Huaraz & Huacachina.

Laguna 69, the glacial lake deposit from Chacraraju, of the mountains of Cordillera Blanca at 4650 meters above sea level. Huarascaran National Park is home to the highest mountain in Peru.
Laguna 69, the glacial lake deposit from Chacraraju, of the mountains of Cordillera Blanca at 4650 meters above sea level. Huarascaran National Park is home to the highest mountain in Peru.

Peru is one of the most geographically diverse countries I’ve ever been to. It’s one of seventeen of the world’s megadiverse countries (all of which contain 70% of the earth’s biodiversity). The country has three major regions: the coast (costa), the Andes (sierra), and the Amazon rainforest (selva). I experienced the drastic changes in climate not only in Manú, where within one day I saw the changes in flora and fauna as we reached the high selva and descended into the wet and rainy rainforest. But I also saw the sudden climate shift on the bus from Huaraz to Lima, and from Lima to Ica, where I had started my day next to the snow-capped mountain range in Huarascarán National Park, and by sunset I was exploring the hot and dry desert oasis in Huacachina. While in Huacachina, a small town in Ica province that is known largely for it’s sandboarding and dune buggy excursions catered to foreigners, I took a day-trip to Paracas, where I sealed my introduction to Peruvian geography. It was in Paracas National Reserve, a desert peninsula along the coast and the only marine reserve in Peru, where my subconscious thoughts about the environment were surfaced for the first time. I realized that I had been thinking a long while about my relationship to the planet and what it means as a traveler to experience the world within an environmental context. Being able to witness these extraordinary changes in my environment, and at such a fast pace, is overwhelming yet very powerful. It’s also really depressing. We are destroying our world, and as a traveler I am playing a significant part in it’s rapid environmental decline.

It’s interesting how as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more excited about nature. I was born and raised in the classic city setting. The extent of my exposure to nature was going to the beach on weekends and on holidays. I wasn’t isolated from the diversity we have on this planet – I’ve traveled extensively and have seen many exotic places. But I never considered myself an outdoorsy person, and so I didn’t explore nature from an “adventure” perspective. I wasn’t in love with the idea of camping outside and spending my days hiking in the forest. Nowadays, I crave being outside; last year I started hiking and since then I haven’t been able to stop. Although challenging, I felt at ease in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, hiking for hours on end each day. I felt invincible climbing the snowy Villarrica Volcano in Pucón in Chile. The 5,000 meter altitude of the Vinicunca mountains near Cusco left me gasping for oxygen, but when I reached the summit I felt such a sense of accomplishment rarely felt in my “city” life. And I see myself getting better and stronger each time I set out to hike. I didn’t think I would ever be wearing hiking boots in my life, and here I am proudly wearing them almost every day!

Vinicunca Mountains, Cusco.
Vinicunca Mountains, Cusco.
At 5000 meters above sea level in Vinicunca.
At 5000 meters above sea level in Vinicunca.

In my travels I crave seeing the world in its natural beauty partly because I am increasingly aware of its impermanence. What I see is not forever.

On our way back to Huacachina from our day trip to Paracas, a fellow traveler and friend said to me, “as we see the world, we destroy the world.” The more foreigners visit a place unknown to them, the more they destroy that particular habitat. It makes no difference whether we are luxury travelers or frugal backpackers. Our mere presence is what creates the chaos. And here in Peru it is evident that some of it’s most prized physical and cultural treasures are at risk of destruction.

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Sandboarding in Huacachina.
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Huacachina Oasis

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Every day tourists take photos as they jump into the air overlooking Machu Picchu. What they don’t realize is that this high forest is actually in danger of sinking. As they land from their high jump, checking to see if all their friends made it in the air and editing away to post on their instagram, they don’t realize they are contributing to soil erosion. The rumor that the Peruvian government is going to create elevated platforms that prevent the huge influx of tourists from stepping on the ruins themselves can quickly become a reality. Hikers leave trash at the gorgeous glacial lakes in Huarascarán National Park. Cultural destruction is evident in Cusco where the local Peruvian way of life has been substituted with the increasing demand for tour operators, massage parlors, souvenir shops, and a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, all occupying historical buildings in the main plaza square. In Iquitos, it has become increasingly common for foreigners to interest in partake in a spiritual and medicinal ceremony that has been performed by shamans for hundreds of years. People are taking note of this heightened interest in ayahuasca, and as a result there are some unscrupulous fake shamans taking advantage of people that are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to do something without truly understanding the cultural significance of such to the indigenous community. On a related note, people will also pay anything to learn from the partially remote indigenous communities in the amazon. The social consequences of tribal tourism are dire, as is the mission/religious-based “white man” influence on indigenous populations. For instance, while I was walking in the jungle in Manú I saw three young girls from the Machiguenga indigenous tribe dressed in western clothes, one in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt and another wearing clogs. My guide recognized that they were Machiguengas and was surprised they were anywhere near where we were walking. He began speaking to them in their native language, and he knew they were at least three days away from their home, as they lived much deeper in the reserve. We saw a young European man accompanied by several women approach us, quickly interrupting my guide and speaking to the young girls in Spanish, telling them to hurry along. We knew right away these were missionaries. These missionaries are not exactly the tourist travelers I am discussing here, but this is just another example of the long term effects of modern-day exploration.

