Iceland, a winter paradise

My biggest learning of the past few years is that spontaneous experiences are always the best!  When you just go with the flow and let things happen as they should, everything just flows nicely.  If you can give yourself the gift of not planning once in a while and just accepting whatever comes your way, do it!  It can be extremely rewarding and lead you to new experiences that perhaps you thought were not possible. Iceland happened to me in this way…
I used to take private yoga lessons from Eva a while back, she is the owner of Heal and Soul in Encino, CA.  One day I received an email invitation to a yoga retreat in Topanga.  This retreat led to an offer to partner up with her to plan some events and yoga retreats in different countries.  She knew that I was trying to break into the travel industry and needed some experience in sales and planning trips.  She wanted to begin with Iceland.  I had thought about visiting Iceland someday but it was not in my immediate travel plans.  She asked me to join a meeting with her and Jessi (her friend) to begin the planning.  The meeting was not a meeting at all but rather a quick get together to buy flights.  When I met them I didn’t even know that I would travel with them.  I thought I would only help them plan and sell the trip and watch the yoga studio while Eva was away.  They bought their flights first and then told me to give them my credit card to get mine.  What do you mean?!  Am I going with you guys to Iceland?! and Eva responded “what is the fun of planning travel if you don’t get to do it yourself?!”  well, I couldn’t agree more, so I bought a flight.  We found very cheap tickets for $280 on WOW Air; which ended up being a mistake as they cancelled our departure flights about two weeks before our departure date, and subsequently our return flights.  I ended up getting a flight to London with my American Airlines miles and then a cheap ticket on Easy Jet from London to Reykjavik.  Eva bought another flight on Icelandic Airlines and Jessi cancelled her trip altogether since the airfare had increased by about 200%.
Planning and selling this trip turned out to be a great experience for me.  Eva was very hands off so I got to figure out the entire itinerary, the activities for each day, finding the farm house where we would stay, and renting the 4WD car we would drive, etc.  We wanted to have complete freedom to do whatever we pleased and visit the places we wanted to see at our own leisure vs. being trapped to a public tour and their set schedule.  And because the trip was in February, we decided to rent a farm house in the countryside away from city lights to have higher chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
Despite planning this trip so quickly and only marketing it on our social media accounts for less than one month, Eva and I managed to sell the 8-day retreat package to five people.   We also hired my friend Jan to be our driver, one of the best decisions made!  He turned out to be a pro at driving in the snowy, windy and icy conditions.  The trip in general was a success as we divided the jobs according to our skills and expertise- Jan was our driver, Aurora Borealis Consultant, and group Photographer.  Eva was our Chef and Yoga/Meditation Instructor.   And I was the General Tour Leader and in charge of all trip related matters.
I used to say that travel was my favorite hobby and that I never wanted to do it as a “job” but after this experience, I can see myself guiding and leading a few more trips out there in the coming years.  Who knows, maybe I can turn this into a business… ?! :O
In general Iceland was a fantastic country to visit.  It was not as cold as one would think, the temperature was usually in the low twenties or thirties (Fahrenheit).  Our coldest day was in the low teens.  The snow covered the ground everywhere which turned all landscapes into a beautiful winter wonderland.  We were fortunate to also witness spectacular shows of the Aurora Borealis four nights in a row at the farm.
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The first night at the farm we got a spectacular show of the Northern Lights. They were dancing all around us for about a good hour.
The Icelandic people were very nice, and helpful wherever we went.  They always provided really great services in restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, etc.  Always with a “poker” face, not showing a lot of emotion, but very courteous and hospitable.  Everyone speaks English; which makes it very easy for visitors to feel comfortable.
The food was not as expensive as everyone seems to say, as least not for us California residents.   The prices for groceries in supermarkets like Netto and Bonus are very comparable to prices in Los Angeles.  When dining out, your best bet is to go to local restaurants and order the lamb stew, a favorite dish of the Icelanders.  The price was anywhere from US$15-$18 per bowl and with free refills plus free bread.  Water is free everywhere and taste great!  They also sell lamb stew and other small meals and snacks like lamb hot dogs at gas stations, along with souvenirs and anything else you may need on the road.  The best way to visit Iceland is by car.  You can rent a car online or near the Reykjavik airport.  A lot of companies have free shuttles at the exit from baggage claim to take you to the different rental offices.  I reserved online through Reykjavikcars.com who set me up with a car from Green Motion; which provided really great service and some last minute upgrades.
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delicious lamb stew with bread, free refills wherever you order it!
If you go during the winter, my recommendation is to rent a 4WD car with studded winter tires.  Our first day we ventured out to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and we saw four cars stuck in ditches on the side of the road or overturned.  One guy had blown his transmission trying to get out of the snow ditch.  Weather conditions can change and get rough at any given moment.  There is also a lot of gravel and sand shooting up at your car as big trucks pass you on the opposite lane.  Premium insurance will give you peace of mind as you don’t have to worry about any damages.  The only thing not covered by insurance is the damage to the doors usually caused by strong winds.  One day the major highway that goes around the country (highway 1) was closed in some areas due to winds with speeds of 95 miles per hour.  Some parts of the road were extremely icy and were not safe to drive.
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the roads get icy so get your 4WD with winter tires in the winter!
Iceland is definitely a coffee country, being the world’s fourth largest consumer per capita.  They import beans from Colombia, Brazil and Indonesia.  The way they make it though is sooo good!  it doesn’t matter if you get it at a coffee shop, a convenience store, a hotel, it is always smooth, and great tasting!  I loved having my daily cup every morning.
For some reason they Icelandic people love American music from the 80’s and 90’s.  It was constantly playing in shops, restaurants, and on the radio stations.
My phone and internet provider in the US is T-Mobile which worked really well in Iceland.  I was able to access the internet and GPS all throughout the Southwest region without a problem.
As far as the Tour…

My first time guiding a tour in Iceland (or anywhere) and it was a success! We were a group of eight people who traveled in two cars from Keflavik in the West all the way to Vatnajokull National Park in the East, visiting the Reykjaness Peninsula, the Golden Circle, and the Southern Peninsula in between. We rented a large and beautiful farm house at Sydra-Langholt inside the Golden Circle which we used as our home-base from where we took different day trips. We ended the trip with a nice tour of Reykjavik, its capital city.

My wishes for visiting this country in the winter were mainly to see the Northern Lights and walk inside an Ice Cave… both were accomplished! In fact, we witnessed the spectacular Aurora lights on four different nights.

Iceland offered more beauty than I expected. It was a winter wonderland!  Full of beautiful and dramatic landscapes, hot springs, volcanic mountains, mossy lava fields, massive glaciers, underground caves, basalt columns, geysers, horses, sheep, etc. If you like nature, this is paradise!  Iceland is located right where the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and continue to drift apart giving the island its iconic volcanoes and great geothermal heat which is harnessed in seven plants around the country to provide 30% of its electricity needs.

 

Here are some of my favorite photos:

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Hallgrímskirkja, the Evangelic-Lutheran church in Reykjavík city center which houses an impressive organ of 5,270 pipes.
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A beautiful sunrise scene (10:00am) of the countryside during a drive in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
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Inside the 8000 year old lava tube – Cave Vatnshellir, 200 meters long and 35 meters deep
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The beautiful Icelandic horses that come out to greet roadside visitors
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The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa pool pumped with hot water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. Surreal experience!
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The fissure where the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and continue to drift apart.
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Geyser in the Golden Circle; which shoots up water every 8 minutes or so
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Skogafoss
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Black Sand Beach in the Southern Coast
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Inside one of the many ice caves that form during the winter in the Vatnajokull Glacier, the biggest in Iceland.
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Diamond Beach near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
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The giant pieces of ice from the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon that are washed up on the beach by the waves.
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the stunning cliffs in the Reykjaness Peninsula

Seeing London unexpectedly

London was not in my travel plans for this year or even the coming years.  My original plan was just to go to Iceland to lead a group of people on a yoga/sight-seeing retreat with my friend Eva, the owner of Heal and Soul Yoga Studios in LA.  I had bought a cheap roundtrip ticket from LA to Reykjavik on WOW Air and about three weeks before the departure date the airline emailed to advise that my departing flight had been cancelled.  I called them to see if I could change it to another date but they pretty much just asked me to take a full refund and fly with another airline.  Tickets had gone up dramatically in price by December so I decided to use my AA miles and find other flights to any city in Europe where I could connect to Reykjavik.  This is how London came into the plan.  American was offering flights in January to London for only 22,000 miles.   I ended up buying the connecting flight from London to Reykjavik on Easyjet.
Since I had to go through London, then I thought, why not spend a few days there.
London turned out to be more beautiful than I’d imagined.  As far as the weather, visiting at the end of January can be a bit uncomfortable as it can get really windy, cold and rainy at any moment.  On the bright side, there are far less tourists in the city during the winter months and hotel prices are very reasonable.  You can find a nice budget clean hotel room for around 39 pounds in a good central location (like the City View Hotel).  If you want to save even more money on accommodation there is always the option to stay in shared hotels or home-stays through airbnb or find a local offering a room for free through Couch-surfing.  Both of these can provide great cultural exchange opportunities.
It is very easy and affordable to navigate through London using the Tube system.  At the tube station nearest the Heathrow airport, I purchased the Oyster card which you can fill up with as much money as you want and refill as needed from your phone on the app.  This is a great way to avoid the sometimes long lines to purchase a ticket every time you want to go somewhere.
Food can be expensive in Europe but if you are just focusing on the sight-seeing and spending your money on tickets to enter the famous landmarks and museums, then you can just find places to eat that are simple, healthy and cheap.  Places like “Eat”, “Wasabi” and “Pret A Manger” are found all throughout the city and offer really great food for around 10 to 12 pounds per meal.
London is as beautiful at night as it is during the day.  On my first night in the city I took a stroll in the freezing cold from the City View Hotel to the South Bank of the Thames.  It was a huge effort to stay up until 10:00 pm as I was just beginning my long jet-lag recovery.
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St Paul’s Cathedral
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walls around the London Tower
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skyline over the Thames river
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view of St Paul’s from the South Bank
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Tower Bridge behind me
I had made plans to stay with a Londoner couch-surfer for the following four nights but Andrea wrote me on FB and asked me to cancel my couch-surfing plans and stay with her.  I had met Andrea a couple of years back on Facebook while she was traveling around the world.  A friend of ours had put us in contact as we were both on similar trips.  I had kept in touch with Andrea and followed her on FB and on her blog.  I remembered seeing a recent post from London but it had not crossed my mind that she could be living in the city.  Luckily she saw one of my photos from my night stroll and contacted me on my fist morning.  I ended up staying in her house for the next four nights.  I was not only fortunate to keep my expenses in London low by staying with Andrea but I have also gained, what I hope to be, a new friend for life.  She is not only a fantastic host but also a great cook!  I got to experience some of her wonderful culinary creations everyday.  She took such a great care of me, she even made me a lunch box when I went on a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath.  Andrea is currently taking a long break from her world travels to obtain her second Master’s Degree in Child Development while working for a family as their “House Manager”.  Her employer is kind enough to let her host friends in their beautiful Hampstead home.  Lucky me!
Everyday while Andrea was hard at work, I took the tube into the city and did a lot of sight-seeing.  I managed to cover most of the major highlights and had a great time walking around the city and practicing Photography.
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Buckingham Palace

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people protesting against Brexit in front of Parliament.
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Iconic London taxis seen all over the city
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beautiful city skyline on the Thames
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The London Eye
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Big Ben under maintenance
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Tower Bridge
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The view from the 10th floor of the Tate Museum
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Borough Market
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View from the 10th floor of the Tate Museum
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Celebrating Chinese NY in Covent Gardens.  This area was one of my favorite, full of theaters, restaurants, pubs, and lots of people.  Just one big street party!
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Tower of London fortress complex
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beautiful promenade on the South Bank
I wanted to take a day trip to see some of the countryside of England so I opted for a guided tour of Stonehenge and Bath.  I booked my tour with Premium Tours on Trip Advisor.  The tour lasted a total of 11 hours and included the transportation of around 5 hours (London-Stonehenge, Stonehenge-Bath and Bath-London).  Stonehenge turned out to be a very interesting place.  It is located in the middle of the Salisbury grassy plain with not much around it.  What makes Stonehenge so attractive to visitors is that it is made of very ancient stones that are believed to have been transported for 150 miles from the Preseli mountains in Wales.  No one knows exactly what the structure’s purpose was but it was and still is commonly used for religious and spiritual ceremonies.  The first parts of Stonehenge were built around 3100 BC and the complex continued to be expanded until 1500BC.  The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO list of protected sites in 1986 and it is one of the most popular ancient wonders of the world.  Usually tours to the area only provide about an hour in Stonehenge as they combine it with Bath and Windsor Castle.   Because our tour only included Stonehenge and Bath, we were able to stay at the site for 90 minutes.  I took my time getting different photos.
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Stonehenge
Bath was definitely the highlight of this day trip for me.  A beautiful town known for its natural hot springs and 18th-century Georgian architecture style houses built with honey stone.  Most buildings are of uniform height which makes the town aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  It definitely caters to tourists offering many restaurant options including tea houses and tons of shopping.  There are some beautiful parks and churches that you can visit, including the famous Bath Abbey.  Bath is the only city in the UK designated as a  UNESCO Heritage Site.  The most visited place in town is the complex that contains the ruins of the Roman Baths.  This was a very important complex where the Aquae Sulis people bathed and socialized during the Roman times, around 70AD.  I would recommend adding the entry cost to your Bath Tour to avoid the long lines as tour groups have entry priority.
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The beautiful town of Bath
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The Roman Baths
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Pulteney bridge in the background

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One of Andrea’s friends, Matt, whom she had met during her trip around the world joined us at the house for my last two nights there.  Andrea took us on a walking tour of Hampstead and Camden.  The rain did not stop us from having a great time exploring these beautiful suburbs.  We ended the night at Wembley to try some authentic Indian food before going back to the house to enjoy some delicious PadThai made by our personal Chef Andrea.
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View of London from Hampstead Heath Parliament Hill
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my first London pub visit where we tried some hot cider
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from left to right- Matt, Catalina, Andrea
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eating a delicious Dosa in an Indian restaurant in Wembley
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one of the many food stalls at Camden Market
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eating Andrea’s delicious Pad Thai
London is now one of my favorite cities in the world.  I loved its architecture, diversity, great food options, easy transportation system, and beautiful parks.  And of course my friend Andrea made this visit even more special by being an awesome host and tour guide.  I will definitely go back and explore more of London and the UK in the very near future.  Thank you WOW Air for cancelling my flight and leading me to visit London sooner than I expected.  Stay Calm and Go to London!

Road tripping from Seattle to Calgary

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Our roadtrip route

I have the best group that someone could do a road trip with! We are three girls and three guys who met through the Los Angeles Backpacking meetup group right at its beginnings 12 years ago. We got along really well and have become great friends since.  We kept getting closer through the years and getting together frequently either for mountain trips or city activities.  I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we consider ourselves very fortunate to have found each other. We have created special bonds that will hopefully last a life time.  We created our own little family in LA! 

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From back to front: Thanh, Mimi, Jan, Catalina, Eric (missing Alan).  Sporting our buffs that we used as “protection” from the bad air in Calgary

But as it happens with many families, its members eventually move away to different places to grow in their careers, relationships, or seek other experiences. Currently four in the group live in different cities in the US and two of us live in Southern California but about 30 miles away from each other; which feels like very far away when you consider the crazy LA traffic.

During Alan & Erika’s wedding on October 2017 (Alan was the first one to get married), all 6 of us got together again after years of not having been in the same place.  We took the opportunity to make a pact that we would reunite somewhere in the world, once a year to spend quality time as a group, doing something that we all enjoy.  We would begin with this new tradition in 2018.  For our first trip we ran through some of ideas of what we could do and we agreed that the trip had to be in the mountains, naturally, since this is how it all started.   We decided on a road trip from Seattle to Calgary with the highlight being a visit to Banff National Park in Alberta. A place some of us had always dreamed of seeing. The trip took place from August 11 to 20th, 2018.

We all met in Seattle at Eric’s house where we picked up our rented car, bought groceries, and did some site-seeing before getting on the road. Unfortunately Alan & Erika were not able to join us on the road trip but we still got together with them in Seattle for one dinner together.  

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Enjoying some delicious Din Tai Fung treats in University Village. This is us after many many many dumplings.  The group + our friend Pam who lives in Seattle.

Our road trip began in Seattle where we took Highway 5 which turns into Highway 99 once you cross into Canada. We had a fantastic time making stops along the way in Bellingham, Surrey and lastly Vancouver. The idea was to stay only one night in Vancouver and continue on to Kamloops the following day where we would camp at Paul Lake Campground to split the drive into two days. Unfortunately due to 566 fires burning across the British Columbia province the air quality was extremely bad in Kamloops and camping outside was out of the question.  The Canadian sky was covered by a blanket of smoke and haze during our entire trip to Calgary. The air quality in Vancouver was also bad but manageable for site-seeing during the day. Staying in Vancouver for two days ended up being a great decision as we got to see more of the city, take a walk around Stanley Park, hike in the Lynn Canyon Park, and explore Granville Island and its flavorful market.  

Despite the bad air and hazy skies, driving through Canada was one of the best road tripping experiences of my life. The countryside was lush, green, full of pine trees and lakes making it relaxing and beautiful. We talked and played different games in the car, including “two truths and a lie”, my favorite car game.  It is a great way to learn new things about people you thought you knew, ha ha!  We always have a lot to share… seeing that we all do such different things for a living and come from very different backgrounds, the conversations are always long and interesting. We have a Vietnamese financial auditor, a Czech Scientist, a Chinese/Vietnamese Corporate Recruiter, an Iranian/Armenian Accountant/Sustainable Energy/Home Inspector and a Colombian Logistician/Travel Saleswoman. No matter how different we are, we always manage to have a great time together because we share an immense love for nature, the outdoors, and each other! Oh, I almost forgot… and for FOOD! We all love to eat and try different things. We had the amazing seafood at the Granville Island Public Market, we shopped in farmers markets along the road for fruit, nuts, jams.  We tasted olive oils, maple butter, and maple syrup among other delicious treats. We tried different teas at the Banff Tea Co. We bought farm fresh beef and sausage to grill on the road and at our campsite. We ate the famous Canadian Poutine, went to an Irish Pub for whiskey tasting, and ate yummy Pho in Calgary (my favorite for my birthday). Lots and lots of good eating!

We reached our long awaited destination of Banff National Park on our third day. We spent three wonderful days under a hazy, smoky sky getting to know the area and enjoying some of the best hikes the park offers.  The first day we hiked to Twin Lakes where we practically had the trail to ourselves.  There were beautiful pine trees all around us, amazing views of all the mountains.  We reached Arnica Lake and later the first of the Twin Lakes.  The higher we went on the mountains, the cleaner the air felt.

We did another hike in Johnston Canyon, a very scenic wooded area with a trail along side the river, with bridges, and viewpoints of various waterfalls.  

The following day we did one of the most popular hikes in the entire park to the Tea Houses from Lake Louise.  The parking gets so crowded in the mornings that we had to get up at 5:00am to ensure getting a spot before 7:00am.  You first see the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise, quite an impressive and imposing giant hotel with restaurant, bars, shops and some fantastic views and access to the Lake.  

The hike to the tea houses begins near the shores of Lake Louise, the trail climbs uphill for about 2 miles to Lake Agnes, where the elevation is 1312ft.  From this first tea house you can continue to go up to the Little Beehive or Big Beehive; which connects you to the other tea house- The Plain of Six Glaciers.  Unfortunately due to the dense clouds around the glaciers, we opted out of finishing the hike to see the Glaciers up close.  The total loop hike ends up being around 8 miles and takes from 6 to 7 hours depending on how long you stay in the tea houses enjoying the tea and snacks.  

On the way back down you get great views of the valley and the Chateau as a tiny point on the far side of the turquoise water Lake.  Great photography opportunities everywhere.  We kept wishing for bears but we had no luck.  We celebrated with a yummy meal at the Alpine Social restaurant afterwards where we tried the fresh alpine trout, pork ribs and Canadian Chowder.  

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Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise

Although we did not have the chance to see this beautiful park in clear skies, Banff still amazed us with its beauty.  

After three spectacular days in Banff hiking, shopping, and eating, we moved on to Calgary.  We spent a couple of days at a great airbnb house and enjoyed a bit of site-seeing in the city.  Calgary is a 1.2mi people city, the 4th largest in Canada.  It has a great downtown area with lots of restaurants, the Calgary Tower and its famous rainbow crosswalk painted crosswalk among others.  

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The rainbow crosswalk in downtown

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View of City from the Calgary Tower

We shared some wonderful moments, lots of great hiking, and conversations. We enjoyed Canada, such a lovely country and so abundant in natural beauty.  

We hope to continue our new annual trip tradition.  Until our trip in 2019!

 

Walking Tour of Downtown L.A.

I recently moved to downtown and so far, I love it!  There is so much to see and so many great restaurants and eateries to try… but before we go crazy with the eating (will write about this later), let’s first take a walk! 

I would like to share a walking tour that I put together.  It touches on a few “must see’s” to get a first taste of this area.  You can do all of this in one day if you feel like exercising a bit.  Wear good comfy shoes, take water (specially in the summer months), and put on a hat and sunscreen.  This walk is about 2.5 miles (4 km) and will take you a good 3 to 4 hours if you do it in a relaxed manner, stopping for photos along the way, and enjoying lunch at one of the many restaurants.

First you have to get to downtown.  If you can, take the metro to avoid the traffic in LA and the heavy car congestion found in the heart of downtown.  Get off at Union Station to begin your walk or find a bus connection to make it all the way into Chinatown.  If you have to drive, park your car in one of the paid parkings in China town.  Click here for some ideas.

A little bit of history will perhaps enhance your experience…

Downtown Los Angeles is not literally “down town” per se, but in the late 1800’s it was the area where businesses concentrated, infrastructure enhancements took place, and as land speculation increased, the population rapidly exploded.   In the early 1900’s the city’s private and municipal rail lines were some of the longest in the world (in terms of mileage).  A huge influx of new residents turned it into a big metropolitan area.  Some of the largest banking institutions like Bank of America and Grand hotels like the Rosslyn settled here.  The area saw a major decline after WWII when businesses started dispersing throughout the city, and lots of people moved out taking their street-front businesses with them.  A lot of buildings were demolished and turned into profitable parking lots.  It became an area where people came in briefly to conduct their business and go back out.  A few years back, the thought of downtown LA as a place to do tourism was not common.  The mention of going to downtown conjured a mental image of dirty streets and sidewalks and unsafe sketchy alleyways.  But now not so much…

Downtown LA has been undergoing redevelopment efforts since the 1950’s but one of the most noticeable revitalization efforts has taken place at the turn of the century.  The construction of the Staples Center has brought hundreds of events, attracting millions of visitors to the area every year.  Situated next to it, the creation of the L.A. Live complex; which includes big name restaurants and hotels amongst other attractions has brought even more visitors.   This was followed by the development of what our now some of our most famous City Landmarks- The Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grand Park, and The Broad Museum.  Despite some of its ever-present issues like the homelessness crisis, dirty sidewalks, and heavy traffic, downtown continues to attract new people to its many cultural events, great multi-ethnic restaurants, and luxurious apartment living.

