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.