Antigua.

Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Guatemala was one of my favorite last minute backpacker-getaway decisions I’ve made. I was happily surprised by my time visiting the country. Guatemalans are reserved but very friendly, they respect their surroundings by being neat and courteous to others, and they have a great deal of pride of their religious beliefs and their Mayan culture and clothing. Although a small country, it holds a richness and diversity in geographical and cultural sites. Although I only had 11 days there before I had to catch my flight to Cuba, I felt I was able to see the highlights of the country, and left feeling energized and renewed as a backpacker from my time there. And best of all, my last two days in Guatemala was spent accomplishing a major physical feat: hiking up Acatenango Volcano.

And so, just as I had begun my travels ice climbing Volcán Villarrica in Chile in December (my post about it can be found clicking here), I neared the end of my journey with an even more challenging hike. It was difficult, but it was an incredible reminder that we can truly achieve whatever we put our minds to. And the physical challenge was just what I needed to keep me motivated as I began to acknowledge that I was indeed going home within a month. Acatenango Volcano peaks at 3,976 meters, and although it’s not the highest climb I’ve done, it was the longest. We began our hike in the morning at 2,400 meters above sea level. The following six hours was a straight uphill climb, finishing the day at basecamp at 3,600 meters. The following morning we awoke at 4am to finish the vertical climb on soft volcanic ash to the summit. The two steps forward, one step backward rule was in full effect as we scrambled to the top with just enough time to watch the sunrise alongside a nearby volcano peaking above the clouds. My knees were like jello, my hands and face were frozen, I had barely slept the night before. It was not only the incredible view but also the exhilarating feeling of making it to the summit that made the entire journey worth it. The volcano is joined by  Volcán de Fuego, a highly active stratovolcano where you can see eruptions of ash and lava on a weekly basis. We were so lucky to camp overnight with a close view of Fuego, and throughout the night we were able to see it erupt, something I had never seen before in my life. I was in awe of our guides who did this hike about three times per week. One of them brought his puppy named Valentino. Having a dog accompany our group was a real treat, as it offered an escape from the discomfort of the grueling hike to the summit. The hike itself was a fascinating experience of three completely distinct biospheres: the dry farmland and oak forest, the wet and humid cloud forest, and the high altitude pine/subalpine forest at the higher levels of the volcano, just beneath the volcanic ash that leads to the summit.

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View of Volcan de Fuego at sunrise.

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Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Hiking up to basecamp.
Hiking up to basecamp.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
Ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
Volcanic ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
The puppy accompanying our hike.
The puppy accompanying our hike.

Prior to the hike, I was able to visit the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, only 35 minutes outside of Guatemala City. It’s a colorful, cobble-stoned town in a valley, surrounded by active volcanoes, and generally serves as any tourist’s introduction and farewell to the country. On a shuttle bus from the airport in Guatemala city to Antigua you’ll see for the first time the local busses that Guatemalans use, which are called “chicken busses.” These busses were previously American yellow school busses, only in Guatemala people have made them colorful, often metal plated, and generally pimped out, each with their own signature look and style. Some even carry the old license plates from the state where they were used. For example, I saw a California license plate on a silver and red painted chicken bus, with a painting of Jesus at the top of the backside of the bus. The motorbike taxis are equally adorned with pride and care, reflecting the driver’s individual personality.

Antigua.
Antigua.

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A local chicken bus in Antigua.
A local chicken bus in Antigua.

