New York.

Arrival.

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

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Saying goodbye to New York! My first photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Views from my flight coming back to New York.

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

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

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Hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro.

Tulum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Havana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Malecon.

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

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

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

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The Gran Teatro de la Habana by night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of central Trinidad from our casa.

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Pack for Three Months in South America

I’m about to embark on my largest backpacking trip to date. I purchased a one-way ticket to South America, but estimate traveling between 2 and 3 months. Things I keep in mind each time I travel: pack as light as humanly possible, stay well under the carry-on weight limit (most airlines restrict it to 22 lbs/10 kgs), and leave a little room for purchases along the way.

The biggest challenge I face, apart from the length of the trip, is the vastly different climates within the continent. I plan to travel from the beaches of Cartagena, Colombia to the Chilean Andes, all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Temperatures along my route will range from 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 celsius) to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C). Sunshine in Cartagena, rain in Bogota, clouds in Santiago, and wind in Ushuaia.

Many people have asked me how I manage to fit everything in a small backpack (I carry a 50L Orange Gregory Jade backpack), one that I’ve used since my days studying abroad in Paris. Last year I wrote a post on how to pack for Southeast Asia . While traveling through Thailand, Myanmar,Vietnam, and Cambodia, I not only learned what I really needed, but also what I didn’t even use (the cocoon sleeping sack, for example, lay at the bottom of my bag only adding weight). I am taking on the challenge of packing even less than before. Below is my packing list in my greatest attempt, with some packing tips for any backpacker, regardless of destination.

I’d also like to note that I am not packing any camping/hiking specific gear apart from my hiking boots. Unfortunately size constraints don’t allow me to bring a sleeping bag, kitchen camping equipment, a tent, etc. I plan to rent these items at outposts at the base of each hiking circuit.

Pre-Trip Checklist:

-Scan the front and back of your credits and debit cards that you’ll be bringing with you. Send yourself an email of these scans, in case you lose your card and need to contact the bank.

-Scan your passport and email yourself the passport information as well. Also make a photocopy of your passport and keep it with your original passport.

-Call your bank and credit card companies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling to so you’re not flagged for credit card fraud.

-Buy travel insurance. The best one out there is World Nomads. You can specify the duration and types of activities you’ll be engaging in to determine the level of insurance you need.

-Visas: Check U.S. Dept of State website to see if you need a visa to any specific country.

-Money: Cash is more important in South America than in any other region I’ve been to thus far. In Argentina, for example, the exchange rate when you take out cash from an ATM is almost double than if you exchange cash on the black market. Be sure to bring enough cash with you. Keep it in a money pouch and attached to you at all times.

My Top Two: Just as in Southeast Asia, there are two items that I couldn’t do without and that have traveled with me around the world. They are listed here again:

  1. Sherpani Small Ultralight backpack. This is the single best travel purchase I’ve ever made. I’ve used this backpack so much. It’s stylish and lightweight, and it fits everything you need for the day, no more, no less. The $60 is worth every penny.

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    Photo from Sherpani.com
  2. I’ve also been all over the world in my purple Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Parka (with hood). It folds into a nice pouch, and I use it as a pillow on the plane and at night. It’s a great jacket for all types of weather and is waterproof.

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    Photo from Uniqlo.com

Essentials:

-The backpack. My 50L Gregory Jade backpack from REI is a perfect size, and forces you to stay light as you pack.

-Passport: I will bring both of mine – the Brasilian one may be of better help than the American one as I travel. Argentina normally charges Americans $100 upon entry, and with a Brasilian passport that fee is waived.

-Money belt with cash. Make sure to buy a comfortable and good quality money belt, as you’ll be sleeping with it on the plane, in buses, and in some cases at hostels. Often the ones you get for free are scratchy and not fit for actual carrying around long distances.

-The boots. I have a pair of Lowa Renegade GTX Mid-Hiking Boots. They aren’t cheap, but they’re waterproof, one of the most comfortable boots out there, are light, and will be with you for many years.

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Photo from REI.com

 

Gadgets & Gear: 

-Canon Powershot 12MP with charger. I carry this around to avoid taking photos with my iPhone.

-Long and thin wallet that can fit lots of cash bills and less credit cards. Mine has different compartments to separate my US dollars from foreign money.

