Berlin.

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“The Wave,” an off the beaten path hike at Coyote Buttes near the border of Utah and Arizona.

The last time I had written I had just returned to New York, and was reflecting on my time backpacking for more than half the year. I now write to you at the eleventh hour, again. I am leaving New York, but it won’t be a temporary adventure this time around. For the first time in my life I truly have no return date. I’m moving to the European continent to start a new phase of my life in Berlin, Germany.

My adventures didn’t end when I came back to the United States. In fact, I had a very busy summer, one of the busiest in recent years. After landing in New York I had some of June and the month of July to reconnect with my family and friends and with my beloved city before heading back to south america, where my mother, stepfather, stepbrother and I made a family trip to the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was a bucket-list moment to be able to watch the opening ceremony live at Maracanã Stadium, and to attend a variety of Olympic games in the days after the opening. Although chaotic as expected, it was truly incredible to see the world come together in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. While I was in Brasil I made a last-minute surprise trip to see my family in Recife, and to see my cousin’s newborn baby. Even though I had just seen my family in February, I knew I couldn’t exactly say when it would be the next time that I would return to visit them.

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Opening Ceremony for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.
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My mother and I at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the venue hosting the rowing matches during the Olympics.
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View from the Sugarloaf Mountain, overlooking Rio’s famous skyline.
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At the Opening Ceremony in Maracanã Stadium.

I was in New York less than a week before I found myself exploring the exotic landscapes of the USA. I took a road trip to California, Utah, and Arizona, where I realized I needn’t even leave my own country to immerse myself in hikers’ paradise. However exotic it may be to see vast, contrasting landscapes in places as Bolivia, Brasil, and Argentina, the beauty of the north american southwest and west coast rivals that of its south and central american counterparts. Five thousand miles on the road, more than 90 miles of hiking, and a busy three weeks visiting Sonoma Valley, Big Sur, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Sequoia National Park in California, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and Arches National Park in Utah, and the Grand Canyon, Page, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Antelope Canyon in Arizona, along with a one-night stop in Las Vegas. I felt so fortunate to have been able to take the time to visit the USA’s National Parks and to intensify my relationship with the outdoors. If I have a moment I will try and write a post about how to conquer the “American Road Trip,” an adventure markedly different from that of a nomadic backpacker, yet in a similar vein a time of personal growth and a test of physical and mental strength.

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16 mile hike to “Cloud’s Rest” at Yosemite National Park, California.
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Arches National Park, Utah.
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Camping at Lake Tahoe, California.
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Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.
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Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona.
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Bryce National Park, Utah.
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View from Observation Point, a 6 mile hike at Zion National Park, Utah.

I’ve neglected to mention one last piece to the puzzle that would explain with whom I was traveling with in various parts of south america, and who it was that came with me on my road trip on the west coast. Andy, the English backpacker who agreed to travel in northern Peru with me seven months ago, became more than just my travel partner. He and I are now dating, and it seems we couldn’t shirk that traveling spirit once he and I returned home to our respective countries. We decided to take the road trip together so that he could also visit the United States for the first time, and because frankly it wasn’t easy going from spending day-in and day-out traveling together to living in very different time zones. He is back in England now, and we’re both happy that in light of my upcoming move we will at least be a much shorter, 2 hour flight away from one another.

So where did Germany come from? In some older posts I had mentioned that I was considering going to graduate school and living in Berlin as early as the days when  backpacking in Bolivia in late March. After applying for and getting accepted to a graduate program in Berlin, I knew I was headed for Europe within the year. But I felt called to moving sooner than September 2017. I wanted to start working beforehand to settle into the city I would call home for an indeterminate amount of time. And in the back of my mind I also knew that if I began working within Berlin’s startup scene, I would have the opportunity to become more involved with the tech community there, and to then be able to lay out all my options on the table and make a more educated decision about what my next step should be.

Hustle: the best word to describe my two months spent this fall after returning from the west coast. And indeed I had been hustling, with a daily commitment to studying for my GRE exams, applying for jobs, and seeking out as many connections in Berlin as I could. People did have their doubts; I was told that I didn’t have much of a chance to find my dream job, and that I should expect to wait tables when I arrived. After all, I don’t speak a word of German, I don’t have EU citizenship, and there aren’t enough jobs in Berlin even for Germans. But I didn’t let any of those things deter me. I kept at it, and the initial hurdle gave way to one opportunity after another. It still amazes me how almost overnight, with a flip of a switch I became not just one of many job applicants but a singular, highly desired applicant. I was shown that with hard work, unwavering dedication, and not giving up truly paves the way for exactly what is supposed to happen, when it’s supposed to happen.

And now, just one day shy of exactly five months after returning to New York from Tulum, I’m getting on a plane once again. It took me some time to get my things together, as I knew I couldn’t pack with the mentality of a backpacker anymore. I was really moving, and I needed clothes that functioned in the real world and in the extreme cold. I spent hours ridding myself of years of personal belongings that have outlived its purpose. I said my metaphorical goodbyes to childhood treasures and keepsakes, and placing those items I wanted to keep in their proper places in my room. As I write this, I notice that my bedroom finally looks like home; I have yet to understand why it has to be right now, when I am ready to leave, that my room has become its most welcoming, its most authentically me. After all the mental and physical purging, I condensed my future life into one large suitcase and two carry-on suitcases, plus a small backpack to hold my computer.

Yes, this new phase of my life is scary and stressful and nerve-wracking. But in a good way. I’m about to jump head-first into a completely new urban cultural and artistic center, whose people will be chatting away in a language I don’t speak, in a country I’ve never lived in before, on a continent I’ve only lived in previously for a total of six months. I hope that Berlin will accept me in the same ways that New York has embraced me. I hope in the not so distant future that I will be able to comfortably call Europe home in the same way that I’ve called the USA home for almost my entire life. Only time will tell; as of now, I have no expectations and no timeline. Traveling has always tried to bring me back to the present and has nudged me to live in the moment. In many ways this will be a great way to put this practice to the test, in the real-world, and with more permanence. I’ll be given the chance to begin at zero. And without the vestiges of New York to find its way into the fabric of my daily routine, as it had done so each time I came home from traveling, in the truest sense of the phrase, I have a fresh start.

It’s overwhelming and amazing, as in this photo of me standing below the world’s tallest trees, in Sequoia National Park, but at the same time I wouldn’t want life to be any other way.

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New York.

Arrival.

What began in my head was a two and a half month trip to Colombia and Patagonia, in Argentina and Chile. I would return home in late February to begin my job search in New York City, and return to life as it had been before. But that didn’t happen. The year 2016 became a six and a half month adventure through twelve countries in South America, North America, and the Central Caribbean.

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Saying goodbye to New York! My first photo.

