Iguazu Falls.

My last stop in Argentina and my first stop in Brazil was to visit Iguazu Falls (or Iguazú, Iguassu, Cataratas do Iguaçu, Cataratas del Iguazú). These waterfalls of the Iguazu river border the Argentinian province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná. I spent one day on each side of the falls – visiting both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides are highly recommended, as both offer very different viewpoints. In Argentina you can get up close to the falls, walk along smaller trails, and take a boat ride to the base of the “Devil’s Throat.” The Brazilian side offers a broader view of the falls and requires only half a day to see them. Despite it being solely a tourist destination, it is well worth the visit to see the incredible power behind these waterfalls.

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At the top of the Devil’s Throat on the Argentinian side of Iguassu Falls.

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Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian side.

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Montevideo.

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Sunset in Montevideo

Uruguay: a fantastic, surprising, and super easy country to visit. It truly is often overlooked, squeezed between two very large neighbors. I am shocked that more people don’t make it past the “two hours in Montevideo” day trip by ferry from Buenos Aires. I happily opted out of this inadequate initiation to the country, and with the help of some local Uruguayans I learned much of the spirit of Colonia del Sacramento, Montevideo, and Punta del Este.

Uruguay is really small; you can drive through the whole country in 6 or so hours. It’s size makes more sense in Europe than it does in the mammoth continent of South America. It has a population of about 3 million, with half living in the capital city of Montevideo. Another 1 million or so are living abroad, with people leaving the country particularly after the economic crisis in the early 2000s. They’ve recovered amazingly since then, and have a stable currency, unemployment at only 7%, and their last president made incredible social reforms such as legalizing abortion, gay marriage, and marijuana. Also, the Uruguayan coast has some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.

They have much in common with Argentina – tango, futebol, dulce de leche, their funky Castellano accent (think “Uruguajo” or “jo” and “ejja” instead of “yo” an “ella”), capital cities peppered with European architecture, and most importantly, maté. Maté in Uruguay is always consumed hot and pure (unlike in Argentina, where some put sugar, and in Paraguay, where it’s drunk cold, or tereré). Maté, for those of who you have never tried it, is purchased as loose leaves and drunk out of a maté cup and metal straw that prevents the leaves from coming up with the liquid. A maté cup is always accompanied by a thermos filled with hot water so that you can pour just enough at a time for one sip. The taste is, in a word, acquired. It’s like green tea except extremely bitter and highly caffeinated. I tried maté multiple times, and unfortunately I still couldn’t get through the bitterness to enjoy it. I was however, fascinated by how ingrained in the culture maté is. Maté goes with people to work, to school, to the car, to the beach, to a bar, on their bike, to walk the dog, to the mall. Drinking maté is a social activity and is meant to be shared. The joke is that Uruguayans have developed a special muscle on their forearm to hold the thermos while they also hold the maté cup.

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Having a maté the traditional way in Punta del Este

Despite being South American, Uruguayans look more European than anything else. They, like the Argentinians, are descendants largely of the Spanish and Italians. The indigenous population, which was only nomadic in the area, was completely wiped out by the Europeans, and so no one in the country has indigenous ancestry. There’s no real reason why Uruguay would dislike Argentina, but some locals told me that it’s probably because they have so much in common but that most people attribute the cultural similarities only to their bigger neighbor that feels they do everything better. Uruguayans are really relaxed people, and they say that they don’t necessarily not like Argentina – it’s more that they don’t like Buenos Aires, with whom they don’t share that perceived Porteño sense of superiority.

Through couchsurfing I stayed on a traditional campo, or farm, just outside of Colonia del Sacramento. My host was a young guy who helps run his family business, which is auctions of cows, property, and home furnishings. Colonia is a beautiful, old town. It’s also really small, and due to the nature of my host’s family business, he seemed to know everybody. In just a few hours he stopped to quickly greet and chat with dozens of people who came up to him. Although Colonia is along the coast, I was able to get a small glimpse of the “other half” of Uruguay, north of the Rio Negro river, which I’ve been told culturally is like an entirely different country. It’s gaucho country, where most people are cattle farmers, some whom have never traveled outside of Uruguay.