From Antigua I made my way to the mystically serene Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake at 1,560 meters above sea level. The area has been a sacred place for Mayans for centuries, and holds a measurable vortex of energy. It’s difficult not to sense the spiritual presence of the area, particularly in the small villages surrounding the lake that can be easily visited by boat. I stayed in the backpacker town called San Pedro, but was able to visit the mind-body conscious village of San Marcos one afternoon. As soon as I had arrived I saw that it was a place filled to the brim with yoga and meditation focused hotels, Vipassana retreat centers, shamanic healing workshops, organic vegan restaurants, and shops selling natural, homeopathic herbs and medicines. The initial shock I felt was how could this exist so far away from where you’d normally find it, such as in Bali or Koh Phagnan in the Southeast Asia. It was a true hippie hideaway, one that I immediately felt a connection to. But as I walked around, and with two friends I had made who were nowhere near this sort of lifestyle back in their hometowns, I felt that the high concentration of these types of establishments only served to lessen the effect of the positive and transformative experiences that are being offered to visitors. Is there such thing as too much of a good thing? I realized that although I consider myself a practitioner of many of the offerings to be found in San Marcos, I am also very much aligned to the New Yorker way of living, which brings in that balance of a practical, day-to-day work life. It did feel as if some of the authenticity was lost. Or, perhaps it was a reminder that these practices, traditionally derived from eastern medicine, are now becoming popular enough for westerners to bring them to the rest of the world. Globalization has it’s positive side effects, and arguably this is one of them. But perhaps the reality of it is that eastern societies actually incorporate these practices into their daily rituals, and not as merely an escape or a retreat. And by doing so, there is no need to go out of their way to travel to, and pay for, a transformative experience. It is in their blood and in their culture. This is something that I hope tourists passing through this sacred lake will realize: that they can make change happen wherever home may be for them and still be true to their authentic selves.

My last night at Lake Atitlán brought me to another place in my memory where I felt as if I was back home; I found myself at a bar in San Pedro playing deep house music and with fire dancers worthy of a Burning Man DJ and performance set. But something was different. Something had quickly brought me back to Guatemala, accompanied by a big-bellied laugh that only I could hear as my laughter was drowned by the music. As backpackers danced and watched the performance, an old Mayan woman walked across the center of the dance floor, a basket on her head filled with muffins. She didn’t seem to notice or care of what was happening around her. It was such an odd image. Here was a woman, born and raised on this land; was she adapting to the changes around her, or forcibly catering to those who have decided to make roots in her village? Was she just trying to sell her food and go about the rest of her night in peace, and not let the new music and strange foreigners influence her? I asked myself this as I watched her pace around the bar, until at last she vanished.

Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan.

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San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.
San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.

Anyhow, a little sidetracked there. My next stop was near a town called Lanquin. It was a long daytime journey on winding, bumpy roads, but by nightfall I had arrived at Semuc Champey. The forest was unlike your typical humid jungle. Rather, it was a dry, pine forest with a mix of trees that blended the native species of central america to some of the trees you’ll find in the mountains of upstate New York. Semuc Champey itself is a series of limestone bridges and caves that runs through central Guatemala and meets the Cabahón River. Combining the limestone and the river creates various tiered pools of turquoise, which were extraordinarily beautiful. From there I made my way to Flores, the jumping off point for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal. In just one day’s drive I left the dry forest of Lanquin and found myself in the country’s northern tropical rainforest, rife with abundant wildlife, namely howler monkeys, toucans, and coatis. Tikal itself dates back to the 4th century BC, but reached its height during the Classic Period, from 200 to 900 AD. We watched the sunset from one of the temples in Tikal and listened to the birds and howler monkeys as they made their way to sleep.

A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.
A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.

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Tikal ruins.
Tikal ruins.

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Some practical tips for those looking to backpack in Guatemala. Firstly, most ATMs do not accept MasterCard debit cards. I had a huge problem with this as both my debit cards are MasterCard, and after trying countless machines in Flores and in Antigua, I was not able to withdraw any money. Luckily, I had just enough dollars that I could exchange to last me the remaining four days in the country. Secondly, Guatemala time is very different from the standard concept of time; when a Guatemalan says the journey will last 1.5 hours, it will actually take 3. The most common method of transport within the country for tourists are small shuttle busses, not the local chicken busses. These busses are not the most comfortable and often lack air conditioning, but they are the safest and most reliable means of getting from one place to another. The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin took almost 10.5 hours on a tourist shuttle, even though it was advertised as 8 hours. Don’t be fooled by the small size of Guatemala. Because of the road conditions it does take a long time to cover a short distance, and unfortunately the only overnight bus you can take is from the town of Flores (where you go to visit Tikal) to Guatemala City. I did take this bus and it was decent, similar to an average quality South American coach. So in all, be aware that you may take a day just to travel from one place to another, which makes the amount of days remaining to visit the cities more limited if you’re short on time.