People ask me what was the highlight of my trip, and I have trouble answering this. I suppose I’d have to categorize my favorite places by their best features, whether it be the culture, food, dance, the interactions I had with the local people, the times I had absorbed the beauty of the physical landscape, or the types of adventures I had with certain people. I often reply in terms of sheer beauty of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, and the salt desert in Uyuni, Bolivia, were the most incredible. In terms of all around nightlife, sights, and culture, I enjoyed my time in Colombia the most. Iquitos, Peru and the surrounding Amazonian rainforest were the most insightful in terms of the environmental ephemerality of our world. The sunsets were endless, and I experienced the best ones in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Jericoacoara, Brasil, or Mancora, Peru. I saw more monkeys and other wildlife in the jungle regions of Costa Rica than anyplace else on my trip. I tested my physical limits in Antigua, Guatemala and I went through emotional roller coasters in Ecuador. Cuba shocked me to my core, but in a good way.

All the places I traveled to for 6.5 months.
All the places I traveled to during my 6.5 months abroad.

So what happened exactly? What comes to mind first is what my body went through in these months. I shattered my gut, at times having no choice but to eating food that I knew just didn’t sit well with me (and only truly feeling better once I returned home). I was hospitalized once from a bad experience with food. I had variety of infections, a skin fungus, sunburns, scabies, mosquito bites that at one point required a half a tube of cortisone a day to alleviate the itching, mosquito bites that turned into massive bruises, and a right knee injury that stayed with me from the time I hurt myself in December until now.

A backpacker can take a lot of discomfort, and traveling can give us an incredible amount of perspective, especially when coming upon certain luxuries that some people take for granted in their daily lives. I learned to carry toilet paper with me wherever I went for the basic reason that toilet paper is a necessity in bathroom use throughout much of the world. I learned to “use the toilet” in a variety of places: in a hostel, an outhouse, a hole in the ground, or on any given patch of grass or behind a rock. There were times when I slept in a bed at a hostel, sharing a room with 2 people to at most 14 people. But I also slept in a tent, a hammock, on a couch, in a closet, on the beach, on the floor, or in a bus. Sometimes where I slept it was too cold, sometimes it was too hot. I slept at altitudes ranging from sea level to 4500 meters above sea level. I rode shared small gypsey busses for durations ranging from 5 minutes to 12 hours. I slept in long haul busses, at the longest for 23 hours in one time and in seats ranging from the lowest economic quality to a decent 140 degree incline, and even once in a luxury 180 degree lie-flat seat. II spent 4 days without showering. A cockroach lived in my bag for a couple of days without my knowledge. Sometimes electricity was not in the day’s itinerary. Wifi was a gift, one that at times was malfunctioning but highly appreciated when available. And of course one cannot go traveling that long without any experiences with theft; I had my money and belongings stolen twice, once in Peru and the other time in Ecuador.

What did I learn? Well, I made a lot of travelers’ mistakes. I learned that in long-term travel, it is not advisable to book anything in advance, past the next 3-4 days. You never know where you’ll end up, or if you’ll want to stay a day or two longer in a particular place. This goes for plane tickets, hostel reservations, bus tickets,and short, 1-3 tour bookings. Speaking of tours, I learned that group tours for long periods of time are not for me. In fact, it was one of the few regrets I had during my trip, not having explored Patagonia on my own, the way I saw the rest of South America. I learned that I had overpacked medications for every possible scenario: unless you have a prescription medication you’ll need to take every day, most likely all medications will be available at a local pharmacy. And I found that they were far cheaper there than anywhere in the United States and Europe. For example, malaria pills are not only really inexpensive in South America, they also don’t require a prescription. I was also much too cautious about the potential altitude sickness I would have arriving in Bolivia, and so I started taking Diamox right away, which ended up doing more harm than good for me. Just simply resting, taking it slow, sleeping at a decent hour, eating well, and drinking lots of water are all you’ll need to prevent altitude sickness. One mistake I didn’t make was overpack.  I used all of what I had packed (here is my post on what exactly came with me in my backpack). Although I only had clothes for cooler climates, so I ended up throwing away some of those while I was in Brasil and buying more clothes fit for summer, for I knew I would be making my way up the continent by the end of my trip.

Yet all these illnesses, mistakes, and general discomforts combined are all still a minor piece of the totality of my travel experience. Because what, really, did I do? I danced salsa in Havana and tango in Buenos Aires. I bathed in the miraculous volcanic hotsprings in Baños. I partied with the locals in Montevideo. I hiked up a snowy, active volcano in Pucón. I saw the witches market in La Paz. I scuba dived in the cenotes of the Caribbean coast of Tulum. I surfed in Manuel Antonio. I went paragliding in Medellin. I danced in the famous Sambódromo for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. I visited the ancient Mayan ruins in Tikal. I witnessed extreme geographical diversity as I hiked to a glacial lake in the high mountains of Huaraz and sand boarded in the hot desert of Huacachina, all within 36 hours.

This is what I did, plus a whole lot more.

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Volcan Villarrica in Pucon, Chile.
Waterfall hike near Montezuma, also on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Waterfall in Montezuma, Costa Rica.
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Paragliding in Medellin, Colombia.
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Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
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Sunset in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
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Huacachina, Peru.
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Treetop swinging in Banos, Ecuador.
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Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala.
Havana, Cuba.
Havana, Cuba.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Casa Cenote, Mexico.
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Uyuni Desert, Bolivia.

It truly amazes me how little I expected my travels to turn out the way they did. The turn of events and the expectations I had have shown me that each choice I made, whether they were as small as what time to move on to my destination or as impactful as deciding to continue traveling, have led me to where I am sitting right now, at this very moment, typing this post.

As I reflect on my journey I see that today it’s been 1 month and 19 days since I’ve returned home. I purposefully took this amount of time before writing anything, as I’ve decided to fully integrate myself back into living here, and to be careful not to make any judgements about myself and my surroundings until I’ve fully settled. Truth is, I can’t possibly feel fully settled; although I’ve recently returned home, I’m in a state of transition. I know that at some point in the next year I will be moving to Europe, more specifically to Berlin, to go to graduate school. I’m not living in my old home in Manhattan anymore; I’ve moved back to my mother’s house on Long Island. It’s a transition into living under someone’s roof again, and with that comes a balance of learning to keep your own space while also respecting the rules of someone else’s home. And without that freedom or that mobility of city-life, I am physically and mentally forced to take a step back, slow down, and not put myself through any pressures of being everywhere at all times.