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The old town of Colonia del Sacramento

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Montevideo, as people often say, is not the most exciting city, especially in January, the month when people go away on summer vacation. It does have a gorgeous rambla, or boulevard, along the coast that cross the entire city. You can easily walk or bike along the rambla and see beaches on one side and the city skyline on the other. What made my time in Montevideo so special were my hosts. I couchsurfed in a house near the beach and was able to experience what life was like for four 20-somethings born and raised in Montevideo.

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Traditional asado at Montevideo’s old city port.

FullSizeRender (57) IMG_2649Punta del Este is Uruguay’s ritzy summer vacation town that touches the Atlantic Ocean, and is also known as the “Hamptons of South America.” Although I stayed at a hostel in Punta del Este, I basically had a couchsurfing experience, for the hostel’s owner was a young local who drove us to see the best beaches and have the best views for sunsets. Our group was comprised of 3 Uruguayans, 2 Argentinians, and 1 Paraguyan. I loved being away from the classic backpacker crowd and experiencing summer vacation through the eyes of the neighboring foreigners.

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Punta del Este’s marina by night.
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“Los Dedos” sculpture at Playa Brava
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Sunset at Playa Mansa

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I’m a huge believer in couchsurfing – staying with locals who open their homes to foreigners in a wonderful and organic form of cultural exchange. It’s not just a free place to stay; it’s about sharing your world. Couchsurfing and spending time with the “less obvious” tourists ended up being the best decisions I made in Uruguay. It was so refreshing to get away from the gringo tour group mentality, and to even step away from the traditional backpacker lifestyle that you find in hostels. Traveling is about balancing your experiences. It’s about seeing the world not only with other people but through the lives of others – it’s only then that you can understand where you’ve just traveled from.

 

Buenos Aires.

Me with Mafalda, the famous Argentinian comic character from the 1960s.
Me with Mafalda, the famous Argentinian comic character from the 1960s.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, mostly because I have been thoroughly enjoying the freedom of not having a schedule. No tours, no deadlines. Just visiting places at exactly the pace I want.

After Ushuaia I flew to Buenos Aires. I know I will get a ton of backlash from this, but I didn’t fall in love with the city the way so many others do. It is very European-looking, and as rightly people say it’s the Paris of South America, unlike any other metropolitan city on the continent. Frankly, I feel that the Porteños (the people who come from the capital) try too hard to live up to what Buenos Aires is supposed to represent to outsiders, and their egos are hard to suppress as they talk about the wonders of their city. The rest of South America isn’t too fond of Argentinians, and Argentinians don’t really like Porteños. Maybe I am biased being that my family comes from it’s larger neighbor, Brasil. But I have to admit that even as a New Yorker, I was surprised by the nose-in-the-air feeling of the city. Porteños don’t say they are from Argentina when traveling, they say they are from Buenos Aires. This sentiment is all too familiar to New Yorkers who when they travel wouldn’t even think to call themselves Americans. I should be used to the Porteño attitude. However, rightly or not, as I travel South America I let my Brasilian roots direct my expectations, reactions, and observations of a particular place. As a Brasilian I wouldn’t be able to live in Buenos Aires. But as a Brasilian I also wouldn’t be able to live in Paris, a city I fell in love with when I studied abroad there. And so visiting Buenos Aires allowed my never ending struggle with my identity surface, and I felt confronted with how I was supposed to act or feel based on my upbringing.

Unfortunately (or not), my Greek heritage doesn’t affect me the way my Brasilian ethnicity does. When I reflect on my Greek identity, I can only think of my Greek-American after-school activities during my childhood that my grandmother (without filtering my sentiment here) flat out forced me to participate in. This included Greek school, Sunday school, Greek soccer, Greek dance, and weekly Greek youth group. For better or worse, despite it having been such an intense presence in my childhood for over 8 years, I have let that part of me stay in the past where it belongs.