In Paracas National Reserve, our guide brought us to an area where we could find thousands of fossils proving that the present-day desert was once a lake within a humid, jungle-like landscape. As we looked at these cylindrical remnants of a tropical water world, the guide began showing us how we could remove the fossils from the clay with water. He excavated a fossil in this method and then he promptly gave it to one to one of us to keep. Various people subsequently walked about and started doing the exact same thing. I was in total shock. I could not believe that this man, someone who is supposed to be proud of the diversity and rich history of the Paracas desert, was literally removing 36 million year old fossils from it’s proper place. Instead of preserving what is left, he is directly causing its destruction, and soon enough there literally won’t be any fossils left in their natural resting place. I realized then that we truly are our own worst enemies. We are the reason for all the destruction we so often try to prevent. And “gringos” aren’t the only ones at fault. As with the local guide in Paracas, no one escapes the blame. Sometimes it’s the residents, those who live in their world more than anyone, that cause more destruction than the visitors. Is it a question of education? Or is it just that we want to have, in a materialistic sense, a piece of something exotic come along with us, as a memento of our where we’ve traveled? Why do we have such an obsession with the material? This is not a modern phenomena – think of a beautiful library where hunters proudly display their kill, the lion and boar heads stuck on a piece of wood jutting out from the wall. I am growing more aware of how I used to carry extraordinary value to objects, and I am now feeling less of a desire to physically take a part of what I see and what I experience with me, although sometimes it can be tempting. We are fortunate to have photos to remind us of the beauty we saw, videos to show us those candid moments frozen in time, and our voices and memories to record our memories and reflections of our travels.

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A pelican in Paracas marina.
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Paracas National Reserve.
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The 36 million year old fossils embedded in clay.

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Huaraz.
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Puya tree. These trees are only found in Peru, and at this altitude (over 3000 meters). This puya is over 100 years old.

The more we push ourselves to explore every corner of the world, the more destruction we cause along the way. Yes, there is ethical travel. There is responsible, eco-friendly, sustainable tourism. But none of these travel concepts are completely immune. The sad fact is that even if we stayed put in our home town and didn’t travel, we would still be causing destruction. Because then we’d be hurting our own land, sometimes without even knowing it. So what can we do? I certainly don’t have an answer. And I certainly won’t stop traveling. Because I, selfishly or not, want to see the world. I want to hike the mountains, ride along the desert, lie on the pristine beaches, scuba dive in the oceans, and ride boats along the rivers of the rainforest. And in a very small way I can be more aware of the food that I eat, my lifestyle, and my consumption habits. And if we all tried to be more aware of our footprint and of our individual impact wherever we are in the world — maybe, just maybe, we can keep on traveling.
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Hiking to Laguna 69 at Huarascaran National Park.
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Laguna 69.
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Colorful mineral lake at Huarascaran National Park.
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One of the coolest trees I’ve seen, the queñual. The red/orange bark is flaky and soft. Queñual trees are only found at 3,500–4,800 meters above sea level, forming forest patches along the eastern and western slopes of the Andes highlands.

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Manú.

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After Bolivia I made my way to Peru for the second time (I wrote a post about my trip to Peru over a year ago, which you can read here). My intentions in Peru from the beginning were the areas of the country that are usually visited when there’s enough in someone’s vacation after Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima. These include the desert, the central Andes mountain ranges, the northern coast, and the northwest amazon (which includes the well known city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru). After arriving in Cusco I decided to take a four day tour through the southwest rainforest in Manú. Manú National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site biosphere reserve covering an area of 15,328 square kilometers. The park protects ecological zones that range in altitude, from as low as 150 meters above sea level to the Central Andean high selva, or jungle, at 4200 meters. Because of this topographical range, Manú has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any park in the world.

Our first day we began our 10 hour bus ride at 6am in Cusco. We passed the town of Paucartambo and then descended the high selva cloud forest at 3400 meters above sea level all the way down to 500 meters to the jungle town of Pilcopata. As we rode through the highlands, beginning in the cold, dry, classically Peruvian terraced mountains that later became the flat, lush, humid, hot jungle, I had some time to watch the vast changes in landscape to reflect on my travels thus far, which had totaled three months and eighteen days.

A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at the animal conservatory in Manu.
A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at an animal conservatory in Manu.