Now that you know a bit about its background, let’s start walking! 

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If you begin your day already hungry, have lunch at Yang Chow in Chinatown.  If you can wait, continue the walk until you get to Olvera Street where you can have lunch at one of the Mexican restaurants- Casa La Golondrina, Cielito Lindo, or El Paseo Inn.  There are so many other food options along this walk that I invite you to get in your explorative mood and try something delicious near every stop!

Stop 1: China Town Central Plaza- at 943 N Broadway 

A hot tourist spot for the past sixty years, decorated with beautiful Chinese arches and lanterns.  Here you will find shops offering craft items, wood and jade, paintings, art, herbs, teas, pastries, books, restaurants and banks.

Continue on to reach Union Station, just 0.7 mi. of walking.

Stop 2: Union Station- 800 N. Alameda St

It is not only the bustling transportation hub of the city but also a cultural center.  Here you can find places like Subway, Starbucks, Traxx Restaurant and Bar, and Cafe Crepe amongst others.  There is usually some type of live music- weather is a random person having their moment of glory at the piano, or a DJ playing a live set.  A lot of Art & Architecture tours begin here.  And my favorite, the Art Gallery with its permanent paintings and sculptures around the station, or the revolving photography exhibits in the long corridor near the waiting area.  You can’t miss it if you head towards the main entrance on your way out.

Continue on to reach Olvera Street, just 0.2 mi. of walking.

Stop 3: Placita Olvera or Olvera St – 845 N. Alameda St

Beautiful street with a nice plaza, Olvera is located in one of the oldest parts of the city.  Here you can find various buildings of all ages, with the most iconic ones being the Avila Adobe (1818), the Pelanconi House (1857), and the Sepulveda House (1887).  Shop at one of the many stalls along the street or learn a bit of history from the City’s Spanish and Mexican origins.

Continue on to reach the Cathedral of Our Lady, just 0.6 mi. of walking.

Stop 4: Cathedral of Our Lady- 555 W. Temple St

The “Mother Church” of the city, the Cathedral where Archbishop José Horacio Gomez sits, located in the heart of LA.  It serves an archdiocese of over 5 million Catholics and celebrates all major Catholic events.  It welcomes countless visitors and pilgrims from all over the city and the world.  A tranquil place to pray, meditate, or simply walk around and admire the religious art collection of paintings and statues.

Continue on to reach Grand Park, just 0.2 mi. of walking.

Stop 5: Grand Park- 200 N. Grand Ave 

The life of the city, where a great display of its diversity and passion is found.  This is where Angelenos come to gather, take a leisurely stroll, have a picnic, or enjoy one of the many annual civic events.  Check out the calendar of activities at Grand Park.

Continue on to reach the Disney Concert Hall, just 0.2 mi. of walking.

Stop 6: Disney Concert Hall- 111 S. Grand Ave

Designed in stainless steel, you can’t help but take your camera out as you approach this building and become hypnotized by the light reflecting off of its external wavy panels.  This is also known as the home of the L.A. Philharmonic and its Director Gustavo Dudamel.  Walk in, take a look around, and grab a ticket for one of the great performances.

Continue on to reach The Broad, just 0.1 mi. of walking.

Stop 7: The Broad- 221 S. Grand Ave

A contemporary art museum, named after philanthropist Eli Broad who funded this wonderful building’s construction.  Get a ticket in advance to see the Infinity Mirrors Room or one of its various permanent and temporary art exhibits.  You won’t be disappointed!

Continue on to reach MOCA, just 0.1 mi. of walking.

Stop 8: MOCA- 250 S. Grand Ave

The Museum of Contemporary Art of L.A. collecting, presenting, and interpreting art created after 1940, and preserving it for future generations.  Another great museum to check out if you have time.

Continue on to reach the Angeles Flight Railway, just 0.1 mi. of walking.

Stop 9: Angels Flight Railway- 350 S. Grand Ave

Known as “the world’s shortest railway” and built 117 years ago, this funicular takes passengers from Hill Street and Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill for just $1 each way (discount for metro pass holders).  Open year-round, even during holidays.  And located just across the street from Grand Central Market so check it out before or after a bite!

Continue on to reach the Grand Central Market, just 0.2 mi. of walking.

Stop 10: Grand Central Market- 317 S. Broadway

My favorite landmark of all of downtown L.A. bringing together the various cuisines and cultures of the city.  Open 7 days a week and presenting over 30 different food vendors to delight your taste buds!  You can get beer, ice cream, pupusas, tacos, shop for vegetables, etc.  A great stop to grab food, sit, and watch the fun hustle and bustle happening all around you.

Continue on to reach The Last Book Store, just 0.3 mi. of walking.

Stop 11: The Last Book Store- 453 S. Spring St

A used and new record and book store.  A two story building offering tall shelves filled with tons of  books, an art exhibit, gallery shops, and a fun labyrinth made of books where you can take a fun photo for your latest FB or Instagram post.  I can easily spend an hour or two in this place!

OK, how are we doing?!  By the time you get to this point (physically on your walk), you may be too tired to continue further.  Your best bet is to grab an Uber to get back to Union Station or wherever you left your car.

If you still have energy and want to keep going, continue to L.A. Live for a late afternoon coffee break or stay longer for dinner and a show.

Stop 12: L.A. Live- 800 Olympic Blvd

A large area, adjacent to the Staples Center, where you can find big name restaurants, hotels, a movie theatre, the Microsoft Theatre, and the Grammy Museum, amongst others.  Stay and have dinner and enjoy a show or go dancing at the Conga Room.  For a list of events, click here.

I hope you enjoyed my walking tour of some of the best highlights of downtown L.A. (DTLA).

Feel free to leave me a comment with your feedback- What are some of your favorite places to eat in downtown?  where do you like to walk?  did I miss anything that you think is a Must-See?!

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Infinity room, photo courtesy of the Broad website

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The beautiful Disney concert hall structure

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Eating our delicious burritos at Grand Park, bought at one of the food trucks that park here

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The friendly and clean metro station

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Enjoying the exhibits at the Broad

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Chinatown Summer Nights

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Chinatown performances

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Chinatown entrance

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sculpture art in DTLA

The iconic American Southwest

After having traveled the world for two years on my own, things that I used to find intimidating or even scary don’t seem to face me anymore.  In the past I would’ve been afraid to go camping or go hiking long distances on my own.  And I definitely would’ve never driven more than a couple of hours on my own, especially in long desolate highways in the desert.  Now I feel different, everything seems attainable, possible, and most of the time, adventurous.  I have been taking a few photography classes through creativelive.com and wanted to go out there and put my new acquired skills to the test.  I’d also been wanting to see more of the American Southwest region and check out some of the most iconic places in this part of the US- Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and Monument Valley among others.  One of the important goals for this trip was to backpack into the Grand Canyon to see the Colorado river, something I did almost ten years ago and had the strong urge to do again.

I decided winter time would be best for my road trip since I could avoid the big groups of tourists that these places are known to have during the spring and summer months.  I planned to mostly camp during the trip and I wanted it to be in quiet areas; which could only happen in the winter time.  I also decided to not ask anyone to come along as I wanted to dedicate all of my attention and time to taking photographs and being one with nature.

I kept my expenses as low as possible, camping in as many places as I could, buying groceries and cooking on my small gas stove, making sandwiches, and finding the cheapest fuel along the route.  I drove from Los Angeles to Page, AZ, the town that I used as a base while I visited the Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Goosenecks State Park, Mexican Hat Rock, and the Upper Antelope Canyon.  I would end my trip with a visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon where I hoped to get a walk-in permit at the backcountry office to descend the canyon and spend the night at the bottom.  This trip happened to take place during the last US government shutdown but fortunately the park didn’t close to visitors and the shutdown came to an end before the day that I needed to get my permit.  The back country office would’ve been closed otherwise so I consider myself lucky.

This map shows my itinerary for the entire 11 days:  Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 7.09.11 PMI am not used to driving long distances in my car so my first day on the road I only drove for 5.5 hours, the longest I’ve ever driven a car.  The first night I stayed in Mesquite, NV a small town full of casinos located about two hours northeast of Las Vegas.  This is a nice option for those who want to gamble but don’t want to spend a ton of money on fancy Vegas hotels.  I am not a gambler but this turned out to be a nice rest stop before I continued on to Page, AZ the next morning.  The day’s drive offered a lot of entertainment including all of the billboards laid out across the highway while passing through Las Vegas advertising accident lawyers and strip clubs.  The sunset light reflected off of the glass buildings of some of the casinos making the city seem like a beautiful mirage in the middle of the desert.

In Mesquite I stayed at the Virgin River Hotel & Casino for only US$27 (tax incl.), a deal found on Booking.com and I got a full breakfast with eggs, toast, and coffee for US$6.50.  The casino itself was so infested with cigarette smoke that it was hard to be there for longer than half an hour.   Thankfully the rooms were located in separate buildings so I enjoyed a quite and restful night with clean air.

The beautiful geology that I was excited to find on this trip began to appear as soon as I left Mesquite.  The next 18 miles would offer stunning natural and man-made scenery while driving the road cutting through the Virgin River Gorge.  This is where I began to take my camera out.  _MG_0041I crossed from Nevada into Arizona, and up through Utah driving through towns like St. George, Hurricane, Colorado City, and Kanab finally getting on highway 89 to make it back down into Arizona to finally arrive to Page.  Page is a friendly Navajo nation city originally developed to house the workers that built the Glen Canyon Dam back in the 1950’s.  The city now hosts thousands of tourists and photographers every year who visit some of the most iconic places of the American Southwest.  This is a great base to visit Lake Powell, the Antelope Canyons (upper and lower), and Horseshoe Bend.  There are as many hotels and restaurants as there are churches in this small city.  I counted eighteen churches of various Christian denominations all spread along the same avenue.  I imagine spending a Sunday afternoon there would offer a nice display of local culture.

I spent the first night at the Rodeway Inn, a clean place with a decent breakfast for only US$41 (tax incl.).  I tried to find a cheaper room in the area known as the “little street of motels”; which offers owner-operated older and quaint motels but didn’t find any availability.

My first chance to play photographer was at Antelope Canyon.  This is a must see in the area and a well-known source of income for the Navajo tribe.  You cannot visit this place on your own and you are required to hire a Navajo guide through one of the tour operators in the tribal park.  After doing some research on different operators on Google, I decided to go with Adventurous Antelope Canyon tours.  Most companies offer various tours including the Antelope canyons plus other canyons like Rattlesnake, Owl and Mountain sheep but as you can imagine, the more you see the more you pay.  I opted for the one canyon Photographer’s tour of Upper Antelope; which cost $151.  This is almost double the price of the regular tour but you get more time inside the canyon and help from the guide with recommendations of places to photograph and settings for your camera (if needed).  It is not easy to photograph the canyons as there is a wide exposure range, some areas are really dark and some areas are really lit up due to the light reflecting off the walls.

We got to see a couple of Navajos perform a traditional dance using a hoola hoop while we waited for the tour to begin.  I thought that winter time would translate into smaller crowds but the canyon was still full of groups of tourists who take turns going through the different parts of the canyon.  We were given a total of two hours; which included the drive time (from the tour office to the entrance of the canyon) and walk-through.  The first hour inside the canyon felt very rushed as we only had one or two minutes to set up our tripods and take photos before the next group was onto us.  I was pretty nervous since it was my first time shooting in very low light conditions and maneuvering a large tripod through narrow canyon passages and big groups of people.   We reached the end of the canyon and turned around as the second hour of the tour started.  The way back through the canyon was a lot more enjoyable as the big groups had already exited the canyon and we were given longer periods of time to set up and photograph the different areas.  It felt like we had more freedom to move around and take pictures wherever we wanted.  Our guide Kirk knew the canyon well and was always happy to give suggestions on good photo ops and proper settings.  I made the mistake of showing some insecurity at the beginning which made him take over my camera at one point; which I did not appreciate at all.  I didn’t let it happen again and asked him to give me pointers without touching my equipment; which he was happy to do.  Despite having a cheap and not-so-stable tripod (learned my lesson), I managed to take pretty good photos considering that it was my first time shooting inside a canyon.I decided to create a new Instagram account (@naturebylight) to post all nature/landscape photos taken with my new camera.  I wanted to make another visit to the Lower Antelope canyon but it was closed at the time due to maintenance of the ladders.  This is a place that I will definitely revisit in the near future as I hope to photograph more canyons in the area.

I decided that it was time to begin camping to save some money on accommodations and enjoy being closer to nature.  I headed over to the Glen Canyon Recreational area to visit the Dam and get information on campgrounds from the rangers.  They suggested camping at Lone Rock Beach where I could set up my tent anywhere on the beach.  This would be the first time I would camp on my own in a desolate area.  Since I was there during the off-season, there was only one other car about half a mile away down the beach.  I wasn’t worried about safety too much as I had asked a waitress at a restaurant in town and the Lake Powell rangers if the area was safe and no one seemed to show any concern.  This was definitely one of the coolest campgrounds that I had ever been too.  The sunset was incredible with beautiful orange, red and pink tones.  I couldn’t take as many photos as I wanted since my tripod had come to the end of its short life.

Even though I was in a beautiful location, I still felt a bit uncomfortable at night being there on my own.  Well after midnight I heard some cars coming onto the beach; which freaked me out as I kept thinking that they wouldn’t see my tent and would run over me.  Luckily nothing bad happened.  The temperature also reached a low of around 20 degrees Fahrenheit; which made it hard to sleep comfortably.

The best part was the sunrise, it was truly out of this world…After a rough night I got a room at America’s Best Value Inn in town where I could upload photos onto my computer, recharge my one and only battery (the back up was not working) and plan my next stop- Horseshoe Bend.  This is a place that I had wanted to visit for a long time and photograph at both sunset and sunrise.  But before I went I had to find a place to buy a replacement tripod and some good sweat pants for camping.  I never thought I’d say this but Walmart saved my photography trip.  It was the only place in Page that sold tripods and sweatpants.  I headed out of town toward Horseshoe Bend about 1.5 hours before sunset to be sure to find a good place to set up and take photos with my new tripod.  I expected it to be very crowded but to my surprise it was pretty calm and there was plenty of room for all photographers and tourists to enjoy the views.  It only took about 15 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the viewpoint, the trail was sandy and fairly easy to follow and manage.  Once I got to the viewpoint I was completely mesmerized by its grandeur.  The Horseshoe Bend is a beautiful spectacle of nature.  This is as intimate as one gets with the river without being in it.  It is possibly the best and closest view of the Colorado river that you will have from above.  How to describe the Bend… when the Colorado river was cutting through the rock layers making the canyon, it was stopped by a giant sandstone tower and it decided to follow the path of least resistance, around it.  It is a place that will always be worth seeing at any time during the day but sunset and sunrise are definitely special moments to see how the colors of the canyon walls change as the light passes over them.  I was able to set up my camera right at the edge.  It was definitely scary but in order to get a good picture I had to do it.  I was lucky to have set up my equipment next to some knowledgeable and talented photographers whom I got to know while waiting for the sun to set.  The next day I got up early to make sure to arrive before sunrise, once again to my surprise there weren’t a lot of people there.  We were only three photographers waiting and freezing while the sun rose.  I had the pleasure of meeting Lee, a very nice Navajo man that has been shooting the Bend for 20 years.  He was nice enough to give me some pointers and offered to let me borrow his wide lens so that I could capture all sides of the canyon, something I couldn’t do with my 24mm lens.  There was another guy from Seattle there that offered for me to use his camera with a 14mm lens.  I didn’t want to take off Lee’s lens from his camera as I risked letting dust in the sensor so I accepted the Seattle guy’s offer.  What a difference a 14mm lens makes in this place!  Lee recommends going out to shoot when the sky is cloudy; which he says makes for the best photos.  I ended up taking a few shots of the canyon and later combining them in Lightroom using the HDR technique.

After spending a couple of hours with Lee and admiring the Bend as much as I could, I went back to the hotel to plan my next move.  I met the hotel manager Pushpa, another Navajo lady.  She was in a decisive moment in her life wanting to move from Page, AZ to St George, UT as she was seeking some change in her life.  She helped me think about my next steps on my trip and offered me low week rates for the weekend if I decided to come back to Page after visiting other areas in the region.  She opened up to me quickly and told me about some difficult times in her life as she had married very young and to a man that had not treated her well and had at one point threatened to take her children away if she didn’t move with him to S. Africa (his country of origin).  She also told me about her experiences battling cancer in her jaw for many years.  I could tell she was a very strong and resilient woman.  I appreciated her time and how she shared her very difficult past with me.  I was happy to interact with a local person and learn about the Navajo people.  She explained that thanks to social media the city of Page was going through a big tourism boom.  People were starting to find out more about this beautiful area and how much it had to offer as past visitors were posting their photos and stories on Facebook and Instagram.  She explained that the double room that I had paid US$36 to stay in would go for US$150 in April and May and US$300 in the summer months.   I was sure glad I opted to travel during the winter!

I continued to drive through very lonely roads enjoying the local tribal radio stations.  I finally arrived to Monument Valley to Gouldings campground after 2.5 hours.  This is the biggest campground near the park; which offers great amenities including WiFi, bathrooms with hot showers and a store full of food, hygiene products, camping gear, and souvenirs.  I had the campground all to myself and was able to choose a nice tent site near the mountains and with great views of the iconic sandstone towers located inside of Monument Valley.   After setting up my tent I headed out to the park.  I reached the entrance a few minutes after the park had closed and the guy who was manning the office did not want to open the window and just waived me through.  I was happy to save the entrance fee since I was on a tight budget.  I went to the park office to get some information on the Valley’s biggest attractions but it had already closed for the day.  As I headed back to my car I heard a lady yelling from her car “private tours in the valley” and I immediately drove to where she was.  I wanted to experience the park after hours without many tourists and wanted to see if I could get a private tour.  Any car can go through the park without a guide but the road is not paved nor maintained and I didn’t think my small Honda Fit tires would survive the long 17 mile dirt-road loop.  At first she offered a tour for US$160.  Back at the Gouldings campground office I had received a price for a similar tour for US$75 but in a bus full of tourists; which I preferred not to take if I could help it.   After negotiating for a while, we agreed on a 1.5-hour private tour in her car; which included a drive to see the main attractions and  through the back-country area for US$60.

My guide was a sweet and extremely extrovert Navajo lady.  She was happy to keep all of the money for herself (and not pay her company their cut) and I was happy to pay a very low fee for a very complete and premium tour of the Valley.  We began one hour before sunset and the light was absolutely incredible.  We were the only car in the entire park.  As we drove through the park she told me stories of her family, her children, and life with her ex-husband.  It seemed Navajo people so far felt comfortable telling me their personal stories.  For some reason they trusted me and I was very happy to learn about them and their way of life.  She explained how a lot of people came to the Valley hoping to find something they were looking for.  She wanted to know if I was going through something in my life and if I hoped to find something as well.  I am sure this applies to a lot of us, we are all always looking for something, aren’t we?

In one of the stops through the backcountry, I noticed a very large white figure in the shape of a man painted on one of the sandstone buttes.  She explained to me that it was possible to see things that were not there but that the spirits wanted me to see.  She said that I shouldn’t be afraid if I heard noises or saw things back at the campsite that night.  That it was the Navajo spirits wanting to communicate with me and I only had to ask them for their forgiveness for trespassing.  As we got to know each other, she asked if I was married and I explained to her that I had always been a bit afraid of commitment.  I spoke of my fear of ending up with a jealous or possessive man.  She began to tell me her personal story.  She had married young as it was expected in her clan and her husband was an alcoholic.  As one can imagine, life with him she explained, was not easy.  He had developed liver disease later in life and almost died in his thirties.  They had two kids in the early years of their marriage and later had two more after he recovered from the first major surgery.  She later left him for the same reasons that I had given her for not marrying anyone so far.  Now at the age of 45 she had decided to take him back.  She said things had changed, they were more mature and they were different.  She felt sorry for him and wanted to take care of him.  She talked about the importance of forgiveness and giving people a second chance.  She also regretted that he was still eating a lot of meat and food that was high in fat like the famous Navajo mutton stew and fried bread.  She had lost 100lb while they were separated but had gained them all back since she had gotten back together with him.  The tour turned out to be more than I had expected.  Not only did I get all the photos I wanted of the beautiful buttes but once again I had the opportunity to spend time with another member of the Navajo tribe.  I felt so lucky to have visited the park after hours and with this wonderful lady that shared so many of her personal stories with me.

I was overjoyed and overwhelmed by all of the good things that I was experiencing on this trip.   I felt extremely grateful.

Back at the campground, I made dinner as the temperature dropped to 30F.  I went to bed early but was not able to get a good night sleep as there were a few cats hanging out in the area that seemed to be in heat.  I also had a cold breeze coming through the tent which froze my water and my legs.  But I woke up to beautiful views of the sun rising over the buttes at a distance and enjoyed a nice breakfast on my picnic table.I headed out of town toward Mexican Hat, UT.  This is a town named after a rock formation that looks like, you guessed it, a Mexican sombrero.  I decided to take a quick photo of the rock from the road as I wanted to save the rest of the day to explore Gooseneck’s State Park nearby.  This was an amazing place with about three “horseshoebend” type of formations that looked like goosenecks, better explained… a meander formed as the San Juan river carved its way through the rock.  I saw photo opportunities every 5 min as I made my way around the entire edge of the canyon.I headed back toward Monument Valley on highway 163 to enjoy the views of the sandstone buttes from the opposite direction at sunset.   I was looking to get one of those iconic pictures that you often see of this area on the web.  I wasn’t able to get what I wanted during sunset so I got up very early to drive back up the road and get it at sunrise.  I was out there with a guy driving through the area from Michigan and two South Korean tourists who were visiting the same places that I was during their 10-day trip in the US.After two amazing days in this very special place I headed out to the Grand Canyon to do the last part of my trip.  I drove through very lonely desert highways while listening to the only radio station available in the area from the Hopi Tribe.  I listened to the tribe’s Chairman give a speech about their constant fight to maintain their region, their culture, their lands, and their music.  I experienced a road that seemed to evaporate and disappear into the horizon.  I enjoyed driving alongside the vibrant yellow and orange colors of the endless desert.

 

My food while camping was very basic, I ate crackers with peanut butter, oatmeal, coffee, canned soup and sandwiches.  It was too cold to cook anything that would take more than two minutes to make.   When I had to drive for long periods of time I could count on Denny’s for good rest stops, to get good WiFi and to get my eggs and veggies fill.  I felt like I was in another country, always seeing different people, and hearing different tribal languages and being stared at.  I stuck out like a soar thumb in some areas.  At first the Navajo and Hopi seemed a bit serious and cold but once you talk to them they open up and are very courteous and hospitable.

