Five Ways to Learn Spanish for South America

Hola todos!

Since we’re going to be spending at least four months of the world in Spanish-speaking countries, I thought I’d better get a wriggle on trying to learn some of the language! Lofty has been much better at this than me, and has been learning for almost 18 months. I, however, have taken the more ‘intensive’ approach and trying out lots of different methods! I’ve compiled a list of just a few of the ways we’ve been trying to learn Spanish (and some bonus ones that have been recommended to us, that we will try in the near future):

Photo 17-12-2015, 11 18 24

1. Best if you have three months or more: Find a Groupon/Amazon Local deal!

Lofty found a brilliant deal on AmazonLocal that offered a 12-week Spanish course for only £79 with the Elegant International College in London. Definitely worth every penny! With a course over 12 weeks, he really got to know the teacher and the other students, so he was able to meet up with them outside the classroom to help improve his Spanish even more. After 18-months, Lofty is a confident Spanish speaker and well prepared for a few months in South America!

2. Best if you only have two weeks: Instituto Cervantes ‘Intensive’ courses


Instituto Cervantes in London on Eaton Square

This is the course that I took over the last two weeks of November. Instituto Cervantes is run by the Spanish government as a way of promoting the Spanish language around the world – and all the teachers are native Spanish speakers. The course takes place every day for three hours a day (from 10:30-13:30) and costs £312. The class sizes tend to be pretty small, with a minimum of 4 up to a maximum of about 12 people per class.

Although I initially started with the very beginner course (Inicial 1), because I had been using Duolingo (see below) I already had enough vocabulary to jump to the Inicial 2 level. I’m so glad that I did. Over the two weeks, I went from a completely shy Spanish speaker to being able to have actual conversations and write full on emails and postcards. The course is quite intense – they try to speak as little English as possible during the lesson, even to complete beginners – but I thoroughly recommend it if you get the chance before you go. They also give you a ‘qualification’ at the end of the course which allows you to pick up a Spanish language course anywhere around the world.

3. Best if you’re learning on your own (for free): Duolingo


I downloaded a bunch of Spanish apps to help me learn, but the most useful one has been Duolingo (and bonus: it’s free!). It’s easy to use, fun, and has really helped improve my vocabulary. The biggest drawback to Duolingo is the fact that you don’t say much out loud – and you don’t get a chance to interact with anyone, so translating Duolingo knowledge into an actual conversation is tricky. That’s why I would thoroughly recommend taking a course as a way to cement that knowledge!

3a. Best for learning on your own (for ££): Rosetta Stone

A bit on the expensive side, but well proven to be one of the best pieces of software for learning Spanish on your own! I have yet to use it but have heard only great things. I have the Latin American Spanish version, level 1 and I’ll be adding it to my laptop for learning on the road.

4. Best if you can start your trip a bit early: Homestays

Lofty and I are unfortunately starting in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, so we’re not able to do a homestay. But if my experiences learning French are any indication, becoming fully immersed in the language with a homestay is the only way to become truly fluent. Oasis Overland offers week-long homestays as ‘added extras’  on most of their South America itineraries.

5. Best if you like to watch videos: VideoEle

This website was recommended to me by my Instituto Cervantes teacher and it’s so useful! Some of the Spanish learning videos I found on YouTube were very basic and not very helpful. But these videos are clear, useful and tie in to the different levels used by Instituto Cervantes. If you’re a beginner, go to the section marked ‘Alumno’ and then level ‘Nivel A1’

I would also like to download some great (but easy) Spanish-language podcasts for the road – does anyone have any recommendations? We’ve been listening to Coffee Break Spanish and Show Time Spanish but always looking for others!



Goodbye Real Life – Hello South America!

Since Lofty handed in his notice and I’ve gone full-time freelance, the question we’ve been asked most is: What now?

And our answer…


This is the Kingdoms and Carnivals route of our upcoming South American adventure, run by my favourite travel company, Oasis Overland. I travelled with them from Nairobi-Johannesburg back in 2007 and I just love their itineraries and their ethos – they’re all about off-the-beaten track adventure mixed with the opportunity to make great friends. Everyone is expected to muck in with the cooking, cleaning and set-up, but the Oasis crew take care of the sticky business of how we get from point A to B! Lofty had a taster of an Oasis trip when we used them to travel in Egypt and Jordan in 2012, and he was hooked.


With Oasis travel friends in Dahab, Egypt

The trip begins almost exactly 8 years since Lofty and I first met in Christchurch, New Zealand, on our respective post-university gap years. We met in a hostel kitchen, fell in love pitching tents on secluded beaches, and together experienced some of the most beautiful places on this earth. From that moment onward, our fates were sealed: our life together was always going to feature travel in a big way.