A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
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Local Guatemalans seen on route from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin.

 

One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Puerto Viejo.

And then, just over a week after staying in Costa Rica alone to stay put and slowly transition home, as I had written in my last post, “San José,” a switch flips inside of me. I break down and then leap in the completely opposite direction. I cry, realizing that  I’m doing something that doesn’t make me in the least bit happy. I’m forcing myself to stay someplace because it’s what I thought I “should” be doing. It’s what I thought would encourage me to slow down and be more introspective. But the slow traveling lifestyle is just not who I am. It’s not me, and I was kidding myself in trying to be someone I wasn’t. And in realizing this I feel that heavy weight lift off my shoulders again, that same downward, sluggish force I remember bringing me down in Patagonia on Christmas Eve when I hadn’t yet made the decision to extend my travels from two months to more than six.

Now I feel that spark in me again, that energy I thought I had lost when I found myself solo-backpacking once more in the last stretch of my journey. I realized that it wasn’t that I was alone that was leaving me in this state; I had grown tired of Costa Rica, for whatever reason, and so I lost the passion for traveling in the country. I have accepted that I am going home, and yes I am feeling as ready as I can be to be going back. I even made it official last night – I bought the last of my one-way tickets, this time from Cancún, Mexico to New York. 

However, contrary to what I “thought” I wanted or what was supposed to be “good” for me, until that day comes I’m going to continue to travel exactly as I want to. I will travel in a way that gives me happiness, strength, and brings me back to my intentions that I had created for myself before even leaving New York last winter. 

I immediately chose Guatemala as my next destination. The only things that were keeping me in Costa Rica were some pre-booked flights and a deposit on a yoga retreat. It’s a travel lesson I keep revisiting and a habit I find hard to break: to remember to plan ahead as little as humanly possible. Things will change, your feelings about a place will change over time, and although some activities do require advanced booking, trust that they will become available to you if they are meant to. 

Truthfully it is hard to lose money on those sorts of travel purchases, knowing that you won’t get any refund. But I actually feel completely okay with the things I had to give up. Normally I would be upset and it would be at the back of my mind for days, knowing I could have avoided wasting this money, but now I realize that money isn’t going to make me happy, whether I keep it, it’s stolen from me, or I willingly spend and lose it. 
What will make me happy is visiting somewhere new and all the while not forcing myself to be someone I am not. For being authentically me. I like to go to new countries and cities and move about at a pace that doesn’t match with many backpackers, but I am happily packing my days with adventure, mixed with a few days here and there of downtime — and this is what I enjoy. I think that those prolonged days of relaxation that I am looking for should actually be in New York City, where I can practice slowing down in a place I know well. It’s my home, a place where I can settle into routine and learn to be at peace with a more settled lifestyle there. But for now, my ways of backpacking is just how I want them to be. 

I don’t think I’ve ever made such a fast, yet completely clear and correct decision in my life. I was couchsurfing in Playa Chiquita, eight kilometers from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a laidback Afro-Caribbean beach town. My host lives in a beautiful jungle house where howler monkeys woke me at 4:30am with their morning wake up call, and white-faced capuchin monkeys were often seen playing in the trees just a few meters away. It was, for me, a peaceful and perfectly Caribbean last few days, complete with a capoeira class, daily healthy vegetarian food, and a twelve kilometer bike ride to the nearby beaches of Punta Uva, Manzanilla, and Cocles. But in the back of my mind I was stressed. I felt I had seen what I wanted to in just three days, but I had to stay another three nights so that I could catch a flight from the nearby city of Limon to Drake Bay, on the Osa Peninsula. From there, the plan was to scuba dive and explore Drake Bay. However, that was only a possibility as it’s currently low season and dives are not guaranteed. Then I planned to see yet another national park, which although I love, I was starting to get tired of, regardless of where I am in the world. And finally, a very remote five night yoga escape on a farm far south in Punta Banco. 

