know there’s more out there, I just need to go and find them.

Let me know in the comments which you’ve been to, how did you find them, and are there any parks you think I’ve missed out?

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Should I take a Gap Year? Reasons why and how to plan one

I got my offer for medical school in March 2015, before which I was terrified I was going to get four rejections and be forced on a gap year. Skip forwards to September, 2 weeks before term starts, and I got an email from my university. I was offered a fully-funded gap year abroad and, just like Boris, I did a complete U-turn. Five years later, I want to lay out the benefits of taking a gap year and explain how to make the most of it.

Note: The post has a slight focus on gap years for medics but is applicable for anyone.

My gap year

The whole reason I got this opportunity was too many people had accepted a place on my course. Every fresher due to start medical school got an email asking if they were interested in doing a gap-year, with six months of research abroad.

I went to the interview on the 15th September, with a guy I knew from school, and said I would only go if it was with him in Thailand. It was a ballsy move that I didn’t expect them to accept, but I wasn’t even keen on taking a gap year; I just didn’t want to regret not considering it. They said they’d get back to me in 2 weeks, after the rest of the interviews. I got an email 8 hours later saying the place was mine.

I now had to make the choice of whether I was going, and I felt that I was going to waste a year. In the end, I made my mind up on a closing shift I was working at a local pub. I was explaining the situation to three regulars and one guy succinctly said “If you think not doing a gap year will help your career then bear in mind that I went straight into law at Cambridge and now I’m unemployed.” I accepted the offer the next day with a week left.

Khon Kaen was going to be my new home for six months

I spent the autumn months continuing my part-time job to get some cash to go travelling during my time off in Thailand, before heading to London for a month to sort out the logistics. It was a great opportunity to spend a month exploring London in depth, without lectures getting in the way.

In the new year I set off to Khon Kaen in Thailand. It’s not well known by tourists because there isn’t much that makes it stand out (it does have a lot of cool temples and a water park) but it’s a city dominated by it’s university- honestly it’s massive. I spent six months living there and doing biochemistry lab work with PhD students researching cancer of the bile duct (cholangiocarcinoma- the prevalence is huge in Thailand because of a parasite in the freshwater fish that is eaten raw).

I spent the majority of my weekdays working and I spent the evenings hanging out with students whilst I tried to practice speaking Thai or, as was usually the case, they’d practice their English. My accommodation didn’t have cooking facilities, and it was so cheap to eat street food that I didn’t cook a single meal the entire time.

It was incredibly surreal being one of a handful of white people in the city, I was treated like a novelty/celebrity. People would come up and ask for photos, invite me for dinner, or just start a conversation with me. In my first month alone, I met one of the Thai princesses (she just laughed at me) and got invited to a wedding. It was a stark contrast to the weekends where I’d travel to tourist hotspots, like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and blend back into the hub of travellers.

We got given our own foreigner table at the wedding

At the end of the six months I tearfully said goodbye to all the friends I’d made and set off travelling down Thailand all the way to Singapore with a quick visit to Bali to get my PADI diving qualification. It was an interesting change going back on the tourist trail, people were less friendly to tourists, and I had to be reacquainted with scammers and people desperately trying to sell me things. I returned to the UK physically exhausted but, simultaneously, mentally rejuvenated. I’d had a year away from exams and the pressure to perform, and had immersed myself in a completely different culture for six months.

Why take a gap year?

Here’s some of the best reasons for taking a gap year before university.

Taking a break

The period of GCSEs to A-levels is stressful for every student, there’s mounting pressure to do well in exams that you’re told will define your future. From the age of 14-15, you’re placed on an academic treadmill and it gets faster with each challenge: GCSE, AS levels (are they still a thing?), UCAS, interviews, A-levels. If you slow down you’ll be flung off and miss your spot at university. By the time you get that golden place you’ve been running for so long you don’t even consider that turning the speed down is an option.