But reality also beckoned. We both wanted long-term, sustainable careers in addition to lots of travel. (Nothing like wanting it all!) For the years that we were settled in the UK, Lofty worked and qualified as an actuary and I worked in publishing and wrote my books. We travelled as much as we could in Europe (and sometimes beyond), taking advantage of the cheap airfares, long holidays and short distances. We also, you know, got married, bought a flat, bought a car… all the trappings of a life most people would dream of.

Yet our dream of travel was still alive, and we knew we had to somehow fit in one more big trip before we added ‘family’ to the above list. Now we’ve jumped in with both feet! We’ve sold the flat (and all of its contents!) and moved in with very generous friends, sold the car, quit our day jobs, and put everything remaining into storage. Our flights are booked, the trip is paid for, the backpacks have been dragged out from under the bed and are filled to the brim. All that’s left to do is fly!

Some of the highlights of the trip have been on my bucket list for years:

  • Dancing the night away at Rio Carnival
  • Visiting the stunning Iguazu Falls
  • Eating steak in Buenos Aires
  • Hiking in Patagonia and Torres del Paine
  • Turning 30 somewhere between Chile and Argentina (I’m hoping for a posh vineyard in Mendoza…)
  • Taking crazy perspective photos on the salt plains of Bolivia
  • Walking the Inca Trail and seeing Machu Picchu (of course!)
  • Flying over the Nazca Lines
  • Spending a few nights in the Amazon jungle
  • Sailing around the islands of the Galapagos

Has anyone been to these places? We are collecting must-dos and would love your tips! Otherwise, follow the blog for more tales of our adventures… setting off on 4 February 2016.


The Oasis truck in Africa 2007 (spot me in the blue T-shirt on the top)


A weekend in… Poland! Day Two, Krakow and the Trail of the Eagles’ Nest

So day two of our weekend trip technically starts the night before, with the most amazing dinner (probably one of the best I’ve had in Europe) at Restaurant Starka in Krakow. Our reservation wasn’t until 9pm (I essentially begged for a table over email!) – if you want to get into this restaurant, especially on a Saturday night, I thoroughly recommend making a reservation well in advance!

We arrived into Krakow at 7pm with the intention of checking into our hotel, relaxing, and changing, before heading out to dinner. But the best laid plans… Turned out that our hotel had given away our rooms (thanks so the poor girl manning the desk had to scour all nearby hotels for a place for us to stay. Two hours of frantic searching later and we finally found rooms at the Q Best Western.

Luckily it was only a short taxi ride back to Restaurant Starka, but we arrived tired, grumpy and feeling grotty (no time after all for a nap or a shower). But it was so worth it. Revived by a strawberry-infused vodka shot, we got down to the business of ordering. All of us apart from the vegetarian (!) shared a starter platter of homemade lard on toast (surprisingly, much nicer than it sounds!), Polish sausage (yum), herring dip and prunes wrapped in bacon – combined with some of the yummiest bread and garlic mayo ever. Suffice to say we were excited for what was to come. But nothing prepared us for the delicious 0.5kg of boneless pork knuckle that was to come for main course! It was like the best, juiciest, most succulent pork belly wrapped in 360-degrees of rich, crunchy, salty crackling. All kinds of perfect.


Maybe not the prettiest food… but really delicious! Pork knuckle


Home-infused vodka – pretty much any flavour you could want under the sun

We finished off the evening with a shot of home-infused black pepper vodka that just about blew our heads off. All in all, it was a great evening. Krakow was already showing itself to be a cool town.

The next morning, we strolled across the bridge to look at Wawel Castle. It was early on a Sunday morning, so unfortunately not much was open, but we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere.


Inside the grounds of Wawel Castle

The main site that we’d intended to see was Krakow’s Grand Square and the impressive Cloth Hall. It was a picture of the Cloth Hall that had inspired Tania to take this trip in the first place, so we owe it a lot! Krakow is a gorgeous city, full of medieval details – right down to the legend of the dragon that apparently had its lair within Wawel hill. Huge dragon bones hang outside the Cathedral in Wawel Castle, and myth states that if these bones ever fall, the end of the world is nigh. Any place with history that epic automatically earns a special place in my heart!


The magnificent Cloth Hall


The Krakow dragon

Also, any city that has a fire-breathing dragon with seven heads as a statue is alright with me.