In December, I realized I wanted to go back to school. I never thought that I would even consider graduate school, but there I was hiking in the gorgeous Patagonian mountains in Argentina and thinking about going back to the student lifestyle. And the more I thought about graduate school, the more I was drawn to studying abroad in Europe, specifically in Berlin. And so after I left Recife at the end of February, I decided I was going to apply for a Masters in International Affairs program in Berlin. I’ve applied and am awaiting a reply — I will know soon enough if my life is about to change drastically. I may be leaving New York in September to go to Berlin, and for two years, at least. If I don’t get accepted into this program, I will honestly be okay with it. It does not, however, change my intentions to move to Europe to obtain a masters degree. It may happen in the following winter or spring semesters, but it is something I feel I must do. I love New York City and I know it will always be there for me when I return, just as it was when I moved to Washington DC for my undergraduate degree, when I moved to Paris for my exchange program, and whenever I leave to travel for long periods of time. I am not afraid of packing up and settling into an unknown place. What I don’t know right now is the exact context of my moving to Europe. Will I be changing careers and studying international relations? Is this even what I want to do? Or will I be taking the slightly more comfortable route of receiving a masters in business at a lesser known school in Berlin that caters to foreigners? Or, will I move there to work for a startup, and study for a master’s degree part time? Depending on my moving timeline, what will I be doing in NYC to earn a living? Should I find a full time job or just work on some side projects?

As of now, I know that I will be moving to Europe for some time. I need this change. I left my apartment in Manhattan initially to sublease it for three months, which then turned into six months, and as of almost a month ago I told my roommate I wasn’t coming back to the city. My mother went to the apartment and moved out almost everything that I had left behind. Thinking about it now, I didn’t have the chance to really say goodbye to my life at that apartment that I called home for the last three years. I didn’t tell my doormen, I didn’t say anything to the local businesses that I frequented in the area. I left my life there while I was already gone, and maybe that’s the best way to do things anyhow. I am devastated that I won’t have a place to go back to when I return, and that I will have to come back to my mother’s home, which I know will be extremely challenging for me. I won’t have the freedom I had in the city; I won’t even have a car. But I know that is the sacrifice I have to make so that I can still travel and save enough money to be able to live abroad again. And, hopefully with the help of some friends, I can stay in the city here and there when I need to.

I am not at all sure what’s next for me in the very near future, and it’s often overwhelming to think about. It’s crazy to think that I am even going through this process in of all places in the amazon rainforest, more than halfway through my travels. Applying for graduate school is not an easy task at home, let alone at random cafes in Bolivia and Peru with terrible WiFi. Moving out of your home is not something to be taken lightly, and here I am moving out of my beloved apartment virtually, without even closing my front door for the last time.

And so in rainforest my thoughts kept coming back to what the real purpose has been for me to travel right at this moment in my life. I thought, this is what traveling is all about. It’s a lot of work. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It’s one day of feeling absolutely free to the next feeling completely strangled. It’s yesterday having a clear head and moving in a straight line to tomorrow feeling cloudy and sensing you’ve only made the wrong turn and nearly falling off a cliff. At that moment in the car, I was feeling all the extremes at once; it was like I was revisiting the drastic weather changes in Patagonia all over again.  It felt like I was waiting for everything to make sense somehow in an instant, a sign that some higher power was in control of my destiny and was going to make all the decisions for me. I was searching for the moment where I would feel that same relief I felt when I realized on Christmas Eve that I wasn’t coming home in February when I was supposed to. It was such a bright and beautiful feeling.

So much has happened since that day, it’s hard to believe it was only a few months ago. It’s funny how when traveling, although we may be visiting a certain place at a slower pace than those who are going for a two-week vacation, we make decisions quicker. I’ve made big decisions more rapidly and with far more conviction than when I was stuck in the day-to-day at home. It’s because I am removed from that routine, and with that comes a far greater perspective, concentration, and clarity. I couldn’t have dreamed my travels would turn out the way that they have so far. And what’s even more scary and beautiful all at the same time is that I’m not even close to finished yet. I suppose that means I still have some more traveling to do – and some more big decisions to make. Stay tuned.

 

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A tapir wandering about the animal conservatory, our last stop before arriving in Pilcopata.

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Hoatzin birds at lake Machuwasi.

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Lake Machuwasi

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Paititi Lodge, a 30 minute boat ride from the Port of Atalaya, Manu’s last town accessible by land. Our lodge had a view of the Madre de Dios river, which we used every day to explore deeper into the jungle.

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We came across fresh jaguar paw prints imprinted into mud on a morning hike.

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We woke at 5am for a pre-sunrise boat ride along the Madre de Dios River.

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La Paz.

View of La Paz.
View of La Paz.

One of the main squares in La Paz.
One of the main squares in La Paz.

La Paz is full of quirks. And it’s an incredibly fascinating, grungy, diverse city. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, even though I was sick for about 24 hours after eating some street food (which is pretty typical for first-timers to La Paz). This post is more a list of fun-facts, not at all personal reflections, of which I decided to take a short break from writing about.