A gap year gives you the chance to slow down the pace, treat yourself and reset for university. Medical school is six years of pressured exams that you’ve invested 9k/year to do well in. Once you graduate you’re slung onto the NHS conveyor belt to consultant and the opportunities to take a year off for yourself become more scarce, and increasingly harder to organise.

Burnout is an increasingly worrying issue for doctors in the NHS, and it’s important to recognise your own limits and take time out as necessary. By not taking a gap year, you’re likely giving yourself an extra year of being a consultant (on top of the 20+ years you’ll already be doing as a consultant). In the grand scheme of things you won’t remember that extra year of consultancy but you will never forget a well-planned gap year.

Over a third of doctors experience burnout/depression in their career.

Summary
– Take a break from the constant pressure of exams.
– Avoid burnout.
– Who cares about one extra year as a consultant?

A year of travel

Once entering university, your time to travel is dictated by holidays and is often limited to the summer due to exams. After graduation, getting time off in the early years of the NHS can be difficult, and getting an extended amount of time off can be nearly impossible. The GMC expects doctors to continually practice their skills meaning if you manage to take a year out of training, you would be expected to demonstrate how you have kept on top of your skills in the interim.

It’s not impossible to travel extensively as a doctor (I’ll post tips on this at some point) but a gap year is the ultimate opportunity to travel for an entire year without having to worry if it will impact your career.

Summary
– Relish the opportunity to travel for a year with no other obligations.
– It may be the longest you can travel in one go for a while.

Learn new skills and earn money

Gap years are a great opportunity to increase your skillset such as learning a new language whilst travelling, or improving your organisation skills when planning the year. Ultimately, this will increase your independence and prepare you for university when the combination of living alone and managing your studies can be overwhelming.

If you’re in the process of reapplying to university, a gap year can give an opportunity to get plenty of work experience with skills directly applicable to your course, especially when you have the opportunity to attend during term time. It is increasingly common for hospitals to have an over-18 policy for being in theatre and so gaining medical work experience on a gap year can increase the breadth of opportunities.

Alternatively, use your existing skills to earn some extra cash. It’s likely you’ll need to work at the start of your year off if you plan on travelling later but it’s equally viable to spend the whole year working, in the UK or abroad such as at ski resorts. University can be financially stressful, especially 5th and 6th year with reduced student finance, and having a year of earning can ease the burden.

Summary
– Learn new skills that can be transferable or not.
– Get extra work experience if reapplying.
– Earn some cash working for university.

How to plan a gap year

You’ve taken the biggest step and decided to do a gap year. Now what? Well here’s some tips to make sure you get the most out of it.

Be proactive

One of the biggest differences between school and university is the change in learning, a lot more of the content requires some proactivity. The same can be said for a gap year, it’s the first year of your life that isn’t planned out for you and it can be easy for it to pass by without proper planning.

Consider what you want to get out of your gap year over the summer. Are you looking to travel areas of the world you haven’t seen, get a dreamy job abroad, earn serious money in the UK or really strengthen your CV? Once you’ve decided what your goals are, set a plan of more manageable tasks and start researching into how you can start organising your year.

The possibility of not having anything to do for an entire year is a big deterrent for some. Therefore, coming up with a plan of what you’re doing and how you’re going to keep yourself busy, or at least entertained, is a key aspect in planning.

Be organised

Summary:
– Decide what direction you want your gap year to go in early on.
– Break down the planning/organisation of the year into smaller manageable tasks.
– Keep yourself occupied.

Budget

Learning to budget is essential for a stress-free gap year and will help prevent your student loan burning a hole in your pocket in week one of university. If you’re planning on just working for your gap year you may have a goal for a certain amount of money you want to earn, or something you want to buy at the end.