I reached the Grand Canyon in the late afternoon right before sunset.  I ended up finding space in the Mather Campground for the next two nights.  There were a few cars and campers there but the nights were very quiet.  It was so cold at night that everyone seemed to go to bed early.  Luckily it wasn’t as cold as UT though and I was able to finally get some good rest.  I ended up spending two days enjoying the views from the edges of the South Rim and taking photos of the canyon from every viewpoint.  I ended up getting a permit to spend the night in the canyon at the Bright Angel campground.  On the third day I packed up my stuff into my Gregory Deva 60 backpack, left my car at the backcountry office parking lot, and took the 9:30am shuttle to Yaki Point to begin my hike on the South Kaibab trail.  I hiked a total of 6.3 miles and descended 4,860ft to reach the Colorado river and eventually the Bright Angel campground.  I had a very enjoyable trek as I met a group of hikers (family and friends) led by Mary Lee, a super nice Tai Chi instructor from AZ.  She does the same trek into the canyon once a year with a different group of people.  She invited me to have lunch with them at one of the best views inside the canyon.  Unfortunately I never saw her again as they stayed in the Phantom Ranch lodge and I never had the energy to leave my campground at night to do the 15 minute walk to the ranch.  The ranch canteen opened to visitors at 9:00pm every night and offered drinks and board games.  But that was well past my bed time… ha ha!  The bottom of the canyon was 20 degrees warmer than the top so I took advantage of the good weather to get lots of rest at night.

I was so naive to think that I would only stay one night and head out the following day.   I was so tired from the hike down that I spoke to the rangers the following morning about staying another night.  They usually don’t allow visitors to extend their stay while at the bottom but since there weren’t many people in the canyon they decided to radio in the office at the Rim and ask for the extension.  I just had to promise to be honest and pay the backcountry office before leaving the park; which I did.

The bottom was beautiful and peaceful.  I was able to do some wildlife viewing after sunrise around camp, and enjoyed hiking on the Creek Trail on the Northern side to get great views of the Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River from above.  The rangers were also super nice, they let me borrow a book to read and I shared some travel tips with a couple of them who were planning to go to Peru.   During my hike on the Creek Trail I had the fortune of meeting some scientists and other workers that were working on reinstating the native bass into the tributaries.  They took time out from their arduous work to explain the project to me; which I greatly appreciated.

I hiked out of the canyon via the Bright Angel trail.  I spent a third night inside the canyon at the Indian Gardens campground and enjoyed a spectacular sunset at Plateau point.  I hiked a total of 9.3 miles (divided into two days) and came out of the canyon after re-gaining a mile in elevation.To summarize, I took an 11-day solo trip to experience a big part of the great American South West.  I went to see some of the most iconic and beautiful places of the desert while practicing landscape photography at Upper Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, Goosenecks State Park, Mexican Hat Rock, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon (South Rim).  I had the pleasure of meeting very hospitable and courteous Navajo people, talented photographers, friendly hikers, and helpful park rangers and workers that made my trip super enjoyable and truly unforgettable.  As always, what made the trip were the people that I met along the way!

I drove a total of 1500 miles (roundtrip), stayed in different campgrounds, enjoyed sunny clear days and freezing nights in my tent. I got up for every sunrise, and enjoyed every sunset. I pushed my physical limits by backpacking a total of 26 miles while carrying a 36lb pack in and out of the Grand Canyon.  And I could not stop smiling the whole time.

How I prepared for a two year trip around the world

HOW DID I PREPARE TO LEAVE EVERYTHING AND GO ON A TRIP AROUND THE WORLD?  HOW MUCH DID IT COST ME?   

Once I made the decision to finally go on my long-awaited solo trip around the world, the planning began.  But just making the decision to go was not enough, I had to commit myself financially so I wouldn’t back out of it, kind of like making a deposit.  After doing some thinking to come up with the “right” flight date and visiting a few of the bargain travel websites to find the cheapest airfare, I bought a one-way ticket to Bali.  This was my commitment and I felt I could no longer back out.  The ticket was non-refundable or transferable and it only cost me US$400.  The next thing was to get organized and put everything I had to get done down on paper so I began to make lists.  I used a software called Numbers on my Mac; which is the equivalent of Excel on a PC and began to transfer my lists to spreadsheets.  Yea I know this is nerdy but it really helped me to visualize everything so that I knew exactly where I stood on my progress.  Just blame my “geekiness” on my logistics background.

THE LISTS…

I began with creating a list of the tasks that I needed to complete before I could get on that airplane to Bali.  I own a condo in LA; which I wanted to keep as an investment property and rent out while away.  Even if I wanted to sell it, the market prices were at a low and I had almost no equity.  I wanted to make my place “rentable”, there wasn’t much to fix but I needed to remove the asbestos from the ceiling and repaint the walls.  I found contractors to do all the work through friends who recommended good companies at reasonable prices.  I decided to move all of my furniture and belongings into storage to make it easier for the workers.  The next step was to contact a property management company to take care of finding a good tenant and rent the place on my behalf.  They would also be in charge of the property maintenance and collecting rent while I was away.  It took the manager a couple of months to find a tenant with a good credit history and background, during that time I lived with only the essentials in my condo- an inflatable mattress, some kitchen stuff to cook, my clothes, personal hygiene items, and my electronics.  I have never needed much to feel happy so it wasn’t hard to be in an almost empty apartment.  This gave me good practice in living like a minimalist; which is how I would live during my trip.  At the time I was six months away from my flight date.

I wanted to avoid signing a short-term lease anywhere and paying a lot of money on deposits and rent so once my condo was rented, I found a furnished room in a big house near my place of work.  I also ended up selling my car since the place was only a few blocks from work and I could just walk.  I had two really nice roommates in the house but I just wasn’t used to living with roommates again so after two months I decided I needed my own space and rented a furnished studio through Craigslist.   The new place was a few miles away from work so I had to start taking the bus.  This was again good practice for my trip since I would only use public transport during my travels.  The next important step was to decide when and how I would quit my job.  I wanted to make sure that I gave my boss and my team sufficient notice so my desk, sort of speak, would continue to run smoothly after my departure.  Most importantly I wanted to leave the company in good terms in case I wanted to ask for my old job back upon my return.  I am a big believer of never closing any doors, you never know where life may take you.  The point is that the big decision of packing up your life and leaving everything behind to go travel will take some good preparation.  A list can definitely help you get organized and it will seem daunting (or not) depending on how complicated your life is and how many responsibilities you have.   Regardless, just remember that every journey begins with that first step.  You start marking things off your “to do” list one at a time, until one day everything gets completed and you can get on that airplane.

The next list was more fun to prepare than the previous one.  I listed all of the countries that I wanted to see on my trip.  At the beginning I planned to travel for one year and I figured that on average I would spend one month in each country.  But I was also aware of the big possibility that I would stay longer in some countries than in others.  All that I was very clear on was that I didn’t want to keep an exact itinerary, I just wanted to go with the flow and do as I pleased so I just made a “high-level” itinerary of the places that were a must-see for me.  Once I listed these countries, I added a few columns to the right on the spreadsheet for different things that I had to research for each- required vaccines, visas, time of stay allowed on the visa, required number of clean pages on the passport, required number of months before passport expiration, and any costs associated to these.  I also made a list of cities, towns, landmarks, or things that I had to see/do in each place, in other words, the bucket-list items.  For example, I would not leave China until I camped on the Great Wall, or Vietnam until I visited one of its many magnificent cave systems, or Morocco until I spent the night in the Sahara, etc.

RESEARCH & INSPIRATION… 

A super important part was the actual research on how to travel the world on a budget.  I wanted to learn from other people that had real experience with independent long-term travel.  I wanted to get inspired by their stories, and get their expertise on how to prepare well for such a trip.  Even with my extensive prior travel experience, I was sure they could give me tips on things that I hadn’t even thought about.  After all, I had never been out there for an entire year!  I read various travel blogs, some of my favorites were expertvagabond.com, legalnomads.com and nomadicmatt.com.  I visited bookstores where I spent hours browsing through travel books and I even bought the Lonely Planet guides on some of the big places that I would visit-  India, Nepal, and China.  At the end, the most inspiring stories and tips came from a podcast called Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.  I listened to a different part everyday on my way to work.  I repeated different chapters as needed.  Whenever fear started to creep in and I thought I was crazy for leaving everything to go travel, I could always count on Rolf to bring me back.  He was extremely inspiring and gave awesome tips and offered tons of interviews with other travelers.  This kept me going for a few months while I saved and prepared for the trip, and most importantly gave me the courage to quit my job when I finally did.

BUDGETING PRE TRAVEL…

How much money did I actually need for a trip around the world?!  I knew two things for sure, that I needed my money to last me at least for an entire year, and that I would NOT work while traveling.  I had to think about the type of traveler that I wanted to be as well.  I have never been much of a shopper or into luxurious things so I knew that I was good with traveling “budget”.  I would stay in hotels, hostels, airbnb and was willing to couch-surf once in a while to keep costs down.  Obviously the cheaper you can go on accommodation, the more money you will have for other things.  As far as food, I wanted to eat like the locals so I would eat street food as much as possible.  I was willing to save in accommodation and food as long as I never compromised on my safety or my health.  And most important I would not stop doing the things that I always dreamt of doing, whatever the cost.  I knew that somehow I could find ways to compensate later and keep it all in balance.  After my research I learned that if I kept a low budget, I would be able to survive on US$20-$50 per day in most parts of the world.  This was at least true for Central and South-east Asia, the areas where I would spend a lot of my time.  As you can imagine, places like the US, Japan, Australia, and Western Europe would take more money but I knew that I would not spend a ton of time (or any time) in those places.  I decided that I could travel comfortably with a daily budget of US$50, but of course being the careful person that I am, I ended up saving enough to have US$60 per day.  This would cover accommodation, food, transport, personal items, and needed guided tours.  I also ended up putting US$5,000 aside to cover any expensive flights, just in case I flew long distances.  This served as a cushion if I didn’t fly much.

After coming up with my travel budget, the next thing to do was to figure out how much money I would need to cover expenses at home, while away.  Unfortunately the rent price that I was charging my tenants would not cover all of my property expenses.  The market was competitive and I had to match a rather low rental price of other similar condos in the area.  I had to continue to pay my home owners insurance, earthquake insurance and my storage fee, all out of pocket.  I also had to budget enough savings to survive for at least three months upon my return home.

Once I came up with a total of ALL the money I needed to save and saw how much I actually had in the bank, I was able to calculate the difference – the GAP.  At that point I only had a few months to save in order to close the gap and get on that airplane.  I was fortunate to have a good job that paid well; which allowed me to save a good chunk of money on a monthly basis.  I was also counting on the refund that I would get that year based on the property tax and interest deductions that I could get after filing my taxes.  I was already saving money on gas since I had sold my car and on rent since I had moved out of my condo.  And my mortgage and home owner association fees were covered by my tenants.  So how to close this GAP?!  In order to save more money, I had to watch any additional expenses which forced me to change a few habits.  I started to cook more at home instead of eating out.  Every time I wanted to buy something material, I would ask myself if it would serve me on my trip, if not, then I wouldn’t buy it.  I had to cut down on my entertainment expenses, I would do free or cheap activities like hiking, renting movies at home instead of going to the movies, visiting friends and cooking instead of going to restaurants, etc.  One can always find ways to keep monthly expenses down.  Do you really need another pair of shoes?  Can you do without the gym membership that you don’t use much anyway and go hiking instead, or do some work-out videos online?  Can you stop going to Starbucks everyday and make coffee at home or at the office?  Can you cancel your Spotify membership and just listen to Pandora?  Can you cancel your cable/satellite service and just find what you need on Youtube?   there are many ways…

I had yet another spreadsheet where I figured out my monthly expenses and kept track of everything I spent money on.  I had formulas that calculated how much money I needed to save in order to close the budget gap before the date of my flight.  If you don’t care too much for your furniture and material belongings you can always sell them.  I thought I would only travel for a year so I decided that storage was the best option for me since I wanted to keep my furniture and other belongings.

At the end (after my trip), I discovered that traveling around the world was cheaper than I had expected.  On average I spent US$40 per day.  This and the fact that I received another nice tax refund while I was away, allowed me to extend my trip to two years.  In retrospect I wish I would have sold all my stuff.  I ended up spending more money on storage than what my furniture was worth… Live & Learn!

BUDGETING DURING TRAVEL… 

I watched my money while I traveled closely so I would not run out by surprise.  I knew how much I wanted to spend each month and would try my hardest not to go over it.  I kept a record (on another spreadsheet) of all of my expenses during the trip categorized by type.  At the end of every month I knew exactly what I had spent on transport, on food, on meals, on accommodation, on tours, on visas, on personal items, etc.  After three months I could notice trends of where most of my money was going and make adjustments as needed to stay on budget.  I also wanted to make sure that I never compromised doing the things that were important to me.  After all I was not out there to save money but to see and enjoy the places and activities that were on my “bucket list”.  The experiences were always priorities so I would lower the accommodation and food prices as needed to avoid missing out on any fun activity.  There was NO way I would miss out on getting my scuba diving certification, my trek to Everest basecamp, my camping on the Great Wall, riding camels in the Sahara, or caving in Vietnam.

After the first year of travel I created a pie chart of all my expenses to see where I had ended the year.  Unfortunately my small pack was stolen with all of my electronics inside, including my external drive and I lost of all my nerdy work.  Fortunately a friend of mine introduced me to one of his friends who is still traveling around the world and who happened to keep spreadsheets like me.  It turns out our travel habits were very similar and my budget was pretty close to hers.  She ended up spending a total of US$18,000 in one year.  I spent US$19,000 (not counting expenses at home).   Here is a piechart showing the breakdown of money spent by category:

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Source: http://andreaheartstraveling.blogspot.com

The category of “miscellaneous” included things like band-aids, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.   The “self care” included spa visits (yes, these are important!), haircuts, cooking classes, etc.  The “sightseeing” included guided tours and group expeditions with outfitters.

MONEY SOURCES… 

I always kept a total of US$500 in cash on me at all times in a special travel belt with hidden pockets that I bought on Amazon.  This would cover me in case of an emergency- if I couldn’t find an ATM that worked, if all banks were closed, if I was robbed of my bank/credit cards, or if I had to pay for a visa in US dollars, etc.  I never touched this money unless I absolutely had to.  In my fourteenth month of traveling I was robbed in Cambodia, I lost my main ATM card and had to use my emergency cash while my sister mailed me the replacement from the US.

I always kept two ATM cards, one for regular use to take money out in the local currency, and the other as a back-up.  Before leaving the US I opened a Charles Schwab account online and linked it to my regular bank account.  Charles Schwab was a great choice- They don’t charge any annual fees, there is no minimum to maintain, and there are no ATM fees.   They also reimburse any fees charged by other banks in any country around the world.  I just took money out wherever, whenever and at the end of the month I would get reimbursed for all foreign ATM fees.  You can make transfers from your regular bank account to your Charles Schwab easily on any smart device.  I also had two credit cards, one VISA and one Mastercard, neither charged foreign fees and offered rewards as cash back and travel points (why would you get any other type?!).  I only used these when I booked a hotel in advance online (which happened maybe three times), or if I paid for an expensive tour.  Most budget hotels and hostels will ask you to pay in cash in the local currency, some will take credit cards, obviously depends on where you are traveling in the world.  I kept three different bank accounts at home, one with Bank of America which I always used to pay my bills from home (condo insurance, storage, etc).  The money was withdrawn automatically every month so I just had to make sure I kept enough money there to cover a few months at a time.  The other was a savings account with Capital One 360; which offered a better savings interest rate than others.  This is where I kept all of my savings.  I set up an automatic monthly transfer from this savings account into my Charles Schwab, the third account from which I withdrew money to travel.  In this account, I only kept enough money for two months at a time.  This was to make sure that I never had all my money in one place in case someone got a hold of my ATM card and pin, or someone forced me to withdraw money, etc.  I am a bit paranoid about these things, blame it on the Colombian upbringing.

PACKING FOR THE TRIP… 

This is one of the most important decisions to make before traveling anywhere.  How much did I want to log around with me around the world?  how much weight could my body handle while I walked rapidly through airports, hopped on tuk tuk’s, got into crowded buses, etc.  I definitely knew that a backpack would be best but I didn’t necessarily want to take my big pack that I use for backpacking in the mountains.  Even though my Gregory offers good back support and lots of little compartments for easy access, I didn’t want to take a 60 liter pack.  I decided to buy something smaller, with less cubic capacity, that I could just lay anywhere and open up from the top for quick access to my things.  I also wanted it to be easy to carry and throw around, and without many straps.  I opted for the 46 liter Osprey Porter Travel Backpack after a traveler that I’d met at the airport (on a prior trip) let me try it on.  It was exactly what I was looking for.  I ended up packing 22 pounds worth of a few light travel/hiking pants, some shirts, a jacket, socks, underwear, a sweater, a pair of hiking boots, and a pair of flip flops.  Traveling around the world implies changing climates and activities so I had to be very flexible and take things that would be useful in any situation.  I couldn’t possibly fit gear for all seasons inside this small pack so I would just buy things as I went.  You can find anything anywhere in the world and there are always options for cheaper clothes in the local flea markets.

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I also traveled with a shoulder bag in which I carried about 15 pounds worth of electronics and some personal items.  This included a MacBook Pro laptop to write on my blog, edit photos and videos, skype with my family and watch movies.  My Canon Rebel camera to take photos, my Gopro for videos, a WD Passport external drive to back up everything (I kept this one inside the bigger Osprey), a Samsung phone, and an Ipad.  I ended up using my Ipad for reading and to navigate through cities using the app Maps.me.  This app was fantastic and it worked everywhere except for China where every place seemed to be off by about a couple of blocks.   I definitely had too many things with me and the weight of this bag could have been easily reduced by taking out at least the Ipad and perhaps even the phone since I never used it anywhere.  A lot of travelers get zim cards to have access to the internet at all times but I just used the free WiFi at the hotels and restaurants.  After a few months, the shoulder bag started giving me some back pain so I eventually changed it for a small backpack.  I carried the Osprey pack on my back and the small pack on my chest which kept me well balanced while walking.  I would recommend packing as light and comfortable as possible.  There is absolutely no need to take everything when you can find most things anywhere in the world and usually for a lot cheaper than you can get them in the US.  This is specially true for SE Asia, Central Asia and most places in Latin America.

STAYING HEALTHY…

As previously mentioned I researched all of the vaccines that I would need to travel safely to the different countries that I wanted to visit.  Luckily I had already gotten a lot of them through my previous years of travel so I only had to get a couple of boosters before leaving.  You can go to any travel clinic and they will not only give you the list of what you need for any country, but also administer them right then and there (if in stock).  This may cost anywhere from US$100 to US$500 depending on your destinations.  If you are going to Africa the bill can be quite high.  While on the road I always carried a simple first aid kit which contained some critical medicines for pain like Ibuprofen and stomach issues like Imodium and Alkaseltzer.  I also bought a travel diarrhea kit; which I would strongly recommend having on you at all times.  It included Loperamide and Ciprofloxacin; which saved me when I contracted bacteria from badly prepared food in Indonesia, Nepal, India and Bolivia.  The most important thing that you cannot be frugal with is travel insurance.  You need one that will take care of all expenses in case of any accident while on your trip.  I paid around $1000 for full coverage for a year from WorldNomads.com.  Accidents, illnesses happen and you may need to use it, specially if you need to be repatriated or have a family member come take care of you in another country while you recover in a hospital.  I actually ended up making two claims, one for the robbery in Cambodia, and another for some x-rays, shots, and doctor visits in Colombia.  Both of these were paid.

This long article is just to give you an idea of all the things I did to prepare for my trip. There are a ton of resources out there that will help you prepare for a solo trip anywhere.  Here are links to some of my favorite websites; which have inspired me with great stories, tips, and much more:

https://expertvagabond.com

https://www.legalnomads.com

https://www.nomadicmatt.com

Here is the link to another great travel blog by my friend Alejandro whom I met in Indonesia at the beginning of my trip.  He is currently on his fourth year of his round-the-world trip:

https://pleaseliveyourdream.com

Here is the link to the full article from where I borrowed the pie chart.  This was written by Andrea, the other nerdy girl 😉 that keeps spreadsheets and is currently on her second year of her trip:

https://andreaheartstraveling.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-year-traveling-for-how-much.html

Thanks for reading!  How did you prepare for your long-term trip?  anything I missed that worked well for you?  Feel free to leave some comments here and/or share on other social media.

Cheers and Happy Travels!

Let’s Meetup in California!

Meetup.com is an online social network found in New York back in 2002.  It was made for people in different places in the US (and perhaps in other countries now) to meet and share common interests.  You can find groups on anything you can think of… seriously anything!  You want to learn to knit? go white water rafting? go skydiving? learn to cook? you will find a Meetup group for any of these and a thousand more activities.  I discovered meetup.com when I moved to Los Angeles twelve years ago and I wanted to find a hiking group in the city.  I remember doing a search on Google and Meetup came up so I filled out a profile and within days I was contacted by someone that wanted to start a backpacking group.  To this day, some of my closest friends are from that first trip that I took with my first Meetup group.  Today I belong to about twenty different groups.  It just becomes addictive!  although I don’t do activities with all of them, I always have options.  If you have nothing planned for the weekend but want to do stuff with others, just get on Meetup.com and you will find plenty to fill up your schedule!

In the recent past I have done activities in canyoneering, backpacking, hiking, and most recently rafting.  For an outdoors lover like me, this is a great way to find tons of activities that I can join every single weekend (and weekdays too).  I happened to look in there today and I found 308 meetups just in the groups that I belong to and that are planned for the rest of this month alone.

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Anna, the meetup founder of Mix Professionals… she organized the trip with her husband, cooked for 65 people, and took care of her baby! superwoman!

I usually do a fun activity for my birthday so this past weekend I decided to join the Mix Professionals meetup group to go on a camping/rafting trip.  We were around 65 people sharing a beautiful campsite right by Lake Isabella near Kernville, CA.  The organizers Anna and Dee, the proud parents of a four-month old, organized a weekend full of fun activities including camping, hiking to the beautiful Nobe Young Falls and the trail of 100 Giants (Sequoia trees), rafting the Kern River, cooking great food, star gazing, and even karaokeing.   We had a blast!

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the group admiring the Nobe Falls from behind

Click on this video  link to see a fun video from our rafting outing made by Pepe, one of the group members.

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enjoying our campsite meals

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Our view of the milky way. Photo credit Pepe Alvarez

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Karaoke for my birthday. Photo credit Pepe Alvarez

I always recommend meetup.com to anyone (singles, couples, groups) wanting to meet new people and share their hobbies with others.  It is also a great way for tourists to find fun and very affordable activities while they are visiting a new city or town.  Try it out!!!