Even though constitutionally the official capital city of Bolivia is Sucre, La Paz is de facto, the world’s highest administrative capital, sitting high at 3,650 meters above sea level. It has a metropolitan area population of 2.3 million. Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is a relatively old city in South America; it was built on a river by the Spanish and officially founded in 1548. When the Spanish built the city they separated it into two sides, one for the indigenous population and the other for the European settlers. The indigenous where not allowed to cross the line that used to be the river; and so, the architecture varies quite a bit from one side to the other. Bolivia was the first country to claim freedom against Spain, but last one to actually get that freedom. After 16 years of war, and thanks to Simon Bolivar, Bolivia achieved it’s independence in 1825.
I was fortunate to take a really informative walking tour with Hana Pacha travel, where my volunteer guide Damien, a medical student, shared with the group some of what I am writing here.

For example, there are only 19 supermarkets serving the entire population of 2.3 million people. In Alto, a neighborhood in the greater metropolitan area with 600,000 people, there is only one supermarket. This is because in Bolivia, people do the majority of their shopping in La Paz’s numerous open air markets. It’s residents always prefer to support the local farmers and businesses, and all over the city it is evident that this is the case. And, shoppers have extreme loyalty to their sellers. Each street has one type of item, whether it be fruits, meats, grains, cheeses, and flowers. The sellers are aware they have competition beside them, but they know that their buyers have habituated to visiting one particular seller. Casera, or “special seller” is the word used when a buyer establishes a relationship with their preferred vendor. Contrary to what most people may think, buyers don’t bargain with food they purchase. It is actually considered an insult to the seller, who is most likely the actual grower of the food. After all, why would someone want to pay less than what the hard work in growing the food is actually worth? Instead of getting a discount, the buyer uses the word yapa, which means “a little more.” And so, the farmer adds a little bit extra food to the buyer’s purchase, which makes it a win-win for everybody. Bargaining is expected, however, for any other items other than food.

Many of the female vendors wear the traditional style dress, which includes a distinctive top hat. When women wear the hat straight across, this signifies that they are in a relationship. When worn to the side, they are single. The indigenous women with these high hats and puffy skirts are a reminder of the style of the European women who came to live in La Paz. Today, these women wear this outfit because they are proud of their indigenous heritage. Bolivia’s people today are 95% mestizo – mix of European and indigenous descent.

La Paz is known for it’s witches market, which has various products ranging from dried llama fetuses (which are always buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha’lla, or “offering,” to the goddess Pachamama), potions, dried frogs, and medicinal plants. It is said that a woman or a man becomes a yatiri (witch) if they survive being struck by lightning. A man cannot pass down their gift, but a woman can pass on their talents to their oldest daughter, preserving the lineage for generations.

Potions and remedies at the Witch's Market.
Potions and remedies at the Witch’s Market.

Sign for a yatiri's services.
Sign for a yatiri’s services.

We stopped in front of one of the most fascinating prisons I have ever heard of. San Pedro prison lies in the center of the city, and is still in operation. Currently 2500 prisoners live in about 200 cells. What is so interesting is that the government lost control of the prison in the 1980s, and so there are only a handful of police officers guarding the entrance (it should be mentioned that Bolivia is home to the third most corrupt police force in South America, after Venezuela and Colombia). There are no police officers inside the prison itself. The prison operates differently than most. A prisoner pays an different entrance fee, depending if they are rch or poor. And so the “rent” for this cell can range from 12-15 Bolivianos a month (about 2 USD) to over 1000 US Dollars! These mega expensive cells have plasma tvs, internet, carpeting, and one of them has a hot tub. What is even more interesting is that the cell rent money goes to the previous owner of the cell, not to the government or to the prison system itself. The previous owner of the cell is the legal owner and the prisoner pays rent for use of his property. Prisoners have to pay for everything inside, including food, water, and clothes. People without money have to work, and oftentimes family members sell what is produced inside the prison outside within the city.

It gets even better: this prison is unique because of the privileges allowed by the inmates. Their families can live inside the prison with them, and all but the prisoner can come in and out without restriction. There is a public school next door where most of the students are actually living in the prison with their families. with most kids who live in the prison. Because life is so good for these prisoners (most of whom have only committed minor crimes such as drug dealing), there have only been 10 people to attempt to break out. There is even a bank right next to the prison building.  San Pedro Prison was definitely one of the most interesting things to hear about in La Paz!

A family going "home" to San Pedro prison.
A family going “home” to San Pedro prison.

In Bolivia, many of the houses are unfinished. This is because the law is that if you finish your house, you have to pay higher taxes (in Sucre, if you finish your house and paint it white, you pay less taxes, which explains all the white buildings).

We ended our tour at the hostel I happened to be staying at – Loki. The building that is now Loki used to be one of the first 5 star hotels in the city. Che Guevara spent 3 months hiding in this building, and Richard Nixon spent a few nights there. Not bad for a hostel!

View of La Paz from the cable car going to Alto.
View of La Paz from the cable car going to Alto.