If you’re planning on travelling for a substantial part of the year, it’s important to be realistic about the cost. Depending on where you go, travelling can be very cheap but:

1) The base cost of flights and cheap travel is still a considerable cost when you may not have had a job before/have minimal savings.
2) If something goes wrong you want a bit extra on top of your budget.
3) Being able to splash out on activities (scuba-diving, bungee jumping, sky-diving) is one of the things that makes gap years so memorable.

Be realistic about the costs of where you’re going and decide if you want to travel on a shoestring, or spend a bit more. I eat a disgusting amount of food so I multiply recommended food budgets by 1.5, other people want better accommodation and increase their budget for hostels- it’s personal preference.


Once you’ve figured your budget out you need to find the income to support it. You can get a job early on in the year and travel in the latter half, or in places like Australia, get a working visa and work whilst you travel. Just make sure you have a plan so you aren’t selling your shoes by your second week. It’s not the most fun aspect of the year but the sense of financial independence from funding your own travels is very rewarding.

Summary:
– Figure out a realistic budget and then add a bit on for emergencies.
– Find a job to fund it sooner rather than later.
– Consider if you want to work in the UK or try and work abroad with the opportunity to travel after.

Move out of your comfort zone

A gap year is a great opportunity to grow as a person and mature before university. The best way to do this is to step out of your comfort zone and this doesn’t look the same for everybody.

Think about situations which make you uncomfortable and use the year as an opportunity to explore them and overcome that feeling. I found I was uncomfortable with leadership and took a job as an NCS mentor, running activities for a group of teenagers over the summer. It doesn’t have to be a deep internal reflection, the range of activities that push you out of your comfort zone are limitless from sky-diving to charity work.

A side note on charity work abroad, make sure what you’re doing is actually benefitting the community, and isn’t just making you feel good about yourself (e.g building a school when the community has plenty of employed labourers and you’ve never used a hammer). If you’re serious about volunteering, be prepared to commit for several weeks to minimise disruption from a high turnover rate.

Don’t be this person

Summary
– Reflect on areas of yourself you’d like to improve and work on them over the year.
– Do something that scares you.
– Don’t succumb to white saviour complex if volunteering.

Enjoy yourself

This post makes gap years sound like lots of work but they can end up being the most rewarding year of your life. It’s necessary to put the work in at the start of the year to maximise your time, but don’t forget to take some time to relax. This is primarily your year off to do what you want, rest, and have fun. Cross things off your bucket list, do things you’ve always wanted to do, and don’t feel like you have to constantly be doing something. You’ve made your way through GCSEs, A-levels and university admissions, you’ve earned this rest.

It’s still a year off at the end of the day

Summary:
– Not everything needs to be self-improvement, do stuff just for yourself.

I hope this has given you some food for thought on taking a gap year and given some structure on planning and maximising your time.

If you enjoyed this article make sure to share and like it. Let me know in the comments where you went on a gap year, and any reasons you had for/against doing a gap year.

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Essential tips for travelling Central America

I learnt a lot on my four weeks travelling around Central America (if you haven’t read that start here). Some of what I learnt, I realised I’d actually read in travel in travel guides before-hand and had blissfully ignored rather than changing plans or being pro-active. With that in mind, here’s my guide on top tips when planning a trip in Central America including how to stay safe once you get there.

1) Learn some Spanish

I think I made it pretty clear in the past few posts that not knowing Spanish was a big disadvantage. The vast majority of people there (excluding Belize) don’t speak English and if they do it’s basic. Having a basic grasp on Spanish before landing in Tegucigalpa would have saved me a of time, a lot of stress wondering whether I was on the right bus (I probably wouldn’t have ended up in Livingston fishing condoms out of my food), and would have made haggling much easier.

Knowing some Spanish vocab also helps with chatting to the locals. Tourism isn’t huge and there were plenty of times where I was the only foreigner on a bus which is a talking point in itself. If you’re sat next to a Honduran Abuela there’s a high chance she’s going to strike up a conversation on your three-hour journey. Being able to hold a basic conversation helps pass the time and can get you some local travel tips. It’s also a lot less embarrassing than awkwardly smiling and muttering Yo no speako Espanish and you’ll likely get some bus snacks out of it.

