El Chaltén & El Calafate

Patagonia is known for its extreme weather. One day in Patagonia can see 15-20cm of snow, followed by high winds, and can close with warm sunshine and a clear sky, melting all the snow away. We experienced these extreme changes in weather in El El Chaltén and in El Calafate, two Patagonian towns in Argentina. In El Chaltén we did an 18 km (11 mile) hike in and around Mount Fitz Roy. It was a beautiful trail, but the weather was marked largely by heavy, low clouds that gave us rain, snow, and wind, before the skies opened toward the end of the day and offered us some sunshine. This is the reason by locals never check the weather – they know to dress in layers and expect anything throughout the day. They say it isn’t proper Patagonia if there isn’t wind.

In El Calafate we took a day trip to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the many glaciers in the Patagonian ice field. Our day started out with a snowstorm, but by evening we were in t-shirts on our way to dinner, the bright sun setting only after 10pm.

El Chalten 18km hike.
Stopping at a stream during the 18km hike at Glacier National Park.
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Piedras Blancas, Glacier National Park in El Chalten.

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The sky opens and the rain clears at the National Park in El Chalten as we near the end of the hike.
Snowy morning at Perito Moreno Glacier, 2 hours away from El Calafate.
Snowy morning at Perito Moreno Glacier, 2 hours away from El Calafate.
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Perito Moreno Glacier, 250 sq km in size, and 47 sq km larger than the capital city of Buenos Aires.
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The glacier has a total ice depth of 170 meters.

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The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing.
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The very same afternoon on the drive back from the Glacier to El Calafate.

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Blue skies and melted snow on the way to El Calafate.

 

Route 40, Patagonia.

The bus roars silently as we drive through the vast plains of Patagonia. The landscape changes not ever-so-suddenly; within mere moments the snow capped mountains and the tall, thick green evergreens transform into a rolling summer steppe. Short, stubbly shrubs and pockets of grass are peppered with grazing herds of sheep. The spectrum of deep green and blue grasses against the golden yellow sand and rock carefully coexist with the jagged mountain ranges that touch the low, dramatic cloud formations in the sky.

I can recall the cloudless, sunny skies from only hours before: the impressively green mountain ranges created undulations of height along the horizon its negative spaces offeredglimpses of their snow-capped counterparts in the distance. The lush countryside was dominated by monkey puzzle trees, evergreens, purple and pink lupines, and yellow flowers. Severely still, turquoise colored lakes emerged between the valleys.

The lush, mountainous landscape outside of Bariloche.

But this image is gone now, as it’s replaced by the Patagonian steppe. Sunshine and cloudy skies are at play, creating paintings of shapes along the rolling hills. The strong winds pull the vegetation in our direction, as if guiding us along our path. Within the blink of an eye comes the rain. It departs as quickly as it came, leaving behind only the clouds that create a kaleidoscope of shadows below it.

Green trees become sandy flatlands as we head further south.

The tiny houses offer evidence of life among the severe vastness, quickly disappearing as if a mirage. Blending along the hillsides that protect them from the elements, blurred into the landscape. Bless the farmers who live along this desolate route. Summer brings them the daylight, but winter takes away their heat as fast as it does the light. One can only imagine their lives on the plains as the seasons change.

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Horses rest, cows graze, rheas care for their newborn babies, and wanaca gallop up the hills and across the plains in packs. These wild animals are never alone, except for the majestic condor, seen only once. A rare sighting as the largest bird in the world glided slowly close to us, looking for prey.

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And then, the flatness of the steppe transforms the scene. The ever expansive flatness extends for miles and miles, extending all the way to the horizon, withnot a a hill or mountain in sight. We drive through a piercing 6pm sunlight that won’t meet darkness for another four hours. Pink flamingos wade in the little ponds along the road and baby armadillos cross the highway. Utter flat nothingness. The wind is strong and the sky is dotted with white clouds. We are taken off road, for miles on end, slowly tumbling along in the gravel. I realize how foreign we are in this land, in the way we’ve invaded the sea life within Earth’s deepest oceans we’ve crossed paths with the flora and fauna in Patagonia, only to be completely humbled by what we explore.

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I had the pleasure of riding 1,386 km (861 miles) along Route 40 on a two day drive from Bariloche to El Chaltén (and will go back on this route at a later date for a four hour ride El Chaltén to El Calafate). Route 40 is the longest route in Argentina, and one of the longest in the world, stretching 5,000 km (3,107 miles) from the province of Santa Cruz in the south to Jujuy in the north, and running parallel to the Andes Mountains. Two, 12 hour stints of driving along this route gave me an incredible sense of the Patagonian landscape, and above are the reflections of my experience while on the road.

After two, 12 hour days, we finally reached the incredibly beautiful stretch to El Chalten.
After two, 12 hour days, we finally reached the incredibly beautiful stretch to El Chalten.

Pucón


This past Saturday was by far the most memorable part of my journey thus far. I am proud to say that I attempted and succeeded in something that I have never done before – I climbed a volcano. And not just any volcano – Volcán Villarrica is the most active volcano in Chile. I was pushed mentally, physically, and emotionally in a way that I haven’t felt in a really long time.