 

Secret Walks and Stairs of LA

I am enjoying being a tourist in my own city but trying to go above and beyond what the regular tourist would do.  Hopefully I can inspire locals and visitors alike to discover more of LA than just the Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood walk of fame, and Rodeo Drive.

My “re-discovering LA” day trip series continues with a visit to one of the secret walks in Los Angeles.  My friend Mark bought a book on secrets walks and stairs and we decided to begin by visiting the Tujunga Wash Greenway.   This walk begins at the northwest corner of Coldwater Canyon and Oxnard street in the San Fernando Valley.  It goes parallel to Coldwater canyon ave and ends when you reach Burbank Blvd.  The wash receives flood waters from the Hansen Dam located nine miles to the north; which eventually end up in the Los Angeles river.  After crossing the beautifully decorated gates, we walked along the concrete trail admiring the local Sycamore trees, the cactus, and the sage.  As you look to your right and down into the wash canal, you will see the biggest art murals in the world.

It was a quick and fun history lesson of the city as we began to google the different names and years noted on the images to learn more.  Some of our favorites were the ones depicting the origin of the California Republic flag, the Zoot Suit riots, the Civil and Gay Rights movements, and the first settlers of Afro-Mexicans of Alta California.

The mural is a public art project that took seven years to complete from 1976 to 1983.  According to Wikipedia, the mural is 13 feet high, and 2,754 feet (840 m) long and it covers 6 city blocks. The mural was designed by Tujunga Wash consultant Judith Baca who formed a team of 400 artists to beautify the area.  We didn’t see any other tourists out there, only a couple of homeless people taking shade under the trees but minding their own business.  Although we didn’t do this we thought it would be nice to bring a picnic basket or just buy burritos at the nearby Chipotle and have lunch on the grass while admiring the art.  Next time…

Next up on our walk was discovering some of the secret stairs…

Did you know that LA has over 200 staircases?  Once upon a time when the city did not have its huge highways full of cars, people rode around in buses, trolleys, and streetcars.  The people that lived on the steep hillsides needed a way to get down to the streets to catch the public transport so many staircases were built.  You can find groups of stairs in the hill communities of Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, Hollywood, Pasadena, Santa Monica and El Sereno among others.  Going up and down stairs is not only a great way to get a good work-out but also to learn a bit of history of the city.

On this particular day we decided to check out the Beachwood Canyon area; which features around six sets of stairs, some steeper than others, but all beautifully made in granite.  The walk was around 2.5 miles and took about an hour to complete.  You will climb different sets of stairs ranging anywhere from 143 steps to 178 steps.  The area offers great views of the beautiful huge houses inside and around the canyon, the Hollywood sign and lake, downtown, and other communities in the distance.  We parked the car on the street right across from the Village coffee ship at 2695 N. Beachwood Dr. and we began our walk heading north on the road.

The first set of granite stairs found to the right of the house at 2800

On Durand and Mulholland Drive you will enjoy views of the Hollywood lake

and the “faux” Hollywood castle

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beautiful views of houses in the canyon and downtown in the background

For more detailed information on the walk, here is the excerpt from the write-up that I found on the web:  secretstairs-la.com

I came home and now WHAT?!!!

I can’t believe it has already been three months since I came back to LA.  I found myself almost out of money upon my return so I had to find a job quickly.  Luckily the company where I used to work took me back on a part time basis.  I am definitely happy to be making money again but it does feel a bit weird at times to be back in the old routine.  People at work are curious about what I did during the past two years.  When they find out that I quit to go travel the world, they always ask the same question:  “How can you come back to this, don’t you want to travel more?!”  aaaaaaahhh… YES!

To be honest I wasn’t completely ready to come home just yet.  I don’t feel like I am ready to stop traveling the way that I was.  But the reality is that somethings were important to come check in on… most important of all, my family.  It had been two years since I had seen my sister, brother-in-law and nephews and I missed them so much.  It is hard for them to travel far to see me so it was time for me to come to them.  I also needed to figure out what will happen with my property next, to keep renting, to sell it…? and the tenants always pay on time but they continue to be a pain in the a$$.  A few decisions (and money) need to be made before I even think of going out there again.

How do you prepare to return home after traveling the world?

You know how you feel when you come home after a two-week vacation?  The post-travel blues hit you hard, right?!  “Time to go back to reality”, everyone said.  I even used to get the Sunday blues pretty bad so I thought coming back after traveling for so long would make me feel horrible, depressed, and completely out of wack! I do admit I was very anxious about my return… having to get a job, going back to my old apartment, getting a car, etc.

So how do you go from traveling through 24 different countries in two years (in my case) to a “normal” life again?!!!  I was enjoying new things every single day, stimulating all my senses on a frequent basis, meeting new people, eating new foods, etc.  Do I have to give up all of this excitement now?

I think three months is a good time to check in on my feelings.  And I am happy to report that I don’t actually feel what I thought I would feel.  I don’t feel horrible or depressed.  I feel like it has been so easy that perhaps the “reality” of it all has not sunk in yet.  Maybe I will feel different in a couple more months when I have adjusted more and the routines have really really really set in.  We’ll see…

So why does it feel better than I thought?  

I definitely think that getting my job back and surrounding myself with great people like my family, friends, and old work colleagues has helped tremendously.  But I think there is another huge reason behind it all.  What I considered “mundane routines” before my trip seemed like such novelties upon my return. I was enjoying things like doing laundry, taking long hot showers, cooking, watching Netflix, going grocery shopping, etc.  Things that I never considered fun were exciting all of a sudden.  Even driving in LA traffic was fun, imagine that!  There is nothing better than leaving home for a while to appreciate what you have.

How to help ease the transition from world traveler to city dweller?  I recommend a few tips that have worked for me:

  1. Slow down a couple of months before going home.  Stay in one place for a while, rest, and enjoy a slower life.  Maybe create some routines like exercising daily, cooking, taking a class, etc.  The last two months of my trip I stayed with my family in a small coffee town in Colombia.  I was enjoying regular meals with them, going to the gym, buying groceries, doing laundry, etc.  This experience allowed me the space and time that I needed to process some of the feelings that I was having about ending my trip.
  2. Settle into a routine (old or new) as soon as you get home.  Upon my return I immediately started a daily practice of meditation.  I also created daily routines that included writing on my blog, working on my photos, and exercising.  I always ended the day with a walk in the park at sunset.  These daily activities gave me some peace of mind and made me feel somewhat productive.
  3. Take it one day at a time, just like when you were traveling.  It will feel messy when you get home.  You may not have a job to go back to, or a place to live, or all your stuff will be in storage, etc.  You just have to take things one step at a time and cross things off your to-do list until it’s all back to “normal”.  Accept and embrace the messiness of it all just like you accepted the unknown during your trip.  Don’t expect things to come together right away.  Life is a different mess everyday.  Try to enjoy learning from whatever comes your way.
  4. Remember to be grateful.  It is easy to get caught up on the negative thoughts of what feels like is going wrong or not working.  To focus on the feeling that perhaps you don’t fit in anymore in your old surroundings, or that others around you don’t understand or care to know about what you just experienced.  Who cares!  What is important is how you feel about it.  Practice being thankful for what is in fact going well in your life.  Reminisce on the good travel memories but move forward to create new adventures.  Travel is not happiness, being home is not happiness, happiness is always inside you.  And as bad as it seems, it never really is that bad… If you have fairly good health, a roof over your head, clothes to wear, and food to eat, you are already more fortunate and richer than a large part of the world’s population.  Everything else, beyond these basics, is BONUS!
  5. Keep that spirit of adventure alive.  Say YES to as much as you can.  Accept invitations to go out, to do small trips, to try a new hobby, to meet new people.  Be open to new experiences and possibilities.  For example, try seeing your town or city like a tourist by visiting places you’ve never seen before.  Try new restaurants, parks, museums, etc.  When you were on vacation you were in someone else’s “home”.  Now make your home like a vacation place.  It is all about perspective, so change yours to make things more interesting.

This trip around the world meant the world to me.  It is one of the most spectacular things that I have ever done in my life.  But as my sister and my friend Taso say “Life IS an Adventure”.  So the way I try to see it is… something good just ended, something good begins now.

Can you see the Hollywood sign in the background? and a plantain palm?! what is it doing here??? we found a garden in a beautiful house that had different types of plants from all over the world. It is nice to go out and discover different parts of LA.

 

My first fundraiser for the children of Godawari Nepal

To see this on GoFundMe.com, please click on this link:  https://www.gofundme.com/childrenofgodawari

On a recent trip to Nepal I had the fortune of spending time with 16 magnificent little souls at an orphanage near Kathmandu- The Nepal Destitute Children Home in Godawari.  This was all thanks to a dear friend from Spain, Ruth, who invited me to help her create profiles of the children in English.  These profiles would be shared with families interested in sponsoring and/or adopting the children.
In the days that we spent with the children we discovered an amazing family with very strong bonds. They shared a kind of love and respect that is not easy to find just anywhere.  These kids were very special and full of love.  While we interviewed them, we noticed the older kids embraced the little ones as they told us about their dreams of one day becoming a Doctor, an Engineer, and a Teacher.  They said they wanted to help Nepal develop more and come out of poverty.  They were so intelligent, so well behaved, and so kind that it was hard to believe that these kids had gone through any hardship in their recent past.
Simon helps Bikash with his new animal hat as he checks out his new cricket pad (toys we brought to them as gifts)

They quickly made us feel like we were part of their family.  The only struggle that was evident to us was their yearning for love from the outside world.  They clung on to us as they asked if we were coming back to see them the following day.  They hadn’t had any visitors for two years before our arrival.
As we walked around the house we noticed there weren’t any toys, any games, any play balls, any bicycles in the yard, or any other things that children should have…  There is only one NGO in Spain that offers them financial support to maintain the orphanage home, their education, and their medical expenses.  Unfortunately the NGO has lost some of the sponsors due to the troubled Spanish economy.  The orphanage is in desperate need to find new money sources to continue to support the children.  The Director tells me that there are at least 15 other children waiting in line to get into the orphanage but they can’t afford to take them.
The orphanage house

For 2017 the Spanish NGO has been able to provide most of the money to cover the annual budget but they still have a gap of US$2,500 on fixed expenses from July to December.
These kids touched my heart and I promised them that I would find a way to offer my support.  I need to help them close this financial gap because I believe in these children and their potential to someday grow up to be good citizens and contribute in really great ways to make Nepal a better place.  I want to make sure that while they grow up and get an education, that their basic needs are all met.  They deserve to have good and healthy lives.

The group poses for a photo

To give you some background on the difficult situation in Nepal, the country suffers from chronic  power shortages; which have increased in certain areas after the earthquake.  The country is still recovering and reconstructing.  The difficult situation is exacerbated by the lack of fuel and elevated food prices; which are some of the direct effects from the recent Nepal-India political issues.  Disagreements between the government and the Madheshi (a large ethnic group of Indian descent) have resulted in a reduction of economic activities such as the import of fuel, medicine and food grains.  A lot of protests and blockades were taking place while we were there.  All of these issues, besides many others that Nepal has, affect the orphanage.

Having lunch in the yard

Please help me close the gap on the orphanage budget.  Anything you can give is good and greatly appreciated.    Rest assured that any money you give is going to a very good place.  THANK YOU in advance for your consideration and your support!
I hope to go to Nepal next year to visit the children.  Any donor is welcome to accompany me on this trip.  It would be great for you to meet these amazing children and see how your donations do make a difference!

Bikash, the youngest kid in the orphanage likes smiling for the camera. 

To help, please visit GoFundMe.com at this link:  https://www.gofundme.com/childrenofgodawari

Re-discovering Los Angeles… like a tourist!

So what do you do when you return home (to Los Angeles specifically) after a two-year trip?  well, besides the obvious like finding a place to live, get a phone, get a car, and get a job… you continue to travel, of course!  Because that is what you have been doing for the past two years and you don’t know any better ;).  But because you can’t go abroad again, just yet… then you travel inside your own city.

So I have decided to continue to write in my blog and tell you about the places that I discover (or re-discover) in Los Angeles, and in the rest of the US.

Just this past week, still without a car, I decided to meet my friend Mark in the downtown area.  Mark traveled with me in Indonesia, Nepal, and India and it was perfect that we decided to meet again and be tourists in our own city.  We met at The Broad Museum; which is a new contemporary art museum located in downtown.   It recently opened in 2015 and it has become quite popular since.  It is recommended that you reserve tickets online in advance to avoid long lines.  You can also stand in line and take your chances to get in like we did.  My friend Mark arrived at 10:00am, an hour before opening time.  I met him at around 10:45am and we were able to get in shortly after 11:00am.  The entrance is free with the exceptions of some exhibits.  That day everything was free.  Once we entered we immediately got in another line to reserve a place for the most popular exhibit, the Infinity Room.  About an hour later (while we saw other exhibits) they texted Mark to tell us that we could get in line to wait our turn to see it.  At that point it only took about 5 more minutes to make it inside.  The exhibit was very impressive.  It was made up of led lights and mirrors inside a black room; which gives you the impression that you are standing in space.  Unfortunately they only give you 45 seconds to admire it alone, or with one other person.  Other exhibits were almost as fascinating as this one.  There were very abstract pieces that I could barely understand, others that I did not understand at all, and some that were very expressive and entertaining.  You can easily visit the entire museum in less than two hours.  For more information on reservations for the museum, visit their page.

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Infinity room.  Photo courtesy of the museum

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beautiful Japanese cartoon piece

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a giant table

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Michael Jackson and his monkey?

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one of my favorites…

So without a car, how do you even get around in this crazy, traffic-intense city of Los Angeles?  There are a few ways… the easiest one is using Uber, but it can get expensive if you are going towards downtown, specially during rush hour.  The other way is by using the metro system; which includes a few metro lines and is linked to the bus system.  Unfortunately this is not fully developed in LA yet and it can take up to two hours to get to your destination, even if it is only 20 miles from where you live, like in my case.  I tried to take the bus/metro combination to make it to the museum.  I left my house and walked for about 15 minutes to get to the bus station for the orange line.  On the orange line I would reach the North Hollywood Station from where I would take the metro Red line to downtown.  When I was almost at the Reseda station (my nearest orange line station), I realized that I had forgotten my ID at home and had to turn around.  After getting my ID I decided that I only had time to take an Uber as I had to meet Mark at 10:00 am and it was already 10:00am.  I did use the metro to get back home from downtown.  The cool thing is that using the buses and metro system in LA is quite easy if you plan your route through their website Metro.net.  I was actually impressed with how organized and clean it was.  It felt safe as well.  I started my journey at the Union Station in downtown (Mark dropped me off there).  The station was really nice and it had a great photography exhibit.

If you prefer to use Uber, just download their app onto your phone and follow the instructions to get a driver.  In the morning, I ended up choosing the Uber pool service; which can take a long time if there are many pick up’s between your place and your destination but it can cost you a lot less than getting your own car.  I ended up spending $25 to get from the Valley area to downtown at 10:00am, right after rush hour ended.  The trip took about 30 minutes.

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It was a peaceful/uneventful ride.  Maybe it gets crazier during the rush hours…?

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stations were clean

After the museum we walked around downtown trying to find a park where we could take a walk and have some lunch.  There are actually a few green areas near the museum, the Civic Center Park, Angels Knoll Park and the Pershing Square.  We found our park; which had a few tables and food trucks.  This is typical in LA, to see food trucks in popular areas at lunch time.  I had been craving Mexican food since I had arrived back in LA so we tried the Mexican burritos truck.  It was yummy!

It is easy to walk in the area and there are many other attractions for tourists like art galleries and theaters, including the stunning Disney concert hall.

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The Disney concert hall

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eating our delicious and fattening burritos, they even had fries inside!

There is a lot more around in this area but we didn’t have time to see it all.  So this is just the beginning of my “re-discovering LA” tours.  I will continue to post a lot more on this beautiful, diverse, and fun city.   Until next time!

What did I learn from two years of travel?

So much has happened in two years of travel that it is hard to give one good summary.  Here is a recap on some fun facts, a few answers to often-asked-questions, and some tips.

SOME FACTS FROM MY TRIP:

  • I never planned more than one or two days at a time.
  • During the first year I would try to read up on each country a little before setting foot on it.  By the second year I would just show up and google the top things to see after I arrived.  Sometimes I would not even plan a thing and just leave things to chance.  For example in Myanmar I didn’t plan.  I just decided to follow what other travelers told me to do.
  • I started the trip with two backpacks, one with 10kg of clothes and shoes, the other with 7kg of mostly electronics (Gopro, DSLR camera, laptop, external drive, and phone).
  • I ended the trip with two backpacks, one with 11kg of clothes, shoes, and souvenirs.  The other with 2kg of a few personal items and one electronic device- an iPad.
  • I am a light sleeper so I wore earplugs 98% of the nights.  Anything can wake you up, a call to prayer from a mosque, a street vendor, street parties, animals, your roommates, someone snoring in the next room, etc.
  • I visited a total of 24 countries in this order: Indonesia, Malaysia, back to Indonesia, Singapore, back to Malaysia, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, India, Nepal, back to India, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, back to Thailand, Cambodia, China (including Hong Kong), Japan, back to China, Mongolia, Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and back to Colombia.
  • On average I changed beds every two to three days.  I paid to stay in guesthouses, hotels, dormitories, capsule hotels, hostels, family home-stays, campgrounds, ashrams, yurts, boats, trains, buses.  And I spent the night for free on a beach (illegally), with families, and couch-surfing hosts.
  • I booked around 149 different accommodations using mostly Booking.com (92% of the time) and Agoda (2% of the time).  On Booking you reach the status of “genius” eventually; which gives you additional discounts and early check-in/check-out.
  • Average daily budget was U$40-US$50.  This included accommodation, meals, tours, and transport expenses.  Some countries were cheaper like Indonesia where I spent an average of $15-$20 and more expensive like Japan where I spent an average of $60-$80 per day.
  • I always used ATM’s to take out money using a Charles Schwab debit card; which does not charge fees and refunds ALL foreign bank fees.  I saved US$300 on ATM fees in two years.  I also used a Bank of America travel rewards VISA card that did not charge any foreign fees and gave me money back on all my travel expenses.  I carried a back-up debit card, a back-up MasterCard and a back-up ATM card.  And in case my cards did not work, I had US$500 in cash on me most of the time.  I later reduced it to US$300 as I was getting closer to the end of my trip.
  • About 40% of my money went into transportation.  This is usually what will take most of it.  I used to have exact numbers because I kept spreadsheets on everything (yes I am a nerd), but I lost everything when I was robbed, including my back-up external drive.  Doh!
  • I splurged on all the tours that I wanted to do including a 3-day jungle trek to find tigers, visiting a reserve for rescued elephants in Thailand, camping on the Great Wall of China, a 4-day caving excursion in Vietnam, a full day walk on the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, a 4-day open-water certification course in Jordan, Hunting with Kazakhs and their eagles in Mongolia, etc.  I would rather go cheap on accommodation and food than to miss out on this good stuff!
  • I was robbed three times, well… the third time I got away before the thief could take anything.  The second time I lost all of my electronics but I actually took the thief (a taxi driver) to the police and got him to pay me some money.
  • I was harassed by men nine times.  Yes I counted them because they were all scary and/or uncomfortable situations but thankfully nothing horrible happened.  Not such a great thing to tell but it happened…
  • I only felt lonely a few times during the trip (I can count them in my two hands).  It is so easy to meet people while traveling that it is actually hard to find time to be completely by yourself.
  • I met hundreds of new people, but made a few very special life-long friendships.
  • I did everything on my laptop and iPad (after I lost the laptop) using WiFi connections.  My favorite apps were Google translate, XE for currency conversion, Booking.com for accommodation, Maps.me for navigation, and Facebook to stay in touch with family and friends.
  • I did not use a phone for the entire two years.  I did not miss it at all!
  • I did not drive a car in two years.  I still haven’t (at the time of writing this post)…
  • I wrote in a notepad everyday to later convert my notes into blog posts.
  • I got sick from bacteria in food or water (who knows) in Indonesia, India, Nepal, and Bolivia.  My traveler’s diarrhea kit (of Ciprofloxacin and Loperamide) helped me recover every time.
  • I got my first tattoo in Thailand from a monk.  It was a SakYant or magical tattoo.
  • I got my nose pierced in India.  I always wanted to do this and I finally dared! It hurt like hell!
  • I increased my meditation practice after having spent some time in a few ashrams, a Vipassana center, and two Zen centers.  In Vipassana we had to be in silence for 9 consecutive days with no books, electronics, or exercise (except for a little walking).  It was tough but I am glad I did it.
  • I ate whatever I wanted and tried the local foods as much as I could.  The point was to learn about different foods.
  • I walked sooo much on this trip that I would burn tons of calories every day.  But I gained 3kg when I visited my family in Colombia.
  • I discovered my love for the ocean.  I knew that I wanted to get certified in scuba diving but I never knew just how beautiful and amazing it was down there!
  • I trained on Kung Fu with real Shaolin masters for three weeks in China.  They didn’t speak any English.
  • My hair was ruined in a salon in India.  The top of my head was gothic-black for a few months.
  • The best days of the trip were the ones that I never planned.  When you just go with the flow and let things happen, you have a lot more fun!

FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS:

  • What was your favorite country?  I don’t have one.  Every country had its bad and good to offer.  I tried to learn from it all and enjoy the good.  There are some categories where I do have my favorites though: best food is in India, Thailand, and Vietnam.  The nicest people are in Myanmar, Colombia, and Russia.  India is very interesting in every sense of the word (you just have to go see for yourself).  I loved trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal.  I loved traveling on a motorcycle in the northern part of Vietnam.  I loved the feel of remoteness of Mongolia.  I loved learning history in Egypt, and there are many others.  China was the most challenging country to travel for me.  Japan was the cleanest and most organized.  Thailand was always easy, beautiful, and fun.  This world is full of beauty and it is easier to travel than you think!
  • What were the biggest surprises?  How easy and cheap it is to travel the world.  How easy it is to meet nice people everywhere you go.  The more I travel, the more I realize how similar we all are.
  • How did you afford two years of travel?  I saved for a while, and I traveled on a budget, always making sure that I stayed within US$40 a day as much as I could.  I never sacrificed places that I wanted to see or things that I wanted to do.  If I had to spend money on a great tour then I would compensate by staying in a dorm, sharing transport with locals, buying food on the streets, etc.  And I actually had more fun when I did these things.
  • How much did you pack? I took a bunch of clothes that I thought I would need and about one month into my trip, I got rid of most of it.  I realized quickly that you can find whatever you need right where you are.  And things are a lot cheaper in other countries than they are in the US.  I just visited the local flea markets and got cheap clothes and shoes.  I tried to follow the rule that if I added something to my backpack, something else had to come out.
  • How does it feel to be home again? strange but good.  It is weird to just stay in one place and not have much to do.  Having spent sometime with my family in Colombia before returning to the US helped me ease into this new routine a bit.  I am definitely taking my time in finding a home, a car, and a job…   and I am already dying to travel again!  😉
  • What is the strangest food you tried?  I tried snake, frog, rat, scorpion, and drank fermented horse and camel milk.  The rat was from the rice fields so it only ate rice and it actually tasted better than the frog and the snake.
  • Are you done?  have you seen every country by now?  I will never be done!  I now know more than ever that traveling is my real passion.  There are many countries that I have yet to see, many, many, many…  On this trip I spent an average of a country per month.  For me quality is more important than quantity.  I wanted to not only see the highlights but also get a taste of the culture and get a feel for the people.  I don’t think you can do much of that unless you try to immerse a little bit.  You can do this by taking a class on something, working with locals, doing couch-surfing, volunteering, striking up conversations in cafes, etc.
  • Did you miss anything from home?  Of course, my family and friends!  I never missed any of my material belongings like my apartment, my car, my furniture, etc.  I will admit though that I missed my “good quality” underwear but after a year and a half of traveling I found a Victoria Secret in Russia where I spent a day’s budget.