Plan of action:
– Learn travel-related verbs and how to conjugate them (am, go, walk, arrive etc.)
– I use Duolingo, other friends use Babble. See which one works for you and make it a habit leading up to your trip.
– If you’re reading this two days before your trip don’t panic. Be realistic about your language skills, consider increasing your time on tourist trails and going to larger hostels with bilingual staff.

The face I made whenever anyone started a conversation in Spanish.

2) Travel light

It’s a commonly echoed sentiment that a key tip for travelling is to minimise the kit you take for good reason:

– I saved money on checked luggage (I bought my toiletries in the capital after landing)
– It opened up opportunities for public transport like motorbike taxis or minibuses where the rucksacks got put on the roof.
– It was much more comfortable on travel days where I was carrying my backpack all day.

Travelling light in Central America also had additional security benefits. I was able to fit my entire backpack into some of the tiny lockers provided at hostels rather rather than prioritising valuable.

Also, when I got minibuses or chicken buses I was could put my rucksack by my feet without it cutting off circulation to my legs or annoying other passengers. A few other travellers I met complained that items of clothing were taken from their rucksacks during journeys when they were tied to the roof.

Plan of action:
-Invest in a small rucksack (30-40L).
-Pack minimal clothing and do laundry regularly (sinks work well if there’s no alternative).
-Leave space for souvenirs! (I buy paintings that can be rolled up)

Save the effort- travel light.

3) Spread your money

The foreign office’s travel advice on Central America says that resisting robbery often escalates the situation and recommends having small amounts of money on hand for a robbery.

With that in mind I took a dummy wallet which was the wallet I use in the UK but all the cards I had in were old or cancelled. It had about $30USD in and small amounts of local currency. If I got mugged then I’d hand this over and avoid the situation escalating. In the end I had no issues and I ended up just using this wallet like normal, but better safe than sorry.

I wasn’t sure how clued up criminals would be about the use of money belts and I didn’t want to leave the rest of my money there. I ended up splitting my money between my dummy wallet, money belt, toiletries bag, in my shoe soles, travel guide and the back of my phone. In retrospect it might have been overkill but it meant I was pretty calm about the possibility of getting mugged.

I’d still recommend avoiding carrying large quantities of cash. It’s worth trying to pay with a travel card where possible and withdraw small amounts of cash frequently too (bear in mind not all ATMs will be full, especially on Sunday, and many charge withdrawal fees).

Plan of action
-Bring a dummy wallet for petty theft to avoid escalation
– Split your money into several places
– Try and withdraw local currency in small amounts regularly and get a travel card (I use Starling).

Tourists getting killed is often due to resisting robbery. For comparison, the homicide rate in the UK is just over 1 per 100,000.
Credit to: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-turbulent-northern-triangle

4) Leave a whole day for travel

I learnt this the hard way after planning a very full itinerary that relied heavily on the timings I’d seen quoted online for journeys being accurate.

It isn’t exaggeration when I say maximum 30% of my journeys took approximately the time I expected them to take whilst some took several hours longer (Rio Dulce–> Lanquin I’m looking at you). The whole experience will be a lot less stressful if you allow an entire day for travel, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get an extra half a day to explore!

Also note that I said a whole day for travel. It’s very tempting when travelling on a budget to opt for night buses: you’ve bagged yourself free accommodation and saved a day to see the sights. However, the bus drivers are often overworked and tired, not a great combo for a long overnight drive. Add that onto poor road conditions with thin roads traversing mountains and the possibilities look dire. So take the hit on your schedule and go in the day.

Plan of action
– Don’t plan to do anything on your travel days- timetables are not reliable
-Try and travel in daylight to avoid traffic accidents/crime.

Spend a day travelling then chill in a hammock- simple.