View of La Paz and the Andes from Moon Valley.
View of La Paz and the Andes from Moon Valley.


Uyuni.

I recently spent four days exploring the desolate corner of southwestern Bolivia, traveling in a 4×4 truck from Tupiza to Uyuni. In just over 200 kilometers I was able to witness this area’s bizarre landscape: volcanoes, geysers and remnants of volcanic rocks, mineral and salt lagoons peppered with pink flamingoes and llamas, wild vicunyas running across the plains, and long stretches of desert followed by the famous salt flats of Uyuni. This post is just some photos of my time traveling through this incredibly diverse environment.

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Natural Rock formations in “Dali’s Desert”

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Uyuni’s old train tracks.

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Volcanic geysers

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Pink Flamingoes at Laguna Colorada, a salt lake in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, at 4278 meters above sea level.

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Baby llama at Laguna Colorada.

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Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni

Inca Huasi (Fish Island) in the middle of the salt flats
Inca Huasi, home to enormous groups of cacti, in the middle of the salt flats.

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The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers and is at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level.

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The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by up to 6 meters of salt crust, and is exceptionally rich in lithium, containing 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves.

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Jericoacoara.

My pre-departure letter was where I first mentioned that my writing in South America were going to be part of a social experiment. I wrote that this blog is a device I intend to use in place of a private journal, so that I can learn the effects of exposing my writing to the public and with the internet as it’s medium. And thus far my writing has been honest, yet tame. However, while in Jericoacoara, the remote beach town 300 km away from Fortaleza in the northeast of Brazil, I experienced for the first time extreme reactions to my post about Recife, linked here. Staying true to the uncensored quality of this blog, I would like to elaborate.(Some commentary and photos of my time in “Jeri” are at the end of the post).

The post entitled “Recife” is the most provocative I have written thus far, yet if you read it now you probably wouldn’t agree with me. That’s because, being completely contrary to the self-imposed rules I’ve created, I had to delete some paragraphs. Before I hit “publish” I had written a much longer post, one that included commentary about my visit to see my maternal grandfather and my views about his marital status, observations of household values that were in reference to specific members of my family, and a reflection on the varying degrees of meaningful exchange I have with family and with travelers on the road. I slept on it and decided in the morning to trim these portions, but also with the intention of adding them back in at a later date, after the potential initial rush of family members read the post as soon as it was published. My intention was to subtly make the changes so that few would notice, and also to indirectly avoid any conflict or hurt feelings between the parties involved.

When the post finally went live on my birthday I didn’t think that anyone would have any concern with this unknowingly edited version. But, the edited version is not what is available now. I removed one paragraph, which I’ve pasted here:

“But I see it differently. I see it as a reflection of ignorance. The more I travel, the more I come back to this notion of ignorance. I see just how different my life is from theirs, not so much in the day-to-day but in the grander scheme of how different my life is just because of the place where I grew up. Because of how different my mother’s life became after she moved to New York.”

I will not describe exactly where this was placed, but it’s not difficult to figure out the context. What I can say is that it was removed after receiving an email from a friend of the family, one that I have known most of my life and who has always been a very important part of my “New York family.” I was told that the entire post, if read by members of my family, would be hurtful to them and that it was in my best interest to take it down immediately. I was also told that much of what I wrote needed to be shared personally with a therapist. I wanted to confirm if any of these sentiments were felt by the person who reads my blog the most and whose family is in question, my mom. And so after several whatsapp audio exchanges I decided to take only this particular paragraph down. I asked my mom if she was ashamed or embarrassed by my honesty and of what I wrote, and she said that she was not. Rather she didn’t feel comfortable with my using the word “ignorance” in the context I had placed it in. It was solely because of her that I removed this portion, but I also made her aware that my next post would be discussing this in great detail. Although very personal and detailed, my recollection of both this email and the exchange with my mother publicly to you, the reader, is all part of this experiment.

While I will not privately respond to this person, I will say publicly that I welcome all reactions to my posts and I encourage them to be made publicly in the comments section, the way others have done so far. After all, if any reader of my blog truly understands the point of it all by not only reading that pre-departure letter but by reading all of my previous posts, they would know that this is the blog’s purpose. There is a deliberate and thoughtful reason to why I write in this way. And as a result, I want to read not only the encouragement and the love but also the frustration, the anger, the shame. I want to create the dialogue that I wish I could’ve had with my family in Recife. I want to arouse in others the raw emotions that I yearn to feel every single day while I travel. I want people to know that travel is all about feeling things across the entire spectrum: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the right and the wrong, the selflessness and the egotism, the strengths and the weaknesses. It is no surprise to me that along with this reactive email I also received extreme praise from other loved ones about this very post, both privately and publicly. The post was also re-blogged by a complete stranger to his blog of 800+ followers. It is a well known fact that with every piece of art made, every article written, every speech given, every opinion expressed, there will be varying interpretations. There will be conflict. There will be as much of a divide as there will be unity. And as such, all of the effects of my writings are welcome.