SOME GOOD TIPS FOR TRAVELERS:

Be open to everything:  What makes the world beautiful and interesting is its diversity.  If we were all the same it would be quite boring.  Enjoy the differences, learn from others, and accept that we don’t all think or live the same way.  Practice compassion, empathy, and putting yourself in the other’s shoes.  Open your mind to new things and you will have more fun.

Don’t sweat the small stuff:  What can go wrong will most likely go wrong.  So try to go with the flow and just let things be.  If you miss the bus, there will be another one later.  If someone is mean to you, there will be plenty of nice people willing to help just around the corner.  If the hotel sucks, cancel and book another one.  If the ATM is not working, just try to find another one or finally use your emergency stash (oh yea, have this!).

Be patient with yourself:  Becoming good at something takes time, even travel.  Don’t beat yourself up for not doing things right the first time.  If you are scammed, next time you will know better.  If you make a fool out of yourself, laugh at your own stupidity and learn from it.  And remember that nothing lasts forever, not even the good stuff.

Don’t put all your money in one basket:  Don’t rely on just one source of money, have two different types of credit cards in case the country where you are does not normally take one.  Always have an emergency reserve in cash, this in case ATM’s don’t work and banks are closed, and you desperately need money.  Don’t put all of your money sources in one place, if your bag gets robbed, at least you will have the one credit card you put in your money belt, or inside your socks, or even your pocket.  If your small bag is stolen, at least you had your cash stash in your big backpack.  Distribute your money in different places.  Leave some stuff at your hotel locked up while you go out to do site-seeing.

Mix with the locals:  Most of the time when people are staring it is because they are interested in you.  Try to speak to the locals, ask them if you can sit down and ask some questions.  Most people love talking about themselves.  Be a true listener, smile, and make them feel special.  Try to learn a few words in the local language.  This will go a long way when you need to get help.  They will see that you are trying and appreciate the effort.

Mind your valuables:  If you like your photos and videos, back them up!  I took tons of photos and videos but made the mistake of backing it all up on my external drive.  The one day that I decided to travel with all my electronics (including the external drive) inside the same bag, is when my bag was stolen.  I lost 5,000 photos and all my videos from the first year.  I learned a big lesson the hard way!  My Zen teacher in China congratulated me when I told him about this… he said that I must have gotten rid of some bad karma.  Hmmmm, I never saw it that way…

If something feels wrong, don’t do it:  Specially as a solo female traveler.  I was on an over-night bus in India.  I had men laying on my feet (literally).  The guy next to me kept putting his leg on mine pretending to be asleep.  It was dark and noisy from the strong wind blowing through all the open windows.  Anything could have gone wrong and no one would have known about it.  Something just didn’t feel right.  I was not comfortable and I felt very unsafe.  After enduring four hours (of a fourteen hour trip) I decided to get off the bus.  I put my safety and well-being first.  I made other plans to take the train the following day.  I had to spend more money than expected but it was well worth it!  Always follow your intuition.

People will always make your trip better:  If you are traveling solo, seek out others to talk and see places together.  Most travelers are pretty cool and interesting people.  If you don’t stay in dorms or do couch-surfing, then join some tours to meet people.

Being nice goes a long way:  A simple hello, a smile, a helping hand will go a long way.  Treat others as you would like to be treated, everywhere!  If you treat others with respect, they will most likely reciprocate.  Also if you want to take a photo of a local person, just ask in a nice manner.  Most of the time they will say yes.  Don’t think you are being too much of a “tourist”.  The truth is that the photo opportunity will never come again.  Just ask!  The embarrassment of the moment will pass soon enough but the picture will last forever.

Always choose quality over quantity:  Don’t try to cram everything in, and don’t try to see it all.  You will be exhausted and not enjoy yourself much.  Just pick the top three or five things that are most important to you and enjoy them.  Take your time seeing the places, immerse yourself in new cultures, get to know the locals, etc.

The best plan is NOT to plan:  My best memories of the trip were the days that I did not plan at all.  Be spontaneous and take lots of chances!

 

The BUCKET LIST items that were checked off:

I got my open-water certification in scuba diving. I camped on the Great Wall of China. I crossed Siberia on a train. I rode camels and camped in the Sahara Desert. I went caving in Vietnam. I trekked to Everest basecamp. I saw the Taj Mahal. I saw the Pyramids in Egypt. I experienced communal living in ashrams in India. I hunted with Kazakhs and their eagles in Mongolia. I stayed with local families in their gers (or yurts) in the Gobi Desert. I rode on a boat on the Grand Canal of Venice. I saw the Sistine Chapel. I saw the Berlin Wall remnants.  I walked on the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia. I completed the W trek in Las Torres del Paine. I saw orangutans in the wild in Indonesia. I saw the skyscrapers in Shanghai. I made it to the summit of Mt. FujiI went inside the crater of an active volcano. I traveled independently in my own country Colombia, without fear.  I stood on THE bridge in Sapa, Vietnam, the one on the picture hanging in my living room that I promised I would find someday.

I write all of this with the hope that some of you will be inspired to travel and learn more about our world.  Or if travel is not your thing, at least be inspired to accomplish your dreams, whatever they may be.  You only have this ONE life, so live it the way you want!

The freedom of not having much

Having just emptied out my apartment to get it ready for the ceiling removal, laying sick on my inflatable mattress, staring at the TV but not exactly watching or hearing it, I felt like my entire world had just collapsed.  It was just me, a mattress, a TV, and some kitchen stuff.  I was too sick to go to work and I didn’t want to see anyone.  I felt as if I no longer had control, and  I knew I was slowly losing my most precious possession… my health!

I was always in this constant state of anxiety.  Anxiety in my case defined as always living in the future, and very often in fear.  Constantly stuck on my planning mode, trying to control everything that was to happen, worried about what was to come, always giving a sh*t about the little things, and the big things.  I was exhausted!  And before I could consciously realize what was happening, my body was already trying to tell me:  STOP the madness!

So in that moment, I promised myself “if I get out of this one” I will live in the present.  I would try as much as I could to accept the reality of the moment, just as it was, to just see what was in front of me.  To be concerned only with what was taking place right then and there, not yesterday, not tomorrow, not even today, but NOW.  I also promised myself that I would take time out to do what I always wanted to do; which was to travel the world.  Getting away would be my opportunity to practice being in the present.  What better way to test yourself than when you are completely outside of your comfort zone?!

I would NOT plan, I would just go with the flow, and I would accept things as they came.  It was a chance to truly break FREE from my bad habits, and to live fully in the moment.  I would practice mindfulness, or full awareness of my surroundings, enjoying and accepting reality just as it was.

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The most meaningful and happiest moments during this trip were not due to material things. They were when I was looking at something beautiful in nature, or sharing a simple moment with someone.  It was all about the people around me, and the natural scenery surrounding me.  It was the organic setting that was making that moment truly rewarding, NOT things.  During my trip I didn’t think about the nice salary, the nice car, the nice apartment, the nice clothes, the shoes.  Those things did not matter so much anymore.  I didn’t miss them at all.  I felt freer and happier with LESS things.  I traveled with a 46-liter backpack containing a very basic wardrobe and a smaller backpack with some electronics that allowed me to take photos, write my blog, and connect with loved ones.  These things were tools for me to live in my world, but they were NOT my world.

As I traveled I never needed more than these small possessions.  And as I changed countries and climates I would just get rid of stuff that no longer served me.  If I needed to replace something I would buy it from the local flea markets.  I also bought the occasional trinket like a small painting, or a bracelet to keep as souvenirs.  One of the best things that actually happened during the trip was getting robbed of ALL my electronics.  It hurt at the time because I thought the photos and videos that I had lost represented tangible proof of what I had lived, seen, and accomplished.  It took a while for me to realize that what truly mattered were the experiences that I carried in my mind and in my heart.  No one could ever take those away.  My best memories were of wonderful places and the people that were around me, and the most important thing was having my health to enjoy it all.

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This long travel experience made me realize that the material things that had made part of my life were not the things that were adding VALUE to my life. It was the people in my life, and the moments that taught me valuable lessons.  And I am fully aware that even the most spectacular moments of my travels will begin to fade away.  They will stay in the past and lose their importance; as they say… “out of sight, out of mind”.  But the lessons learned during those moments will STAY with me forever.  To live in the present, to not plan everything, to leave somethings to chance, to accept people as they are, to not sweat the small stuff, etc.

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I never felt freer and richer than when I had the least amount of possessions.  When I stopped being concerned about unimportant things, my heart opened up to enjoy the beauty of ALL that was in front of me.

Colombia Tierra Querida

The title translates into “Colombia my beloved homeland”.  One of the few plans that I made for this round-the-world trip was to end it in my home country, Colombia.  I grew up in Medellin and only had the opportunity to travel inside Antioquia before I moved to the US.  I always knew the rest of the country was beautiful based on what I had seen on documentaries, magazines, and from what I’d heard from family and friends.  I romanticized the idea of traveling through Colombia so much that I imagined sharing it with someone special.  I actually ended up exploring it on my own but it turned out to be very special nonetheless.  I got to share unforgettable moments with family and friends, and meet new people everywhere I went.  And I confirmed that Colombia is in fact beautiful!

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The traditional nativity scene that you find during Christmas in every Colombian home.

MEDELLIN & THE COFFEE REGION:

I was born and raised in Medellin but moved to the United States at the age of 13. I used to go back to Medellin with my sister during our summer breaks in high school and we always had a great time. When I began to make some good money after college, I started traveling more and more abroad but to other countries different than Colombia. I always wanted to see Colombia but traveling freely and independently was not an option for me since a lot of the places that I wanted to see were considered high-risk and dangerous areas.  So now that it was safe to travel in most places in Colombia, I would realize my dream.  It was important to me not only to see my country but to feel like I belonged there again.  I only had about three months to spend there; which would not be enough to see everything so I decided to concentrate on the Northern part.  But before beginning my solo travel adventure, I spent some quality time with my family.  I spent Christmas with my father’s side of the family in Medellin.  A few days I headed for Jardin, my stepmom Olguita’s hometown.  This is where my dad and Olguita decided to retire, and where my half brothers joined us to celebrate the New Year 2017.  I had a great time reconnecting with them and drinking all the aguardiente that I had not drank in a long time.  The hang-overs were bad but the times we shared together were priceless.

I rediscovered Jardin a beautiful coffee town located only three hours southwest of Medellin.  Jardin has grown a lot since I visited last in my younger years. The roads to get there are fully paved and offer beautiful scenery. The town is very colorful, with a big Basilica in the middle of the square, and lots of good restaurants where you can find all of the traditional Antioquian food like Bandeja Paisa, and Sancocho.  Many of the cafes and bars have tables outside where you can drink your tinto (small cup of coffee) or periquito (coffee with a little milk), and watch people go by.  This town is perfect if you just want to relax and enjoy some fresh mountain air.  And even better, if you are an outdoors lover or thrill-seeker you can find outfitters that offer paragliding, trekking, trout-fishing, horse-back riding, bird-watching, and canyoneering.  The town also features a cable car and a garrucha, or a type of a cable box.  Both of these carry the campesinos (country-side people) to and from town.  These are also used by tourists to go up to the taller peaks to get great views of the town and surrounding veredas (hills).  The closest one to town is the Alto de Las Flores (flower hilltop) where you can get a fantastic view of Jardin’s main square.

I had a lot of visitors from abroad while in Jardin.  Starting with Jan, one of my closest friends from the US.  Followed by Jen, a friend from San Francisco.  And lastly Roel, a Dutch friend that I had met in Indonesia.  These guys definitely made my time there more memorable!

While Jan was visiting we traveled by bus from Medellin to Salento.   This is a well known coffee town in Quindio where you can visit El Valle del Cocora.  This is an amazing valley and a must-see when you go to the Eje Cafetero (coffee region) of Colombia.  It is a great place to hike and admire the surrounding Andean mountains.  In this place you will find the Palma de Cera (wax palm), an important Colombian symbol.

I ended my first month in Colombia with a quick visit to Medellin.  It continues to be an amazing, vibrant, beautiful, and innovative city.  Most of my time there was spent seeing family, visiting shopping malls (which is still a big thing here), and eating in wonderful restaurants.

BOGOTA:

After spending a couple of months in Antioquia, it was time for me to go out on my own and begin my solo adventure.  My next stop was the capital, Bogota.  I wanted to see my cousins Cata and Juanfer and finally meet their families.  I had not seen Juanfer since I was a teenager and had not met his wife or kids.  And it had been well over five years since I spent any time with Cata and her husband, and had not met their kids.  Both families live outside Bogota in the beautiful green hilly country-side areas of Chia and Cajica.  My cousins took turns taking me to see the highlights of the city like Barrio de La Candelaria- the colonial and historical part of the city center, Monserrate, the highest mount in the city from where you can get a spectacular view of the Bogota savanna, Andres Carne de Res- a wonderful restaurant with tons of different Colombian dishes and folklore, and Zipaquira- a town known for its cathedral built inside a salt mine.

After Bogota I took a bus to Turbo; which was the first stop before I could reach the fishing community of Marriaga in el Choco.  Thanks to Vicki, Juanfer’s wife, I got to experience a part of Colombia in a way that I never expected… to read more on this part of the trip, read my last post: “Ecotourists wanted”.

SANTA MARTA:

I spent a few days in Santa Marta, one of the largest cities on the Caribbean Coast.  It has a nice beach front and boardwalk and a couple of popular beaches- Taganga and El Rodadero.  I also visited the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the famous hacienda where our liberator Simon Bolivar died in 1830.

GUAJIRA:

This is the region occupying most of the northern peninsula of the country.  I met my friend Roel from Holand in Santa Marta.  He immediately fell ill with a stomach parasite so he spent a couple of days in the hotel but when he finally got better we moved on to La Guajira together.  We reached the capital Riohacha located three hours from Santa Marta by bus.  The city had a nice waterfront, a beautiful wide beach, lots of restaurants, shops, and the indigenous Wayuu people everywhere selling their traditional hand-made colorful mochilas.  We winged it on the hotel and were lucky to find a room in a cozy and clean hotel named Las Colonias for only 35,000 pesos (US$10) with A/C, TV, and warm water.

We found transport to Cabo de La Vela, one of the major attractions of the region.  This is a one-street town that runs parallel to the beach.  All hotels are right on the road and you can rent a small cabin, a hamac, or a chinchorro (slightly bigger hamac) for fairly cheap.  Most of the places seem to be ran by Venezuelans and all cars on the road have Venezuela plates.  La Guajira shares a big border with this country and as you know things are not so great in Venezuela so there has been a big exodus from there and a big migration into Colombia.  La Guajira feels like a very remote place where you still encounter electricity issues, and sometimes water shortages.

The area is all desert; which makes for amazing landscapes.  We enjoyed an awesome and relaxing day at the Pilon de Azucar, a high mountain standing right up against the ocean, with crazy winds at the top but amazing views of the Caribbean.  We later joined all the other tourists to watch the sunset at the Faro (lighthouse).

Next stop on our agenda was Punta Gallinas.  It is very easy to book a tour from any of the hotels in Cabo.  The roundtrip costs $150,000 (US$50) and does not include food or accommodation. You just ask the reception people to book you on one of the colectivos (shared taxis) that leave between 5:00 and 6:00am everyday.  You will most likely stop at “cuatro vias” a junction near Uribia, the next big town, to pick up other passengers.  We ended up traveling with four more people from Europe and Colombia.  You also have the option to take a boat to Punta Gallinas from Cabo but it is not recommended as it can be a very long trip on choppy waters.  I would suggest traveling over-land, although very bumpy, it is far more rewarding culturally and scenically.  We had to go through many “retenes” or tolls set up by kids along the road.  They usually hang a rope or metal cable from a tree or fixed pole on one side of the road to connect to the other.  The local drivers know they will not let cars pass through unless you give them some gifts.  They recommend to give small water pouches (sold in all local stores), candy, crackers, and cookies.  The drivers usually carry enough supplies in case the tourists don’t bring anything.   We learned from our driver that the Uribia government delivers free water to the communities every four days by truck, but it is still not enough to satisfy all needs.  The environment is dry and harsh, it is not easy to live out there.  People are only surviving from fishing and tending goats.

About four hours later we arrived to a dock area where we found a lot of jeeps parked and lots of backpackers standing around.  Everyone was waiting to load the boats to do the final 30-minute part of the trip by water.  This is offered on a daily basis but you need to reserve your space by telling the driver when to come get you to return to Cabo.  If you want to end your journey in Riohacha, they will arrange transport leaving from Uribia.

There is only oneplace to stay in Punta Gallinas, Hospedaje Alexandra.  They charge 15,000 pesos (US$5) for a hammock and 20,000 for a chinchorro or you can request to get your own cabin.  I asked for a cabin to have a good night sleep but as soon as I stepped in the shower I saw three giant cockroaches and decided to get a chinchorro instead.  At least I would be hanging off the ground, away from all the critters.  They hang all hammocks in an open area only covered by a roof.  There are a few shared bathrooms that also fill up with cockroaches at night.  The food is very basic and poor in taste but they do have options of chicken, fish, and even lobster for very cheap.  It is definitely not the best or most comfortable place but the landscapes that the tour includes are so fantastic that you won’t care about the rest.  We visited the lighthouse marking the most northern point of the country and South America and the Taroa Dunes, the magnificent sand mountains standing against the ocean.  You can literally roll down the dunes and fall into the ocean.  This place was truly majestic.  One of the best that I have seen in all of my trip so far.

On the way back I got pretty sick from the car ride so I decided to stay the night in Uribia instead of going back to Riohacha with my friends.  Unfortunately when the bags were unloaded for the transport switch, someone offloaded mine by mistake.  Thankfully they seem to be very honest people in this town and they took the “unclaimed” bag to the transport office; which is where I found it an hour later.

Before leaving Guajira, I decided to make one last quick stop in Manaure.  I had to see the famous salt mines.  Not a lot of backpackers go there yet because they don’t realize how beautiful this place is.  They must not be interested in big piles of salt, but seriously speaking, this is one place where you can get a glimpse of a very different culture in Colombia.  And you may not get the beautiful coconut palm beaches here but you get to see the colorful charcas or salt-water pools.  I began my journey by taking a colectivo near the main square in Uribia headed for Manaure.  The driver will ask if you want to be dropped off at the entrance of the processing plants where the big pile of salt is found.  Once you arrive they offer a simple tour for 5,000 pesos (US1.50) or the full tour for 50,000 (US$15); which includes a guide and transport to all of the charcas and to some small lakes where you can spot large groups of flamingos, ducks, egrets, seagulls, and pelicans.  The charcas are big pools filled with pumped water from the ocean that eventually evaporates leaving behind the salt and other minerals.  What makes this place perfect for salt mining is the high winds, extreme temperatures, and very little rain; which makes the evaporation process easy.  The salt that is extracted from the area does not need any processing as it contains the iodine already.  It is straight out of the ocean!  This place is fully managed and controlled by the Wayuu, the indigenous people in the region.  I understand that there has always been a lot of controversy around the exploitation of the mines with the government wanting to take control and industrialize the production and the Wayuus wanting to control the land they rightfully own and do the labor themselves.  Because it is such a manual process to extract the salt, the production is not as high as it could be.  The environment is pretty harsh, the temperature runs between 80 and 100 degrees farenheit and you see the Wayuu people working mostly in the early morning.  When I was there I saw some men working pretty hard in the middle of the day’s worse heat.  The scenery is beautiful, with various charcas of different colors.  The most impressive are the pink ones where the Artemia Salina live (type of brine shrimp) and turn bright pink when they consume high amounts of salt.  My guide Bryan and the people working the processing plant were incredibly nice.  They asked me to help them promote the place as they need more tourism in the area.  This is one of those natural gems that are not part of the “backpacker path” yet and I would highly recommend seeing it before it gets crazy busy.

I still had to see a “Rancheria” before leaving Guajira.  A rancheria is a traditional Wayuu settlement made up of a few houses where extended families live.  The settlements are usually far from one another so the goat herds don’t get mixed up.  I visited my guide’s mom’s Rancheria called Warapunjie.  The Rancheria houses were built in traditional materials but the people had added nice toilet and showers rooms for tourists.  My visit there coincided with a 10-year wedding anniversary celebration for a couple from Bogota.  I tried to not get in the way but the Wayuu women actually asked me to join and be a bride’s maid.  They put the traditional mantas or long dresses and the mochilas on us, covered our face with the special black powder they use as sunblock, and made us do the traditional dance of trying to catch the groom. We tried the fried chivo (goat) with yuca, and the corn chicha.  If you go to Manaure and want to visit a Rancheria, please contact Idelsa Ramirez Epieyiu at ph# 3128917339, or email her at idelsamariaamirez@gmail.com.

CIUDAD PERDIDA:

I made it back to Santa Marta to head to Ciudad Perdida.  I really wanted to visit the Tayrona National Park but unfortunately it was closed.  The indigenous tribes were doing a spiritual cleansing the whole month of February.  I decided to book a tour to La Ciudad Perdida or The Lost City to learn about the Taironas, the original inhabitants of the area (as far as 6,000 years ago) that disappeared after the Spanish colonization.  The Ciudad Perdida is the most popular city of the Taironas, there is another one called Pueblito and archeologists believe there are more but they have yet to find them in the deep jungle.  To visit the Ciudad Perdida you have to go on a guided tour with one of the four tour operators that are allowed to enter the park.  They all charge the same price of 600,000 pesos (US$300) regardless of the amount of days you spend there.  The fee includes the English-speaking guide, accommodations, and all meals.  It is a high price for a backpacker but it is well worth it!  Although the trek is very popular and sometimes the trails are crowded, I still found plenty of time to hike on my own.  If I wanted to be one with nature, admire the scenery quietly, or just be one with my thoughts, I would just stay in the back of the line.  The trek always offered excellent views of the lush jungles, and snow-capped mountains.  Did you know that the highest peak in Colombia is located inside this range?  it is Pico Cristobal Colon at 18,950ft (5,776m).  What makes this trek really awesome besides the amazing views, is the clear emerald pools inside the jungle that you can swim in, and also watching the local indigenous life around you.  On the trek you will pass a few people of the Kogi tribe; which is the most prominent one in this part of the park.  The other tribal groups living in the Sierra Nevada range are the Arhuaco (or Ika), Wiwa, and Cancuamo.  They all believe that they are direct descendants of the Taironas.