5) Trust the locals

The combination of the blunt foreign office advice and my worried family, who seemed to be preparing themselves that I wouldn’t be returning, didn’t help my nerves. When I arrived, I’d almost accepted that I was going to be robbed and on a flight home before my first week was up.

Couchsurfing massively changed my perspective and I can’t recommend it enough. I got given loads of information on topics like where is safe to visit and foods to try, and it gave me the push I needed to start trusting strangers. There were countless times when I was travelling between locations that a stranger made sure I got on the right bus or would point me in the right direction.

It’d be naive to say everyone is an altruistic saint, and female travellers unfortunately have the added macho nature of Central America to contend with, but the majority of people seemed keen to welcome tourists and break the international stereotype of their country.

Plan of action
– Locals are often friendlier than the country’s reputation suggests.
– Keep an open mind when someone is trying to help you.
– Give Couchsurfing a shot to meet locals interested in helping travellers.
– For a female perspective on travelling safely in Central America check out Girl About the Globe.

Surreal moment getting a lift from a stranger after another stranger jumped in the road on our behalf when the bus didn’t show up.

6) Bring US Dollars

This is fairly self-explanatory. Dollars are accepted across the whole region (they’re the official currency in Panama and El Salvador) and are very useful when crossing a border with no local currency. It’s likely you will have to pay more, except in Belize, because the on-the-spot exchange rate isn’t going to be great, but it saves the stress of a mad dash for a cash machine. Keep the dollars as a backup when local currency is an option; you’re much more likely to find a use for leftover dollars than lempiras.

The local currencies aren’t closed and you can get them before going but I wouldn’t. British exchange rates are usually poor so it’s economical to get a travel card and withdraw at the airport.

Plan of action
– Bring dollars with you for emergencies and when crossing borders
– Use local currency where possible for best prices
– Withdraw cash with a travel card rather than exchanging money in the UK

7) Mix it up

If you’re a student, it’s likely that you’re going to be travelling Central America in the summer and it will be the low season. That gives the rare opportunity to see some excellent sights with next to no tourists around. For my time in Rio Dulce and Livingston, several of the spots I went to were completely empty and it’s a welcome contrast to spots like Semuc Champey that were more heavily touristed.

Consider what you want to get from your time in Central America, personally I enjoyed spending a few days exploring on my own then going to a big hostel and travelling about with a larger group.

I’d also recommend varying the places you visit whilst you’re out there. Central America is full of awesome sights and it’s very easy to spend your whole time looking at only ruins or just waterfalls. A few people I met were clearly desensitised and looked unimpressed whilst I’m stood next to them gobsmacked. I think the best way to prevent this is varying the environments you go to; I tried to cycle between ruins, rainforest/lakes, and beaches/islands. That said, it’s personal preference again, and if you’re set on seeing as many ruins or beaches as possible, go for it.

Plan of action:
– Take the opportunity to see sights without any other tourists about.
– Mix up the type of sights that you’re seeing (beaches/lakes/ruins) to avoid desensitising yourself.

So those are my top tips for travelling Central America, I hope they’re helpful, not all are exclusive to the region, but they were definitely stood out more here than in other countries I’ve been to.

What travel tips do you have on Central America? Comment down below and share with everyone else!

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Going Solo- A four-week itinerary in Central America (part 3: Belize)

The final post on Central America moves on from Guatemala (see previous post here) to Belize, the last stop on my four-week solo journey. The entire dynamic shifted to a more Caribbean holiday vibe and I was back to speaking English, yet was still clueless most of the time.

Belize

I purposefully minimised my time in Belize because it’s considered more expensive than Honduras and Guatemala, so I only planned six days here. Crossing the border was much simpler here because it’s a more travelled route and Belize’s official language is English (I promise I was max three days of Spanish from fluency). The exchange rate is fixed at 2:1 Belize dollars : US dollars so don’t accept anything less when exchanging money. Belize is home to its own selection of Mayan ruins, as well as a lot of wildlife parks, great beaches and excellent islands.