I was lucky to have a beautiful reintroduction to New York City, with an evening flight from Cancun where outside my window I saw lightning storms, a gorgeous sunset, and a view of the Manhattan skyline. I immediately burst to tears when the plane touched down; it was as if I was holding back all my emotions until the moment when my arrival was physically real and final. I remembered when I landed at JFK in January of 2015 after traveling to Southeast Asia, when I couldn’t hold back my tears at knowing I had come back too soon, pulled back before I felt complete. But this time, I think I cried because I knew it would be quite some time before I would have the opportunity to travel long-term again. I was overwhelmed with knowing that I was going to start, at a fairly fast pace, a new phase of my life, and one that wouldn’t keep me in the United States much longer. True, I would be traveling someplace else in the near future, but in a different sort of way. And despite the sadness, I also felt a release of that past phase. It was an emotional shedding of the old and an acceptance of the unknown future.

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Views from my flight coming back to New York.

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When I first saw the New York City skyline from the car a few days after settling back in Long Island, the hairs on my arms raised and I felt goosebumps across my skin. New York truly is a beautiful city. And the first stop I made was to my old apartment in Battery Park City to pick up a few things I left there. I greeted my roommate and stepped inside; that moment was entirely surreal to me. Nothing had changed. I walked over to my window, watching the sun setting over Jersey City, the Hudson River reflecting the pink glow in the sky, the piers dotted with mega yachts and people running and biking along the boardwalk. I smiled as I remembered my time spent in the apartment, and the knowledge that I couldn’t move back did tug at me. I felt for one moment the desire to sit on my bed and say, “Okay, living with you seemed like fun mom, but, I think I’m going to go and find a job tomorrow and start living here again. See you later!” But that moment passed. Because as much I tried to feel like I was home again, I couldn’t. It felt incredible to go back and see just how much I made my life in New York, in that apartment, my home. But I was a visitor now, and if I had to go back in time and choose whether I would go on this journey for as long as I did, or remain in my apartment as a local, I would do exactly what I had done ten times over again.

That was at the end of June. And now it’s early August, and I am getting ready to leave the country yet again, this time to Brasil for the Olympic Games in Rio. This time not as a solo backpacker, rather with my family on a vacation that was planned nearly two years ago. Just a week ago, I was sitting outside in my backyard reading a copy of E.B. White’s famous essay, Here is New York. Interestingly I had the book sitting in my room for over four months before I even left the country in December, and yet I only picked it up now to read for the first time. At after each and every page I wanted to put the book down, get someone’s attention and cry out, “How has no one ever made me read this before!” It made one thousand percent sense to me, what E.B. White had written. And even more so being that he wrote his reflections on New York City (namely Manhattan) from the perspective of an outsider, someone who had gone to the city young and bright-eyed, lived life to its fullest there, and has since left the craze for a quieter, more comfortable life in the country. I was amazed that what he wrote can describe the city right at this very moment, even though it was written in the summer of 1948, as he describes it as both “changeless yet changing.” It’s interesting to me that I found myself reading this after deciding to formally leave New York and after deciding to try living in Europe for some time. I think that if I read this essay when I first purchased the book, while living in that apartment in Battery Park City, I wouldn’t have felt the same connection with White as I do now. Because now I guess you could say I am an outsider, too. And with a whole bucket list of experiences to back me up, from not only my time in South America but from all my travels since I was a child, I am absolutely ready for what’s next.

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Hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro.

Tulum.

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The last stop on my journey. My flight from Havana to Cancun is a leap of extremes; I enter North America in way of a transition back to the comfortably western, accommodating, and developed world that awaits me in New York. I depart Havana without having used the internet for more than one hour in eleven days and arrive to instant access to free wifi at the airport in Cancun. The limited supply of baked goods in the bakeries of Cuba were transformed to supermarkets providing varying types of cookies, cakes, and any sweet treats imaginable. I went from one world to the next on a mere 45 minute flight. I wasn’t prepared to arrive in a part of Mexico where there are more Americans than Mexicans, where American brands infiltrated every corner shop on main street, and where you can eat just about any type of cuisine you desired, from Thai to Italian to BBQ. Thankfully, my exposure to Cancun was limited only to the airport and to a brief stroll through downtown Playa del Carmen for a bus to mini-shuttle changeover. Although Tulum as a neighborhood is far less affected by the United States, it still gave me a shock, not only coming from Cuba but coming from six months of the hardships and discomforts I often experienced in South America. Indeed I was heading towards home, and Tulum, fortunately or not, was that last little thread I hung by to remind myself that I was a backpacker pushing through a whole lot of grit for half a year.

Initially I felt a little down by being back so close to the lifestyle I had departed from while traveling. But Tulum is a lovely town, although lacking of an “I’m in a foreign country that is Mexico” feeling. It’s a town of transplants from the United States and Europe, and most of them have a warm, inviting, and free-spirit hippie vibe about them. Tulum downtown is small, and after four days there I felt like a local. There are your typical pharmacies, souvenir shops, and alcohol vendors, but you can see the influence of foreigners changing the landscape of the town: fresh juice shops, street stalls selling coconut water, loads of wall murals painted with colorful, Mayan-inspired art, homemade gelato and ice cream stores, a shop selling only varying types of organic iced tea, scuba diving schools, and bicycle rentals. Mexico is cheaper than New York, and certainly not as backpacker friendly as much of South America; however, the prices of such luxuries I missed while traveling, like a green juice smoothie or dairy-free ice cream, were significantly less than in New York City, and I was grateful to have these little niceties accessible again.  

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For those with money to spend and a need for more of a beach/yoga retreat, the accommodations along the beach are where you’ll find ample opportunities. Only about fifteen minutes by car from downtown, these resorts and hotels line up one next to another, although in a way entirely dissimilar to Cancun. Instead of large, all-inclusive resorts with fancy gates and infinity pools, these hotels incorporate all the nature it occupies, with trees and sand making its way into the design of the space. The water in Tulum is a gorgeous turquoise, the sand is soft, and palm trees are plentiful. The hotels creatively incorporate the serenity that people seek when they come to Tulum, largely for a healthy yoga and meditation experience. It’s a single road that connects all the hotels, restaurants with vegan offerings, and stores that sell bohemian clothes and high-end leather dreamcatchers. The highly participated nightlife consists mostly of DJs playing deep house music on the beach, and those devoted to the festival scene congregate here at various times throughout the year.
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Knowing the way in which I like to travel, I can say that if I was in Tulum just for a vacation, I wouldn’t like it as much as I did while I was there in this context. As an outsider it truly seemed like a carefree, beach version of New York City, if we had no worry about making enough money or having a successful career. It’s a place where people go to escape but also have the option of bringing their diet and active lifestyle with them. And I was okay with that. There were times when I traveled when I wasn’t eating well merely because that type of food wasn’t available. I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and fresh air because a city was enveloped in smog. I would be so cold that my muscles ached. And here, I could absorb the piercing heat and the sunshine. I could relax and take one last inhale before heading back to the unknown that awaited me.