The first night our guide gave us a really great lecture on the history of the region, on some of the Kogis’ cultural norms, and the importance of coca to the tribes, and how the campesinos (peasants) in the area began to grow coca and sell it to the guerrillas.  The Kogis believe their main responsibility is to maintain the balance with the universe.  They use a lot of rituals, offerings, and meditation to achieve this goal.  The most interesting part was learning about the importance of the coca leaves for the tribe.  These are used on a daily basis, all men carry a mochila full of these and a few are exchanged when greeting another man as a sign of respect.  The men chew these to get stimulated.  They carry an instrument called Poporo also used by other pre-Columbian indigenous groups to carry lime or calcium.  The poporo is filled with pulverized calcium that they get from conchs from the sea.  They use a stick to get some of the powder and mix it with the wad of chewed leaves in their mouths.  The alkaline content in the powder reacts with the coca leaves; which stimulates the ingredients that give them the desired high effect.  As they pull the stick out of the mouth they rub it on the Poporo, leaving a residue behind that hardens and accumulates overtime creating a hard base.  The Poporo is given by the “Mamo” or tribe king to young boys during a four-day “coming of age” ceremony.  After the boys complete the ceremony ritual they are trained by an older person on how to have sex with a woman before they choose to get married to a partner picked by their parents.  As the men get high they record all their spiritual knowledge, dreams, and thoughts on the Poporo.

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I was fortunate to meet the Mamo, King of the Kogis with his translator. The Mamo is holding a Poporo.

The experience overall was very good, however, the last campsite before reaching the Ciudad Perdida, Paraiso Teyuna, was hardly a paradise.  It was overcrowded, dirty, noisy, and full of sick travelers.  Unfortunately we went during the time when they had the annual students’ visit to the park.  There is a quota to be maintained by all the tour companies but when the students come they conveniently ignore it to make more money.  There were only five toilets for more than 200 people.  There were not enough beds for everyone and some people had to sleep on hammocks.  It was hard to get a good night’s sleep as a lot of people were up all night vomiting.  A few of us got sick after the trip as well.  This may have been due to the consumption of bad water or inappropriately stored food.  They definitely have to fix this campsite.  When I tried to complain about the situation to the guides they told me to help them by making a formal complaint to the company; which a few of us did back in Santa Marta.  We hope they make this campsite better for future trips.  In my opinion this was the only bad part of the tour.  The arrival to La Ciudad Perdida the following day was perfect.  We went ahead of the other groups and had almost two hours to take photos with the ruins before everyone else arrived.  Thanks to my guide’s connections, I had the chance to meet the main archeologist Santiago Giraldo and the Kogis’ Mamo (tribe king).  Mr. Giraldo explained that once a year he and his wife bring middle school students from the top tier in society (considered the future politicians and business men of Colombia) to teach them to care for the environment, indigenous culture, and nature conservation.  I would say this is really smart!

CARNAVAL DE BARRANQUILLA:

And to end my Colombian trip on the highest note, I went to Barranquilla to experience its annual carnival.  I fulfilled yet another dream of attending the second most popular carnival of South America- El Carnaval de Barranquilla.  I didn’t want to go to carnival alone, wanted to experience it with friends.  It is a big party after all and one should not be alone.  I tried to meet up with my friend Roel from Holand who was coming back from spending a few days at Palomino beach near Santa Marta.  I waited around until 3:00pm waiting for Roel to contact me to take the bus together, only to find out that he was already on a bus on his way to Barranquilla.  I tried to go with Boris from Germany, another friend that I had met in Ciudad Perdida.  The previous night we had spoken about meeting early to go to Barranquilla together.  I found out later in the afternoon that he had gone on his own.  I was not very lucky about meeting up with people for the festival so I ended up traveling alone.  I tried to do couch surfing to meet others but the one lady that offered her house already had 25 other guests sleeping on the floor.  I opted to keep my hotel reservations that I had made months before.  All accommodations fill up fast as you can imagine.  This is a pretty big celebration and it has become very popular in the backpacker circuit.  Once I arrived I reconnected with my friends via Facebook and made plans to meet on the first night.  I decided (a while back) to buy tickets for a “palco”; which is a pre-paid seating area.  I paid about US$99 for all three days’ parades.  It turns out that you can get tickets just outside of the palco for a lot cheaper.  You can just stand outside of the area of your choice and wait for someone to offer you tickets.  That simple.  I entered the palco all by myself feeling a bit awkward as everyone else was in big groups.  I headed all the way to the back to watch the parade from a large perspective, from the highest seats.  The seating was stadium style.  To my surprise, the groups that were up there offered me beer and food right away.  We started toasting to everything and before I knew it I was surrounded by a big group of friends, getting tons of flour thrown on me, and drinking beer after beer.  We had a lot of fun until a fight broke out and I decided to escape from the scene.  I had made some friends that seemed to be involved in “shady” business in Colombia.  They offered me VIP tickets to their palco at a huge concert of very popular Colombian singers that same night.  This is a concert that would cost over US$150-$200 to get VIP seating.  One of the guys kept hitting on me in a very forward manner.  At one point I went to the bathroom and he had me followed by some guy that he most likely paid to do it.  It was very strange so once the fight broke out (which the same guy started), it was my chance to get away from them.  That same night I tried to meet my European friends again and ended up going to a big street party.  Once again my friends failed to meet me but I was lucky to meet some really nice Colombians again, Andres from Bogota and his cousin.  I ended up hanging out with Andres, and finally reconnecting with Boris, and visiting many of the events during the next three days/nights.

An amazing display of color and culture:

This was an impressive cultural event that has earned the prestigious recognition by UNESCO of being one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. We lived an intense four days of parades and street parties; which included tons of Águila (beer) drinking, dancing, and getting maizena (flour) and foam thrown at us. The parades were very colorful, well organized, and very lively. We enjoyed wonderful displays of different folkloric music and dances. It was definitely one of the most beautiful events that I have ever seen, and one of the best experiences lived during my entire trip.  Here is a quick recap:

Day #1:  La Batalla de Las Flores or battle of the flowers.  As the Barranquilleros tell me “y esto es solo el comienzo!”  I enjoyed the parade from the Palco (seating area) named Arlequines, with free beer all day, tons of foam and Maizena flour flying around, and in good company. We had a group of Millos (street musicians) join us for a little dancing… I ended the festivities at El Troja, a 45-year old cultural and musical heritage site of Barranquilla.

Day #2: La Gran Parada de Tradicion y Folclor or great parade of tradition and folklore.  We we enjoyed six hours of the most beautiful groups of Cumbia, Congo, Mapale, Garabato, and other performances featuring and honoring all musical traditions and races of Colombia, black, white, and indigena. A day filled with great music, dancing, and good vibes from locals and foreigners alike. What a beautiful day! We finished the night at the biggest street party “Baila la Calle” where they had three stages with music, street food, cerveza Aguila, and thousands of people dancing to different Colombian, and other Caribbean rhythms. This is a new tradition to bring back the spirit of the “calle” or “back to the streets”, where the heart of Barranquilla lies.

Day #3: La Gran Parada de Comparsas or great parade of dance groups. An impressive display of colorful costumes, great dance choreographies, and lots of music. It was my favorite day!

I returned to Medellin and Jardin in April to meet my sister and Bill (husband), and my nephews who visited during Semana Santa (Holy week).

IMG_0223We enjoyed a few days in Jardin watching the traditional parades and taking in the beautiful landscapes.  My mom and stepdad Alberto also went to Colombia to celebrate my grandma Maruja’s 92nd birthday.  We got to see uncles and cousins that I had not seen in years.  I also traveled to another city of the coffee region, Pereira, to see my best friend from school Malala and meet her family.

It was awesome to reconnect with so many people after so many years.  Colombia I LOVE YOU more than ever and I will be back!!!

 

Taking that first step

This part really resonated with me (from nomadicmatt.com), or rather reminded me of how it all got started for me: “Traveling becomes a lot easier when you break it down into manageable pieces. Don’t think of all the things you have to do – just think about the next thing you have to do. You have to walk before you can run!”
I am ending a two-year trip in a month and I remember putting a list together of things that I had to get done in order to get ready to step out of the door. The first thing on that list was “get a quote to change the ceiling in my apartment”. I had a great job, a nice apartment, a nice car, my family living nearby, great friends, savings, everything but… travel was missing. I had been wanting to travel long-term and independently for so long but the thought of actually getting out of everything that was going “well” in my life was daunting. I was scared, just like anyone else would be, of changing my entire life to be true to myself and realize my biggest dream. It all began with THE list. I had to find a way to rent my apartment and first I needed to change the ceiling since it had about 3% asbestos in it. This was important to me before I could offer it in the renters’ market. Once I completed step 1 of “getting a quote”, then step 2 of “moving everything into storage” (to scrape off the ceiling) was easy. Step 3 was “to paint the ceiling”, Step 4 was “to find an agent to show the property”, and so on… it all starts with ONE step! Once you take that first step and you get into action, things start happening, it becomes easier, and your anxiety and fears begin to dissipate. Last step on the list, as you can imagine, was “to get on the airplane” and I did!!! Almost two years ago I got on that airplane and my life changed for the better. I have never been happier, healthier, and more proud of myself! My trip is almost coming to an end but I go back home with a ton of wonderful memories and experiences that will only inspire me to continue to live my dreams, no matter what they are. I know now more than ever how STRONG and COURAGEOUS I am.

Whatever your dreams are, whatever you have been wanting to complete for a long time, just make that list, take action, and complete that FIRST step. Progress equals happiness and it will certainly lead to success!

Patagonia, simply majestic

Patagonia would be my last adventure before returning to my home country of Colombia.  I found a flight for only US$673 to cross practically the longest stretch of South America from Barranquilla all the way to Punta Arenas.  It took me a full two days to make it to Puerto Natales where I began my travels in the Patagonia region.  Unfortunately whenever I arrive late in the night to a new place something usually goes wrong.  Arriving into Bogota to spend the first night was not easy.  The hotel manager could not find my reservation and tried turning me away at 1:00am.  I was upset of course and did not leave his lobby until he found me other accomodations.  Come on!  It is 1:00am and I am in a big unknown city!  He finally helped me and sent me to a friend’s hotel nearby and paid for the taxi ride there.  Something similar happened when I arrived into Puerto Natales from Punta Arenas by bus on the second day.  The lady that ran the guesthouse that I had booked did not want to open the door for me at 2:00am.  She just looked through the window everytime I rang the bell (and I rang it three times) but would not open the door.  This is even after having emailed her to tell her that I would be arriving at that time and to let me know if there would be any issues.  In this case the driver stayed with me until I found other accomodations in town.  Punta Arenas, my first stop was nice but I did not stay there very long since I was on a mission to get to Natales as fast as I could.  I had to begin my trek in Torres del Paine as soon as possible, my time in Chile was limited.  Puerto Natales is a great little town with lots of good restaurants, trekking gear shops, and lots of hostels.  I highly recommend Lili Patagonico’s where the service is very good, the beds comfy and clean, the breakfast is included and very complete, and they do laundry as well.  This is also a good base town to head into Ushuaia or Tierra del Fuego.

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My trip in Patagonia begins with a visit to the Torres del Paine National Park.  This is a beautiful park inside the protected area of Magallanes in the Chilean Patagonia.  I had dreamt about doing the well-known “W” trek for a few years; which consists of 76 km (45mi) of hiking up and down well-marked and beaten paths around spectacular scenery.  In a matter of a few hours you are in the middle of green steppe, gigantic rocks, ice fields, glaciers, tall snow-capped mountains, lakes, and sheer walls of gray granite.  There are also many animals around including the guanacos, the Andean Condor, Pumas, and deer amongst others.  Unfortunately I was not lucky enough to see a Puma but I heard from two girls that arrived at my campsite the second night that they had seen two Pumas walking on a mountain near the Catamaran dock.  How lucky!

You can take as much time as you want to do the W trek, however, you have to reserve all of your campsites or refuge stays in advance.  You can always pay a tour company to arrange everything for you, from your permit, to your night accomodations, all meals and snacks, and even porters to carry your bags.  I decided to do the entire trek on my own, not only because I was on a tight budget but because I wanted to show myself that I could do it.  One of those times in life when I wanted to see what I was made of.  I was also craving for some alone time in nature.  I wanted to experience this beautiful trek enjoying every sound and sight.  The difference in prices between the two ways is big.  If you join a tour group you may pay around US$3,000 for 5 days.  I did the entire trek for only US$200, including permits, camping gear, food, and even one night at one of the refuge dormitories.  If you would like a very detailed explanation of how you can plan this trek, please visit my friend Rebecca’s blog: https://28tolifeblog.wordpress.com.  The most complete post that I have seen on the subject so far.  I followed every piece of advise she gives and it all worked really well for me.

I took a bus from Puerto Natales to the National Park and after paying the entry permit, I got back on the bus to continue on to the last stop where everyone has to get off, at the Pudeto Guarderia on the East side of the park.  This is the place from where you take the Catamaran across the Pehoe Lake to the Paine Grande.  This is if you want to do the trek from West to East.  I had reserved all of my campsites about two months in advance and I was able to find camping at all of my chosen sites except for Grey Glacier where I stayed in a dorm room in the refuge.  I rented all of the camping gear and bought all the food that I would eat in the next 5 days in Puerto Natales.

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Here is a quick recount of my trip day by day:

Paine Grande to Grey Glacier Refuge:  My first day in the park was the most spectacular one, not only because I had began a long-awaited adventure but because I got to see my first glacier against water, ever!  This was exactly what I pictured everytime someone spoke about Patagonia, big glaciers against big bodies of water.  We had arrived to Paine Grande at around 11:00am.  I took about an hour to have some lunch and repack.  I decided to pay for storage to keep my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent there since I had a dorm bed at Refugio Grey.  This would save me at least 3kg of weight on my hike of 11km (6.5mi) to Grey.  It was a beautiful hike to say the least and I arrived to the refuge just before sunset.  I dropped my stuff off and took an extra 20-minute walk to reach the furthest point on the mountain before reaching the water on Grey Lake.  I enjoyed the sunset right in front of the Grey glacier.  It was truly spectacular to see my first glacier of Patagonia.  A massive body of ice extending for miles and miles from the mountains onto Grey Lake.  One of the most incredible sites I had ever laid eyes on.  It was incredible to hear how the ice moved around on the water.  I got to see pieces of ice falling off the glacier and crashing into the water.  It sounded like thunder.  There was a group of kayakers manuvering around the big pieces of ice; which looked very risky but definitely fun.  I walked up to the tallest point on the hill, from where I could see a big island of ice or rather big icebergs that had broken off the glacier and were floating solo.  After such wonderful day I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the trip.  It was already really awesome!

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Grey Glacier to Italiano:  The following morning of Day 2, I retraced my steps and followed the same trail back to Paine Grande.  If you can imagine the shape of a “W”, I was doing the first line on the left of the letter.  These were the same exact 11km with the same scenery but somehow felt a lot longer.  I made it back to the Grande refuge to get my stuff back from storage.  I took about an hour to have lunch and repack my entire bag so that I could continue trekking to my destination, Camp Italiano where I would spend my second night.  The trail to Italiano is one of the easiest parts of the W trek but it seemed hard since I was carrying an additional 5kg on me and I was already tired from the first day.  It was another 7.6km to Italiano where I crossed a bridge across the Rio Frances before reaching the camping grounds.  The scenery seemed to keep getting better and better.  This time I was by a beautiful rushing river just below the Frances Glacier.  After checking in, setting up camp and making dinner, I headed back down to the river to sit on the rocks and admire the beautiful glacier while I ate my dinner.  Everyone else stayed in the asigned area for cooking so I had the entire rocky river area to myself.  It was a very peaceful night with the sound of the rushing river putting me to sleep.  Italiano is one of the free camps offered by the park, and one of the best.

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Italiano to Frances camping:  The third day was a bit easier.  I was in the middle of the “W” shape at this point.  It was only a 2.5km hike from Italiano to the Frances and Britanico miradores (viewpoints).  This was all up hill but without any gear since we could leave it at the campsite during the day.  On the hike I met a really nice couple of travelers, Carrie and Mark, two very succesful professionals in their fields, from Australia, who had also quit their jobs and were just beginning their journey around the world.  There were a few of us hiking on the trail that day in a cloudy, foggy, cold morning.  We were lucky enough to see the Frances Glacier from the Frances Mirador; which would be hidden inside the clouds for the next few days later that same day.  We met other travelers along the way and we all got to observe the most spectacular show of ice falling off the Glacier.  Some of us continued on to the highest point, the Mirador Britanico; which was two more hours up the mountain.  When we got there it was completely covered in fog and we did not get to see anything.  We were dissapointed as this was one of the best views in the entire park but we were still happy to have made it up there safely.  It was wet and slipery all around.

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After enjoying one last stop at the Frances Mirador (on the way back down) we made it back to camp to get our backpacks and continue on the trail only 2km (1mi) to Camp Frances where we all had reservations to spend the night.  Camp Frances offered nice camping platforms all up the side of the mountain where we could set up our tents.  They had the best looking bathrooms and showers of the entire W trek.  The staff there was super nice and helpful, they even helped me set up my tent.  They also had a beautiful restaurant near the domes area where the dormitories were located.  The refuge area was located on the banks of the Nordenskjold Lake.  That night I made a delicious mixture of couscous, nuts, raisins, and tuna; which tasted amazing… or maybe it just tasted great because I was really hungry.

Frances to Cuernos:  I woke up to heavy rain, with lots of hiking ahead, but my knee was feeling better.  I began my trek in the rain with Mark and Carrie.  I had about 8 to 9 hours of hiking ahead of me.  Immediately after I began the trek I was completely soaked.  I had bought a cheap rain coat that ended up not being a real rain coat.  It was also a bit big on me so the water just kept going in through the neck area.  Only 5km into the hike and I was already shivering and exhausted.  I was also terrified because we had to cross a creek that had grown so much due to the rains that became rushing white water.  I have a fear of being in white water and of course losing control and falling.  One of the guides that was on the other side of the river helped me cross.  The stress that I felt was so bad that I immediately developed a migraine and I could not see through my left eye.  I continued the hike in the rain but with Mark and Carrie.  About 1.5 hours later, we had arrived at the Camp Cuernos where I decided to take a rest and asked Carrie and Mark to move on without me.  I would catch up with them later at another camp.  I found out through other hikers, who were going the opposite way, that all river crossings between Central (where I had reservations for the night) and Cuernos (where I was) were out of control and hard to cross.  The thought of going through white water with my heavy pack and in my already wet clothes made me very afraid.  I decided to talk to the reception at Cuernos and pretty much beg for them to let me use one of the “emergency” tents.  They let me stay the night but it did not come cheap.  I had to pay for the tent and all meals at the refuge; which turned out to be around US$75.  I was hoping that the rains would stop by that night.  After getting a good night’s rest I could finish the additional 7 hours that I still had to hike to reach Camp Central.  I met some really nice Chilean people at Cuernos; which entertained me the rest of the day with their stories.  We spent the entire day trying to dry our clothes by the fire in the dining room and hearing everyone’s stories about the non-stop rain and flooding everywhere.  The refuge staff said that they had not seen a storm like this one in years.

fullsizeoutput_264Cuernos to Central:  The next day it was not raining, great news!  we had a great five hour hike to camp Central. We crossed many streams and some bigger rivers but all manageable.  I still got my feet wet crossing many rivers but they had already gone down a lot.  I was very happy to have changed my plan and stayed at Cuernos.  We got a couple of good glimpses of the cuernos or horns and fantastic views of the Nordenskjold lake.  We had heard that the trail to Torres, the end point of the W and the one that offers the best views of the famous  pointy towers of granite rock had been closed.  The trail had been eroded by the rains.   A few hours later I said goodbye to my new friends and continued on my own to Central.  My Chilean friends went up the mountain to stay in Camp Chileno.  Camp Central was very big since it is the closest to the park entrance where a lot of day hikers stay.  It was also by one of the bigger rivers in the park; which made for a very relaxing camping experience.

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The following day we had a clearing in the clouds and were all able to see Torres from the camp just for a few minutes before the clouds covered them again.

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I left my bags at Central since I would later take a bus from there to leave the park.  I hiked up to the Camp Chileno to only find out that the rest of the trail to Torres was still closed and would not open until the following morning and it was not even for sure.  I decided to turn around to catch the 2:30pm bus back to Puerto Natales.  Although I did not see the most famous view of the Torres on my W hike, I was very happy to have seen Grey and Frances Glaciers, and the Cuernos.  A lot of people did not even get to see any of these because of the storm.

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The bus trip back to Natales was excellent.  We saw big groups of Guanacos, flamingos, and sheep.  This was a beautiful trek and a wondeful place to learn to backpack on my own, well, mostly on my own as it was always easy to meet people along the way.  If you decide to do this trek, I defnitely recommend going to the daily talk offered in Natales at Erratick Rock at 3:00pm, and also reading my friend’s blog for detailed information on how to prepare for it.  Happy trekking!

CALAFATE, ARGENTINA

When I found out that the most beautiful places in the Argentinean Patagonia were so close to Puerto Natales, I decided to plan a trip to Calafate.  This is a small city near the Lago Argentino (lake) and the hub for trekkers that want to visit Los Glaciares National Park.  I went to Calafate by bus; which takes 3 hours to reach from Natales.  The border crossing was super fast and easy, we just had to unload the bus a couple of times to cross both check points.  The town is very touristic and there are many “parrillada” restaurants, all types of outdoor stores, and outfitters to take you to many beautiful places in the park.   Soon after arriving I headed to Hielo y Aventura to book the trek that I had dreamt about for a while, the “big ice”.  This is a trek that takes 4 to 5 hours, where you use crampons and put on a harness for safety measures.  They usually form groups of up to 10 people and a guide takes you deep into the glacier.  It was a fantastic experience where we got to see small lakes, ice caves, and tall ice peaks.  And what a small world!  I ran into a friend that I had met in Beijing, China about 5 months earlier on my trip.  We learned that unlike other glaciers that are retreating, this one is actually advancing everyday. There is snow that accumulates about 2 meters each day at the top of the southern icefield and makes the glacier move forward. This is why pieces of ice are constantly falling off everyday. The entire southern ice field is moving like water down onto the lake. The center of the glacier always moves faster and can be more unstable, this is why the sides are safer for doing the long treks. There are crevasses inside the glacier that are 30 meters deep. The guide tells us that this glacier usually advances fast but that the movement has also been affected by global warming. We walked for about 4.5 hours up and down the glacier making a loop. the guides dug little steps for us to avoid falling or breaking our ankles. We had lunch by a beautiful blue lake inside the glacier. We also learned that this was the first National Park in Argentina and the second in the world after Yellowstone. The glacier was named after Francisco Moreno a “perito” or an expert on the region that negotiated a lot of territory for Argentina at the time when Chile and Argentina had a big conflict over their borders.