-Small coin pouch

-Two TSA approved combination locks (I have on from REI and the other from Swiss Army)

-ASUS mini chromebook, soft foam case, and charger. This is so that I can keep you all up to date by writing in my blog!

-My iPhone 6 and charger

-My Moto E Global GSM smart phone and charger. I use this phone so I can buy a SIM card with a data plan when I travel to countries for a week or more. It can be a drag to buy a new SIM for each country, but if you’re there long enough it’s well worth it should you want to stay connected. Never turn on your data roaming from your American phone, it will cost a fortune.

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Photo from Motorola.com

-Three round pegged adapters for my chargers. Colombia uses the American pegs, but Argentina, Chile, and elsewhere on the continent the round pegs are used.

-Two medium packing cubes (One by Muji, the other by Sea to Summit). This is wear I pack all of my clothes. One is for my lower temperature items, the other for those hot and humid days along the coast.

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Photo from Muji.com

–Eagle Creek quarter cube. I carry in this cube my medications, multiple sets of earplugs, extra adapters, a pen, chapstick, two sets of ear-bud headphones and two eye masks.

–Eagle Creek toiletry hanging pack

Sea to Summit pocket towel. The micro fiber makes this towel fast drying and ultra absorbent. It’s also antimicrobial which allows use for extended periods without washing.

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Photo from Amazon.com

Clothing & Shoes: 

A tip for choosing your clothes, which has always been a challenge for me: always go through everything two to three times, and create a very specific scenario where you plan to use each item. This will help you take things away.

You’ll have to do laundry multiple times – it’s unavoidable. Many hostels nowadays have a laundry service, and it doesn’t cost very much. When I went to Peru I paid only a couple of dollars for my laundry to be sent out, washed, dried, and folded.

-2 bikinis

-2 bras, 16 pairs underwear, and 8 pairs of warm socks.

-1 pair compression socks. These are great for long flights or for those long bus rides.

-1 night tshirt

-1 dressy tank top x

-1 pair of shorts

-1 day/night black jumper

-1 casual day/night dress

-3 tank tops

-3 tshirts

-1 pair of hiking pants.

-1 belt

-1 cashmere short sleeve shirt. This is a great layering item. The combination of cashmere with short sleeves is perfect for moderate to cold temperatures.

-1 pair of jeans

-1 workout top

-1 workout short

-2 thermal heat tech uniqlo leggings. All of the Uniqlo heat-tech branded clothes are great for retaining heat. They’re light and soft, and I love wearing their products when spending long days outdoors and doing a lot of physical activity.

-2 thermal heat tech uniqlo long sleeve shirts 

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Photo from Uniqlo.com

-2 sweaters, one for moderate temperatures and one heavy for colder temperatures.

-Birkenstocks (1 pair): comfortable, light, and durable.

-Flip-flops (1 pair): my Havaianas are essential for the hostel showers and the beach.

-Flats (1 pair): all purpose black flats for when you can’t stand wearing hiking boots anymore and want a dressier night out.

Accessories:

-One set of matching hat and gloves.

-One warm scarf. I brought one that I bought in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s a great multipurpose scarf because it’s warm and practical but can also be draped over your shoulders like a pashmina.

-One small purse for nights you want to ditch the backpack. Mine has long straps and is large enough to fit my phone, wallet, ID, and a few other little items.

-Sunglasses (2 pairs): don’t bring your favorite $300 Chanel sunglasses, but don’t bring cheap $7 ones either. Make sure you like how they look on you because they will show up in all your photos!

Toiletries & Makeup:

I won’t list everything, except a few items worth noting. Remember you will eventually have to buy items along the way as you run out, so don’t bring a large bottle of shampoo that you want to last you 2 months.

-Travel pack of makeup remover wipes. Especially when you hiking and can’t shower, these will save your face.

-Dry shampoo. Ditto above – great for those days you won’t get to a shower.

-Moleskine bandages. These are great for long hiking trips – they help prevent blisters and are far superior to regular bandages as they provide padding and added comfort.

Jewelry: I don’t bring anything valuable. I have two of my favorite rings, one necklace, two bracelets, and two pairs of earrings.

Makeup: A personal decision, but I packed just the minimum. When I travel I rarely wear makeup.

–Hair ties, you can never have too many.

–Lip balm (2), with SPF 15. This is especially important when you’re changing weather conditions and at high altitudes. You don’t want your lips to be dry or to burn!