So that leaves Brasil. I am first generation Brasilian, with only my mother living in the United States from her entire family. I grew up visiting my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, extended cousins, and family friends in Recife my entire life. I spoke Portuguese with my mom and with Brasilian relatives and friends that she frequently hosted at our house. We still speak Portuguese, although when I am angry or upset I usually switch to English, as it’s easier to properly convey my emotions in that way. Growing up with cousins all within the same age range made it easy to transition to being “Brasilian” whenever I went to visit them. I didn’t let much of American culture influence my behavior while I was there, and aside from a small American accent in my Portuguese, I felt right at home.

Lately things have changed, and every time I go back to Recife I find my values more aligned with how I live my life in New York. One of the biggest issues I have with visiting my city is that it’s increasingly become a more dangerous place to live. I am comfortably apt at taking the subway at 4 am alone after a night out in New York City. In Recife, I wouldn’t dream of walking half a block alone in my own neighborhood past 9 pm. It’s two different worlds, and the one I try to fit into in Brasil only makes me feel more trapped. When I’m there my independence is gone, and so my behavior changes. Just as it has changed my family as they adjust to this safety problem, one that only in the last decade has become significant enough to affect quality of life. Recife is still very much a third world city in the way it’s people think and behave, and I am often frustrated at how some things haven’t changed despite the resources available, or how some behaviors and customs reflect an ignorance that has no excuse in our globalized world. I can also observe my mother often feeling the same when she visits home. I will be visiting family in Recife in early February; we shall see what happens then.

I find myself switching between my “Brasilian” and “New Yorker” selves whenever I travel. When in Western Europe, I feel like a New Yorker. In Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East, the cultures were so exotic to me that I honestly felt just plain “Western.” When in Colombia, I felt such a beautiful connection to Brasil as I saw so many cultural similarities between both South American countries. In New York, it’s a sporadic sway between both sides, depending on the situation (and can be a whole other blog post). In Brasil, well, that’s the ongoing conversation I have with myself, one that is directly affected by my relationships with my immediate family as I see how our values and ways of life are changing as we grow up.

In Argentina, especially Buenos Aires, I had never felt so Brasilian in my life. I felt so proud to come from a country whose people are so warm and welcoming, and who inject passion into everything that they do, whether it be dancing, eating, talking to people, loving one another and fighting with one another. They are proud to be South American, and to be descendants of not only Europeans, but of Africans and indigenous peoples. Brasil is rife with corruption, the widest income gap on the continent, violence, gangs, and favelas. But it’s also a culture that, similarly to the United States, has accepted such a melting pot of ethnicities and has nurtured and integrated them into Brasilian culture.

This all sounds terribly harsh towards Buenos Aires. I truly enjoyed so many parts of the city and its people: the lovely hipster neighborhood of San Telmo and it’s Sunday antique market, the milongas where you can learn and dance tango every night of the week, the oddities and behaviors of drinking maté, dulce de leche that is to die for, the gorgeous and lush parks, the Porteño respect for Evita, and their love of nightlife and of staying out until sunrise. I met some wonderful Porteños who were gracious and proud to show me around and make me feel welcome. It certainly won’t be my last visit to Buenos Aires.

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La Boca Neighborhood
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Traditional milonga evening of dancing
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Street music in San Telmo
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Sunday antique market in San Telmo

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Tierra del Fuego.

After driving from Punta Arenas in Chile and crossing the Magellan strait, we reached the archipelago called Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire.” It is divided between Chile and Argentina. Three weeks and over 4,000 kilometers driving from Santiago, we finally reached the end of the world in Ushuaia.

King Penguin Colony on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego.
King Penguin Colony on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego.
Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, It is known to the Argentines as the Lighthouse at the End of the World (Faro del fin del mundo).
Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, It is known to the Argentines as the Lighthouse at the End of the World (Faro del fin del mundo).

The southernmost city in the world concluded my Patagonian tour. I can look back on my experiences participating in an actual guided tour, and unfortunately, I have to admit that the decision to book it was the wrong one.