I am not a seasoned hiker – I’ve hiked only a handful of times in my entire life. The most challenging hike I had done prior was climb the steep mountain of Huayna Picchu, which offers an incredible view of Machu Picchu down below. Typical of how I do things, I decided to jump right in; not only would this be the longest hike I’ve ever done, but it would also be in entirely different conditions. It would be a proper ice and snow climb, complete with ice picks, waterproof gear, cramp-ons, and sturdy waterproof hiking boots fit for a climb of Mount Everest.

View of Volcan Villarrica from Huerquehue National Park

Volcán Villarrica is 2,847 meters (9,340 feet) high. It is active, having recently erupted in March of this year. The volcano has recently been deemed safe
to hike only 3 weeks ago, so we arrived at the perfect time. We were so fortunate to have had a beautiful, clear day on the day of the hike. It was warm, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. Often these hikes are cancelled due to even the slightest chance of poor weather, but for the day of my hike we were quite lucky to have had a perfect day.

We began our climb without a chairlift, which would have brought us quarter of the way up. Instead we climbed from the very ground up.

We started hiking at 8:15am, and 1,447 meters (4,747 feet) and 6 hours later, I reached the summit. On my way up I felt a roller coaster of emotions. From the very start the nerves in my gut were acting out, and on the drive to the base of the volcano I could feel anxiety take hold of me. But I vowed to reach the top and to not give up, no matter what it took. At one point on the way up I felt scared, unable to look down as I feared the steep slopes on the way back. We were told we would be sliding down the mountain with a little makeshift plastic sled that we carried in our backpacks. This sounded fun in theory, and we were told it is the best part of the hike to slide all the way down. But, looking below as I climbed, the downward slopes looked terrifying. One minute I was afraid of heights, the next I was giddy with excitement about sledding downwards. I kept thinking I wasn’t going to reach the top, that I would give up on the first ridge where so many people turned around and descended, but then when I got to the ridge all I wanted to do was keep going. We had about six breaks before reaching the top, and there were times where I wanted to skip the breaks and keep going. I would tell myself that I was going to slip and fall any second as we created fresh steps in the wet snow. Five minutes later, I felt a sudden sense of ease and with each step I felt more energy and strength. I thought, how easy is this! This hike will be over in no time, and it’s not half as bad as some of the other things I’ve done. One of the thoughts that came to mind was my PADI scuba diving training in Koh Tao, Thailand, where I had to learn how to take off my mask in the water at 17 meters deep. I remembered how mentally challenging it was to be able to work through that, and I realized this climb was perfectly do-able. During this climb I wasn’t as physically challenged as I thought I would be – my legs never gave way and although my heart was pumping at an extraordinary rate, I wasn’t breathless. The hike was tiring in that it was very long (the way down took 2 hours, making our way off the mountain by 3:50pm) and required a lot of mental strength.

The climb was a test in my ability to support other hikers. It is not a solo trek – there was a group of 12 of us, with 4 guides. Three people went back down with one guide after reaching the ridge, so most of the journey was with 9 of us and three guides. It’s an incredible challenge to make sure everyone is able to keep the pace of the guide, and to be sure that if someone falls behind that they can be motivated to keep going. Hiking can be individual sport, but in the case of a challenging ice climb of an active volcano, working as a group is as motivating as it is essential. One of the girls in our group had a bad knee, and she told me she didn’t think she would make it to the top from the very beginning. But one of our guides was with her the entire time at the end of the line, gently pushing her to keep going. We all made an effort to make sure she was okay and motivated. She reached the top, and I felt so much in awe in the strength of the human body.

At first I thought only crazy people climbed a volcano and actually paid money to do it, but after having done it I realized that we as humans crave pushing our bodies. Our mind is so powerful in controlling our bodies and our perceptions of what is “difficult” and “crazy” and what is “safe” and “easy.” World-class climbers and adventure seekers are not off the deep end, they are merely testing the limits of their bodies. Which, after having hiked for 5 hours the day before at a Huerquehue National Park, only proved to me that despite the enormous physical challenge, our bodies can indeed keep up and keep moving. If I, a city girl who grew up soaking up the sun on the beach as my only outdoor pastime, can find a way to push myself in this way, then so can anyone. It’s truly amazing how we can push through; with a shot of adrenaline and a clear and purposeful intention in your mind, we can do anything.

Over the ridge and halfway up to the summit.


View from the volcano during a mid-climb water break.

Any bad day at work, any challenges with friends and family relationships, any small hitches in health – none of these seem as big of a deal to me now. I came out of the hike stronger, and just a little bit addicted – I never thought that a beach bum would even consider hiking as a pleasurable activity, but now I have a glimpse of why people hike around the world for their entire life. This is definitely not the end of hiking for me – if anything it has just begun, and I can’t wait to take on more challenging treks.

The center of the volcano makes gurgling noises and emits sulfur into the atmosphere.
Our group that made it to the top of the volcano.