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I snorkeled with the green sea turtles, I swam in the clear, warm Caribbean waters, I ate fresh fruit and drank coconut water every day. I visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum. I went cavern diving in two beautiful cenotes. This was a highlight for me; never had I scuba dived in almost complete darkness and in fresh water where the water is completely still, where you have 100% perfect visibility. In these caverns I saw the world of caves under water, almost as if you were looking upside down. I saw just how complex these caves can be, how the stalactites and stalagmites are even more beautiful below the surface.

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Tulum ruins on the coast.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.

I’ve written this post so far as memory. Truthfully, I am back in New York now (my thoughts about being back will come in another post). However, I would like to share what I had written on my very last day traveling, the day I was to leave Tulum for a flight out of Cancun and back to New York. I wrote it on my phone with the intention of including it in this post once I was able to.

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A perfectly modern, western transition back into society. Tulum has certainly felt more like a vacation; I would say Cuba was the last time I felt like a backpacker, or at least the last time I truly acted like one.  It’s amazing to realize all the types of discomforts we are able to bear when we travel, and how little we seek out the comforts of a Tulum-type of place until, perhaps, the very end, when we know we are going home and all we want is to make things as seamless as possible.

And I’ve been transitioning socially as well, messaging friends to let them know of my arrival. I could have ignored their messages but I figured it would be best to slowly start speaking with them. I’m not sure I am ready to see some of them, honestly. But anyways, it should be alright.

So anyhow, today is the last day, and I needed to document this day as it is important to me. It’s the last day of the my past that I hope will shape my present. That I may slow down my walking pace, seek to not judge others and new people, embrace the travel spirit, blah blah blah. You know, all that life changing stuff we hear about from returning backpackers. But seriously, I am fully aware that this is a time of my life that was so precious, a gift I cannot help but be so proud to have received. I realize that not everyone can travel the way that I did.

There was so much of the normal trials and tribulations of a backpacker that I experienced while traveling through South and Central America, but I also left much behind me as I began to pave new paths for my future. I had to leave my apartment without actually physically being there, never having closure of my life in NYC and without a guarantee of coming back. I gave up job opportunities, and an immediate chance of employment at a tech startup in Berlin. I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school. So, I did research, chose a school in Berlin, applied for that school (by writing my essay in a Starbucks in Cusco), got accepted, took some time to see if I was really ready to leave town this coming September after a busy summer, and decided to defer my admission for one year. I am going home with no plan; all I know for now is I have about a month in New York while my cousin from Brasil will be visiting and my grandmother will be spending one week at home. So it’s a full house and a full summer, as I am leaving again for Brasil in August to see the Olympics in Rio. All of a sudden I’m a busy girl again, with places to go and people to see.

I suppose this way is better than being alone and without direction. But I still feel I am still without a true direction, and that makes me nervous. It also makes me laugh, because I met so many people traveling who were doing the exact same thing as I was. They were trying to find themselves through travel, trying to find the answers they were looking for. But as of right now I really don’t know where I will be in 6 months. The goal for right now is going to Berlin to work and then attend graduate school. I am absolutely certain that I need a break from the city that has worn me out, from New York. Being away from the city for so long made me realize that as much as I miss some of its comforts, culture, and glamour, I would truly rather give it all up, again, to see the world the way I saw it in South America.
To feel such rawness and extremes of emotions, to go through as many blissful moments as I did obstacles, all at once overwhelming, humbling, and powerful. To meet people that have inspired me and have made me look at myself in new ways. To see extraordinary beauty. This is travel. This was my six and a half months. All I can say is that I am excited yet terrified to be going home. As I have said and believed in time and time again: the universe provides, and what I am meant to be doing in my life is going to happen just the way it’s supposed to be.

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Havana.

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The energy I felt within 24 hours of arriving in Havana was overwhelming, exhilarating, and surprisingly enlightening. In Cuba, you’re truly thrown back into the past. You’re given a glimpse of what life may have been like when technology and branding didn’t rule our lives. When mobile phones weren’t constantly occupying our right hand and our line of vision while we walked on the street, when computers stayed fixed in a household’s “computer room.” When advertisements were saved only for billboards and television commercials, and weren’t an ever-present force. In Havana, people walk on the streets and know one another. Whether they may be friends, neighbors, or enemies, they know each other business; they know what happens on their streets. People are awake, alert, and living. They stop and speak to one another, really look the other in the other’s eyes, and have a conversation. There are few mobile phones around to disturb their conversations, no Instagram push notification or Facebook comment they must attend to right away. The locals are having real conversation about the day-to-day in their lives, or the gossip heard the other day about their elusive neighbor. Having that escape from being online and from being connected to the world actually brings you even closer to your own city. And as a tourist, I was brought into the Cubans’ world, whether they wished it or not, and I felt a closeness with the country’s energy that I hadn’t felt in the same way in any other place I had visited before on my travels. And so, this post is special to me in that as I describe my much too short eleven day sojourn there, I recall how the country made me feel, and how I truly fell in love with Cuba as I never thought I would.

I have to admit I was incredibly nervous when I landed at José Martí International Airport. Thankfully by this point I was not backpacking solo; I was told by other backpackers that it was not recommended to travel alone, and as things always seem to work out in the way they should, I found myself traveling with my old companion, the one from my days in Peru. But I was still anxious about what I was going to be met with in Cuba. I was prepared for the worst: inability to tap into cash when needed, exchanging money at alarmingly high rates, excessive cat-calling, long lines for just about everything, scammers, terrible food and borderline starvation for lack thereof, being lost without internet or ways to obtain tourist information, poor accommodations and unfriendly hosts, and numerous other bits and pieces that travelers had warned me about. All the people I had met either hated Cuba, or loved it but with a little asterisk, a sort of aside that meant it was a difficult kind of love, a tug of the heart, an obstacle that they overcame and in the end felt good about. My heart was beating out of my chest, and I was visibly nervous and scatter brained when we walked through to immigration and customs. I was sure that we would have issues at immigration, despite the fact that I was using my Brazilian passport. But, we passed through quite easily. We arrived at night, and in the typical Cuban way we didn’t book any accommodation – we only had the card of a casa particular that a backpacker recommended to me. We took a taxi to old Havana, where we found the casa. Old Havana’s buildings are sadly falling apart, but retain their charm from the prosperous years. But this casa was a little gem in the city. More about our host in Havana a little later.

Havana was by far one of the most fascinating capital cities I have visited. The extremes of the rich and the poor, of the locals and tourists, are immense. Their dual currency, the CUC (foreign Cuban Convertible Pesos currency) and CUP (local Cuban pesos), heightened this dichotomy. The CUC, although used for foreigners, is also used by locals for specific purchases, such as bottled water, household furnishings, and real estate. In the upscale residential neighborhoods of Havana such as in Vedado, you can go to a bar and pay twelve dollars for a cocktail. At El Floridita in Old Havana, world famous for their daiquiris and catered exclusively to tourists, you’ll be short six dollars for the rum and lime juice concoction. El Floridita also highlights Cubans’ obsession with Ernest Hemingway, the writer who spent a great deal of time in the country. Various places claim to have hosted Hemingway at some point during his stay in Cuba, including El Floridita, where he spent time writing and drinking, as he always did in the likes of New York and Paris. Hemingway also visited the bar called La Bodeguita del Medio, which lays claim to being the birthplace of the Mojito. Salvador Allende, Pablo Naruda, and other personalities have been known to patronize this bar as well.