Day 26-27: San Ignacio

San Ignacio is the first major town across the border and a good jumping off point to some major ruins nearby like Xunantunich. I stayed at D’s hostel which was relatively expensive but had excellent wifi and Netflix. It was pretty small, basically an extension on a house, which gave a homely feel and the owners were happy to give advice and a tour of the town.

The town isn’t anything special but the street markets are vibrant with food and tropical fruit is very cheap.

Tikal and Copan had ruined me (I’ll let myself out) so I went to Cahal Pech, instead of the larger ruins. It’s a small archaeological site nearby with a small museum attached and I got a free ride from the hostel owner drove, and there’s some great jerk chicken nearby. Like Livingston, the food was a nice change with more of a Caribbean influence.

The next day, before heading to Belize City, I took the chance to go to a Belizean chocolatier (AJAW chocolate) and had an excellent group class (of one) on the history of chocolate in the Mayan empire. It’s a cheap class and a lot of fun, it’s very hands-on and I got to try my own chocolate concoctions (chilli-chocolate is underrated).

Impressions of San Ignacio:
– A good pit stop to plan your time in Belize. It has good transport links to the rest of the country.
-If you’re looking for Mayans ruins Xuantunich and Caracol ruins are accessible from here. For a beach holiday head to Placencia or for nature head to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Community Baboon Sanctuary or Rio Bravo Conservation area (for jaguars!)
-Learn a bit of Mayan history via chocolate whilst you’re here.

Day 27-30: Caye Caulker

Belize is home to the second largest coral reef in the world which draws visitors to the islands off the coast near the capital Belize City. For those into diving, the Blue Hole is an international attraction that I was planning on diving until I found it cost about $300USD to do so. I ended up choosing Caye Caulker in hope of doing some budget-friendly snorkelling but alternatives include Tobacco Caye and Ambergris Caye.

World-renowned Blue Hole (image taken from ambergrisdivers.com)

Getting to Belize City is simple, it’s the capital so buses regularly leave San Ignacio. Once there, make your way to the harbour and get yourself a ferry ticket. As with many central American countries, the capital carries most of the crime rate. I walked from the bus to the ferry and felt slightly uncomfortable but it was the middle of the day and I was on main roads so I took the risk. If you’re looking for a cheap lunch grab some of the bbq chicken and rice being sold on the streets in cardboard containers.

They say everything you see has a reason for being there. What happened to warrant this?

Caye Caulker is a classic backpacker island, slow-paced with a stretch of colourful hostels along a stretch of beach, and transport options consist of golf cart or bicycle. It’s split into two smaller islands by a stretch of water known as the Split. On my first full day I spent a while exploring the island and the two places I’d recommend to chill out at are the Lazy Lizard and Koko King (apparently alliteration is a requirement at Caye Caulker). Both have a bay and areas to swim but it’s worth noting that Koko King is across the Split, so you have to pay to get a water-taxi across. You can swim across, which I did, but the current can be strong so it’s advised against, however the return boat ride is free as everyone pays for a return on the outbound journey.

Whilst diving isn’t the sole focus of Caye Caulker, compared to Utila in Honduras, it’s a big draw and for every hostel you see there’s a dive shop it recommends. At this point I was fairly low on money so I opted to snorkel instead of dive. I spent a while exploring different options for my second day. The companies all go to similar locations and prices don’t differ much but paying more means you get better food/snacks. In the end, I based my choice on environmental sustainability and cost and even managed to haggle because it was the low-season.

The snorkelling was amazing and is the reef is a must-see in Belize. The coral was less bleached than in areas of southeast Asia and I managed to see some nurse sharks and a manatee. For those on a higher budget, you can splash out on overnight sailing trips that explore much more of the reef and secluded island (check out Ragamuffin tours).

A much less impressive picture of above the water because I didn’t have a GoPro.
Poorly taken picture of a delicious lobster ft. my thumb.