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This trek cost 4000 pesos or US$300; which was a lot for a budget traveler like me, specially at the end of my world trip, but it was well worth it.  There was a cheaper option of US$160 but of only 1 hour on the ice, I thought it was not enough for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Before trekking on the glacier the tour included a stop at the balconies where you can get amazing views of the entire glacier and even see ice coming off the glacier and crashing into the water.  Another beautiful spectacle of nature!

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EL CHALTEN, ARGENTINA

I also took advantage of visiting El Chalten, a beautiful small town surrounded by tall peaks further up north, also on the southern ice field.  This is the starting point for many famous hikes in the region, with the most important one being the iconic Fitz Roy Glacier.  The bus trip was very scenic with views of snow capped mountains, tons of sheep, and vicuñas everywhere. We arrived at the visitor center where all buses have to stop for a talk from the rangers.  Surprisingly I ran into Mark and Carrie, I was happy to see they had made it through the storm and were doing well.

fullsizeoutput_1faEl Chalten is a true wind tunnel.  It is very hard to walk through town without being pushed over by the big gusts of wind.  I rested in the Rancho Grande hostel and treated myself to one of the many great restaurants in town since there was nothing else to do in the crazy wind.  The second day was sunny, the wind was very light and it was perfect for a good hike.  I did a 12-mile round trip to Laguna de los tres; which is right at the base of Fitz Roy.  The last kilometer of the hike is the hardest one.  It is very steep and rocky but the views at the end more than make up for any difficulties.

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Other almost equally amazing hikes in the park are “Mirador de Condores”,  where I saw five condors flying over.  The “Mirador de Aguilas” on the same trail offers incredible views of the gigantic Lago Viedma.

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Patagonia was amazing; truly one of the most spectacular regions of the world.  It was a very special part of the trip for me.  It was the fulfillment of another one of my dreams… to see a glacier on water.  And even better, to trek inside a glacier.

Incredible Southern landscapes

My friend Jen from California, who had stayed with me in Jardin for a few days was now traveling through South America. I was pretty much following her footsteps in Chile, only behind by about a week. I thought why not meet and travel together?! Duh!!! We made plans to meet at the hotel where she was staying called Tierra Atacama. I arrived to a beautiful posh Spa Resort that offered all the fancy amenities you can imagine, plus a great swimming pool with awesome views of the snow-capped Licancabur Volcano. Jen and I just stayed for an hour while we waited for her trekking guide and new friend Sandra. We had been invited to stay at Sandra’s place to enjoy some home-made cooking, do some laundry, and just relax while we visited the surrounding desert attractions, and got ready for our Uyuni adventure.

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the pool at Tierra Atacama with Licancabur in the background

Jen had already made arrangements with Cordillera Traveller to take us to the Salares de Uyuni in Bolivia. This was one of the must-see-places on my list. We had one day in San Pedro before taking off to Bolivia so we decided to go to town and book a group tour to see the famous Valle de La Luna or Valley of the Moon, one of the top sites in the park. Atacama is not the typical desert with just dunes. It offers so many other different types of landscapes and geological formations that you can easily spend days there. You can see geysers, hot springs, tall peaks, salt flats, etc.  In the Valle de la Luna we saw different things including jagged peaks, granite towers, flat areas full of white minerals, and a perfect valley with a river running through it.  The Valle de La Luna was absolutely stunning.  The best part of the trip was enjoying the sunset from Duna Mayor or Big Dune from where we had a perfect view of the entire valley.  If you go to Atacama this is definitely a must-see.

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Jenn admiring the immense Valle de La Luna down below

After a perfect day we joined Sandra back at her house for a fun night of carne asada, yummy Chilean wine, and some reggaeton music. The following day we were picked up by our Cordillera driver and were off to Bolivia. The border crossing from Chile to Bolivia was like no other that I’d seen before. It was literally in the middle of nowhere and at an altitude of 14,000ft, the highest I had been on this trip since the Himalayas. There were no toilets but rather holes in the ground that had been dug about 25 meters away from the house where the immigration officers worked. All tour buses arrive there early in the morning to get all passports checked and stamped. Jen had to get a US$160 visa just to cross into Bolivia but when she told them that she was only there for the Uyuni 4-day tour they let her fill out a questionnaire and pay an entry fee of US$80. I had my Colombian passport so I did not worry about anything as South Americans can move around the region fairly easy, without visas.  This was not the case with Bolivia though. The officer did not want to let me in because he said that all Colombians needed to show a copy of their criminal record in order to enter. I had no idea about this and had to beg the guy to let me in. I told him that I had already paid for the tour, and only had those four days to travel with my friend.  A few minutes later he decided to let me in under the condition that I exit the country through the same border point and that I’d print my criminal record. Somehow I had to find this on the internet from one of the hotels where we would be staying in the desert. I just agreed to all his demands so that he would let me in, I would worry about the rest later.

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The border office in the middle of nowhere

And so we began our trip into one of the most beautiful places in the world, Northern Chile and Southwest Bolivia. We entered the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.
It was a fantastic 4-day tour of beautiful desert scenery including the Laguna Blanca y Verde (White and Green Lagoons) at 4300m. El Desierto de Dali or Dali’s Desert. The Polques Hot Springs, the Chalviri Lagoon, an extensive collection of fuming Geysers at 4904m, the Cilohli Piedra del Desierto or Rock of the Desert, Montaña de Colores or Colored Mountain, Hedionda Lagoon and Turquiri Lagoon, and Valle de las Rocas or Valley of the Rocks.  We covered a lot of territory.
We also saw tons of wildlife including flamingoes, Guanacos, Llamas, Vicunas, and all types of birds. We stayed in local hotels in big rooms, dorm style. On our last night we got to stay in a Hotel made entirely of salt, even the furniture. Unfortunately I got really sick toward the end of the trip and could not enjoy the hotel as much as everyone else due to a bad fever and stomach pains.

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being silly at the Dali rocks

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colorful geysers

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Laguna Hedionda

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Flamingos eating in the lagoon

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Laguna Colorada

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Polques hot springs

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Valle de Las Rocas

And for the grande finale, we arrived to Uyuni just in time for the sunrise. Words cannot describe the beauty of this place, and pictures won’t even do it justice. It is one of those places that people have to go and experience themselves. It was truly magical to be standing on the salt fields with 10cm of water on top and seeing the perfect reflections of the sun, clouds, people, cars, everything around. We hung out for a while on the fields, completely mesmerized with the changes of the colors as the sun rose over the white ground. We were on 12,500 km2 of pure white salt; about 10m deep.

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you have reflection like you will spend hours taking silly photos, trust me!

We couldn’t get enough of this place but our feet were wet from jumping on the water so eventually we had to get in the car and warm up.  We drove for about an hour on the salt, it seemed as if we were going to the end of the world. All we could see was the line where the sky met the salt field. It was incredible!

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where does it end?

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salt and more salt

We stoped at Colchani, the artisans’ town to walk through the market, along the lines of alpaca garment stalls and other souvenirs.  We visited the Playa Blanca salt hotel and the train cemetery.

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we had to try this lady’s llama fried meat

 

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I loved this writing on one of the old trains- “They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it!”

We got back to the border and luckily the officer that had previously seen me got distracted with something and forgot to ask me for my criminal record. I ended up paying an exit tax that Colombians do not have to pay but it was only US$3; which is a small fee to pay to get away from these guys quickly. I had actually found a Colombian government website where I put in my citizen number and it returned a small note saying that I had no criminal records or lawsuits pending. I had taken a screenshot of it just in case but surely it wouldn’t have been enough.

This part of the trip was definitely incredible with beautiful landscapes, great company, and yummy food.

We returned back to San Pedro de Atacama to stay with Jen’s friend Sandra. We hung out for one more night, did some laundry, and relaxed a bit. Jen made us some delicious mango salsa chicken tacos and guacamole. I was still sick but I was able to eat the tacos after taking some antibiotics. And the best part was that Jen treated me to a night at the Tierra Atacama Spa and Resort. Unfortunately I was too weak to go see any other attractions in the Atacama Desert and I had to rest for two full days. I missed out on a few great places but after Uyuni, I felt that I had seen enough for the time being.

And last but not least, we flew to Santiago together and met up with my dear friend Rebecca from Nestle.  She also quit her job to travel to South America and teach English in Chile. It was awesome hanging out again and seeing a bit of the city. We visited a bit of the historical downtown were our hotels were located, the Cerro de Santa Lucia and enjoyed some yummy street food at the ñam fest of truck food, wine, and beer.

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an old building in the historical part of downtown

The following day and last day for me in Chile we took a bus to Vina del Mar to meet my friend Margarita whom I had met in Thailand a year before.  We took an hour bus to Valparaiso and had a full-day tour of the old city guided by Margarita.

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A colorful, picturesque, old, graffitied city

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Jenn and Margarita with the beautiful paintings on the streets

We ended the day with sunset over the ocean in Viña del Mar  where Margarita lives and a walk along the ocean. We took a bus back to Santiago where I would catch my flight the next day back to Colombia.

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At the clock, a good meeting point

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walking on the beach at sunset

 

Not all Fun and Games. A lesson on Happiness

As I travel I like to post photos and a few words about my experiences. It warms my heart to know that some of you have actually been inspired (by them) to go and do things that you always wanted to do. It takes courage to be true to yourself and live the life that you want to live. This travel experience has been tremendously enriching and has taught me a great deal about the world, different cultures, and people. When you travel for this long, a long-term “vacation” turns into… a new way of life. What I mean is that although I am traveling and living new and mostly fun experiences everyday, it is LIFE and it still comes with the good and the bad. Although the happy and wonderful moments have been too many to count, it hasn’t always been all fun and games. I have dealt with some prejudice and uncomfortable situations in the past twenty-three months. It’s been a while since a “bad day” for me meant a tough day at work, an argument with a significant other, being stuck in traffic for hours, etc. I just traded these for other types of bad days.

I hesitated about writing this post for a long time. I try not to focus on the hard things that I have experienced during my travels too much. I also don’t want my blog to be about complaints or bad news. But I realize that the bad stuff is also part of the story, MY story. Good or bad, it is what I have lived and experienced in this journey around the world. Sometimes the bad stuff is what serves as the biggest lessons and makes us wiser, stronger, and hopefully better human beings. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to tell it all. This blog is actually a great outlet for some frustrations that I have carried around. Perhaps my stories can help other travelers be more aware of some of the things that they may encounter on the road, especially “older” solo female backpacker travelers like me. It is always good to be informed… the more knowledge we have, the more power we have… in any situation. Thankfully none of my experiences were life-threatening or so horrible that they would stop me from continuing on the road, but they were certainly uncomfortable to me, and they surely tested my patience and tolerance.

Keep in mind that travel is a personal experience and just because this stuff has happened to me, it does not mean that it will happen to you. Your experiences will be influenced by your gender, your age, your demeanor, your looks, your personality, even your marital status. Yes! Unfortunately in our societies these things matter a lot and you will be judged upon them, and on a more frequent basis than necessary. I prepared for all of this mentally before starting my trip. I knew that quitting my job, not being married, not having children, and traveling around with a backpack at 39 years of age would not be well received or even accepted by all cultures. Mental preparation is one thing, but your feelings, and physical reactions to situations will always be influenced by the mood you are in, and your energy level, and a million other things. Travel takes a toll on the body and the mind and after being so long on the road I just don’t want to put up with any disrespect or bad treatment from anyone. In comparing stories with other travelers, I have noticed that solo female travelers may just go through uncomfortable situations more often than other types of travelers (solo men, married couples, solo young girls, friends traveling in pairs, groups, etc). To offer some examples…
I have been told that my life has no purpose because I don’t have children, I have been told that I will never find true happiness unless I get married, I have been scammed on the streets, I have been yelled at by random men who just want to intimidate independent women (I think…), I have been robbed three times, I have been refused service at restaurants and hotels (even while traveling in a group), I have been verbally harassed while my male travel partner (at the time) was away for a few minutes, I have been ambushed by a group of men and grabbed (twice), my mom was offered camels in exchange for my hand in marriage (this is actually the funny one). So it is in these “trying” moments when my reactions mattered the most, when it was and it is (still) most important to practice the three principles that I have chosen to live by: to be Respectful, to be Kind, and to be Useful. In these situations I try to have some sympathy and put myself in the other person’s shoes, sometimes waaaaay after the bad moment has ended. I have come to understand that if I stay mad, if I dwell on the bad feeling, if I keep going over the situation and beating myself up over what I could have done differently, etc.. I just hurt myself more. So when I say I try to have some sympathy, I try to understand why it is that these people do what they do. The one that robbed me maybe needed to desperately feed his family, the man that questioned my not being married just wants me to find love in my life, the one that grabbed me was a young man with crazy hormones that lives in a culture that is sexually oppressed and cannot touch a girl until marriage, etc… I am not condoning any of the bad behavior done to me, or to anyone else but by trying to be a little more compassionate it allows me to not only relieve some of my suffering and stress caused by these situations, but also to practice being kind to others. I can’t control everything that happens to me but I can certainly try to control my reactions to these situations and my thoughts about them.

No matter what comes my way I know that as long as I am being true to myself, living the life that I want to live, and practicing respect, kindness, and compassion, then happiness is possible and attainable. No matter the circumstances and the obstacles that I face, I know that happiness is always within my reach because it remains in the same place where it has always been…INSIDE ME. I have learned that happiness is not a certain destination, a specific place, a specific job, a precise amount of money in the bank, a big house, a boyfriend, etc. Happiness is something that we can choose to feel, more often than we think, and perhaps more often than we allow it. It is a state of mind that we accept, a feeling that we open up to, and an opportunity that we embrace. It is found in the little moments… a good conversation, a glass of wine with a friend, watching a kid play, a great meal at a restaurant, laying on a beautiful beach, spending time with someone you like, being silly with your sister, jamming to a song, putting your kids to bed, hugging a friend, petting a dog, grilling, fishing, dancing, eating, etc… it is present in soooo many moments of our lives and it is up to each one of us to identify it, to accept it, to open up to it. The bad moments will surely come, they are part of our journey, so let’s cherish the good moments and live them with passion!

As I approach the end of my trip and get prepared to come home, my biggest wish for everyone around the world is to practice finding happiness in every possible moment and being respectful to one another, even if we don’t accept how they choose to live their lives.

BE AND LET BE

Eco-tourists wanted for “off-the-beaten path” travel in Colombia

I went to Bogota, Colombia’s capital to visit my cousins Cata and Juanfer, and to meet  their families who live in Cajica, a small municipality north of the city.   While enjoying an amazing barbeque prepared by Juanfer, I chatted with his wife Vickie who had recently worked for President Uribe and had been in charge of eradicating coca plantations all over the country.  As you can imagine she had made a lot of friends and connections everywhere.  I asked her about El Choco; which was one of the places that I wanted to see.  El Choco is a department in Colombia that is mostly made up of pristine jungle, offering beautiful natural scenery, and tons of wild life.  Most tourists that visit Choco go there from July to September to see the migration of the humpback whales.  El Choco always sounded very interesting to me; it is what I considered to be a true “off-the-beaten-path” destination that not many foreigners have yet explored.  This will quickly change as more Europeans and Americans begin to discover the magic of this region.  Seeing the whales near Bahia Solano was out of the question on this trip since I was there in March.  I told Vickie that I wanted to experience the “true” Choco.  I wanted to stay away from the “backpacker” beaches and head to a more remote area where I could live an authentic experience and interact with some of the local Afro-Colombian communities.  Vickie spoke to me about a community with the name of Marriaga where she had spent a lot of time and had fallen in love with the children.  She explained that the town was literally on the water and that I would have to take a long boat or “panga” from the city of Turbo in Antioquia to Choco.  The trip entailed crossing the Uraba Gulf, and going on the Atrato River before reaching the Cienaga of Marriaga where I would find the small village of the same name.  She also warned me that life there was rather primitive and it would feel like a very remote place.  Say what?!  This was exactly what I was looking for!  I immediatelly agreed to travel there as soon as possible.  In a matter of 48 hours she had arranged the entire trip for me.  She reserved very comfortable accomodations for me in Turbo with one of the local hotel owners, and called the community Leader in Marriaga to ask her to host me overnight and show me around.  I ended up finding a cheap flight from Bogota to Monteria from where I would take a four-hour bus to reach Turbo.  The Uraba region where Turbo is located is known for its banana plantations.  Our bus passed by hundreds and hundreds of banana palms all along the road.  Geographically, the bus was barely inside the banana zone but I had already seen the most spectacular display of green.  This zone has been known for its violent past where guerrillas and paramilitaries have fought over the cocaine routes out to the Caribbean Sea.  But as some locals explained, it has been peaceful for the past ten years in most areas of the region.  Luckily Marriaga and other communities in the Atrato Delta have not lived through any violence from the drug war in their recent past.  The bus ride to Turbo was nice, hot and humid, and the driver decided to turn off the A/C and asked everyone to open their windows so we could enjoy the natural air. We had a few people come on board the bus at different times selling creams made of herbs including coca and marihuana; which are said to cure different illnesses.  They only cost 3,000 pesos (US$1) each. Another man came on board to preach the word of God and spoke for about twenty minutes. I ended up giving him some money.  His message was actually quite nice, it was about loving everyone, even our enemies, and living with compassion.  Important things to be reminded of once in a while.

When I arrived to Turbo I found the hotel right away and got some rest.

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waiting for the panga to arrive at the Turbo dock

Traveling from Turbo to Marriaga is actually quite easy, you just take the panga with final destination of Tanela and ask the driver to stop in Marriaga.  It takes about an hour to get there.  We had to make a quick stop at a coast guard post in a bay nearby.  The driver parked the panga near the dock and waited while one of the officers went through different passenger bags and asked to check identification cards (cedulas in Spanish).  Everyone had to wait patiently and quietly during the security protocol.  When the officer was done with the search he came over to where I was and said to me “ma’am, I am afraid you will have to stay with us”, of course this made me very nervous.  I looked at him and said “who me?” And he said “yes you, you will have to stay with us”.  I asked why and he replied in a very serious manner “because you have beautiful eyes”.  I wanted to punch him in the face for making me feel so anxious but at the same time was relieved to know that he was just flirting and I didn’t really have to stay.  I couldn’t believe that he would find time to flirt while doing his work, I found this quite annoying.  Unfortunately this type of behavior is commonly seen in Colombia.  A minute later we were finally on our way to Marriaga.  The trip itself is beautiful, lots of birds can be seen flying around in the small hills all along the river and inside the cienagas.  We passed the community of Bocas del Atrato; which seemed to be very inviting to tourists with its big restaurant and a nice hotel.

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The diesel station in red near Bocas del Atrato.

I finally arrived to Marriaga and Francys, the Leader of the community was waiting for me.  Not long after my arrival I realized that Francys and other members of the community thought that I had come on behalf of the government.  Perhaps they thought that I was Vickie’s representative or that I had taken a similar position in the current administration of President Santos.  They were all very eager to talk to me about their projects and show me around the region.  They had organized for another panga to take me on a tour of the Cienagas and to one of the neighboring communities- Del Roto.  After taking some rest and lunch at Francy’s house, I boarded the panga and headed out on the tour.  When we arrived to Del Roto most of the adults where having a townhall meeting and asked me to join.  They put me in the center of the room and gathered around.  They told me about their concerns of how the fishing had been bad for a long time and that it was imperative that they’d find other sources of income.  Yerledys, Marriaga’s school teacher, had come on the panga with me.  She explained how some of the women in three communities, Marriaga, Del Roto, and Tumarado had started a knitting/sewing cooperative.  They were sewing quite a bit but were unable to take big orders from customers because they did not have the adequate machines to sew faster and fulfill them.  They desperately needed to get funds to buy the equipment.  It seemed to me that they wanted me to offer the funding.  I attentively listened to their explanations and their concerns and later explained that I was there on my own and not with the government.  I also expressed my desire to help them obtain the funds for all their projects.

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Yerledys showing me around the community

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The children get in the panga with me to go to Del Roto community.

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enjoying the ride in the cienagas

I later had a very similar experience with the members of the Marriaga community.  They explained their wishes to begin eco-tourism in their town since fishing was no longer giving them the money they needed to support their families and prosper as a town.  One of the elder members explained how the community had been started by people that wanted to fish but now the fish were scarce.  They needed to find other ways to make money and they thought that eco-tourism could be the answer.  They know how beautiful their region is and how perfect it would be to offer bird-watching as an activity to visitors.  I explained that I had been looking for a project in Colombia to get involved with.

Francis explained that they had worked very hard to get funds from the government to build a hotel for future tourists.  The hotel looked complete from the outside but they still needed money to build the bridge that would connect it to the town.

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the hotel recently built for visitors but funds are needed to build the bridge to connect it to the rest of the community.

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Francys’ house where I stayed

The entire community was made up of wooden houses built on the water standing on stilts and connected to each other by long bridges.  They also showed me a playground that Vickie had built for them; which was already falling apart.  The children only go to school until 12:00 pm and they have absolutely nothing to do for the rest of the day.  The teacher Yerledi had another pending project to build a library where everyone could read, study, play games, etc.  I thought that this was probably the most pressing need.  I expressed my interest in helping them get the funds necessary to build this library as soon as I returned home.

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The children got excited when I pulled out one of my magazines to show them pictures.

I loved this place so much that I wanted to learn more about it.  I ended up staying in Marriaga for three full days.  Different members of the community took turns to take me fishing.  I experienced beautiful sunrises and sunsets over the water.  I saw how Francys and the others worked so hard to catch the fish by setting up the nets across the river.  They would usually set up three different nets in various areas and would check them the following day to pull out any trapped fish.  They explained that they used to get hundreds of fish in the nets, but nowadays they only get a dozen or so.

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part of the daily job is to untangle the nets that get caught in the “buchones” because of the heavy currents.

fullsizeoutput_496The best part of each trip on the pangas was seeing the wildlife, especially the birds.  I got to see ducks, parrots, pelicans, seagulls, vultures, Titi monkeys, and sloths.  I also heard the howler monkey families that were deep inside the jungle, howling non-stop during sunrise.   The big nets caught many different types of fish like bocachico, robalo, mojarra, barbudo, guacuco, denton, etc.  I got to try these with patacones (smashed fried plantains), rice, and salad.

IMG_4516Inside one of the cienagas they had enclosed a square area with netting to build a cage for a fish farm.  Everytime they pulled a small fish in the nets, they would mark it to identify who had caught it and then throw it inside the caged area.  They would later fish these out when they got larger. One of the most beautiful places was the Cienaga de Limon, an area named as a reserve for the conservation of the Manatee.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any manatees but I was told that sometimes they can see three or four in the area.  I also learned that the best time to come to Marriaga is during the summer when it’s dry and there are no mosquitos.  I was there right as the summer was ending but I had no problems at night since they provided a net for my bed.  In the winter the rains are abundant.  This is in fact one of the rainiest regions in the world so it is a bad idea to visit from May to August.