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El Floridita bar next to old Havana’s architecture.
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“Coco” taxis waiting outside El Floridita.
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Tours of the city can be done in these old cars, parked outside the Gran Teatro.
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Old Havana.
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Images of Che Guevara everywhere in old Havana.

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Visiting the famous La Coppelia ice cream parlor was a sad and eye-opening experience for me. Local Cubans can pay an astoundingly low one penny per scoop of ice cream, but at the cost of waiting over 2 hours in line to be able to do so. As we walked towards the shop and saw the line, my heart sank. I was afraid I would never try the ice cream as I wouldn’t want to wait on the line. However, as we neared, we were called after by employees, asking if we spoke English, and then waved over to a nearby area. We pass the line and the main entrance, walk up the side stairs, and enter a nondescript door. Inside is an air-conditioned, empty ice cream parlor with old fashioned photos and three employees waiting to serve us. We sat down, ordered, and and promptly served two scoops of strawberry and vanilla ice cream. I was uncomfortable and frustrated by the outright exclusivity of it all, yet satisfied by the delicious flavors. We left after twenty minutes, and I felt guilty for passing the locals in line, eyeing us knowing that we had just finished having our share of the dessert so loved by Cubans. And, how much did this special VIP treatment cost us? The ice cream cost two dollars and fifty cents per person.

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Locals waiting outside for La Coppelia ice cream.
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Inside the foreigner’s ice cream parlor at La Coppelia.
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Image of Che Guevara in Revolution Square.

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Transportation is another divider amongst the rich and the poor. A taxi ride from Old Havana to the upscale town of Vedado cost about ten dollars, whether or not you take an old car or a regular yellow taxi. A ride in an old car that’s been exquisitely and expensively kept will cost about thirty dollars for a day ride through town. The quality of the highways are very high, but this is because there are so few cars on them. It is expensive to travel from city to city. A driver we met had never been to Cienfuegos, four hours from his hometown of Havana. Our “Mama,” our host in Havana, was from Pinar del Rio, but hadn’t visited her hometown in years, even though it is only three and a half hours away from Havana. And leaving Cuba for vacation is out of the question except for the ultra-rich. In order to get a visa to visit another country, Cubans must show sufficient funds, which they almost never have. We learned that a lot of Cubans have family in the United States, and some in parts of Europe. It is very difficult to obtain a visa for them to visit their family, even if the family promises to pay for their airfare and to support them financially during their stay. Especially owning a car in Cuba is a costly luxury. Not only is the price of gasoline high (diesel being less expensive means that most cars’ engines are switched out to accept diesel fuel), but the prices of cars are disproportionately high to their value elsewhere in the world. For example, we rode in a taxi driver’s used Peugeot from the year 2000 and with over 500,000 kilometers on the odometer, which he told us was worth about 15,000 dollars. In the United States this same car wouldn’t cost more than one thousand dollars.

A ride around Havana is a beautiful thing to do, especially along the Malecon at night, where you’ll whizz by hundreds of people hanging out on the esplanade, looking to the sea. Havana’s crazy nightlife starts and ends here, with a few drinks along the boardwalk at all hours of the night and early morning. Some nightlife options for tourists and upper class Cubans include a well-known Thursday salsa dancing night at Jardines del 1830 and grabbing drinks and looking at new art exhibitions at the Art Factory in Vedado. You’ll find both locals and tourists at both these places, but there are an endless amount of options that are exclusive to tourists merely based on the price of entry and cost of drinks.

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The Malecon.

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Speaking of our “Mama,” she was our warm and delightful host at the casa particular we stayed in, in Havana. It was with her that we learned about her life as a Cuban and her thoughts on the visible changes happening in her country. It was with her that we had a place to sleep, food to eat, laughs, and where I realized that I was already in love with her city, with the wild west of Havana. She is a nurse, working six days a week from 7am to 6pm each day. She doesn’t earn much, but is content with her life. She earns well for she uses her home as supplemental income. She is not happy with how Cuba has made things difficult for her, such as seeing and learning more of the world, but she is hopeful for change. She also feels that having the country open to the United States will be better for business overall, and she welcomes it. I don’t think she realizes, as none of us really do, to what extent having open doors to Americans will change Cuban culture and lifestyle. The brand-less, unwired, time-warp of a city won’t stay that way for very long.

A casa particular is truly the only way to properly get to know Cuba. A hotel, although more comfortable, is not only much more expensive but it is not the honest way to meet locals and to see how they live. It’s also a new way to support local businesses and individual families. A casa costs between fifteen and twenty-five dollars per night in Cuba, some including breakfast. Anyone with an officially registered casa has a special symbol on their door, and they must report to the government their monthly earnings, paying a tax to them regardless of whether they had any guests or not that month. And, local food is best found at casas, where the women cook the traditional dishes made legend in other cities where Cuban restaurants are plenty, such as in New York. You won’t get the lobster or the steak, which are illegal to purchase by residents (although you can buy lobster at any upscale restaurant, they just won’t list it on the menu), but you will try their vegetables, rice, pork and chicken, and fruit. You can even visit any casa that you’re not staying in and have dinner – most families would be happy to prepare food for you, for around five to ten dollars. Almost every home has multiple rocking chairs, whether in people’s living rooms on their front porches.

I am sure you are as shocked as I am to read this – it is true that the average wage the Cuban government gives to each person, to account for food and shelter and water for the month, is fifteen dollars. That’s it. To give some perspective on what the costs are for Cubans, equivalent in CUP, food from a sidewalk window shop would be one dollar for a ham and cheese sandwich, bananas from the local market cost four cents, one pound of a pork’s leg is less than two dollars, electricity/utilities about five dollars per month, ice cream is about fifteen cents per scoop, bread was ten cents, the National Granma newspaper costs about two and a half cents. I saw a beautiful modern dance performance at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, the Havana Grand Theater. Here, a ticket for a local is one dollar for any seat. As a tourist, I paid thirty dollars.

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The Gran Teatro de la Habana by night.