View of Volcan Villarrica from the center of Pucon.

 

Patagonia

En route to Santiago from Bogota.
En route to Santiago from Bogota.

I left Colombia and made my way to Santiago de Chile to start my tour of Patagonia. The primary purpose of this trip to South America was to see Patagonia. I left the country with the intention of pushing myself physically, to learn how to challenge myself in the outdoors, and to see extreme points of the world in it’s natural environment. I hadn’t imagined years ago that I would choose to travel to a hiker’s dreamland over other parts of the world. I’ve seen so much, but at this point in my life it makes sense to me to seek something new and exotic in an outdoor-adventure sense.

My itinerary of Patagonia was very ambitious and complex – I wanted to start in Santiago, Chile and head all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina. In between I wanted to stop in Bariloche, El Chalten, El Calafate, Punta Arenas, and Torres del Payne National Park. Doing this alone while also planning to camp in Torres del Payne on my own seemed a bit daunting. And so, for the first time ever, I booked a tour. Many who know me know that I don’t do tours. However, after having done quite a bit of research I found that going from place to place in Patagonia is difficult, and the overland travel routes are complicated. I found a tour that covered all the points I wanted to visit overland and that also started in Santiago and ended in Ushuaia, and so I booked it.

I was very nervous about the tour, not because of the actual itinerary or method of traveling, but because I am not sold on the idea of spending more than 20 days with the same group of people. And, people who travel in tours are usually not the people I meet on my usual backpacker-style adventures. The tour is certainly a budget one, and seemingly more independent than other tours, however I still felt really nervous leading up to the start of the tour. What would the people be like? I tried not to have any expectations, but I was afraid of being stuck with a group of thirty middle-aged obnoxious American couples and with a tour guide who’s English was questionable.

On the first night during our pre-departure meeting I realized that our group was not what I had initially expected. We were a group of 17 that would be going up to 27 people further along our trip. The group is primarily English, then American, followed by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. There are three couples, a few groups of two, and various solo-travelers, and their ages on a spectrum from late twenties to retirement age. Most of the people are women. We soon divided ourselves to younger and older groups when we coordinated daytime adventure activities. Being that the two groups’ tolerances for active physical activity levels among the age groups differ, it was a natural and subconscious divide.

I was a not surprised to see that mostly women join these sorts of tours. You don’t usually find young men on organized tours; they make up the large proportion of solo backpackers. This only validates the point I had made in my pre-departure letter about women traveling alone and how few of them actually do so. Even if they are actually going on a trip without a friend or partner, they are much more likely to travel in an organized tour in order to avoid having to worry about the specifics of city-to-city travel and of making friends along the way. A couple of people from the group are also solo backpackers like me, but for the same reasons that I chose to do a tour given the complexity of this region, they’ve also decided to go in this route.

I am pleasantly surprised that the group is much more fun and adventurous than I thought they’d be. The social dynamics of group travel, however, is something I am not used to. The general tendency of the group is to stick together during our flexible free days and plan all activities as a group. When I travel I am used to creating a plan and doing it regardless of others, and without compromise, while also allowing for flexibility of meeting fellow backpackers and doing day trips with them here and there. Travelers who use tours tend to not be as comfortable taking some day-trips on their own. They have a pack mindset where they are willing to compromise their initial plans and desires in order to meet the needs of the group in general. There is even discussion of sticking together in Buenos Aires, where most will be flying to after the tour. I can’t quite tell if some people in the group genuinely want to stay and experience the city with these particular individuals, or if they fear being left alone. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.

A tour by its very nature is a compromise; there will always be places you want to see and cities you want to stay longer in that you cannot do, as the itinerary is inflexible. I am a firm believer in being open-minded to the people I meet and to friendships I make. But I also know that all journeys come to an end, and I quite like the natural coming and going of people in each place I visit.  I see it as a beautiful thing to have a short-lived experience, which makes the time spent all the more meaningful.

I see this tour as another personal challenge for me. It’s a small experiment where I am curious to learn how I fit in to the social dynamics of building relationships with others and the small communities that are formed, both in pre-determined tours and in solo-backpacker travel. Will I be able to travel with the same group over a long period of time? Am I able to compromise my independent traveler spirit for this part of my journey? Am I up to the challenge of participating in these group dynamics while also having my own unique experience? Will the relationships I develop be more profound because of the sheer amount of time spent with these people, or does time not matter as much as the organic, unforced connections I make while backpacking? These are questions I will soon have answered at the tour’s end. All I know is that for now I am having a lovely time with my group, and most importantly, that I am privileged to explore yet another region of the globe – the beauty of Patagonia.

Bogota

Bogota is huge. It’s a bustling, economically rich and vibrant city. Despite it being known as a quick stopover destination, I truly had a fantastic time there. My friend Lorenzo, who is native to Bogota, was my host and guide. Perhaps I am biased as I had a very local experience of the city, and was able to see far more than the average backpacker. I don’t have much to say or to reflect upon from visiting this city, other than that Bogota was the perfect culmination of my time in Colombia. I fell in love with the country, and I can’t wait to go back.

