Last month, I flew back north to Colombia and immediately went to the Caribbean coastal town of Taganga, a small touristy village just outside of Tayrona National Park. The coast has an Afro-Caribbean flavor and as I rode from the airport to my hostel, I felt a sense of ease that I was in the right place. The weather was hot, there was a sea breeze, salsa and reggaeton were playing and people were riding bicycles home from the beach in their bathing suits and flip flops. How could you not feel relaxed? I quickly met a fun and sweet Argentinian girl (the coast is full of Argentinians on vacation) and we headed into the national park, where we hiked through the jungle to get to some of the most gorgeous beaches I’ve ever seen in my life. We proceeded to spend the next three days lazing on the beach, swimming, walking through the jungle, and sleeping in hammocks.
After Tayrona, I moved west to Barranquilla for Carnaval, which was pretty much what you would expect- dancing, drinking, amazing energy and tons of fun. There were parades, costumes and dancing, though I think it pales in comparison to Brazil; I didn’t see much variation in the costumes and choreography outside of traditional Cumbia dancing. The highlights were 1) the energy in the streets and 2) two concerts I went to- Choquiptown and a Joe Arroyo tribute concert where Carlos Vives played; both were outside in big stadiums and the energy was amazing!!
My last stop on the coast was Cartagena, a beautiful colonial walled city that is now a UNESCO heritage site. It’s quite touristy, but I was enchanted by its magic and ended up staying a full week. There happened to be an International Film festival (all free!) and the city was buzzing with energy. One night, while on a magical “date” night with my new Australian jazz singer friend, Jolene, we were invited in to one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever seen in my life; Pedro Almodovar is a guest there when he visits Cartagena. Being “older” travelers, we salivated at the idea of staying in a more elegant place, but resigned ourselves to the homey hostel that was our home for the week. What it lacked in elegance, it more than made up for with familial character. I spent those days and nights in Cartagena hanging out in the local plaza or on the front stoop of the hostel, wandering the old cobblestone streets, drinking maracuya (passion fruit) juice and chatting with new friends.
Hola queridos! A lot has happened since I last posted in November. I made my way down the Atlantic coast from Ecuador to Chile (4 countries, 20+ cities, and at least that many bus rides), met many new friends, reunited with old friends, made ascents to high altitudes (Potosí, Bolivia- highest city in the world at 4000+meters!) visited expansive deserts, salt lagoons where you can float effortlessly and salt flats where you feel like you are at the end of the world, experienced the wonder of Macchu Picchu and the Andes, ate delicious Peruvian ceviche, and continued to drink refreshing fruit juices and shakes of all varieties (yummmm!)
The highlights have been breathtaking – Machu Picchu and Salar de Uyuni are magical, but there have been challenges as well. My body had a difficult time acclimating to the high altitudes in Bolivia and I continued to feel sick even in places that were less than 3,000 meters. Despite feeling tired much of the time, there is something special about being in such a high place- the clouds are unreal! They’re so close it feels as if you could reach out, grab a fluffy white piece and rub it on your face! I love how the sky can look so different depending where you are in the world.
I was grateful to spend Christmas and New Years reconnecting with a good friend of 14 years, Sarah, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she lives in the tranquil countryside with her boyfriend and adorable dog. I then spent a few weeks in Sucre hanging out with a friend I made in Cuzco and other fun travelers. One of the best things about traveling is meeting so many interesting people from all over the world, but one of the saddest parts is saying goodbye to so many interesting people from all over the world. I’m getting better at that though, and enjoying the brief connections and inspirations that come out of these interactions.
Bolivia is a fascinating place. It’s the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and as a traveler you can feel that; many roads are in bad conditions and there is a feeling of chaos, particularly in the bus stations, that is more pronounced than in other countries I’ve visited.
Bolivia’s population is 70% indigenous and there is a strong history of political activism. Protests are a daily occurrence, sometimes even when they don’t make sense. One day, I tried to visit an important museum about the history of silver in Bolivia, but it was closed for the day due to a national holiday that no one knew about. The long line of Bolivians were very unhappy about this unexpected closure and in protest they moved into the street to block traffic. The police responded by simply detouring traffic another way. Gotta love that sense of empowerment and activism.
On a more serious note, a hot topic in Bolivia has been protests about the government’s proposal to build a road through an indigenous Amazon area called TIPNIS. This article gives an overview of what transpired and the current political situation with Evo Morales- http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2097142,00.html
And even more impressive to me is the following story about disabled people marching 1400 kilometers, or in wheelchairs in some cases (!), from Trinidad to La Paz to protest social stigma and a lack of state benefits- http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/jan/11/disabled-people-march-for-equality-bolivia\
When I arrived in Chile a few weeks ago, the differences between the two countries could not have been more apparent. The moment you cross the border, the roads change from dirt to pavement, there are shopping malls and in general everything feels more Western. There is still a distinct Latin feel but with more amenities, which I am very much appreciating (toilet paper in the bathrooms- I don’t have to carry it around with me!)