We learn a lot about our travel habits and how we choose to explore a new place when we travel, and I learned a big lesson through this costly and time consuming mistake. I am not at all of the type to be on group tours, especially those that do not have a set age range. The tour company I used was Tucan Travel – I do not recommend anyone using this tour company. The tour itself was loaded with issues; I have linked a copy of a portion of my letter of complaint to them in a blog post, linked here).

I didn’t feel as connected to the typical mentality of traveling in an organized tour. I met some really lovely people. A couple of them I can call my friends, people that I can visit whenever I travel to their country. However in my experience the negative aspects of an organized tour far outweighed the benefits. There is no flexibility in a tour, no option to stay just a couple of days longer in a place that I fall in love with. Even if the group gets along really well and the people are wonderful, I am still spending almost every waking moment with them. No matter the circumstances, spending too much time with the same group of people can become tiring. In group tour dynamics, the open minded mentality of meeting other travelers along the way is virtually nonexistent. Naturally, those who have the money to spend on a tour also have more money to spend at nicer restaurants, and since they’re generally traveling for a shorter period of time, they treat they’re experience as a vacation, and can splurge on certain things here and there. This at times clashed with my budget, especially since we were already in a very expensive part of South America.

I found that in a group tours, helplessness breeds helplessness. Travel should make people smarter, more resourceful and aware of one’s surroundings. Instead tours make people lazy; with the idea of not having to worry about logistics, this also means that when left on your own, the blind leads the blind, and you end up feeling lost and unable to cope with settling in a new location. You’ve done no research and now you’re left to fend for yourself and you stick with whatis comfortable instead of exploring the unknown. This is what i perceived while on the tour, and at times I took the lead and helped others sort out their itinerary-free days, especially because I was one of the few who spoke Spanish and could translate.

There are some people who spend most of their travels on group tours, and frankly it negates the basic philosophy of traveling. You pay someone a lot of money to show you only specific, highly visited parts of a country while adhering to a strict itinerary with the same group of people. That to me sounds like hell – it is certainly not traveling. It’s merely staying ignorant while seeing a new exotic destination.

Mostly, I felt out of control of my experiences with the group tour, and I wasn’t able to allow myself to become fully immersed in my journey the way I would normally. And so, I’ve made a decision to not ever take a group tour, ever again. Seriously. The mistake has been made and I can only take from it the lessons I’ve learned.

The truth is that traveling (and I do not mean vacationing) cannot happen through a tour. A tour is a shortcut. It does not replace the experience of figuring things out on your own. I am speaking from the perspective of a solo budget backpacker, but I feel this applies to all ages, budget ranges, and group sizes. I cannot recommend enough, for those without a strict timeline and with a similar independent traveler spirit, to take the more difficult route, no matter how much more complicated it may seem. The extra effort will be far more rewarding.

And now, for the first time in a really long time, I don’t even know what I am doing or where I am going next. It’s liberating. It’s fully present. I can put the tour experiment and the stresses that came with it behind me. I now take with me every single awe-inspiring and humbling moment as I wandered and explored, nature’s incredible beauty that I had the honor of witnessing, and the landscapes of the farthest ends of the earth that are forever imprinted in my mind. Patagonia was raw and surreal. It was absolutely pure magic.

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Historic old ship in the Bay of Ushuaia.
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Shipping containers bordered by colorful Lupine flowers.
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Sea Lions on the Beagle Channel
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Bridges’ Isles on the Beagle Channel in Ushuaia

Tucan Travel Negative Review.

Below is a portion of the letter of complaint I wrote to Tucan Travel for their “Villarrica” tour from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina. I normally do not submit such lengthy reviews, nor do I publish them on my blog, however the issues from this tour were so severe that it is necessary that people are made aware before booking with them in the future.