And so, the experiment continues.

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“Pedra Furada”

Jericoacoara Beach one of the most beautiful parts of Brasil that I have ever been to, and I was so grateful to spend four and a half days enjoying this paradise. To get there is not easy: you either take a 6 hour bus followed by a 1.5 hour 4×4 transfer or a private, 4.5 hour 4×4 truck from Fortaleza airport. The roads for the last 45 minutes are bumpy and unlit: the nature of one’s arrival makes almost all visitors feel as if they’re on an island. Jeri is known for it’s vast expanse of sand dunes and fresh water lagoons. Nearest to the town are sand dunes that hover a long stretch of beach and calm ocean, oftentimes windy enough for the kite surfers to play. These dunes are the backdrop to the lush greenery of the town itself. Everyone within town by foot; motor vehicles aren’t allowed except the dune buggys that are used for day trips to the nearby lagoons. In Jeri you’ll find fresh fish, açai and vegetable juices, yoga classes, and stores whose floors are covered in sand selling all sorts of beachwear. Along the streets women crochet beautiful summer tops and bikinis while tattoo-covered hippies sell handmade jewelry with feathers and stones. There aren’t any ATMs in Jeri, but I did go to a Thai restaurant run by a French owner who brought in a chef from Thailand five months ago. The food was so authentic it brought me right back to Chiang-Mai.  At 5:30pm everyone climbs the dunes to see the gorgeous sunset that is followed by a local capoeira group. Practicing to the music and songs of a berimbau and drums, the all white-clad dancers and musicians almost glow in the dark, evoking the traditional customs of Bahia. All night forró happens on Thursday and Saturday nights, with traditional Samba on Friday nights. Every night of the week there is a beach party with some local DJs, where you can order caipifrutas made from fresh maracujá, kiwi, abacaxi, caju, siriguela, and various other tropical fruits from endless number of drink stands at the beach’s entrance. It’s no wonder that you’ll find visitors from all over the world here to enjoy the warmth and spirit of the northeast of Brasil.

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the fallen tree
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Paradise Lagoon
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Panorama of the sand dunes
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Capoeira

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One of Jeri’s beautiful sunsets
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Horseback riding on the sand dunes
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View of the lush, green town center from the dunes
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Caipirinhas made from a variety of tropical fruits
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Recife.

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Palm Trees in Porto de Galinhas

This is the post I have been putting off writing for a number of reasons. One is that it forces me to confront this city through the eyes of what feels like two different people. The first is through the eyes of someone who has been visiting Recife at least once per year since she was six months old, and who lived here when she was young. The other is from the viewpoint of someone so far removed from the day-to-day lives of her family, someone who grew up in New York accustomed to the American way of life. I am confronted with so many emotions each time I come to Recife, oftentimes conflicting with one another and lasting well into my return to the states. With each visit it becomes more difficult to adapt and to blend in with my family’s habits and underlying ethos. I should mention that my mother knows all too well the roller coaster of scenarios thrown at me in Recife and of all the emotions that result from it, for she has been either present to witness my experiences or she has been my soundboard to listen to the variations of my distress when I come here on my own. I know she struggles with seeing her daughter go through a partial identity crisis as she probably feels many of the same things as I do as a woman who left her home country at my current age.

This trip to Recife is the first time I visit while traveling for an extended period of time. It was originally meant to serve has a 2 week break from backpacking –  a way to rest and not worry about where I was going to sleep or how I was going to get to my next destination. I would have homemade food and family members to drive me from one place to another. I would have clothes to borrow so I wouldn’t tire of the ones I had been traveling with. I would have the comforts of home.

I am nearing the end of these two weeks, and I find that this was the most difficult trip to Recife thus far. At first I thought it was a mistake to come here – I knew some of the issues that I would face from past experiences, and I was afraid being here would throw me out of travel-mode and make me too dependent on others. But in my heart I knew a break was needed; I had been traveling two and a half months and planned to continue another three to four months.  Being here has taught me a lot of difficult things about my place within my family and my association with being a Brasilian citizen. I’ve learned just how much my lifetime of travels have affected how I perceive my family and my country, as well as how almost everything else is interconnected and shaping me every single day.

My mom was the only child in the family to move away from home. She has been living in New York for 29 years, officially longer than the amount of time she lived in Recife. She became accustomed to life as an American citizen. She raised a daughter as an American – more specifically, as a New Yorker. I am an only child. I always felt the closest thing I had to siblings were my first cousins in Brasil. And so when I visit I have this expectation that because we are related and because I grew up spending time with them, that we have much in common and we will always have much to discuss. I see them the way I do some of my oldest friends, people that no matter how much time passes I can still talk to as if I saw them only yesterday.