But that never happened, because I found myself booking a flight to Guatemala, a country I had thought about visiting since someone had mentioned it to me in mid-April. And the flights were surprisingly inexpensive. I got myself on a bus in the morning to San José and got on a plane the following day.

Yes, I would be giving up seeing one of the “most biologically intense places on Earth” christened by National Geographic (the peninsula contains 2.5% of the entire biodiversity of the planet, living on a mere 0.00000085% of the earth’s total surface area). Yes, I wouldn’t go scuba diving in the second best place in the country (the best being off the shores of Cocos Island, a remote and protected area found 300 miles southwest of the mainland). But, I truly didn’t mind missing it. I knew I could always go back. After all, what’s the point in traveling if it’s merely to check something off a list? I surely have to take with me some enticing reasons to go back to Costa Rica later in life, and visiting the Osa Peninsula, and perhaps one day scuba diving at Cocos, are most certainly two of them. 

I didn’t have a plan in Guatemala. I didn’t even know what there was to see there. But what I am learning to trust in every day that I travel is that things will figure themselves out, as they always have. And in the grander perspective of my life figuring itself out, I’d like to trust in the universe that in the end, everything will.

Note on photos below: I don’t have many great photos of Puerto Viejo, but I do have some pictures from the four days I spent in Manuel Antonio, on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. They’re shown here.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Playa Escondida

Monkeys outside the hostel in Manuel Antonio

Playa Manuel Antonio

A casual sign alerting drivers to be ware of small children and animals.

White faced capuchin monkey.

Day trip from Manuel Antonio to Playa Dominical.

Sunset in Manuel Antonio.

San José.

I am writing to you as someone who for the first time in over one and a half months, is traveling completely solo again. It is incredible how easy it becomes to fall back on a traveling companion, effortlessly you take advantage of having someone to grab a bite to eat or to talk to. It takes far more energyto make conversation with strangers and to orient yourself in a new place, without another person to bounce off your itinerary with. And for the first time on my trip, I feel completely unmotivated to do anything. Perhaps it’s a passing phase – one that will last just the night. Or maybe it’s because I’ve entered the phase of long term traveling where I actually have an end date. I know, give or take five days, the exact moment that I will be returning to New York. I haven’t bought my flight yet, but I know that this will be happening quite soon.

And so, I now know that my travels are coming to an end. I am having that feeling of wanting to buy a ticket tomorrow and just leave, because what’s the point otherwise? Or perhaps this is just me, for the first time, actually being comfortable with the idea of going home. I’ve seen so many new places and had so many incredible experiences that I am now feeling content in slowing down, in skipping various “must-see” locations and not feeling as if I am missing out on the next big adventure in a particular place. Ecuador was my last rush to the finish line. Costa Rica (and then finally, Cuba), are my last two countries. It is here that I will slow everything down as I transition back to the completely unknown life I have awaiting me in New York City.