Street art in Bogotá
View of Bogotá from Monserrate

 

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Anandamayi Hostel, one of the oldest buildings in La Candelaria.

 
 
Typical Colombian BBQ plate

 
The Salt Cathedral
    
  
  
   
  
 

Salento

Cocora Valley, home of the tallest wax palm trees in the world.
Cocora Valley, home of the tallest wax palm trees in the world.

I met Viviane during my day-long hike in the Cocora Valley in Salento, a quaint country town nestled in the Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone) of Colombia. A small group convened from my hostel to begin the roughly 5 hour hike; Viviane joined our jeep and asked to hike with us. At first I was not very happy to have her in our group – she was an older woman, and I assumed we would have to travel slower and take more stops to accommodate her and not leave her behind. Furthermore she was French and spoke very little English; I was the only one of the 6 of us that spoke any French at all, so reluctantly I became the designated translator. What the day began as a nuisance actually ended with a friendship, and far more importantly, a deeper understanding and appreciation for the art of solo-travel.

Viviane is from Chantilly, just outside of Paris. She spends 8 months traveling and 4 months back home in France. When I met her, she was on her third year of traveling in this way. She spent her first and second 8 month-stints in the countries of Southeast Asia as well as in India and Nepal. This was her third year of long-term travel, and she was taking on the South American continent. This may seem like an incredible experience for most of us. One would assume I was talking about a young college graduate who was taking on the world before settling into a long-term career. Or she could be a freelancer who works virtually, only returning to her home country for a short period of time to take care of offline business.

Viviane is 64 years old. She is divorced. She retired three years ago, exactly when she began traveling. She has two grown children, each with their own families and with little interest in traveling with her. She’s a female solo-traveler just like me. Only she is of an age rarely seen in these circumstances — most women wouldn’t dream of traveling alone, especially at that age when they could take their retirement money and live comfortably in a warm vacation destination. Viviane chose to do things a little differently.

She had never traveled outside of Western Europe her entire life before she retired – she always wished she could go away, but as a single parent with two children, she couldn’t afford to. Instead of taking the route of self-pity for being alone, she chose to travel just as she always wanted to. She wasn’t going to let being alone get in the way of her adventures. And Viviane is not the sit back and relax type of traveler. She hiked up the mountain exactly the way we did – and truthfully that hike was not easy. It was an extraordinary challenge for me, and I could only imagine how Viviane was able to hike up this mountain without any friends or relatives beside her as support. I was in complete awe at her perseverance and strength. She did not give up even though so many people younger than her would have done so.

Cocora Valley's hiking group. Viviane is at the far right.
Cocora Valley’s hiking group. Viviane is at the far right.

More awe inspiring is her travel story. So many people, particularly women, fear they cannot travel long term. Moreover, after a certain age, people feel they cannot partake in the adventurous, off the beaten-path experiences that backpackers skillfully accomplish. The travel as couples and most likely have not backpacked previously in their younger days. They skip the day-long hikes, the excursions to remote jungle areas, to the beaches that require the extra climb, the optional extreme sports experiences. They don’t socialize with younger people, they don’t make new friends. They don’t try new foods or venture off the detailed pre-determined tour itinerary. Instead, they travel in packs, sticking with the tour guide and seeing the most popular sights in each city. They are merely on vacation. It is not the traveling that backpackers know so well. It’s not the traveling I seek and it’s certainly not the traveling that Viviane is doing at this very moment.

View of Salento's mountains from my hostel.
View of Salento’s mountains from my hostel.
Don Elias organic coffee farm in Salento.
Don Elias organic coffee farm in Salento.

Instead of recalling the incredible time I had in Salento visiting coffee plantations and wandering about the Cocora Valley, I chose to tell the story of Viviane. To inspire people to travel. To show them that traveling can be done at any age, and can be done alone and with equal intention as the younger travelers. Of course at that age traveling alone can have it’s downsides; Viviane did mention how sometimes she wish she had a companion. But to make up for the lack of a partner she has made so many friends, many of whom retired as well, who she has traveled to various countries with. She has made friends with local families who have proudly shared their culture with her. It sounds all too familiar to the journeys of the typical young backpacker. It only shows that traveling can be done at any age. And it should be done at any age, and without fear or regret.

I want my last days to be occupied with travel, just like Viviane. Don’t we all dream of this? If she can do it, so can we.

Medellin

As I explored the city of Medellin last week, I’ve come to face the effects of solo-traveling and the social dynamics of meeting other travelers. In Colombia so far, I’ve made friends with people from Holland, England, the United States, France, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany. Every person I have met had their own story and brought with them a piece of their culture that I had the pleasure of learning from. There were times when all I wanted to do was interact and learn from other travelers, and particularly at night it was obviously more enjoyable to join a group of party-goers.  But, there were many other times that I craved sight-seeing and exploring completely on my own. I am constantly questioning the true reasons why I choose to travel alone, and how interactions with others plays a part in my whole experience.