However as the years pass and as we grow older, the more I see that this is not the case. My cousins have lived in this city their entire lives, and some of them have married and even one of them has an incredible little son. They are finding their place in this world. I am also finding my way, but our paths are moving in opposite directions. There is little I can hold on to, so little to talk about. Part of the reason is because I have a general sense of what they’re doing with their lives, but for some reason most of my family hasn’t any clue what I have been doing with my life beyond the photos I post to Instagram. Some of them are so out of touch they don’t even realize I am visiting them halfway between a six month backpacking journey across their own continent. Never-mind that most of them know little beyond the northeast of Brasil – I am not one to judge how far they’ve traveled or their reasons for traveling or not traveling to a particular place. What I do know is what I value in my relationships. I value conversation – a dialogue where we can learn from one another about where we’ve come from and where we are going next – both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, no one seems to have an interest in where I travel to next on my journey. They don’t ask how my past two months have been, where I have gone, what I have learned. They don’t ask why I even chose to travel, and what I was doing beforehand that prompted this need to get out of New York. Perhaps it’s because they think they know me. They’ve seen me travel before, they know I have difficulty deciding what I am doing with my life. They know I am never tied down to any relationship, that I don’t have a child or even a pet to take care of. Maybe for them this is just the “same-old” for their niece, the same unorthodox routine for their cousin.

I have an increasingly more profound respect for my mom as I see what life could have been like for her, and what path she chose instead. I am steadily grateful that I was given the chance to experience so much just because of the city that I was born and raised in. And because I grew up in a liberal, open household. In a home where men and women are treated equally, where homosexuals are accepted exactly as they are, and where different religions are not only embraced but explored. Where doing things a little differently from everyone else is perfectly okay. Where speaking different languages is encouraged and where going to museums and shows are integrated into the monthly cultural calendar. Where travel is valued above all material possessions. I am acutely aware of how it could have been different.

Is my Brasilian family really home? My mother is my home until this day. My paternal grandmother was part of my childhood home. My father and his beloved partner of ten years were part of my childhood home. Recife is the other me that wants to try and be Brasilian too, who wants to fit in the mold of a Brasilian household. But it’s not really home. It’s a place where I can try and quench my thirst for nostalgia, for childhood, for preserving my Brasilian culture. Recife will always be here, and I know that I am always welcome. I come back each time with a blank slate, like a loyal dog that forgets its owner’s past faults and transgressions. Yet I keep thinking how every time I leave, I tell myself that I won’t be coming back unless it’s for an unmissable moment in my family’s lives, whether it be a wedding or a new baby. I always have hope that we have all grown up and reached a point where we can move towards crossing one another’s paths to find commonalities, but now I realize that my outlook may be too high. This is by no means my last time in Recife, but it is my last time here with the same expectations as before.

No one chooses their family. But they will always be simply that — my family. What I’ve tried so many times before was to reconcile the cultural differences and values I have with them and assume that we are not just family. Rather we can be a cohesive unit, one that can break the chains of ignorance together, one that can take the unique situation of having relatives from another culture and learn from one another. I wish that we could be friends, have commonalities, share what’s going on beyond the trivialities of our day-to-day. That conversations could crack the surface. Unfortunately I have not been able to do this at the level I had hoped. I feel sad that this is the case, but at the same time I accept that it is what life has given me. I can only take what I’ve learned and impart the same values that I hold true onto a future family of mine.

Despite all of this, my family is still there for me – whether I realize it or not, they think of me and care about me on a profoundly deep level. They are my blood and always will be. And they are truly incredible and beautiful people – despite our differences, I still hold them dear to me and I want to be as present as I can be in their lives.

Today is my birthday. The past few birthdays my thoughts seemed to center around this concept of family that currently I’m reflecting on in this post. It’s not any surprise that I chose to celebrate my birthday here. It’s as if I am deliberately celebrating this moment of significance in my life in a city and with people with whom I struggle greatly with. Birthdays are not just about the party: they are reminders of where we’ve come from and they guide us as we decide which door to open next.

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Celebrating my Birthday with my family

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Carnaval in the streets of Olinda

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Colorful houses in Olinda

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Street art in Olinda

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Porto de Galinhas

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Pipa Beach

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View of Pipa

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Low Tide at Praia do Amor, Pipa

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Rio de Janeiro.

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Ipanema Beach

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro ready to take on Carnaval, which this year began on February 5th. It was my third time in Rio but my first time visiting during the city’s largest and wildest week of the year. I have little to say other then that I had an incredible time not only partying with the blocos on the streets, but also of having the priviledge of parading in costume with a samba school at Sapucaí, the world famous Carnaval parade. I was also able to watch up close the other samba schools parade until morning in one of the Sambodromo’s exclusive camarotes. Here are some photos from my time in Rio!

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View of Rio from the top of Morro dois Irmaos.

 

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Street art at the Vidiga Favela

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Behind the scenes waiting to parade in the Sambodromo.

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My costume!

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Florianopolis.