From Krakow, we made our way back to the airport via the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests. The trail features at least 25 castles, varying from the 14th century to the Renaissance – and we found it hard to choose which ones to visit. Luckily, Tania had done her research. We stopped first at Ojców castle, a picturesque ruin in the woods. It was beautiful because of the setting, especially in the autumn with all the changing leaves. I loved that it appeared to have been reclaimed by the rock and the forest.


Ojców castle

Next was Pieskow Skała, which Tania picked because it has a cool rock formation near by known as Hercules’ Bludgeon.


Pieskow Skała


Hercules’ Bludgeon

Then we moved on to Ogrodzieniec Castle – probably the most interesting of the three we visited. You could walk all the way around the castle, exploring all the rooms and taking in the awesome views. I managed to get some great inspiration for Potion Diaries #2!


The ruins of Ogrodzieniec Castle


From there, it was a drive to the airport and home – back to work again on Monday morning! A perfect weekend break away.



A weekend in… Poland! Day One, Wrocław and Auschwitz-Birkenau

The brilliant thing about living in the UK is the ability to head to Europe for the weekend. This time we chose gorgeous Poland as our destination. It’s not a country that’s often on the top of travel lists but, after visiting for only two short days, it’s my opinion that it definitely should be. Great food, incredible history, beautiful architecture, warm people… it ticks all the boxes for me.

Beautiful and quaint… Wrocław, Poland 

This truly was a weekend adventure. We left after work on Friday (with a near-miss airport adventure – because of terrible M25 traffic it took us over 4 hours to get to Stansted from Winchester), landed late Friday night and flew back Sunday evening. We booked cheap Ryanair flights into Wrocław, a town in Western Poland that we had never heard of. In fact, the pronunciation of the town turned out to be one of the trickiest words to master – it’s more like ‘Vrots-lav’ than ‘Row-claw’. What we found was a colourful, vibrant town known as the ‘Venice of Poland’ and it took us completely by surprise.


DSC_0336The main square in Wrocław is full of these beautiful, colourful facades, rebuilt in the original style following damage during World War II. We waited around for a free walking tour outside one of the statues in the square, but ended up doing our own tour from our guidebook. It worked well, as we were able to stroll around the city at our own pace.


View from Cathedral of St John the Baptist

The reason why Wrocław is called the ‘Venice of Poland’ is because it is actually made up of all of these islands, connected by waterways. There are several stunning churches (two of which are visible in this photo, and we are standing in one of the towers of the third, Cathedral of St John the Baptist), vibrant markets and even its own romantic love lock bridge.


For lunch, we visited a modern version of a traditional Polish ‘milk bar’ in the university district. Milk bars (or bar mleczny in Polish) were hugely popular under Communist rule, when workers needed to get a good honest meal at a cheap price. While most of them have faded from existence, there are still a few around. We found Bar Bazylia, which really just reminded me of my old university cafeterias! It was essentially a buffet featuring a mix of traditional Polish cuisine with international favourites like pasta, spring rolls and hamburgers. The idea is that you load up your plate with food and then pay by the weight – so either you end up with a ton of food (because you can’t help but want to try a bit of everything) or too little (because you think something is better around the corner). For a huge lunch it worked out at about £4/5 a person so definitely good value.

There was still plenty more to see in Wrocław, but we had a 3pm entry ticket to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum – a two-hour drive from Wrocław – so we needed to get a move on.

I have to say that I was full of apprehension at the thought of visiting Auschwitz. I knew it would be harrowing and distressing, and my closest experience travel-wise thus far had been a visit to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia, which was terrifying enough. But ultimately, I’m very glad that we went. Lofty had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which made a huge impression on him and helped him to understand what I did not: that it’s almost impossible to truly comprehend the magnitude of the violence and horror that transpired unless you visit – and, while that’s extremely uncomfortable – it’s so important that it is all remembered.


We arrived into Oświęcim in the late afternoon, worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything (the museum hours stated that it closed at 5pm, and there are two halves to see: Auschwitz itself and then the Birkenau death camp. They recommend 90 minutes per site at a minimum). At any rate, we didn’t need to worry – although the closing times were accurate for entry, once you were inside we had until 7pm at Birkenau to take everything in. And we needed it.

Walking beneath the ‘iconic’ (feels wrong to say, but I can’t think of another way to describe them) gates into Auschwitz sent immediate shivers rushing down my spine. There are dozens of long, rectangular brick buildings, each one housing its own exhibit – each more devastating than the last. But the exhibitions are also informative, clear and unrepentant: they document the devastation without trying to soften the blows nor to aggrandize the atrocity. Nothing needs to be aggandized. Just the sheer statement of facts is enough.