Part of me forgot how to be alone, how to sit in my own thoughts. I can’t do even that, as I have this desire to write here, on this blog, to whomever catches this post. I initially set out to travel completely alone and to feel what that is like for a long period of time. But then, unexpectedly, I wasn’t alone for a time. Then my mother came to Costa Rica the day I flew out of Quito, and I spent a week with her. But yesterday she went back to New York, and I am alone again. 
I understand why people fear traveling alone, or why they just prefer traveling with someone else, even if it means constantly making compromises or not having much time to oneself. I can relate to the good and the bad of both types of traveling, and I am not sure what to make of it or of how I feel about one or the other just yet. I’ll need to give it more time, perhaps settle into the solo-traveling spirit once again to see just how traveling with others has changed me (if it has at all).
When I arrived in San José, I met my mother at the airport, as she arrived just a couple of hours after I had. I called to her and cried immediately after seeing her. Maybe it was because I was overwhelmed at the ordeal at the airport in Quito, almost barred from flying out of the country, or it was because I hadn’t seen her in almost half a year. Maybe it was because I knew I finally had a break from the backpacker lifestyle, a reprieve, an opportunity to step into a mini-vacation. In hindsight I think it was a combination of the three.
I was curious before my mother arrived how it would be, the two of us traveling. She is someone with whom I developed my love of traveling to new and exciting places. It was with her that I went to India, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel. She taught me the beauty in exploration, to prioritize traveling over material possessions, and to constantly seek out and absorb a place’s culture and language. She supported me when I wanted to study abroad in Paris, and has since supported my desire to visit every single destination I’ve chosen thus far around the world. We hadn’t traveled together in a long time, and so when she suggested she come meet me in Costa Rica for a week, I knew it would be so great to have her join me.
It was immediately clear that the two of us haven’t changed much in the way we interact. She’s definitely my mom, but she’s also a friend. I felt as if I had just seen her a week ago; the amount of time that had passed was irrelevant. I kept weekly communication with her while traveling, which allowed us to continue right where we left off, without many gaps to cover. I was looking forward to not only spending time with her the way I would on normally in New York, but to also give her glimpses into what my life has been like as a budgeting solo-backpacker. I knew we wouldn’t be traveling in a similar way while together, but I intended to show her the “if I was alone” thought process so that she could see what’s been about for me.
Throughout the week I realized that although I had a beautiful time with my mother visiting Costa Rica, I was unaccustomed to our style of travel as it had been a long time since I had taken a real vacation. And I preferred the more rustic, challenging, backpacker way. Maybe it’s because I’m still in my “youth” and able to stand the discomfort for now, or it’s frankly because I haven’t had the choice financially but to travel in this way. It may be both of those things, but I also feel that it’s a difference in mentality. I know that when my mom was my age she did things exactly the same way I had. And so I do not judge or question her motives for traveling differently now. Rather, in the places that we stayed at and where we visited, I was exposed to a far different set of people than I was used to the past couple of months. 
And it got me realizing that I just plain didn´t want to become the classically western American/European traveler when I grew older. Costa Rica has had more American tourists thus far than anywhere else I have visited, and it´s obvious the changes that the country has made to accommodate the comfortable traveler. That is not to say that traveling comfortably is bad– it´s just different. It was also difficult for me to transition into not thinking so much about cooking a meal at a hostel, or budgeting my food expenses for the day, after I had done so for five months. I felt like I was cheating on myself, not being true to my intentions of the budgeting backpacker. And it got me thinking, have I missed out on certain experiences just by not having the means to go to a certain place or see it in a certain way? Or have I seen and done more roughing it? I am not sure the answer to this yet. I think I’ll leave that to another time.  
My mother at 26 years old backpacking in Europe with her cousins. She is sleeping here on a ferry boat to the Greek islands.
My mother at 26 years old backpacking in Europe with her cousins. She is sleeping here on a ferry boat to the Greek islands.
My mother and I visiting a waterfall outside of La Fortuna.
My mother and I visiting a waterfall outside of La Fortuna.
For obvious reasons my mother’s primary intention in Costa Rica was to spend time with me, so she didn’t entirely mind what we saw in the country. And so we purposefully took advantage of the rental car by going to areas that would have been more difficult for me as a solo-backpacker.
We drove 1200 kilometers in one week, and I felt a bit guilty for not driving a single kilometer. But having a car in Costa Rica turned out to be far more convenient than not having one, and I was happy to have that luxury while my mother visited. Our first stop was on the Nicoya Peninsula, where we took a ferry at a town called Puntarenas and from there, drove to the Pacific coast to the town of Santa Teresa. An ATV or 4×4 is needed to navigate these roads, which made for some bumpy, yet fun driving. This region is difficult to access by most, and so the beaches are pristine and lack many tourists. You’ll find a more hippie backpacker vibe here along with  yoga enthusiasts and most of all, surfers. The waves are a heaven for them! A trip to the beach around sunset is a must. Near to Santa Teresa are various beaches, and an hour drive along the peninsula is Montezuma, another hippie town with a lovely waterfall hike. Playa Santa Teresa, however, topped my list as one of the most authentically beautiful beaches in all of Costa Rica.
Playa Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Playa Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Waterfall hike near Montezuma, also on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Waterfall near Montezuma, also on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Hike to the waterfall in Montezuma.
Hike to the waterfall in Montezuma.
Playa Mal Pais.
Playa Mal Pais.
Yoga in the jungle in Mal Pais.
Yoga in the jungle in Mal Pais.
We then went back on the ferry out of Nicoya and drove north to the Guanacaste region to explore the beaches on the north Pacific coast. This area certainly had more of the touristy atmosphere that I had expected from Costa Rica. Tamarindo had everything your average tourist needed to make for a comfortable vacation. We did some yoga together at a studio, and our Argentinian instructor I would add to my top five yoga teachers I’ve ever had. We also drove to some well known beaches in the region, Playa Flamingo and Playa Conchal. Playa Conchal is named because instead of sand, the beach is covered with crushed seashells. 