These staggering differences prices are quite normal – entries to museums, theaters, transportation, market prices, and any attractions are exponentially higher for tourists. Although some necessities are still too expensive for locals, as is evident by a trip to a supermarket. The water in Cuba is very poor – it is actually poisonous. Cubans are forced to drink bottled water, and can only purchase this in the tourist current, the CUC. It costs about one dollar fifty for a bottle of water. Milk is about two dollars, household items like lamps and plastic storage containers can cost up to fifteen dollars, a lock is five dollars, a lamp between twenty and thirty dollars, a screwdriver three dollars, Butter (one small square costs ten cents) and olives (a small pack costs seventy-five cents) are among the more scarce items, seen behind a glass container at the supermarket, sharing the same space as alcohol and cigarettes. Toilet paper and napkins are also highly priced. There are little items in terms of brand named cookies, snacks, and the like – rather, a trip to the ice cream shop is what satisfies the very sweet-toothed Cuban. Cubans love sugar. Everything they consume as loads of sugar in it – coffee, fruit juice, ice cream, and the two drinks Cuba is known for: daquiris and mojitos. Havana Club rum was seven dollars a liter, beer between one and a half and three dollars a bottle. Cuban cigars range from one dollar sixty to nine dollars per cigar, depending on the quality.

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A typically bare supermarket.
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Local markets offer limited meat, mainly pork.
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Local market.

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Communication is quite costly too, for both locals and tourists. It’s a humorous timewarp with all things “internet.” In order to access the internet, you must go to a hotel or an ETECSA shop and purchase a card with a unique number. This costs about two to three dollars per hour. You then log in to the wifi and enter the number – you can use the one hour as many times as you want, just having to log out to stop the timer. However, wifi only exists in public parks and squares; you’ll notice if a park has wifi when you see tourists crowded together looking down at their phones, or Cubans in business suits on their laptops writing emails.

Oh, a post about Cuba isn’t complete without a brief mention of their cigars! Truly, even as non-cigar smoker, trying the various types of cigars was a pleasure. Cohiba cigars were without a doubt the highest quality, and they’re a relatively inexpensive and fun gift to bring back home. The United States now allows up to 100 dollars worth of tobacco and alcohol from Cuba to be brought into the country.

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You probably haven’t heard of José Martí. The airport is named after him, there are museums in old Havana dedicated to his life and place of his birth, his face is on the local Cuban currency, and he is visible in almost every small town in some form, whether it be a statue in the main square or on propaganda posters. He is quite an important figure for the Cuban people. He was a poet who fought and died for his country during the Cuban War of Independence from Spain in 1895. Fidel Castro has long since used him as a symbol for Cubans, interestingly adding his image and words in almost every town in the country, rather than having his own face and slogans. And the subliminal propaganda works; by the time I had left Cuba I was not only convinced that José Martí was pivotal in the war, even though he died on his first day in battle, but I was also strangely reminded of Fidel Castro’s importance and reign during the 20th century, and his longstanding stronghold over every single element of the Cuban people’s lives. In Havana, there is a statue of José Martí shielding a baby in his arms and pointing a finger directly across a square. This building, a few meters away, happens to be the United States Embassy (what used to be the US Special Interests building has recently re-opened as the Embassy, since the United States and Cuba began negotiations again). What an incredible (and quite hilarious) message Castro has given to Cubans. Despite an Embassy being there, José Martí, the symbol of fighting for Cuba, will shield the coming generations from the wrath of the American influence.

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The statue of Jose Marti in front of the US Embassy in the background.

There was so much more to Cuba than Havana or, as many Canadians may be familiar with, the pristine beaches and large all-inclusive resorts of Varadero. We didn’t even visit Varadero; instead, my friend and I decided to venture around the west side of the island. First, we made our way to Trinidad, the colorful colonial town founded in 1514. My fascination with the old cars continued as I frantically snapped photos of the cars against the colored walls. In Trinidad we stayed in an entirely different sort of casa particular, a family with a larger home and multiple bedroom/bath ensuites, and a rooftop overlooking the town. A larger casa, a more elaborate breakfast, with fresh guava juice, mangos and pineapple, eggs, bread, butter, coffee, cheese, and guava sweets, but also a more reserved family, one that wasn’t excited to talk about their lives or learn about ours. Trinidad was certainly a less happy place than Havana, and we found that although most of their business is derived from Tourism, they don’t welcome it the way they do in Havana. And they’re not as talkative – in Havana we were met with so many people who came up to speak with us, and not for any reason other than to welcome us to their city, and to offer advice on areas to see and educate us on Cuban culture.

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View of central Trinidad from our casa.

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Our next stop was Viñales, home to tobacco farms, caves, and mountains lining the Viñales Valley, located in the north western part of the country. The areas of Cuba I had visited thus far were flat, connected by a single highway road, noticeably desolate as Cubans lack the means to leave their towns. The only cars visible were taxis, and the roads were mostly busy with tourist busses by the same company called Viazul. Viñales itself is a small, largely touristic town. The closest major city is about thirty minutes away, Pinar del Rio. We rented a motorbike to explore the surrounding countryside and to take in the viewpoints. We also rode to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, the largest cave in Cuba and the second largest in Central America, and did a torchlight tour of the interior. We were surprised how few visitors there were to this cave, one that seemed to be far more interesting than the other nearby caves such as Cueva de la Piscina or Cueva del Indio. Having a motorbike allowed us to travel to farther distances without having to worry about booking tours; we also rode about two and a half hours to a Cayo Jutias, a secluded beach along the coast. We passed through small villages, each one melting into another as they had similar layouts, and all with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro posters and slogans, as well as José Martí statues protruding from the center squares.

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Che Guevara propaganda seen en route to a small village outside of Viñales.
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Our casa particular in Viñales.
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The main bakery in Viñales.

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Viñales has beautiful countryside and farmland, still tilled by ox and managed by horses. It’s a flashback to the past, to a country western movie where there is no rush for anything. There’s nowhere to be but right now, at the very moment, tilling the land. The people are friendlier than in Trinidad but still more reserved than in Havana. What stood out for me apart from the landscape was the food – I was blown away by the perception that you cannot eat well in Cuba. In fact, I had tried some lovely dinners in Viñales with seafood and fresh vegetables, two things I thought were scarce. I should note, however, that these two items may not be as easily accessible to locals, who may not afford it. I was eating at a delicious restaurant, and did occasionally go to restaurants during my stay in Cuba, but unfortunately the patrons were mostly tourists. The few Cubans I saw were in Havana, and they looked extremely well-off and fortunate to be able to dine at a restaurant. It hurt me to know that this food would never be eaten by a local Cuban. A typical dinner dish cost between eight and twelve dollars, which by New York standards is cheap. But for a Cuban, who makes the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month, this luxury outing would be impossible.

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Viñales countryside.
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Inside the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas.
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Climbing the caverna.
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A seafood meal in Viñales.