As we had our own car, once we left Auschwitz we drove the short distance to Birkenau (there’s also a shuttle bus that goes between the two places). One thing that strikes you immediately upon entering Birkenau is the sheer size of the place. It goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. We entered as the sun was beginning to set, and the contrast of the beautiful sunset against the hideous wreckage of workhouses and gas chambers was almost too much to bear. I wasn’t sure that I was properly comprehending the scale of it, but walking those train tracks – treading the same path of the men, women and children being led to the gas chambers – suddenly made it personal for me. Like the impact of everything I’d read walking through the Auschwitz museum finally hit home. Maybe it’s because walking through Birkenau, it’s impossible to detach yourself from the reality. I don’t know – it’s very hard to express the gamut of emotions that run through you when you walk through a place like this. I don’t ever want to believe that humans are capable of such evil, but when you’re staring it in the face, you can’t ignore it.


Sobering indeed.

From the museum, it was a one hour drive to our next stop of Krakow, Poland – a place of great food, castles and dragons. More on that in the next blog.


Surfing and Whale Watching on Maui

USAEven with a little over two weeks in Hawaii, we still didn’t have nearly enough time to do everything that we wanted. Far from it! We didn’t even hit the ‘biggies’ like Pearl Harbor on Oahu or Haleakala volcano on Maui. We didn’t even go to a Luau (save for the awesome Starlit Hui at Aulani) nor did we visit the Polynesian Cultural Centre. Just more excuses to go back!

We did squeeze a couple of awesome activities into our jam-packed itinerary however, and I’d consider these pretty essential too, when visiting Hawaii – surfing and whale watching!

Back in 2005, when I first visited Hawaii, I had the best whale watching experience of my life – likely never to be repeated. We had visited in February, in peak humpback whale season (the season runs from November-May, normally) and essentially a whale had come and sat underneath our boat for a half hour or so while we snapped photo after photo. It was pretty epic. That was also pre-days of Facebook and keeping all our photos online, so I just have to live with the memory. It’s stuck with me for a long time.

This time we went with lower expectations and, while we didn’t get that same up-close-and-personal encounter, we were still really lucky.

Whale watching in Maui

Whale watching in Maui


At first, it’s hard to look out into the vast expanse of blue ocean and believe that there are several-ton giants swimming all around you – let alone that you will be able to see them. We kept our eyes peeled for their ‘blow’ in the air, or for a rounded, dark back peeking out of the waves. We luckily had a very clear, calm day, and you could see for miles.

Despite the nervous anticipation, we eventually spotted our first whales – a mother and calf! After that initial encounter, we saw many groups of whales, including  a ‘competition’ group (where several males follow a female, in hopes she will pick them.) One even gave us a wave!

Hello, humpback whale!

Hello, humpback whale!

We picked the Pacific Whale Foundation boat to take us out, from Ma’alaea Harbour, and the boat had two very informative naturalists on board. The boat was quite busy, but there was plenty of space on board and lots of room for viewing from every angle. It was also blazing hot out on the water – we were glad we had our hats, and the crew kept us supplied with plenty of ice-cold water. PWF guarantee whale sightings or your money back – no money required from us.

Our next activity was surfing! I’ve attempted surfing before (the key being ‘attempted’) – and the last time I went surfing was in the cold, rough waters of North Devon in a full wetsuit. I… don’t remember standing up on a surfboard in Devon at all, so I wasn’t expecting big things of myself in Maui.

Look Ma, I'm surfing!

Look Ma, I’m surfing!

We booked our trip via an Expedia counter in Lahaina (one of the few activities bookers on the street who didn’t also require a trip around a time share), and we got a good discount on an hour’s group lesson with Maui Wave Riders. Like PWF, Maui Wave Riders offer your money back if you don’t stand up or have fun during your lesson.

Once again, they succeeded! Our instructor was a typical bronzed surfer dude, but his simple instructions had us all standing up on our very first waves. Awesome. I definitely felt like a proper surf chick.

My only comment in the Lahaina location would be that the water was very shallow, and quite rocky underfoot. I ended up with more than a few scrapes on my legs by the end. It was also very crowded with beginner surfers – so while it was good for catching waves, it was bad when you couldn’t steer out of someone’s path. Collision central.

Delicious shaved ice - the perfect Hawaii treat

Delicious shaved ice – the perfect Hawaii treat

After surfing was the perfect time for a nice shaved ice, and a walk around the beautiful Lahaina. I also got to take my mum and sister out to fill up on delicious Star Noodle afterwards – but more on that in the next blog!

The biggest banyan tree in Hawaii!

The biggest banyan tree in Hawaii, in Lahaina town centre.