Playa Conchal in Guanacaste.
Playa Tamarindo in Guanacaste.
Playa Grande, just off Playa Tamarindo.
Playa Grande, just off Playa Tamarindo.
Las Catalinas, Guanacaste.
Las Catalinas, Guanacaste.
View of the Catalina Islands.
View of the Catalina Islands.
Playa Conchal.
Playa Conchal.
After Tamarindo we drove to La Fortuna, home of the active Arenal Volcano, whose last eruption was in 2010. The drive along Arenal lake was beautiful. 

 The volcanoes peppered within the country leave lush countryside for coffee plantations, waterfalls, canopy adventures, plenty of wildlife, and best of all, thermal hot springs. My mother and I spent an evening at Ecotermales, the only baths in the region whose water comes naturally from a hotspring and that is not pumped through. The baths are set beneath pristine jungle, and we enjoyed listening to the sounds of howler monkeys at their bedtime.

Arenal Volcano, seen from the town of La Fortuna.
Arenal Volcano, seen from the town of La Fortuna.
Birds of Paradise flowers near La Fortuna.
Birds of Paradise flowers near La Fortuna.
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Ecotermales hot springs.

Jessica, a rescued monkey at Proyecto Assis Animal Refuge Center near La Fortuna.
Rescued Macaws at Proyecto Asis.
A friendly monkey at Proyecto Asis.
A friendly monkey at Proyecto Asis.
On our way to San Jose

from La Fortuna, on an admittedly dizzying and singular winding road, we stopped at a coffee plantation for a tour of the coffee making process. The Doka Estate Coffee Farm,

at the base of the Poas Volcano, although geared towards the more traditional, vacation tourist, was really informative and interesting. After all, no tour of Costa Rica would be complete without learning about it’s famed coffee. The farm had its own butterfly garden, where I was reminded of the visit to the Pilpintuwasi Butterfly House in Iquitos, learning of the incredible effort and care it takes to cultivate these species of butterflies and of their short-lived yet humbling life cycles.

Coffee fruit plants at the Doke Estate Coffee Farm.
The process of drying coffee beans at Doke Estate.
The process of drying coffee beans at Doka Estate.
The aristolocia gran biflora, the largest flower in central america. more info.
The largest flower in central america, seen at the butterfly farm at Doka Estate.