****

The first week and a half of the tour was of extremely poor quality from the part of not only Tucan but from the driver Richie and the guide Kim. I felt that myself amongst this large group of 27 (much too large for a tour of this kind) was a burden on both Richie and Kim’s vacation. I was hesitant to ask questions because the reaction and attitude I received in reply had an undertone that I was asking far too many, and that they were annoyed and frustrated with any question. Anytime there was a miscommunication between guide and group (of which there were many), the response was that we as a group did something wrong and that we were at fault as we misheard. There was never any accountability for mistakes or misunderstandings, all of which were on the part of the guide and driver for not relaying the correct information. Examples include details that every tour guide should know such as the location of the official tourist information offices, the activity levels and degrees of difficulty of the optional activities, the up to date prices of these activities, and the names of the restaurants that we will be having group meals. Much of the time neither guide nor driver knew the answers to these questions, or if they did they were incorrect.

In Bariloche we arrived at 7pm and we only had an hour before group meal to sort out the excursions for the next day, exchange money, do laundry, and do any food shopping. We 
weren’t given a map or told what types of activities there are to do in any detail, 
only she pointed out the tourist office which was actually not the correct center. I ended up leading a group of frustrated and frantic retired-aged women to the tourist office where I translated all of their questions and helped them with their itinerary for the next day. This was not my responsibility whatsoever, and furthermore does not make for an enjoyable first day in Argentina. If Kim had properly informed us of what to do and physically brought us to the information office, the whole fiasco would have been avoided. I 
did not pay thousands of dollars to be everyone’s translator and tour guide.

Tucan Travel imposes all the responsibility to Kim to be the point-person for every single aspect of our tour, which as a result led to a poorer quality experience. If the driver could also be a resource for questions, health concerns, or general know-how of a particular region, we as travelers would not have to overburden Kim as a group of 27 constantly asking her to help us. Richie has been a driver for many years, and he knew nothing beyond the task of physical driving. Even when asked about the name of the restaurant that he always goes to in a city for group meal, he could not even be bothered to remember the answer and would just reply “I don’t know.” Every single answer to a question would be, “I don’t know,” or “that is not my area of expertise, ask Kim,” or “I am just the driver.” This is quite frankly a poor attitude to have, and whatever Tucan has in place as a system to just give responsibility to Richie as merely a driver is wrong and is not at all what we pay for. One person for 27 people is not enough.

It is unacceptable that our tour guide and driver spoke limited Spanish. I speak a very good amount of Spanish, and if I wanted to go through the trouble of negotiating and working logistics I would have traveled on my own. On almost a daily basis I was translating for everyone in the group, helping them with ordering drinks to asking for directions, and at times I would be overwhelmed with addressing to their needs while also trying to sort out my own. Furthermore, neither guide nor driver have a phone that works in Argentina or Chile – Kim working for 5 years in south america, 2 of them in Patagonia, one would think that Tucan would provide inexpensive SIM cards and data plans that would allow the ease of making and confirming reservations. It is unsettling that should there be an emergency, no one has cell phone service that would be able to call for help. I had to turn on roaming and use my own US-based data plan to email the ice trekking provider to try and set up the activity. I did not pay thousands of dollars to have to think about booking an excursion and spending money on roaming, incurring very high charges.

Tucan Travel‘s slogan is “adventures with passion.” There was not a single time when I felt the passion in showing us the beauty of Patagonia. Patagonia speaks for itself, and were it not for such an incredible destination, far less people would be blind by the tour itself. The guide and driver did the bare minimum for their participants, and the fact that it takes the traveler to make a complaint about the lack of infrastructure and systems to make the process easier for them is appalling – after many years on the road one would think to take the initiative to ask for cell phone service, for example. One would think that the tour guide and driver would make the observation that the eldery people on this trip were not even made aware that this tour included intense days of 8-9 hour trekking, and to inform Tucan that the website does not even make a special note of this. There is no indication whatsoever on the website of any high level of physical activity, and I am appalled that Tucan does not specify and remind people of the difficulty level of this trek. I know that less people would book the trip had they known of the amount of hiking. This only shows me that Tucan would rather take people’s money and throw them under the bus instead of helping ensure they have made an appropriate decision.