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We spent our last two days back in Havana, and I had revisited what I loved about the city when I first arrived. I left the country with every intention of returning, more curious than ever before about the changes that await Cuba, and what the effects of American tourism will actually mean for its people. I realize that although my eyes were blinded by only what I as a tourist could see, I knew that the reality Cuban history and dictatorship still remains. As we went through immigration, side by side with some Cubans who clearly were leaving their country for the first time, I knew how fortunate I was to travel, to see the world. To leave the island I live in, the not so little island of Manhattan. I went through their duty free store to spend my remaining Cuban currency, and to my dismay I saw all the items that were missing in their stores all around their country: oreo cookies, chocolate bars, branded candy snacks, foreign spirits and whiskey. These goods were not even physically 30 kilometers away from Havana residents, and some people would never know they existed. And, even if the rich Cubans could afford it, they wouldn’t readily have access to these products unless they too have the same gift that so many of us have, the gift of mobility. The gift of leaving your home country to explore another. The ability to travel and bring back memories of a place, so strange.

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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.

Iquitos.

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Sunset along the Iquitos boardwalk.
Iquitos is the wild west. It has an energy that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Peru, one that is scarily crazy and backwards, yet exciting and glamorous all the same. Iquitos is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road – you can only get there by flying, by taking a 3-4 day cargo boat from various amazonian cities in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, or by taking a 12 hour fast boat. Yet when you arrive in Iquitos, you don’t feel like you’re trapped by the rivers enclosing it. It’s truly a city, bustling with rundown moto-taxis honking at one another, the rain seeming to splash upwards from the concrete during the daily downpour. The city is full of oddities. There are casinos and Hummers and various forms of police in the downtown and waterfront areas. You can find bars, clubs, vegetarian friendly restaurants, and beautiful colonial Spanish architecture along the boardwalk. But there is also poverty – an overall “sketchiness,” where strangers approach in the same casual way to take their tour of the jungle or to buy their drugs. There are stray dogs on every corner, grouped together and howling at whatever passes them, all looking completely disease ridden and hungry. There are kids that are devoid of gringo curiosity, rather trained to steal the gringo’s bags draped over their chairs at restaurants. There’s the famous Belén market that sells fruits and fish right next to dead turtles, caymans, monkeys, and tapir. In a funny contrast, just a few blocks away you’ll find an expensive supermarket selling sugar free biscuits and ten varieties of granola next to the in-store wine shop and air-conditioned cafe, one that we frequented on a daily basis for their set menu lunch. There is wealth that oozes of loose morals: casinos are safe-havens for the ever-present mafia to launder their money, and the presence of not only various Peruvian police forces but also of the DEA only proves that the movement of cocaine in and out of the amazon drives much of the wealth that can be found there. (You’ll notice the extremes that I had experienced in and around Iquitos in the photos I’ve posted here.)
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Abandoned boat in Iquitos.
Abandoned boat in Iquitos.
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The dichotomy of life and death is so easy to perceive in Iquitos. In just one day I went to the Belén market in the morning, where I saw dead endangered animals being sold as if it were entirely normal to eat animals that in no way have a place in our diet. I cringed when one woman holding a live turtle pierced it’s skin with a knife, getting ready to open it’s insides to present to shoppers looking to buy that evening’s dinner. I couldn’t bare to watch the skinned tapir head, the charred and hairless monkey hand and tail, it’s head nowhere to be found. That afternoon my friend and I visited Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Amazon Animal Orphanage, founded 12 years ago by an Austrian woman named Gudrun. Just an hour by taxi and then by boat outside of Iquitos, orphanage is home to various species of monkeys as well as a capybara, tapir, an ocelot, and a jaguar, all either brought to the sanctuary or rescued by the Eco-Police. It was incredible to see the amount of care taken to create a safe and healthy habitat for these animals as well as seeing how much it took to sustain various species of butterflies. Pilpintuwasi curates their entire life-cycle process, from housing the butterfly eggs to providing spaces for the caterpillars to grow, and then for the butterflies to survive and mate. We learned just how much work and time it takes to ensure a successful transition into a butterfly, and how short and beautiful their time on this earth is. And it was ironic and sad to see the same species of turtle in the water as I saw that morning in the market. I was able to see a small tapir while learning of its very slow mating process where a female has a baby once every five years and has a gestation rate of 13 months. Many types of Tapir are endangered due to heavy human consumption; it was no surprise that I had seen tapir heads, hooves, and their meat for sale at the market only hours before.

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An owl butterfly at Pilpintuwasi.
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Up close with a butterfly.
Up close with a butterfly.

Turtles for sale at Belen market.
Turtles for sale at Belen market.

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Monkey and an unidentified animal for sale at the market.

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Tapir head and hooves.
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I had never seen a jaguar, and at this orphanage I was fortunate to see one, although he had been kept behind bars for the past 13 years after it was brought to the owner as a cub. It’s incredibly ironic that most of the animals cannot go back into the wild, whether because they were born in captivity, are physically unable to survive on their own, or in the case of the jaguar, not allowed by the Peruvian government to be transported to an open reserve or to be released into the wild. These sanctuaries and rescue centers are incredibly important for the survival of these animals and for the species in general, while also serving as a place to educate the people of the destruction they cause by capturing, killing for food, or keeping these animals as pets. But they also present a difficulty to the casual visitor – we are still seeing these animals in captivity, and they will most likely remain as such for the remainder of their lives. The zoo is the evil stepsister, but they are related all the same. This goes back to my post on Huaraz and Huacachina about the environment: we cause this destruction. We abhor it and want nothing but to change it, yet we perpetuate it by taking part in the visiting of animals, the rainforest, by merely being visitors to these places. And these people who live on that land are equally responsible for destroying their habitat, and the habitat of the animals that live there.

A friendly monkey at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.
A friendly monkey at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.

Pedro the Jaguar.
Pedro the Jaguar.

A small tapir at the orphanage.
A small tapir at the orphanage.
The high rainfall during the months of November to May in the amazon also brings out the mosquitoes. Never before have I seen so many mosquitoes in one place. And wow we did suffer from their presence, their attraction to gringo blood. My friend and I booked a three day tour in the jungle, away from the chaos in Iquitos. I left with the most mosquito bites I’ve ever had in my life – there were so many all over me, I even had two bites on my eyelids. The amount of scratching caused bruises to form – it was a discomfort that was hard to psych myself out of. But it was worth it to see truly what goes on in the jungle. We went upstream 220 kilometers outside of the city, to the underside of Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, a 20,000 square km protected area that is the largest in the country. We stayed in a rustic lodge built on stilts in the water, and took the small motor boat every day along the river to look for wildlife and to stop on land to do some walking through the jungle. I expected to see monkeys, pink and grey dolphins, caymans, sloths, various species of birds, tarantulas, medicinal trees and plants, and a copious amount of spider webs. I didn’t see any sloths or caymans, as nature doesn’t guarantee all flora and fauna sightings that exist in the jungle. But what I didn’t expect to see to the extent that I did, in only a short amount of time, the destruction. The sheer horror I felt when I saw our “local” guide, who was just a villager with a small boat and a machete, cut through his backyard whenever a tree or plant stood in his way. The way he spoke about the animals as if they’re just a good sport to catch and kill for pets or food. The little respect he had for nature. Most of the jungle paths we visited had lost it’s luster, completely void of the lush vibrancy of a healthy planet. We stopped at a local village along the river to find the waters near their homes, all built on stilts, full of empty plastic bottles and smelling of rotten fish. In fact, we did see some dead catfish, their guts swollen, floating belly up in the water just by these people’s homes. I can say I did see a sloth in the jungle, however it was completely in the opposite way that I had imagined. As I approached the poor three toed sloth, he was tied to a wooden post on the underside of a woman’s house. His arm was held up by a knotted rope, and he had little place to move. Our group spoke to the woman, who told us with pride that she found the sloth and decided she would care for it by giving it food and keeping it as a pet, that way her neighbors wouldn’t kill it for food. I understand our need to respect the cultures and customs of others. However, it was impossible to hide my disappointment and my sadness. Indeed the jungle that we fly thousands of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to visit before it becomes obsolete is being destroyed from the inside – and frankly I am not sure that anything will be done about it. Not now, not ever.