We completed our tour of Costa Rica with one day in downtown San José, which is admittedly not a very pretty city. Much of the historical architecture is gone. We did visit the Gold Museum and a fabulous free museum called MAC (Museo de Arte Costarricense), the city’s old international airport terminal from the 1930s that now contains art from the 19th century to present.  Our mutually favorite Costa Rican artist Francisco Züniga had some of his sculptures there, and I was delighted to finish off our time together enjoying an art visit, which we would do on a regular basis in New York.
Traveling with my mother made me realize that, for now, I wanted to continue to travel the way that I enjoy the most, as a backpacker. And I see that I can’t ask for the same of her when we travel together. But it’s also not so bad to do it the way we had, and I look forward to many more adventures with her. I do think we continue to rub off of each other in both our travel styles, which has always made for far more interesting travel destinations and experienced. And I know that we’ll continue our untraditional travel adventures in the future.

 

Quito.

I haven’t written since mid-April for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I made my way from Mancora, Peru up through the entire country of Ecuador, and finishing in Quito, in ten days. There wasn’t much time to write. When I did feel called to write, I was reminded of why I couldn’t easily pick up my small Chromebook that I have been using the past five months to write my posts. I am writing to you from a computer at a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Unfortunately, my Chromebook is now in the hands of an anonymous Ecuadorian who expertly removed it from my backpack. As I dozed off on a short, 3.5 hour bus ride from Baños to Quito, the man sitting behind me broke the lock to my day-bag that sat by my feet, removed my computer from its case, opened my money pouch to remove just the cash, and then closed my backpack before leaving the bus halfway through the ride, leaving me clueless until realizing what had happened in the middle of the night as I arrived in Ecuador’s capital city. It was the first time on the entire trip that I forgot to wear my cash and passports on my person. I am incredibly grateful that he left my passports in the pouch. I had heard multiple stories of theft on Ecuador’s busses, and of the general dangers of Quito itself, but I didn’t think that someone like me, someone who is so careful with her belongings, would be robbed at my feet. I wasn’t so much upset as I was frustrated with myself. I should have kept the backpack on my lap, hugging it in my sleep. I should have worn my cash and passport on me directly. I became a complacent traveler, forgetting simple safety rules in the context of my surroundings. Have I been traveling too long? I’ve realized now that maybe it’s not entirely a mistake I’ve made: it is merely the reality of traveling, of the types of people who are dexterous professionals who can easily pick out those who seem vulnerable at any given moment.
The other reason I haven’t written much is that I haven’t felt inspired by Ecuador as much as I had hoped. The rushed pace and the loss of my belongings at the back of my mind didn’t offer me the chance to slow down and reflect on the current state of my journey. But I can offer a quick summary of my thoughts in the places I visited.

My first stop was in Cuenca, the lovely colonial town that is known for its handmade Ecuadorian hats, a misconception known by most people as “Panamanian” hats. These Toquilla hats are in fact produced in Ecuador, using a traditional straw weave technique. From Cuenca I took with me memories of delicious coffee, quaint little artisan shops, expat-owned health conscious cafés, street art, and a generally livable and relatively safe city. Although expensive, just as the rest of Ecuador would turn out to be (the country’s currency is the US Dollar, making everything more costly relative to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia), I wholeheartedly found Cuenca to be a nice city to explore for a couple days. A fun fact: one of Ecuador’s biggest exports is cut flowers, of which 75% go to the United States (another 10% goes to the Netherlands). In Cuenca I could see how the cut roses, sunflowers, and lilies were of top quality. I was also lured into one bakery after another in the city, the smell of fresh bread flowing into the streets; I realized how scarce high-quality pastries are in South America (except in Argentina, where the chocolate croissants left me feeling like I was in Paris again.)

Flower market in Cuenca

Ecuadorian hat factory and shop.

Saddles and horseback riding gear for sale at a local market.