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Praia Mole

I fell in love with Florianopolis, which was my first introduction to the south of Brazil. The capital city of the state of Santa Catarina, “Floripa” is made up mostly of an island called Ilha de Santa Catarina, which is 54km long. With a population of under 500,000, it has the third highest Human Development Index score among all Brazilian cities. I was fortunate to couch surf with an actual surfer who lived just off Lagoa da Conceição, the heart of the island, next to Praia Joaquina. The beaches are undoubtedly the most beautiful that I have seen in the entire country. I quickly learned that just one weekend was not enough to explore the island, and so I kept extending my stay. One week later, I realized I had to move on so that I could make it in time to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval in the first week of February. After Florianopolis I planned to visit Ilha do Mel in Paraná and Ilha Grande in the state of Rio de Janeiro before going to it’s capital city. I was incredibly sad to leave, for it was the first city in Brazil where I felt that I could truly live in.

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Praia Matadeiro

I lived life in Floripa in the style of a local spending their summer weekends on the island. Late mornings at the beach, açai na tigela in the small town center as a late afternoon snack, and staying until sunset at yet another beach, watching surfers catch the last waves of the day. Over the weekend, spending all afternoon and evening at the beach until we reached a beach party, followed by a party at a club in the wealthy Jurerê neighborhood until morning. Sounds like the Hamptons in New York, or Miami, doesn’t it? It’s a privileged lifestyle, a bubble in the country currently in an economic crisis and abundant in corruption, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a widening income gap, and an entirely basic quality of life. Floripa is an extremely wealthy city, and most people who live specifically around the Lagoa da Conceição are staying at their summer home. Ferraris, Porsches, and Range Rovers are comfortably parked outside the clubs in Jurerê. There isn’t any problem walking in the streets at night. Assault and theft is rare. People respect the rules and have respect for others, and are generally considered law-abiding citizens. Yes, this may be a slightly distorted perception given that it is summer, and along with that comes tourists from all over the world and creating a densely populated center. But this doesn’t mean that everything changes when the tourists leave; the heavy traffic may subside, but the buses will still be clean, orderly, and function on schedule. People will still be nice and courteous. The restaurants will still have vegetarian and organic options. The people and the beaches will still be as gorgeous as ever, and the surfers will still wake up at dawn to catch the best waves. People will still work to live and to travel, and not the other way around.

It took 30 minutes to hike through the hill and down to "Secret Beach." It was well worth the trek - we had the beach to ourselves!
It took 30 minutes to hike through the hill and down to “Secret Beach.” It was well worth the trek – we had the beach to ourselves!

It comes as no surprise that Brazilians want to live here. Most of locals I met were transplants from the states of Rio de Janeiro, Paraná, São Paulo, or Rio Grande do Sul, all living in Floripa for five years or more. They moved for a host of reasons: to surf, for more temperate weather, to live in a small town with the infrastructure of a big city, for the more relaxed lifestyle, for the athletic and beautiful people.

Visiting this city was a shock to my system – it was the biggest surprises in my travels so far. Coming from the northeast of Brazil, I had this perception of the country that was far more homogeneous. I thought that the third-world qualities of the state of Pernambuco, although more severe, were also characteristic of the rest of the country. My first thoughts were why I hadn’t been to Florianopolis before, and why my mother didn’t think to bring me here when I came to the country to visit family. Geographically Floripa is very far from Recife and a flight, usually unnecessarily expensive, is the only option. Those in the south such as in São Paulo can easily drive or take an overnight bus. But what I still couldn’t grasp is how Brazilians from the northeast didn’t make it a point to visit this part of the country. Only one person in my immediate family has ever been there. More foreigners have set foot onto its beaches than people from my region of Brazil. Perhaps it’s because they’ll only feel the similar frustration and anger that I felt: why can’t where I come from be like this too?

Ignorance is bliss, but ignorance also stunts our awareness and prevents change. It’s a micro example of what happens when we travel: the more you know, the more you’ll feel. And you won’t only feel joy. You’ll feel frustration, sadness, anger, surprise, jealousy, numbness, disenchantment, and indifference. And with all of those feelings you’ll become smarter. You’ll relate to more people, to feel more of what they feel. You’ll sympathize with where they come from, and where they want to go. You’ll learn to judge with compassion. You’ll begin to understand just how complex societies are and how they can differ even within the same city. In my ignorance, I thought I knew what Brazil was all about. I didn’t even plan on coming to Brazil on this trip – it was a last minute decision, one that I am so happy I made. I still haven’t come close to truly understanding this country, but I am slowly learning just how complex and beautiful it is.

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Praia Jurerê

Iguazu Falls.

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

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

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Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian side.

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Montevideo.

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Sunset in Montevideo

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

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

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

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Having a maté the traditional way in Punta del Este

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

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

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The old town of Colonia del Sacramento

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

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Traditional asado at Montevideo’s old city port.

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

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Punta del Este’s marina by night.

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“Los Dedos” sculpture at Playa Brava

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Sunset at Playa Mansa

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