In Torres National Park, we were given one guide for all 25 of us at the park at the time. This would prove extremely frustrating, given that the group clearly divided into two fitness levels, one that would move far quicker than the other. Based on previous hikes Kim should have informed Tucan so that we could be given an additional guide in Torres. The amount of money I paid for this trip to hire proper guides that would only cater to a slower paced group is unacceptable. Day 1 of Torres National Park we did not even complete the Peninsula trek around Grey Glacier because the group moved so slowly that we wouldn’t have enough time. That is incredibly unfair for those who are able to complete the hike, but cannot do so legally in the park without the aid of a guide. Furthermore, on Day 3 in the French Valley, because I had experienced the slow pace and wanted to make sure I reached the summit in time before the last Catamaran would take us across the lake, me and a few others had to run ahead of the guide and make it to the top. 
I was horrified by the quality of included meals that Tucan has allowed for on this trip.
The only meal that was of the correct portion size, was hot, and had adequate 
amount of protein was the last night in Torres del Paine, which Kim made a curry with rice. All other meals consisted of a small bowl of pasta salad with no protein, ham and cheese sandwiches (of which I could not eat either ham or cheese), and empanadas. Given that breakfast includes usually a meager bread, coffee, and 
jam for breakfast, our included lunches on the road were not at all sufficient. We 
were left hungry and almost every time had to purchase snacks to make sure we were satisfied. I am a petite young woman, and I can only imagine how the large men on this tour were able to cope with the small portions and little protein. The 
amount of money we have paid to only have a handful of provided lunches is 
unacceptable. Over half the trip we had to go to the supermarket and provide our 
own packed lunches for the day, and without kitchens in the hotels (except 
Pucon) we had to resort to eating sandwiches, the very same food we were given as included meals.

On Christmas Day in El Chalten, we were told that we had a late morning and that we would leave at 12pm. Check out of the hotel was 10am, and so we were ready 2 hours beforehand to leave because we couldn’t stay in our rooms to relax. All of us were in the lobby ready to go, and neither guide nor driver were anywhere to be found. We found them in the room having just come out of the shower, and they proceeded to accuse us that we were told we were only leaving at 12 the night before, even though during breakfast Kim told us if we were all packed up early after check out we could leave for El Calafate earlier. Every single one of us were waiting in the lobby while the two of them were going about their personal business, all on our dime.

The end of our trip in Ushuaia was left on a sour note as well. On the day trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park, Kim came onto the hired tour bus at the last minute to tell us she would not be joining us on the hike. She quickly pointed to a map and said that the trails are easily marked and that we would have no trouble figuring it out on our own. We were left without an English speaking driver, and I had to translate for everyone’s questions. Still, there was a terrible misunderstanding of where we would be dropped off and picked up, and for over half a us we did not have a chance to properly explore the trails, as there were lots of different ways of seeing the park and some of them would not allow us to make it in time for the 3:30pm bus. We are not paying to be thrown on a tour bus without any knowledge of where to go.

Tucan has a company should be taking far more care in ensuring we have fully qualified, professional guides and drivers, ensuring our safety, that we are properly fed, that we have the resources to seek help, that we are well informed of the activities and their difficulty levels, and that we are, more than anything else, having a really amazing time. Tucan has done none of those things for me, and I will make sure that others know of my experience so that they can book a tour with another company that will provide for them in the ways I was not.

Torres Del Paine

Camping in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was an incredible experience. It pushed my limits physically; we had two 8 hour-long trek days totaling in over 37 km (22 miles). I am not an experienced hiker, but I found the Torres and French Valley treks not at all as difficult as I had imagined they would be, and they both had incredible viewpoints that awaited us at the summit. I related hiking to people’s experience with running; for them, it is a form of meditation, a way to clear their mind and just allow the body to move itself automatically. I had plenty of time in those hours to hike in silence and was easily able to switch off all the thoughts in my head as I stayed focused on the trail. Hiking also gave me time to think about just about everything in a clear and non-emotionally cluttered way. I realized how people can become life-long hiking addicts in seeking both the adrenaline and the meditative reflection that comes with experiencing the outdoors in such a physically demanding way.