 

There are far more men than women traveling alone; I’ve found that female backpackers mostly travel in groups or as a couple. I often wonder when I meet other female solo travelers what their intentions are. Some are young and in between their studies, others are between jobs. Others still have burned out from work, were fed up with their jobs, and decided to quit and travel indefinitely. Not at all coincidentally, most of these solo travelers are not in a relationship. Do these women travel to meet new people romantically? Is it because they’re sick of the dating lifestyle in their home country and want to meet men from all over the world? Is it for temporary pleasure, or with the intention of seeking someone for the long term?

Part of me thinks that there’s always some odd little thing “wrong” with the women who travel alone. There’s something they’re running away from, some aspect of their lives they enjoy hiding, and they in some way are reinventing themselves to the strangers they meet. It is quite liberating to wander about without any pre-judgement, without anyone knowing who you are and where you come from; you can be whomever you want, however you want.
Is there a reason why I seek to travel alone? Why I sometimes feel that after getting to know some people along my journey all I want to do is get away from them and just leave? When you meet people while backpacking, you become fast friends. You share that common love of travel, and the icebreaker is always related to your current travel plans. Where are you coming from, where are you going, how long are you traveling for, where are you from originally? Sometimes it can be exhausting to engage in these conversations while accelerating your friendships – other times it’s thrilling and enriching. Learning about others consumes a lot of energy. Add building relationships to visiting city sites during the day and to partying at night, and you quickly become drained and tired.
True, it’s easy to travel with someone else in order to share the planning burden and to have the peace of mind of always having someone to go out with and to share in your experiences. However, I sometimes don’t have any desire to share in my experience with someone. Some days I don’t want to be friendly or nice to everyone I meet. I just want to do my own thing. I often feel this way back home as well. I just want my time to myself, and after spending too much time with people all I want to do is get away from them. I fear that there’s something wrong with me, that I won’t be able to maintain any relationship because I truly enjoy my alone time.
Am I traveling alone because I can’t be around anyone else? Because I am running away from reality? Am I bored with people? I do get bored with some of the people I meet. Even though they are interesting and have so much to share, after spending the entire day and night with them, all I want to do is get away.
Constant interaction means not ever taking time to reflect and to quietly observe the world around you. I had little time to myself in Medellin, and although I am grateful for the people I’ve met, I haven’t been able to just be. I felt trapped, as if I am being forced to do something that I don’t want to do. After all, it’s my journey, so why am I compromising with others.
Is that selfish of me? Maybe it is. And, why do I even bother to engage with people if I mostly likely won’t see them again (with a few exceptions). At the same time, that’s what’s so cool about the social dynamics between backpackers. The friendships are temporary, and if it’s not working out, soon enough you’ll go your separate ways. You’ll be left with only some photos to preserve any memories of your adventures together.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to resolve these feelings of why I crave traveling alone. I could list out all the benefits and negatives of both solo travel and group travel, but I suppose the only real answer is that for everyone it’s different. When you travel alone you gain so much, but you also give up so much. It’s a give and take experience. Oddly enough, solo travel is far more time consuming and requires a higher level of social skills, but it is incredibly rewarding.
Medellin: what an amazing city. I can honestly say it’s the first city I’ve encountered in South America where I would consider moving to and working in.
I was pleasantly surprised by how modern and functional Medellin is, and how easy it is for visitors to explore. The Paisas are warm and friendly, they want to teach you about their culture and their home. They are proud of where they came from, no matter how grim history has been to them. Yes, Medellin was at one time one of the most dangerous cities of the world, plagued by Pablo Escobar and the drug trade. It was a violent place, its people were dirt poor, and there was no infrastructure. But now it boasts the only metro system in Colombia. I went on an incredible walking tour of the city (Real City Tours, the best free walking tour I have ever been to) and our guide was so passionate and proud of his city. He told us that the reason why the metro is so clean, functional, and safe is that it’s symbol of the good that came out of the conditions the people of this city were exposed to. What came out of a city of crime was this incredible metro system, built by people who had never built a metro before. The metro was the one thing they could cling to, one part they could be truly proud of.
Decades have passed, and the city has transformed. It’s become a safe place for visitors and locals alike, with growing businesses, an emergence of haute cuisine,  a surge of new construction, increased trade and commerce, and tourism. The money does not come from drugs in this city – it comes from the businesses and the hard working people who run them. And our guide was right about the metro – it has not a scratch, not a mark of graffiti. It runs on time and often, and people have a huge amount of respect for their public transportation system.
Paragliding over Medellin
Medellin’s DIM team at the football stadium