Medications & Miscellaneous: 

-Mini set of all purpose medications: This does not include any prescription medications you individually must bring with you. I like to take the following with me in small amounts just in case: ibuprofen, emergen-C, lactaid, sleepy-time/melatonin, and antihistamines.

-Probiotics: I highly recommend taking probiotics (ones that are shelf stable and don’t need to be refrigerated) with you. This will help your gut adjust to the changes in diet and foods you’ll be consuming.

-1 mini flashlight.

-2 carabiners.

-1 small blanket. I have one I bought on a flight – they are small and easy to fold.

-1 large black trashbag. I like to have one in case I need to cover up my backpack when it rains.

-Two 1 gallon ziplock bags. I always like to bring these with me for whatever may come up that I need to pack.

-One paperback book and two magazines.

-Small notepad and a pen

Here’s a photo of my bag, all packed and ready to go! Total weight: 25 lbs/ 11 kg.

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Why We Travel, and Why Americans Don’t Travel Enough

Travel is addictive, and I never really realized why until my most recent trip to Southeast Asia. While exploring Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I had time to reflect on what it is about traveling that is so inspiring to me, and why it has kept me on a travel binge nearly my entire young adult life.

I travel for two reasons — the first is to immerse myself in all aspects of a destination: the sights, the culture, the food, and the people who live there. The second reason, which I’ve found to be growing more important to me the more that I travel, is to meet other travelers, people like me and people not like me, and learn about their stories and where they come from. The reasons people travel change over time, and at this time in my life I travel to see a new country but also to meet others from around the world. I’m slowly discovering why so many people around the world are compelled to travel for long periods of time, to give up their comforts in order to lead a nomadic, ever-changing, and oftentimes-lonely lifestyle.

When I returned to New York I continued reflecting on my experience. I realized that one of my fondest memories of my travels was meeting other backpackers from around the world. I kept coming back to the many conversations I had with people about my place in the backpacker community as a female American traveling for a long period of time, and why I seemed to them to be a rare sight amongst the other nationalities people encountered. I’ve discovered that are very distinct reasons why Americans aren’t part of the long-term travel, backpackers landscape in the way their European, Latin American, and Asian counterparts are.

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Buddhist Temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Whom did I meet in just six short weeks in Southeast Asia? There was an English masseuse who planned to travel until her money ran out, so far four months into her journey. A Brazilian man who’s lived in Australia the past seven years and who works with a sole purpose of traveling around the world. My scuba diving partner from Canada is just…traveling; his end date remained a mystery even to him. An Italian man from Napoli who won the award for smallest backpack. His bag, smaller than my own, will be by his side for a worldwide adventure totaling a year and a half. There was an Australian man from Tasmania who worked six years without a break so that he could travel with his 50-liter backpack for the next ten years, and with the goal of working in Canada and England for a year or so in between. A man from London whose travels will total one and a half years, abiding by one single rule: not to take an airplane. Starting and finishing in London, he had already taken a transatlantic cargo boat, and when we had met he was planning to cross the Pacific Ocean via a 14-day trip on another cargo boat. There was 29-year-old German man from Berlin who quit working for Boston Consulting Group after a year to travel for at least nine months. A 19-year-old woman from Alberta, Canada who after high school had begun her travels and plans to become a certified yoga teacher along the way. There was a 30-year-old woman from Belgium who was the co-founder of a successful beer startup, and who left the business to travel indefinitely. A chef from Amsterdam who just plain quit his job and is exploring the world, so far nine months in. A French couple from Normandy who quit their jobs and are planning to travel for six months, or when their money runs out, whichever comes first. There were two 20 year-old German men who are planning to travel 13 months before going back to finish university. A born and raised New Yorker, who since September of last year has been traveling and will only return when he has to start to medical school in June. A group of American NYU MBA candidates spending their seven-week break abroad together. Two American girls spending ten short days on vacation from work. A finally a 23-year-old from New Hampshire. He just got up and left, and has no plans to return anytime soon.

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Chiangmai, Thailand

These are just a handful of the many people I met. It was so refreshing to have conversations with people that don’t revolve around what you do, as in your typical introductory exchange in New York City. It’s where you’re from and where you’ve been, how long you’ll travel for, your favorite destinations so far. It’s a conversation around places and cultures, around experiences. Rarely does the conversation escalate to what your old job was or what you plan to do in the future. It’s just the now. And although for most of us it’s hard to connect with the now, traveling forces us to be present.