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Sunset in Puerto Natales, Chile.
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Grey Glacier icebergs at Grey Lake.
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Grey Glacier in the background, Torres del Paine.
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Beautiful yet bizarre Patagonian cloud formations.
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Paine Massif pink sunset after 18 hours of daylight.
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View of the Torres tours after a 5 hour long hike along the Torres trek.
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Peering into the valley at the end of the French Valley trek.
Panorama of the French Valley.
Panorama of the French Valley.
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The lagoon’s piercing blue color comes from the minerals of the glaciers.
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The Paine Massif.

And now I’ve made it to 2016. It’s New Year’s Day, and the city of Punta Arenas (four hours drive from Puerto Natales, the home base of Torres Del Paine National Park) is a ghost town. We were warned that the Chileans close everything on New Year’s Day, and they weren’t kidding; merely two restaurants and a cafe are open in the vicinity to our hotel, and not a single store, bank, or supermarket is open. So today is a much needed day of rest in Patagonia.

My first reaction as I looked back on this past year was that so much has happened, too much, and it’s truly mind blowing. It was a year of so many changes, new experiences, and hardships. I thought, if I continue at this pace each year, I would certainly burn out by the age of 35. This year was a roller coaster on every level. But I am grateful for all the highs, the lows, and of the swinging pendulum of feeling secure and of being thrust into the unknown.

I traveled and then I came home. I celebrated the coming of 2015 on a small island called Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, sleeping directly under the stars on an empty beach with only 30 others to see the gorgeous sunrise with me. I was completely engulfed in nature and in beauty, and although I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing with my life, I had the reassurance of my immediate next steps, which was going back to New York to begin working full time for a startup. I spent the rest of January in Cambodia and Vietnam, and despite the career that awaited me, I came home to a freezing February storm completely heartbroken. I had spent the previous six months traveling on and off across three continents. I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Southeast Asia to achieve any sort of closure in my adventures, and upon my return I didn’t have a chance to process what I experienced. And so one of the many reasons why I am taking the time now in South America is because I made that mistake a year ago.

I worked and then I didn’t. I began working at the startup in February and dove right in, kicking off in San Francisco for two weeks with the startup’s founder. I learned what it took to grow a company from the ground up, and I also learned of the risks involved in joining a tech startup while it was merely a seedling. Unfortunately this startup, among the 99% of new businesses, had come to a standstill, and I had to leave. And so I decided to reset and travel to another region I had yet to explore.

Friendships showed me more about myself than ever before. Some old friends faded, some were rekindled from the past, and some grew even stronger, becoming family. My friends are growing into themselves by taking different paths, some of them intersecting with mine, and all of them beautiful and scary in their own right. It’s been fascinating to watch my friends grow up in such a variety of ways, and it’s given me the chance to evaluate my priorities and how I fit into the conventional cycle of adulthood. This year was also marked by a new set of people that entered my life; I found community in a group of people who share similar values, who are there to help me, and who embrace the path I am taking. Through these friends I expanded my world of music, dance, spiritual practice, and self expression. I went to Burning Man for the first time, and learned what it was like to live completely in the present.

I have struggled with family, those whom I share my flesh and blood, for the majority of my life. This past year I chose to deal with family obstacles in a different way. I chose to put myself first and to live my own life. Although at first that may sound selfish, I have become far more aware of my own faults and of my role in both my nuclear and extended family units. A proper and fully functional family sphere cannot ever be defined as black or white, as there is no right or wrong way to deal with family relationships. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s the imperfections of a so-called “dysfunctional” childhood family that, whether we chose to admit it or not, take part in defining how we live our adult lives.

Far more has happened that I choose not to write about here. What I know is that last year, I thought I had a lot figured out about my immediate future. I thought those feelings of not knowing were relatively resolved. What followed was far from what I could have imagined. It was an adventure: crazy, beautiful, and surreal. Everything happens for a reason, and I am learning to trust that the sequence of events, the causes and effects of my actions, are all lessons. This year’s moments have both given me joy and have challenged me. They are riddles that I’ve been given an opportunity to explore and to one day be able to solve. Things are more unresolved than ever before, but what I realize is that embracing this fact, in the end, is actually the whole point of it all.