Another important element of this city is that it has successfully experimented and implemented with urban planning. For 2000 pesos (60 cents), you can ride across the entire city and also take it’s two cable car lines. The cable cars connect to the poorer slums., allowing for a social mobility and accessibility I haven’t seen in any other metropolitan city in South America. Someone who lives in the poorer neighborhoods can work anywhere and pay little to do so without compromising quality and safety. The city has built 9 huge, beautiful public libraries. Medellin now boasts a healthy economy, safety, and a much higher standard of living. It’s an incredible feat, one that other developing countries should look to as a model – what comes to mind are the favelas of the large cities in Brasil, a country that does little to promote mobility and to improve the daily life of its poorest citizens.
On my last day in Medellin I visited Comuna 13, the once incredibly violent and poor slum. The neighborhood’s colorful houses host dozens of street art on the building façades. The government built an escalator that allows its residents to travel to and from Comuna 13 to the commercial neighborhood below, an equivalent of a 28 story climb, in 6 minutes. I could hear the pride in the security guard’s voice when I spoke with him as he recalled the history of this once considered the most violent neighborhood in the world’s most violent city. Opened in 2011, it serves Comuna 13’s 12,000 residents and is free to use. It was incredibly safe, and it’s residents are proud of having visitors. They want to show how much they love their neighborhood, and how they take great care of the escalator and of the street art. This profound respect for their home parallels their relationship to the metro system – it’s a deep source of pride to them that their city is rebuilding itself, and they will do whatever it takes to keep the city in it’s state of prosperity and transformation.
Panorama of Comuna 13
Comuna 13’s residences with street art on it’s facade.
Myths and Legends Annual Parade and Lights Festival

 

Cartagena

One of my first thoughts arriving in Cartagena was how similar the city is to my native city of Recife, in Brasil. Firstly, the extreme tropical heat and humidity, which gave me a pleasant jolt as I exited the plane and walked outside across the Tarmac to the gate. I immediately felt my travel mojo take over me like a wave – the travel high I know will help sustain me until the end of my journey.

Arriving at the airport, a huge line forms at immigration and security doesn’t even arrive to check our passports for another 10 minutes. The whole immigration, baggage claim, and customs process taking over an hour, I am reminded of the laid back nature of my coastal city in Brasil and the parallels with this city – there is little need to rush in this third world country.

Such is Colombia. I smile. I realize that I’ve started my journey with the opportunity to just settle into the city of Cartagena, and to release any expectations of the stresses and bustle of New York City. I’ve dutily arrived in South America, and although some areas more than others will resemble more of the structure that I’m used to in my day-to-day and in my travels to Europe, I shall entrench myself into a slower pace. Yes, busses will be late, it will take far longer to get from point A to point B than advertised, you’ll wait too long for your meal a restaurant, and you’ll learn of all the daily inconveniences that you otherwise take for granted, such as how ATMs are extremely rare in most areas and that gas stations across the street from Petroleum factories may actually be out of gasoline. These minor oddities mark the pace of this city.

I am Brasilian and Greek, two notable cultures with a more laid back lifestyle. But, for better or worse, I’m also very much a New-Yorker at heart. And so the slowness is a challenge for me, as it is whenever I go back to visit my family in Recife. But this is a journey where I accept the challenges and learn from them, no matter how insignificant this all may seem to an outsider. Unlike the other times I’ve traveled, where I would find myself acting like a frustrated New Yorker trying to catch a subway or push through Times Square, I’m going to pause, breathe, and remember where I am and who’s culture I’ve been graciously allowed to experience. It may seem odd that as an experience traveler, I haven’t yet thought to settle into the circumstances in this way. But truthfully I have only been able to let go of my habits only half the time. It’s humbling to allow myself to let these inconvenience just be.

I need to remember how life has gone on in this way in a given place far longer than I arrived, and it will continue to do so after I’ve departed. This attitude is not to be confused with an excuse for or allowing bad behavior. Rather it’s a deep acceptance of a culture and of one’s very temporary place in it, of being given the chance to dive into the fish tank instead of just watching and tapping the glass from the outside.

Being given this chance also means I get to experience all the good things which in almost every case, far outweigh the bad. This is what traveling is all about. This is why the “bad” is equally important in one’s experience.

The good things in Cartagena are magical. Fresh fruits and fruit juices, yummy cheese Arepas, the colorful buildings next to the old churches within the old city walls. The friendliness of the people, their nonstop urge to eat, drink, and party. The salsa music and never ending love of dance. The crystal blue waters off the Rosario Islands. The colonial history rooted in the Castello San Felipe. Botero Sculptures. Cartagena is full of life and deeply rooted culture. Getsemani, the backpacker’s area, is the Brooklyn to the old city’s Manhattan, yet only a short walk away.

 

Cartagena das Indias

 

Botero Sculpture in one of the squares in the old city

 

A local lunch or dinner “Menu” consisting of fresh fish, rice, salad, fried plantains, and soup will push you back $3. A bowl of freshly cut fruit, $0.64. An Aquila beer, $1. It’s no surprise backpackers love Cartagena. And there’s a party every night of the week. An old villa converted into a hostel hosts a well known party on its roof every Wednesday night, where  foreigners and locals drink and dance to live salsa, reggaeton, and local champeta music all night long. It was amazing to see the almost equal mix of Cartagena’s men and women partying until 5am with the backpackers. The salsa bar and the nightclub I went to the night before were no different. It’s one of the few cities I’ve been to where there is no divide among the locals and tourists, where the best parties are welcome to all.