The last thing to know about Caye Caulker is the food is pricey but they have a ton of lobster- and it’s (relatively) super cheap. I’d stretched my budget here by getting breakfast from the supermarket (bananas are so cheap they wouldn’t let me buy just one) and getting chicken from a bbq street stall for lunch. For dinner I went to a stall making burritos but the meat was stored in a bucket and not refrigerated. It cost about 25% of dinners elsewhere and every morning I’d have a bout of diarrhoea, so I’d recommend taking the financial hit and getting food that’s at least mildly hygienic. That being said it meant I saved enough money that, after my snorkelling trip, I got a medium sized lobster for $15USD including sides and it was heavenly.


That evening I was speaking to the owner of my hostel and he asked if I wanted to see the new It movie at the cinema for $2.50USD. I tagged along, curious to see how Caye Caulker’s cinemas compare to the UK and found it was just the back garden to a restaurant with a projector and laptop connected to an illegal streaming site. However, there was a large enough crowd to give the illusion that it was a professional service but the mix of old men shouting to increase the volume and toddlers crying at Pennywise somewhat dulled the suspense. Still, for $2.50USD it’s a fun way to spend a night.

Impressions of Caye Caulker:
-Chilled out island vibes but heavy on the budget
-Great for snorkelling and diving
-Gorge yourself on cheap lobster

Day 30-31: Belize City

Belize City was my last stop before going home and I only stayed here a night. I got the late ferry back but if you’re tight on money I’d get an earlier one to be able to navigate your way through the capital in daylight rather than relying on a taxi.

A few other blogs I read say there isn’t a bus to the airport and you need to get an expensive taxi but this is only half-true. There is a public bus but it stops along the main road nearest to the airport and then you have to walk up the turn-off leading to the airport. It’s definitely worth asking your hostel/hotel about local buses, it saved me about $20USD that I didn’t have.

The bus is $2BZ and the walk from the turn off is 2.5km.

Impressions of Belize City:
– It didn’t stand out as worthy of staying, I only used it as a stopping point to get a flight home from.
– As with many capitals in Central America, the rest of the country is much more deserving of your attention.
– Get taxis after dark if you’re travelling long distances.

Final Thoughts on Belize

Belize is a refreshing change from Guatemala and Honduras, especially if your Spanish is still lacking. The cuisine is more Caribbean-focused and moves away from the repetitive food found elsewhere, and it highlights the cultural diversity of Central America.

There’s an evident increase in higher-end accommodation and luxury tours and seemingly more money. That makes it more difficult to travel this country on a budget compared with Honduras and Guatemala. However, it can be done with enough prep and willingness to explore for cheap eats, and budget hostels are in abundance on Caye Caulker.

So how long do you need to spend in Belize? Six days gave me a flavour of Belize but I don’t think I spent long enough to do it justice. Ideally, I would have given myself an extra week. I’d have explored some of the sights around San Ignacio, added an extra two days onto my time in the Cayes, and split it between two different islands, and visited the Cockscombe Wildlife Sanctuary to try and spot some Jaguars.

Over and out.

The verdict

An entire month spent alone in Central America and I’m here to tell the tale. At the start of the trip I was very concerned that I was going to get robbed and would have to come home early, but out of all the areas I’ve travelled to since I got harassed here the least. That’s not to say there aren’t dangers, and female travellers will have extra dangers to be aware of, but the reputation on Central America often overshadows the gems it has to offer.

For anyone with an interest in exploring nature without being overwhelmed by bus loads of tourists, Central America is a must. The variety of landscapes and wildlife is stunning, and so much is untouched. I managed to glimpse 3 out of 7 of the countries and I can’t wait to go back and see the rest.

So, once travel is back on the cards and you’re planning your next trip, zoom in onto the tiny bridge of land between Mexico and South America, choose a starting point, and figure out the rest later.


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