But are twenty to thirty something Americans traveling in this way?

Here are some startling facts: the average age of American leisure travelers is 47.5 years old. Twenty percent are between the ages of 25-34 and only eight percent are 18-24 years old (Source). Only 30% of Americans have passports, compared with 60% of Canadians and 75% of people from the UK (Source). Furthermore, nearly half the global market of 15-29 year old travelers comes from Europe, with some 93 million outbound trips in 2011, according to IPK International’s European Travel Monitor. Germany (17 million outbound trips), France (7.9m), and the UK (7.3m) are the largest three markets in Europe (Source).

Sadly, so few of the people I met who were traveling over long periods of time were Americans. And my new found friends would ask me, why don’t more Americans travel? Or when they do, why for only ten days to two weeks at a time? I believe that answer has three parts to it. The first is a reflection of the discouraging higher education system that we have in the United States, where a private university costs 30 to 60 thousand dollars a year. If anyone wants to have a “good job” these days, they need to get their undergraduate at a “good” school (not to mention think about heading straight to a graduate program). This in turn leads to a tremendous amount of debt. Students need to pay off their loans quickly, because the government charges interest after six months to a year depending on the loan. Graduates are forced to get a job to pay off those debts, and there goes that gap year that they were planning to take.

The second reason is that the United States remains the only developed country in the world without legal minimum vacation days. Meaning we are entitled as employees of any company to zero vacation days. More than a quarter of working Americans currently do not have vacation time. The average American worker is entitled to 16 days of paid leave (keep in mind this is after a few years in the work force. If you’re an entry-level employee, that number is closer to seven). But the length of the average vacation lasts just over four days! Only 25 percent of workers say they take all the time off that’s due them (Source). In fact, 15 percent of Americans report taking no time off (Source).

These numbers are disturbing, particularly when you compare to other countries around the world, where the average vacation days plus paid holidays total 28 in Australia, 33 in Croatia, 34 in Germany, 38 in France, and finally the winner, Brazil, with 41 days (Source & Source).

The final reason, which I feel is the most difficult to overcome, is that American culture in general does not value independent, backpacker travel. Speaking here in generalities, American families and the institutions they attend in higher education instill this sort of mandate that you should be seeking an internship or a paid job immediately upon graduation in order stay ahead in the workforce. Particularly in finance, where some students intern at investment banking firms even during their summers in college, these graduates are primed to head straight to work. And the working hours are long and hard. Many young people feel that this type of lifestyle will pay off because they can retire at a young age, and then enjoy their free time.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

But what our family, friends, professors, and employers have trouble understanding is how profoundly traveling as a young adult shapes the rest of your life. It develops strength of character. Without any exaggeration, it makes you who you are. And I’m witnessing it when I travel, not only within myself but in the other people I meet along the way. You learn to be not only independent but also you are humbled, becoming supremely aware that you are only but a small part of this very complex world. Traveling reminds you that your nine-to-five desk job is not what defines you. You learn that not everyone is like you, and you experience that first-hand.

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

Perhaps one day the young backpacker community will be filled with Americans, but for now, we have a long way to go. In the meanwhile, I encourage young women and men not to wait, but to do what may be a little different than what others around them are doing. Don’t take a vacation. Instead, travel.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

This post also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.

How to Backpack for 6 Weeks in Southeast Asia

I believe in traveling as light as possible, no matter what type of trip I’m taking. And these days with weight limits, checked bag fees, and carry-on weight and size restrictions it’s just plain easier to pack light. The more I travel, the smaller and smaller my bag gets. I’m headed to Southeast Asia for 6 weeks, and this will be my lightest trip to date. Below is a list of what I am bringing, with some packing tips for any traveler, regardless of destination.

Many of these items are destination specific. I will be traveling to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where temperatures reach a high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows in some areas in the mid 60s. There is also a good chance of rain. This area is very hot, humid, and mosquitoes are everywhere.

Also, Keep in mind I will be traveling on a budget, backpacker-style, meaning I will be staying in hostels and will be buying the least expensive plane tickets. Most airlines in Asia have a 15kg (33lb) carry-on limit, so my goal will be to pack well under that amount. I’m pretty small, so I also want to save my back the pain of carrying 15kg every day for 6 weeks.