Day trip to Playa Blanca in Barú, one of the Rosario Islands off Cartagena

 

 

Fresh fish for lunch at Playa Blanca

 

 

Street art in Cartagena

 

Cartagena by night

I visited the Mercado Bazurto on my last full day in Cartagena. I left my phone, backpack, and camera behind, and only took enough money to get myself there and back. It’s not recommended to go there with any valuables for there is a high rate of pick-pocketing. And so unfortunately I have no photos to document the hustle and bustle of this incredible market. Shoes are sold across from the fresh fish, fruit stands next to a barber, and raggaeton music blasts in a makeshift bar/restaurant alongside a live birds and chick vendor that dyed the chicks hot pink and blue. It was crowded, noisy, dirty, chaotic, and most of all, fully alive. 

 

How to Pack for Three Months in South America

I’m about to embark on my largest backpacking trip to date. I purchased a one-way ticket to South America, but estimate traveling between 2 and 3 months. Things I keep in mind each time I travel: pack as light as humanly possible, stay well under the carry-on weight limit (most airlines restrict it to 22 lbs/10 kgs), and leave a little room for purchases along the way.

The biggest challenge I face, apart from the length of the trip, is the vastly different climates within the continent. I plan to travel from the beaches of Cartagena, Colombia to the Chilean Andes, all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Temperatures along my route will range from 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 celsius) to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C). Sunshine in Cartagena, rain in Bogota, clouds in Santiago, and wind in Ushuaia.

Many people have asked me how I manage to fit everything in a small backpack (I carry a 50L Orange Gregory Jade backpack), one that I’ve used since my days studying abroad in Paris. Last year I wrote a post on how to pack for Southeast Asia . While traveling through Thailand, Myanmar,Vietnam, and Cambodia, I not only learned what I really needed, but also what I didn’t even use (the cocoon sleeping sack, for example, lay at the bottom of my bag only adding weight). I am taking on the challenge of packing even less than before. Below is my packing list in my greatest attempt, with some packing tips for any backpacker, regardless of destination.

I’d also like to note that I am not packing any camping/hiking specific gear apart from my hiking boots. Unfortunately size constraints don’t allow me to bring a sleeping bag, kitchen camping equipment, a tent, etc. I plan to rent these items at outposts at the base of each hiking circuit.

Pre-Trip Checklist:

-Scan the front and back of your credits and debit cards that you’ll be bringing with you. Send yourself an email of these scans, in case you lose your card and need to contact the bank.

-Scan your passport and email yourself the passport information as well. Also make a photocopy of your passport and keep it with your original passport.

-Call your bank and credit card companies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling to so you’re not flagged for credit card fraud.

-Buy travel insurance. The best one out there is World Nomads. You can specify the duration and types of activities you’ll be engaging in to determine the level of insurance you need.

-Visas: Check U.S. Dept of State website to see if you need a visa to any specific country.

-Money: Cash is more important in South America than in any other region I’ve been to thus far. In Argentina, for example, the exchange rate when you take out cash from an ATM is almost double than if you exchange cash on the black market. Be sure to bring enough cash with you. Keep it in a money pouch and attached to you at all times.

My Top Two: Just as in Southeast Asia, there are two items that I couldn’t do without and that have traveled with me around the world. They are listed here again:

  1. Sherpani Small Ultralight backpack. This is the single best travel purchase I’ve ever made. I’ve used this backpack so much. It’s stylish and lightweight, and it fits everything you need for the day, no more, no less. The $60 is worth every penny.

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    Photo from Sherpani.com
  2. I’ve also been all over the world in my purple Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Parka (with hood). It folds into a nice pouch, and I use it as a pillow on the plane and at night. It’s a great jacket for all types of weather and is waterproof.

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    Photo from Uniqlo.com

Essentials:

-The backpack. My 50L Gregory Jade backpack from REI is a perfect size, and forces you to stay light as you pack.

-Passport: I will bring both of mine – the Brasilian one may be of better help than the American one as I travel. Argentina normally charges Americans $100 upon entry, and with a Brasilian passport that fee is waived.

-Money belt with cash. Make sure to buy a comfortable and good quality money belt, as you’ll be sleeping with it on the plane, in buses, and in some cases at hostels. Often the ones you get for free are scratchy and not fit for actual carrying around long distances.

-The boots. I have a pair of Lowa Renegade GTX Mid-Hiking Boots. They aren’t cheap, but they’re waterproof, one of the most comfortable boots out there, are light, and will be with you for many years.

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Photo from REI.com

 

Gadgets & Gear: 

-Canon Powershot 12MP with charger. I carry this around to avoid taking photos with my iPhone.

-Long and thin wallet that can fit lots of cash bills and less credit cards. Mine has different compartments to separate my US dollars from foreign money.

-Small coin pouch

-Two TSA approved combination locks (I have on from REI and the other from Swiss Army)

-ASUS mini chromebook, soft foam case, and charger. This is so that I can keep you all up to date by writing in my blog!