A highlight of Chile is the gritty, charming, bohemian city of Valparaiso. Full of hills, murals, artists, cafes and views of the picturesque bay, it feels like a dream. My dear friend and vecina from my old job, Maggie, is hosting me; we are sharing many talks and laughter over tea, spending time with her family, reflecting on our lives and the meaning of our experiences in child welfare, and doing my new set of morning yoga exercise routine together (the Five Tibetans, which were introduced to me by a new Dutch friend. Check it out, they are giving me tons of energy every morning- http://lifeevents.org/5-tibetans-energy-rejuvenation-exercises.htm).
All this traveling has been inspiring and exciting, but exhausting too! After much deliberation, I decided to move to Medellin, Colombia and will arrive there by the end of February. It’s time to get back to some of the things that I have missed while living out of a backpack- community, a feeling of groundedness in a place, yoga and salsa dancing. But first I will head to the beautiful Lakes region in Southern Chile for a few days, explore Santiago, and party in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Then who knows– a bed to call my own for a few months, a kitchen, some routine…maybe even a cell phone!
I hope to post more frequently as I find out what life has to offer around the next bend. Miss you all. Sending lots of luv and hugs from Chile!!
There isn’t much to do in the hippie beach town of Montañita besides surf and relax, but there were plenty of friendly and interesting characters to meet. Here is a sampling:
A half Iranian/half Ecuadorian guy who plans to travel to Cuenca in search for an allusive mushroom field.
A precious young, round-faced Colombian with an awesome haircut selling empanadas on the street. He wants to eventually study architecture in Brazil after traveling for ”no longer than two years”.
A Peruvian surfer who was a disappointing salsa leader.
An Argentinian magician and his cute and stylish girlfriend who are traveling for two years
An aspiring tattoo artist from Patagonia, also Argentinian, who saved money to travel in Europe, but decided that he likes the chaos of the Americas better.
An Italian woman who travels here every three months to be with her Ecuadorian boyfriend.
A Cuban who came to Ecuador with his dance group on a cultural visa. He defected from Cuba, along with every other member of the group.
I was in Baños for just one week and I already had a local bar, a regular café, “rumbaterapia” exercise classes (a combination of zumba and jazzercise) and people I ran into regularly on the street. When I was sick one weekend and didn’t go out, people wondered where I was, which feels really nice when spending so much time alone. There is something appealing about small towns. People are friendlier, the streets are easier to navigate and it is a nice reprieve from the constant movement and logistics of traveling. Baños is a special place; there is a magical feeling of being surrounded by mountains in every direction you look.
My plan for this trip is to make it up as I go along. I plan to travel mostly by bus but I heard from multiple sources that crossing the Colombian border by land as a solo traveler is a bit risky, so I decided to splurge on airfare this time.
Well, flying into Ecuador was not as easy as I imagined. Apparently, there is a law that you need to show proof of a departure ticket before they will allow you to enter the country, something I did not have. I suppose I should have anticipated this problem since I ran into the same issue when I left New York for Bogotá, but that was easily resolved by purchasing a ticket from Spirit Airlines and returning it for a full refund promptly on arrival in Bogotá- you gotta love the return policies of US companies! No such easy resolution was to be found in this case. For almost an hour, I stood at the ticket counter thinking I was going to have to pay $500 for a plane ticket that I didn’t want! How could this not have been mentioned in all the blogs/guidebooks/online research I did?? After much discussion and outlining of options, an agent at Avianca airlines named July Rodriquez took pity on me and printed a reservation back to Bogotá, but did not make me purchase the ticket. She agreed it was absurd to pay for a ticket since my plan is to take a bus onto Peru, and assured me that Ecuador immigration would not ask to see the ticket, which they didn’t. (Only the outgoing country cares about this policy because they are the ones who have to pay the fee if you are deported; the incoming country generally doesn’t even ask to see proof of departure, at least in this case).
I later found out that people typically get around this policy by printing online reservations without pressing the purchase button, which is essentially what my hero July did for me. Thinking more about this experience, I feel lucky to have this type of travel opportunity, slipping in and out of countries with little oversight. Many people in the world are not able to travel to the US or other countries at all, much less with such expansive freedom of choice.
A note about Quito: two words- Party Town! Crazy amounts of foreigners, bars and techno music, at least in the Mariscal neighborhood where many of the hostels are located. There is a nice historical center and beautiful parks, but overall Quito feels overrun with partying foreignors; I’m ready to move on to Baños tomorrow, which is four hours south, to settle into a more relaxed place and start language classes. I’m also excited for all the outdoor adventures; Baños is known as the city of extreme sports- hiking, mountain biking, bungee jumping, white water rafting.