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A captured pet sloth.

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Trash and plastic bottles outside a small village.

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Floating dead catfish in the river.

Cut down trees in the rainforest during our daily treks.
Cut down trees in the jungle.

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A rainbow over our lodge, situated near Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

Piranha fishing, where I caught some baby catfish.
Piranha fishing, where I caught some baby catfish.

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A monkey jumped on our boat, curious about our food!
On our last day we visited the Centro de Rescate Amazónico  (CREA), an amazon rescue center and Manatee sanctuary. In contrast to the sobering effect that our jungle tour had on our visions of the future of this planet, this place provided us with a small glimmer of hope. Here we learned of the great efforts that are being made to protect the manatees, macaws, monkeys, otters, turtles, and caymans, helping to rehabilitate them as they’re delivered to the center and subsequently sending them back to the wild when they are ready. CREA frequently accepts school groups. The local students, many of whom have these wild animals as pets in their homes, are known to give up these animals to the center after learning of the harm that they are doing to them by holding them in captivity. And so we see first-hand the importance of educating people of the world they live in, and it is indeed a precious place that they inhabit.

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A rescued monkey at CREA.

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Friendly manatee looking for food.
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As I write this, I am on a 19 hour overnight bus ride from Lima to Mancora. To my left is an orange sunset shining its light along the dry desert coastline, the highway bordering the sea. It’s a dry beauty, and the sun illuminates my face, giving me warmth as I reflect on the overwhelming amount of emotions I felt in the amazon just a couple of days before.

And it hasn’t just been about the battle between humans and the environment. I was confronted with a far more immediate and personal decision to make in Iquitos. I received an email my first day in the city from the Hertie School in Berlin. I had been accepted into the International Affairs master’s program. It’s funny how it happened the same way I was able to reflect in Manú National Park, the amazon region in the south of Peru (I wrote about my experience and my decision to apply for graduate school here). It all seemed to come full circle when I received that email – I knew that I had a huge decision to make, and it was extremely time sensitive, as the tuition deposit is due in exactly a month. And I still have not made my decision. When I realized that I was actually accepted, the utter shock on my face showed my surprise that such a prestigious school would take a chance on me as their wild card in their Class of 2018. I knew I was going to Berlin, but I had already made it up in my mind that I had more time, and that perhaps early next year I would be picking up my life and starting anew. It seems that things are moving a lot quicker – I now have a timeline again. If I accept, by September I will be moving, and much of what I thought about while spending hours boating in the amazon was precisely what that means for my life in New York. How I would be leaving my friends and family, most of whom have no idea that when I return in June, I would have just two months to see them. How I won’t be returning to the life I started to create for myself in NYC. I now arrive in Mancora on the coast of northern Peru — a town of surfing, beaches, and ceviche — to take the time to rest and find some clarity.

Chiclayo & Chachapoyas.

For the first time while backpacking South America, I made the conscious decision to travel with someone else. I thought long and hard about traveling with a companion, and it happened quite organically. I made friends with a group of six backpackers in Sucre, Bolivia, and happened to run into them in La Paz, and again in Cusco, Peru. They were a fun group from England, Belgium, and France, and were very relaxed about their travels. One of them expressed an interest in the same route I planned to take in the north coast of Peru and the northeast Amazon, areas that aren’t as frequently traveled by first-time backpackers to the country. And so, after getting to know this person through my run-ins with this group in various cities, I decided to give traveling with someone else a chance.

As a solo-backpacker, I have met many people in my travels that have turned out to become my good friends. But what I have done so many times in the past is made these connections and frequently kept in touch, but I never thought about having them actually accompany me in my intended route. Perhaps it’s because people haven’t been traveling to the same places as I’ve been along the way. But in this case, someone came along with flexibility to explore Peru, and without a set date to go home. and most importantly we seemed to share a similar traveling style.

So far we’ve visited the coastal city of Chiclayo and the mountain town of  Chachapoyas. As of now it has only been a short time since the two of us have been traveling, but I can tell that I am learning a lot from this experience already. It turns out there are quite a few practical benefits to traveling with a companion, and arguably it’s more interesting to do so with someone who doesn’t come from home, someone with an entirely different culture than your own. You can save money when splitting taxis, food, and accommodation. Making decisions are often easier when you have someone to talk them out with. Long bus rides go by quicker and are far less stressful when you know whom you’ll be sitting next to. They can watch your bags when you need to step away for a moment. Tours can be booked at a cheaper rate when there’s two people involved. Overall, you have someone to watch your back while you watch theirs. You have a friend to share in the sometimes stressful interactions with locals that you can later laugh about together. You have a witness to the indescribably funny and crazy moments along the way. You have someone to help you be accountable. That person can push you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t think of doing (in a good way, of course). And if you’re lucky, that person can be on the same wavelength as you. As time flies by, you’ll learn more about that person’s life, and in turn you’ll be given the chance to share in your own experiences. Because really, everyone has their own travel story to tell.

I am curious what I will learn from all of this, and will surely write about it once I am well on my way alone again.

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Tucume, the largest pyramid complex in the world, outside of Chiclayo. At this site there are 26 important pyramids in 540 acres. Constructed by the Lambayeque in 1000 AD, they were conquered by the Chimu in 1375 and incorporated into the Incan Empire in 1470.

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Sunset at Pimentel beach in Chiclayo.
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Kuelap ruins outside of Chachapoyas. The Fortress of Kuelap is one of the largest ancient stone monuments in the New World, and is at located 3,000 meters.
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Kuelap was built during the pre-Inca times, at around the sixth century A.D.

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In contrast to the Incas, who built their homes in a rectangular shape, the people of Kuelap built their domiciles in a circle.

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