-My iPhone 6 and charger

-My Moto E Global GSM smart phone and charger. I use this phone so I can buy a SIM card with a data plan when I travel to countries for a week or more. It can be a drag to buy a new SIM for each country, but if you’re there long enough it’s well worth it should you want to stay connected. Never turn on your data roaming from your American phone, it will cost a fortune.

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Photo from Motorola.com

-Three round pegged adapters for my chargers. Colombia uses the American pegs, but Argentina, Chile, and elsewhere on the continent the round pegs are used.

-Two medium packing cubes (One by Muji, the other by Sea to Summit). This is wear I pack all of my clothes. One is for my lower temperature items, the other for those hot and humid days along the coast.

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Photo from Muji.com

–Eagle Creek quarter cube. I carry in this cube my medications, multiple sets of earplugs, extra adapters, a pen, chapstick, two sets of ear-bud headphones and two eye masks.

–Eagle Creek toiletry hanging pack

Sea to Summit pocket towel. The micro fiber makes this towel fast drying and ultra absorbent. It’s also antimicrobial which allows use for extended periods without washing.

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Photo from Amazon.com

Clothing & Shoes: 

A tip for choosing your clothes, which has always been a challenge for me: always go through everything two to three times, and create a very specific scenario where you plan to use each item. This will help you take things away.

You’ll have to do laundry multiple times – it’s unavoidable. Many hostels nowadays have a laundry service, and it doesn’t cost very much. When I went to Peru I paid only a couple of dollars for my laundry to be sent out, washed, dried, and folded.

-2 bikinis

-2 bras, 16 pairs underwear, and 8 pairs of warm socks.

-1 pair compression socks. These are great for long flights or for those long bus rides.

-1 night tshirt

-1 dressy tank top x

-1 pair of shorts

-1 day/night black jumper

-1 casual day/night dress

-3 tank tops

-3 tshirts

-1 pair of hiking pants.

-1 belt

-1 cashmere short sleeve shirt. This is a great layering item. The combination of cashmere with short sleeves is perfect for moderate to cold temperatures.

-1 pair of jeans

-1 workout top

-1 workout short

-2 thermal heat tech uniqlo leggings. All of the Uniqlo heat-tech branded clothes are great for retaining heat. They’re light and soft, and I love wearing their products when spending long days outdoors and doing a lot of physical activity.

-2 thermal heat tech uniqlo long sleeve shirts 

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Photo from Uniqlo.com

-2 sweaters, one for moderate temperatures and one heavy for colder temperatures.

-Birkenstocks (1 pair): comfortable, light, and durable.

-Flip-flops (1 pair): my Havaianas are essential for the hostel showers and the beach.

-Flats (1 pair): all purpose black flats for when you can’t stand wearing hiking boots anymore and want a dressier night out.

Accessories:

-One set of matching hat and gloves.

-One warm scarf. I brought one that I bought in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s a great multipurpose scarf because it’s warm and practical but can also be draped over your shoulders like a pashmina.

-One small purse for nights you want to ditch the backpack. Mine has long straps and is large enough to fit my phone, wallet, ID, and a few other little items.

-Sunglasses (2 pairs): don’t bring your favorite $300 Chanel sunglasses, but don’t bring cheap $7 ones either. Make sure you like how they look on you because they will show up in all your photos!

Toiletries & Makeup:

I won’t list everything, except a few items worth noting. Remember you will eventually have to buy items along the way as you run out, so don’t bring a large bottle of shampoo that you want to last you 2 months.

-Travel pack of makeup remover wipes. Especially when you hiking and can’t shower, these will save your face.

-Dry shampoo. Ditto above – great for those days you won’t get to a shower.

-Moleskine bandages. These are great for long hiking trips – they help prevent blisters and are far superior to regular bandages as they provide padding and added comfort.

Jewelry: I don’t bring anything valuable. I have two of my favorite rings, one necklace, two bracelets, and two pairs of earrings.

Makeup: A personal decision, but I packed just the minimum. When I travel I rarely wear makeup.

–Hair ties, you can never have too many.

–Lip balm (2), with SPF 15. This is especially important when you’re changing weather conditions and at high altitudes. You don’t want your lips to be dry or to burn!

Medications & Miscellaneous: 

-Mini set of all purpose medications: This does not include any prescription medications you individually must bring with you. I like to take the following with me in small amounts just in case: ibuprofen, emergen-C, lactaid, sleepy-time/melatonin, and antihistamines.

-Probiotics: I highly recommend taking probiotics (ones that are shelf stable and don’t need to be refrigerated) with you. This will help your gut adjust to the changes in diet and foods you’ll be consuming.

-1 mini flashlight.

-2 carabiners.

-1 small blanket. I have one I bought on a flight – they are small and easy to fold.

-1 large black trashbag. I like to have one in case I need to cover up my backpack when it rains.

-Two 1 gallon ziplock bags. I always like to bring these with me for whatever may come up that I need to pack.

-One paperback book and two magazines.

-Small notepad and a pen

Here’s a photo of my bag, all packed and ready to go! Total weight: 25 lbs/ 11 kg.

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