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The netted area

The children from the community would come often to Francys’ house to ask for food, especially her cousin’s kids.  Francys seemed to have more than others so she was able to help out.  She explained that she is very entrepreneurial and always comes up with projects to make extra money.  She is very driven and wants to help her community thrive and prosper.  Unfortunately not everyone seemed as driven as Francys, but not everyone had had the same opportunities to get an education.   It is very common in small towns in Colombia like Marriaga to find people sitting around, drinking all day.  Unfortunately this is due to the lack of activities and work in the area, hence another reason to get the funds to build the library and the hotel bridge.  They could definitely benefit from some eco-tourism to keep them busy and make money.

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The men working on the nets after a day of fishing.

One day while I was having breakfast Bienestar Familiar came over to check on one of the younger kids.  This is a governmental organization that helps protect families, especially children, from malnutrition.  Yerledys works with them and explained that if a kid is at risk of malnutrition, Bienestar will help them get back to normal by offering them dietary supplements.  The workers come from the nearby municipality of Unguia.  There are 85 children in the region between the ages of 1 month to 14 years old.

While walking around the town I overheard a conversation between a Bienestar worker and a family about a mentally-challenged woman that had had eight kids so far and was pregnant again at the time.  They were examining one of her young kids and they had no idea who the father was.  They wanted to get the funds to pay for her surgery so she won’t be able to have any more children.  I later learned that her elder (poor) parents will let visitors have sex with her in exchange of money.  I also learned that most of these visitors are government workers passing by the area that stop to have a few drinks in the town.  It is very sad to hear these stories.

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Bienestar Familiar worker measuring one of the children.

There is definitely not enough to do in this small town.  The men go out to fish in the morning and sit around the rest of the afternoon drinking and playing dominoes.  The women are busy cleaning, tending to the children, cooking, and washing.  The children just run around but their mothers yell at them to stop because some of them don’t know how to swim and they can easily trip on the bridges and fall in the water.  A kid had recently drowned.  All cleaning is done in the river, the bathing, the washing of fish, the tooth brushing, etc.  The currents are strong and they carry away all waste.  They try to pick up the trash but sometimes they throw it in the water near the houses and it just collects and rots away there.  There is a small fish that they call the “caga” that eats all of the fecal matter so thankfully this is not seen floating in the water.  They are building bathrooms with regular toilet bowls and sinks inside the tourist hotel.

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In a matter of 24 hours the kids get very comfortable with me and start calling me “tia” or auntie.  They get around me and sing songs.  They tell me their names, they sit around me to look at the pictures on my iPad and a Nat Geo magazine that I had brought.  They are interested in learning, they are very curious.

fullsizeoutput_4bbOn my second night the children and young teenagers decide to put on a show.  They do a well choreographed Mapale dance, a typical Afro-Colombian dance of the Caribbean region.  They later follow it with some Reggaeton; which is very popular all over the country.   It is saturday night and the Vallenatos, another popular folk Caribbean music, plays loudly late into the night.

We go fishing again on the second day.  Francys explains that there are only three women that fish in town- herself, Pacha, and Ines, the town’s Pastor.  Usually two people go out together on a boat, the fisher and the helper.  They end up splitting whatever money they make from the day’s catch.  On a very good day they can get anywhere from 50 to 80 fish. They put them in ice and travel in the panga back to Turbo to sell them.  If they catch a Robalo it will pay for the entire trip out there.  I try to keep my balance to not fall in the water as the boat leans over to the side while they take the netting out.  The net is stuck in the “buchones de agua” or floating plants. They work hard to get it out. They move the boat around to push the buchones out of the way. Once they succeed I cheer for them and tell them they are true professionals.  Jaider, the helper, points at Francys saying “she taught me”.  It is  beautiful, calm, and breezy all around.  In the area you can find 78 registered species of fish. They had laid out three nets the day before and only one fish comes out of the second net but it is a robalo, the biggest of the day.   Jaider explains: “when God blesses us we catch a big robalo or sabalo and can sell it in town and get anywhere from $300 to $1 million pesos”.  They sell to pesqueras or fisheries in Turbo, and these in turn sell to restaurants. We ride across the bay, and get ready to pull out the third net. Francys sings and keeps a positive attitude, it is easy to tell why she is the community’s Leader. They catch some “jaivas” or crabs in the net; which they tell me must be killed because they will reproduce and be a hazard as they bite and tear up the nets.   They yell to the fish “come out so the tourist can see you”.

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Francys proudly showing one of the bigger fish

On my third day I didn’t want to go fishing in the morning.  I actually wanted to do something with the children.  I asked them join me on a campaign to clean the community.  There was a lot of trash everywhere behind the houses and stuck in the areas between the houses and the bridges.  The children were happy to help, it was like a game to them.  We had a conversation about the importance of keeping the community clean and not throwing trash in the water, they seemed to understand.  We worked hard for a few hours in the worst heat of the day and managed to fill up 20 large bags with trash that we found mostly in the muddy swamps around the houses.  Some of us put on mud boots but some children went barefoot.  We picked up bottles, all kinds of plastic, some glass, tons of dirty diapers, food wrappers, etc.  Out of the adults, Francys was the only one to help.  Afterwards I rewarded the children with their favorite potato chips from the local store.  Of course they tried to throw the wrappers in the water, out of habit, so I encouraged them to throw it in a trash bag but I had to offer candy in exchange.  Two of the adults in town later helped me to create signs and put them on the walls near common areas reminding people to throw the trash in the trash bags. All the bags collected were taken by two teenagers (thanks to Francys) on a panga to the local dump site.

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Francys and the kids showing the number of bags collected with their hands

My last afternoon they took me out to Candelaria bay.  We went through beautiful mangroves to reach the place where the river meets the Caribbean Sea. We finished the day watching the sunset over the Atrato with a view of the central range in Panama, in the horizon.  It was stunning!

fullsizeoutput_482 On the fourth day people come out to say goodbye to me as we wait for the panga.  They tell me how one of the girls got photographed by a tourist a while back and she is now on a billboard but no one has shared any money with her family. I take a photo of two of the girls who represent well the race diversity of the region.  I promise them that if I ever sell the photo, I will bring them the money.

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The panga arrived and the kids try to sell their fish to the passengers.  All is sold! The Pastor gets on with her granddaughter to send her back to Bogota where the mother is.  We travel back to Turbo together.  It is nice to have some company.

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Some of the town people come out to the dock area to say goodbye.

Ecotourists wanted asap in Marriaga!!!  Please get in touch with me if you would like to donate to this community’s projects, or arrange a visit to the area.  I will be happy to offer you my guiding and translating services.  🙂

 

Visiting a coffee farm in Colombia

My dear friend Jennifer from Oakland came to see me in Colombia.   We first saw each other in Medellin where I asked her to join me in Jardin, a beautiful and picturesque small town in the mountains of Antioquia where my dad and stepmom live.  Antioquia is part of the Eje Cafetero in Colombia, a region known for producing the most wonderful Arabica coffee in the world.  On Jennifer’s last day we wanted to go see a Finca cafetera (coffee farm) but we had no idea how to go about it.  We asked my stepmom if she knew of any near Jardin that we could visit for a couple of hours before Jennifer had to take her bus back to Medellin.  My stepmom recommended that we go to the Tourism office in town and ask them for recommendations.  They told us about Finca Los Angeles only 40 minutes away from town, where the owners Angela and Andres would be happy to give us a quick tour.  We hired Juan Diego and his moto-ratón (aka. tuk tuk) to take us to the finca.  He offered to wait for us while we did the tour so he could bring us back to town.  The ride up the mountain was incredibly beautiful, on a bumpy road surrounded by coffee plants and plaintain palms.

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The wonderful scenery in the mountains near Jardin

Don Andres was there alone as his wife Angela had gone to a meeting in town.  He usually offers long tours including lunch but we asked him to do the super quick tour for us since we only had one hour to spare.  He was very accomodating and managed to tell us all about coffee production in the region, show us the coffee plants and other crops, the machines used to process the coffee, and even offer us a tasting of his wonderful coffee.  We couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgeable and courteous host.

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Taking a walk around the farm, where a lot of the coffee plants were in their blossom stage.

We learned a lot from Don Andres… coffee in the area grows all year-round but the main harvest season is October through December.  The mini harvest is from April to May.   January through March is the flowering time when most plants begin to blossom with tiny white flowers.  It takes about nine months for the flowers to produce the coffee fruit.  In the area all the growers pick the coffee manually, only when the fruits are red.  Don Andres only has three permanent workers that watch over the plants and process the coffee but during the big harvest they hire about five “andariegos” or coffee nomads that go from farm to farm across the entire eje cafetero picking coffee.  Harvesting will be at different times in other regions of Colombia so the andariegos always find work year-round.  Some of the bigger farms in the area will hire up to one thousand andariegos.  The coffee plants of different varieties are threatened by many enemies but the biggest ones are the Roya and the Broca.  Roya is a virus that attacks the leaves.  The way to treat it is by planting varieties that are immune to this virus.  Caturro is the variety that gets Roya easily but the cafeteros still plant it due to its great flavor.  The Broca is a small insect that penetrates the fruit and eats the bean inside.  The farmers avoid the Broca by doing what they call the “RERE”; which means recojer repasar, or pick and repeat.  The workers need to pick the coffee fruits before they reach an age beyond thirty days; which is when Broca seems to attack it.  The smaller cafeteros like Don Andres do not use pesticides on their crops; they prefer to do no fumigation at all.

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Don Andres showing us a leaf affected by the Roya

The small producers like Don Andres and Doña Angela sell part of their harvest to a local cooperative that processes the beans for export, another part is processed by a third party that packages the coffee to sell it nationally, and at their farm.  You can usually buy one to two bags of coffee after the tour.  Due to low world coffee prices the smaller farmers also rely on selling plantains, and on tourism to supplement their income.  Don Andres tells me that these days a lot of tourists from France, Germany, and the US are coming to buy coffee for their coffee shops directly from Finca Los Angeles. They know they get a better quality of coffee, organic, and at a better price avoiding the middle man.  He calls this “mercado justo”.  He speaks proudly of his farm and how his family has had it for generations.  He nostalgically explains that his two sons have gone to the city to become “profesionales”, they don’t want to work in the coffee farm.  He explains that the newer generations want to go to the city, get an education and start a career.  He points at a neighbor’s farm in the distance and the houses with coffee parcels that he helped his twelve sons build so they could stay and become farmers like him; “he was a smart man” he says in Spanish.   He also explains how now the younger generations want to come to the mountains and learn all about coffee growing and a simpler way of life.  They want to get closer to nature now, escape the city and come enjoy “el campo”.  His sons have told him that they do not want him to sell the farm as they wish to come back to it in their later years.

After the walking tour around the plantation he takes us to see the machines where he does the pulping; which is removing the skin and the pulpy fruit from the berry leaving only the seed.  He shows us the area where the seeds sit for 20 hours during fermentation, and finally where all the beans are spread out to dry on the roof during five to eight days.

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Andres showing us the fruit skin that is separated from the coffee berry

We end the tour with a recap of the process and a tasting.  We are served a fantastic hot cup of tinto, or black coffee.  I have never tasted better coffee!  Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for a second cup as we had to get back to Jardin for Jennifer to make her bus.  We will certainly be back to visit Don Andres and take a longer tour, with lunch included.  He is also planning to build a few small houses on his land so people come and stay the night.  I can’t wait!

If you wish to visit this awesome place, just come to Jardin and catch a moto-raton.  Just tell the driver to take you to Vereda la Casiana where Finca Los Angeles is located.  And for the funnest and most courteous driver, contact Juan Diego at 3128168972.  FYI- they only speak Spanish.  The entire tour with transportation to and from Jardin cost us $60.000 pesos (or US20).  Another way to get to the Los Angeles finca is by catching the Chiva (traditional painted bus from the region) from Jardin in the morning.  For specific times and place you can contact the tourism office in town.

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Jennifer puts on the collection bucket on our driver Juan Diego who joined us on the tour

Mountains, Deserts, and Enchanting Cities

I started my trip in MARRAKECH, it had always been high on my list.  When I arrived it seemed a bit intimidating, an overwhelmingly crowded place full of people and touts waiting for new tourists to get off the bus from the airport to lead them to their preferred Riads.  For some reason I was doubting the location that maps.me had given for my hotel and decided to ask for directions; of course a shop owner led me to the wrong place.  Somehow I ended up going deeper into the Medina’s narrow streets when my hotel was in fact just outside of these.  I decided to follow the map and find the hotel on my own. I received help from a restaurant owner that confirmed the location of the Koutoubia Riad where I met Hassan.  Hassan invited me to the terrace for some delicious but extremely sweet tea.  The first one of many that I would have there.  The locals call it the “Berber Whiskey”, a very strong tea mixed with lots of sugar to make it bearable to drink.  Hassan explained all of my options to visit Marrakech, the nearby mountains, and the Sahara.  I wanted to take things easy for a few days so I opted for a simple 3 day/2 night tour to get a taste of everything.  I would decide afterwards where I would stay the rest of my three weeks in Morocco.  My recommendation for travelers right off the bat is that if you are traveling in pairs or in groups, rent a car and drive around the country.  The roads are well maintained and easy to navigate.  You can find accommodation along the way and people are willing to help everywhere.  It is definitely good to speak French here, if you don’t speak it, try to learn a few basic phrases.  A lot of people also speak Arabic and they seem to like it when you use it at least to say hello and thank you.  The Moroccans are quite traditional and religious so I would recommend for women to dress conservatively.

The tour that I embarked on for the next three days is the traditional one that is offered to all tourists from Marrakech.  It is a road trip to Merzouga driving through the Atlas mountains via the town of Ouarzazate, visiting the Dades Valley, Dades Gorge, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aït Benhaddou kasbah, the Todra Gorge, the Dades River to Boumalne, and finishing with a camel ride to Erg Chebbi (Dunes).  The latter is a wonderful dessert camp where they cook a traditional Berber meal under the stars and play drums around a bon fire on the sand.

Aït Benhaddou kasbah was definitely a highlight, a beautiful Berber ancient city from the 11th century, all built in clay, where four merchant families still live.  It was great to walk around its narrow streets and meet some of the artisans, specially the carpet makers.

IMG_0877 fullsizeoutput_7cb fullsizeoutput_7c6 fullsizeoutput_7d6 IMG_0937IMG_1011I came back to Marrakech to enjoy a couple of days of site-seeing.  I was joined by my new friend Paul from the US whom I had met during the tour.  We walked around this enchanting city visiting many of the recommended attractions like the Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said Museum, the famous Souks, watching the performances around the Jamma El Fna Square.  I switched to the Cecil Hotel right on the square to be closer to the action; which was super clean, had corteous staff, and included a great breakfast.  We happened to be in the city during the International Film Festival so the city was pretty packed and lively.

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TAROUDANT

This town offered the most authentic experience to appreciate the kindness and hospitality of the good people of Morocco.  I tagged along my friend Paul’s trip to Taroudant; which is a small town a few hours southwest of Marrakech.  After doing all of the “touristy” stuff the first few days I was ready for a different kind of experience in Morocco.  We caught a bus to Agadir and then a very uncomfortable ride on a crowded grand taxi (which was in fact not grand) to Taroudant.  We decided to get a nice apartment at Dar Fatima where we could each have our own room for about US$20 a night per person.  It was the perfect place in the perfect little town.  This place was definitely less touristy (than the others previously visited), had a smaller souk, lots of shops, and a nice little square to sit at one of the cafes and watch people go by.  I noticed there were a lot of men everywhere, not only sitting in groups in the cafes but also gathering outside in the town square to listen to music, or watch someone perform something.  We enjoyed buying cheap meals (for about US$2 each) and bringing them back to the house to eat while we watched tv.  It was great!  We rented bikes to go see some places outside of town.  We headed north with the goal of reaching the mountains that we could see in the near horizon but we ended up diverting to enter a small town that Paul wanted to visit.  We rode through what seemed to be a desserted town, only seeing a couple of farmers.  Suddenly a woman came out of her house and greeted us from afar waving her hand.  I got closer and she signaled us to come in for some tea so we did.  The lady did not speak any English but she was super excited to see us and have us over at her house.  My guess is that this lady had never seen foreigners before, at least not in her town.  We came into a large open courtyard where she invited us to sit while she made the tea.  We saw that she was cleaning stones out of a bowl of grains so we decided to help her.  She was very giggly and nice.  Some of her neighbors came in to meet us.  One of the women spoke a little English so she helped translate for us.  The lady of the house asked if we would want to stay for lunch and so we did.  She made us some delicious egg omelets with tomatoes and onions; which we ate with some of the local bread.  We immediately took out the food that we had brought with us so we could share with the ladies- some nuts and fruit.  One of the neighbors asked if she could do henna on my arms and I accepted.  We were later invited on a tour around the neighboring houses, our translator showed us her house and offered us some coffee.  Unfortunately time flew by and before we knew it, it was close to sunset so we had to get going before it got dark.  All the ladies came out on the streets to see us off.  This was a really great and authentic experience with local people that we would’ve never experienced if it wasn’t for Paul wanting to veer off the main road.  This experience reminded me to go with the flow and accept things as they come.  Some of the best experiences of this trip have been the ones that I never planned and just happened spontaneously.

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ZAGORA

I said bye to Paul and headed to the town of Zagora.  I quickly made a new friend on the bus, Kevin, whom I continued to travel with.  He didn’t have a place to stay so I invited him to come to my hotel Karim Sahara to check if they had a dorm room there.  As soon as we arrived, they began to sell us on a tour to the Sahara; which is what this town is known for; it is the base for trips into the desert.  We decided to head to M’hamid on our own and see if we could find a tour to the Sahara from there; which would be cheaper.  Before leaving Zagora we visited a traditional Jewish Kazbah and a Muslim cooperative where they restored doors with bones, and melted silver.

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THE SAHARA 

This was very high on my list of places to see on this trip.  I didn’t only want to make it to the Sahara but most importantly I wanted to do a multi-day trip; which included camping, enjoying a fire under the stars, and climbing the dunes.  Kevin and I took a grand taxi to our hotel Dar Sahara in M’hamid to plan our trip.  We booked 4 days/3 nights tour to the Erg Chigaga Dunes.  Here is a summary of our trip:

Day 1- M’hamid to Sidinajee- 14km.
We walked for 3 hours, camels following with gear as they were pulled by Barak. Ali is the main guide who speaks english and french. At the beginning of our trek, we stopped by the company’s regular luxury camp for some tea and bread.  We continued with the trek shortly after and reached the small dunes in sidinajee as the wind picked up. The sand hovered over the dunes as a thin veil.  We walked toward the sun and it was hot but the cool wind gave us relief.   We finally reached our camp for the night and Barak let the camels, Lashga and Lahmami, rest after taking the loads off their backs.  They are let free but with their back legs tied together so they can go find their own food but not go very far into the dessert.  We put up the tent, put blankets on the floor and a couple of mattresses, and boiled some tea.  Ali takes out a big block of sugar, the most important ingredient to make the berber whiskey or tea drinkable since it is so bitter. They prepare a berber omelette for lunch. Both Ali and Barak grew up as nomads in the dessert. After sunset we found a group of camels that nomads let feed for three to four days and then they go find them again. Ali mentioned that just behind our camp was the border with Algeria.  That night after dinner, Ali went to sleep outside, Barak set up a tent far away from us, and Kevin and I took the tent where all the supplies and food were stored.  It was spacy, comfortable, and warm enough for the night.  We slept well.

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barak inside the tent offers us tea

Day 2- we walked 22km in 6.5 hours to Erg Zahar, we had crazy moments, we spoke about our private lives, relationships, spoke to the camels, shared candybars, oranges, apples. We didn’t take enough food or water for our long trek so we got a bit delirious. We played music, sang, talked, and the time passed. We finally made it to the dunes in the mid hot afternoon. It was a very windy day so we had to stay about 20 min away from the big dunes where we had planned to stay. We needed to find shade from the trees in the area. We offloaded the camels, had some food, and took a nap to recharge batteries for the sunset hike. I asked Ali if I could trek in the dunes on my own for a while. I wanted to experience the Sahara in peace. He agreed as long as I met Kevin, and a couple that was staying nearby with their guide, on top of the dune. After a long trek up the steep dunes, we enjoyed an amazing sunset at the top. It was incredible to see the sea of dunes below us. It was an experience and a sight that I will never forget. When we made it back to camp, Ali had made a nice fire, some soup, and Barak was ice fire, soup, and Barak was making bread the traditional Berber way. He was preparing the dough and placed it on the sand, covered it with a thin layer of sand, and then placed the hot coals right on top. The nomads’ way of baking in the dessert.

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baking in the sand

IMG_1646 fullsizeoutput_747IMG_1895IMG_1665Day 3-18km or 5 hours, after sunrise on the dunes and a yummy breakfast we walked through the dessert and the valley of Draa where we found rocks and even remnants of the ocean, more vegetation and the well where camels drank and Kevin took a shower. We stopped for a picnic by a big area that looked like a dry river bed.  It was a relaxing and beautiful day.  We were just starting to get comfortable with the nomad life but unfortunately this would be our last night in the dessert.

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Day 4- We end the trip. After an amazing sunrise we took turns riding camels.  It was our day to ride the camels since we had eaten most of the food and the camels were a lot lighter and could handle our weight.  We had another amazing day going through the small dunes, and an oasis.  It was a perfect opportunity to reflect on the trip and the experience we had just lived through.

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At the end of the trip it was time to pay.  We arrived back to the Dar Sahara camp to spend another night before going back to Marrakech the next day.  There was no ATM machine in town so we were not able to pay for the entire trip.  The manager had one of the h0tel workers travel with us on the bus back to Zagora.  This is where we were to get off the bus and get cash from the nearest ATM, located right next to the bus station.  Unfortunately the ATM was not working so we decided to try another one a bit further down the street.  We had advised the driver about having to use the ATM and to please give us 15 minutes.  Our cards did not work on the second ATM and before I knew it, Kevin had started running further down the main road trying to reach another ATM on the other end of town.  When I caught up to him I tried the ATM and luckily it worked for me but unfortunately the bus decided to take off without us.  It just drove fast through the only road in town without even trying to honk to get our attention.   We went to the CTM office (the bus company) in town where we asked to get help with getting our bags back.  The man at the reception said that he had called the driver and that they would leave the bags in Ouazarzate, the next town where the bus would make a stop.  The workers at the Zagora office did not want to help us get on another bus for free, they wanted us to pay for another ticket to Marrakech.  We ended up taking a grand taxi with other passengers (which only leave once they are completely full) to the CTM office in Ouazarzate.  Once we got there they told us that our bags w