Spotting street art on a rainy day.
Next I made my way by bus to Baños, a small adventure town at the base of the volcano Tungurahua complete with thermal baths to be enjoyed in the evenings. We rented an ATV and made our way up to the highly photographed swing at the “Tree House,” where on a clear day you can see the volcano as you’re pushed over the countryside while friends are snapping your next instagram photo. The ride to the Pailon del Diablo, an immensely powerful waterfall, was beautiful. Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa is the main neo-Gothic style church named after the vision of the Virgin Mary seen near the town’s nearest waterfalls. It is a place of pilgrimage, was built with volcanic rocks, and is lined inside with paintings depicting the Virgin’s miracles in Baños, which include saving the church from multiple volcanic eruptions. The Piscinas de la Virgen thermal baths, at the base of the miracle-laden waterfall, were a lovely way to end the evening, where you can move from an extremely hot bath to a freezing cold one in an effort to stimulate the nervous system and help remove any toxins from the body.

Swinging from the “Tree House” in Baños.

On a clear day you can see Tunguharua volcano in the background

Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa.
After I had gotten over the moderately traumatic incident that occurred from Baños to Quito, I found myself in a capital city where I felt unsafe nearly all the time. I hadn’t felt this energetic heaviness before on my trip, and it was a surprise how unease I felt, even during the daytime. Perhaps it was still too soon after the incident, but I actually felt the danger that I had been warned about. Other cities always turned out to be less foreboding than what I had expected, but not Quito. The historic center is the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in  North and South America, and was the first (along with Krakow) World Cultural Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1978. This historic center of the city was also not the safest neighborhood. Nearby Bellavista, with more restaurants, nightlife, and upscale residential housing along La Carolina Park, was far more enjoyable to walk around.

 

Basilica del Voto Nacional.
 
View of Quito from the Basílica del Voto Nacional
Otavalo, known for its famous Saturday market two hours away from Quito, was a disappointment. Outwardly a tourist shopping destination, it didn’t have the feel of an authentic marketplace I had seen in so many other cities in South America. Another well visited site taken as a day trip from Quito, the Mitad Del Mundo, was worth seeing for the photo opportunity, but if in a rush it’s easily skippable. The “Center of the World” is at 0’0″ Latitude, at the equatorial line. There are two sites: one that is supposedly the true equatorial line according to exact GPS coordinates, and another that houses a large monument and Disney-esque park activities.

The old town in Quito.

The Mitad Del Mundo.
However, Quito had some redeemable qualities. First and foremost was the Guayasamín Museum and Foundation, where we visited the late artist’s house and studio, as well as his Capilla Del Hombre, which housed some of his well most well known large scale paintings, of which I find absolutely incredible.

The artist Guayasamín’s home, now a museum in Quito.

Capilla Del Hombre
The capital is also the launch point to the hiker’s hideaway 50 km south of Quito called Cotopaxi National Park. I stayed for two days at a lovely hostel looking out to Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest summit in the country at 5,897 meters above sea level. Unfortunately the volcano was closed for climbing due to recent volcanic activity, but the nearby inactive volcanoes were open. It was a beautiful area with lush countryside, and I was thankful for the brief but tranquil escape from Quito .

Cotopaxi Volcano

Hiking in Cotopaxi National Park.

Our lodge overlooking Cotopaxi Volcano.    
Ecuadorians are some of the nicest people I have met in South America. They were so friendly and helpful, and even the tourism police were extremely quick and compassionate when I had to fill out a police report my first night in the city. Overall, it was a country where I had felt only the extremes: at times I was terribly frustrated, unable to understand how on earth their country made it through the day, and other times I was just so happy to be there.

Night view of Quito.
Unfortunately, my time in Quito ended on a low note; at the airport, ready to take my flight to Panama City and then San Jose, I was almost made to miss my flight due to two completely absurd reasons not worth talking about here. It didn’t make my farewell to the country all that difficult. However, I am thankful that things could have turned out far, far worse than they had, and I am also grateful that I had traveled relatively painlessly throughout the whole of South America until that point.

And so, after arriving to Cartagena, Colombia on December 1st 2015, I left South America, exactly five months and six days later. I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, though. My original plan was to visit Costa Rica at the end of February, when I first imagined my backpacking trip to last only about two and a half months. I was a little behind schedule, but I would finally head to Central America to explore what Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” is all about.