Pre-trip checklist:

-Scan the front and back of your credit and debit cards that you’ll be bringing with you. Send yourself an email of these scans, in case you lose your card and need to contact the bank.

-Scan your passport and email yourself the passport information as well. Also make a photocopy of your passport and keep it with your original passport.

-Call your bank and credit card companies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling to. That way you’re card won’t get declined if you try to use it abroad.

-Buy travel insurance. I use World Nomads. It doesn’t cost that much money and it’s worth it to have insurance should anything happen to you. Better safe than sorry!
-Vaccinations: Check the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website for the types of vaccinations that are recommended you take before going to a specific country.

Money: US Dollars are the currency of choice in Cambodia. Be sure to bring a good amount of new and crisp US Dollars with you, but not too much. Use ATMs to take out foreign currency in each country you go to. You’ll only use your credit card for big purchases at hotels, nice restaurants, for plane tickets, and for expensive adventure activities such as scuba diving. When you arrive at hostel you will pay for your stay in cash.

My Top Two: There are two items here that I couldn’t do without, and that have traveled with me around the world.

Sherpani Small Ultralight backpack. This is the single best travel purchase I’ve ever made. I’ve used this backpack so much. It’s stylish and lightweight, and it fits everything you need for the day, no more, no less. The $60 is worth every penny.

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From Sherpani.com

I’ve also been all over the world in my purple Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Parka (with hood). It folds into a nice pouch, and I use it as a pillow on the plane and at night. It’s a great jacket for all types of weather and is waterproof.

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From Uniqlo.com

Gadgets & Gear:

 

-What’s going to carry it all: My small Orange Gregory Jade 50 backpack. It carries 50 liters, and is perfect for my frame. I bought this when I studied abroad in college, and it’s been with me ever since.

-Passport: Make sure to have several blank pages for your visas-on-arrival Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

–Money belt with cash. Make sure to buy a comfortable and good quality money belt, as you’ll be sleeping with it on the plane, in buses, and in some cases at hostels. Often the ones you get for free are scratchy and not fit for actual carrying around long distances.

-Long and thin wallet that can fit lots of cash bills and less credit cards. Mine has different compartments to separate my US dollars from foreign money.

-Small coin pouch

-Two TSA approved combination locks (I have on from REI and the other from Swiss Army)

-Mini babybliss pro TT dual voltage hair dryer

– My GoPro Hero4 Silver, charger, handle, and two extra backdoors. The GoPro and charger fit into a small black case.

-My iPhone 5S and charger

-My Samsung smart phone and charger. I have this unlocked Samsung so that I can buy a SIM card with a data plan when I travel to countries for 5 days or more. It can be a drag to buy a new SIM for each country, but if you’re there long enough it’s well worth it should you want to stay connected. Never turn on your data roaming from your American phone, it will cost a fortune.

-Five round pegged adapters: one is already attached to my hairdryer, one to my GoPro charger, one to my iPhone charger, one to Galaxy charger, and one extra just in case)

–GoTravel Small Explorer Backpack. Its fold-able and only weighs 163grams. I tend to buy souvenirs and fun accessories towards the end of my trip, and my bag starts to fill up. If my backpack gets too big I check it and use my Sherpani as one carry on and this fold-able backpack my second carry on.

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From go-travelproducts.com

-Two medium packing cubes (One by Muji, the other by Sea to Summit). This is wear I pack most of my clothes.

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From Muji.com

–Eagle Creek quarter cube. I carry in this cube my medications, earplugs, extra adapters, two sets of ear-bud headphones and an eye mask.

–Eagle Creek toiletry hanging pack

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From eagle creek.com

–Sea to Summit pocket towel. The micro fiber makes this towel fast drying and ultra absorbent. It’s also antimicrobial which allows use for extended periods without washing.

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From Amazon.com

-Plastic disposable rain poncho

–Cocoon Travel Sheet: mine was polycotton, adding 408g to my pack. There are different varieties depending on your budget and the temperature of the location you’re going to. These travel sheets are great in case you’re in a hostel with questionable cleanliness. Also comes with a pocket for pillow insert, a side opening with velcro closure.

Clothing:

A tip for choosing your clothes, which has always been a challenge for me: always go through everything one more time, and create a very specific scenario where you plan to use each item. This will help you take things away. For instance, as I went through each piece of clothing I imagined myself wearing it as I rode in a tuk-tuk through Angkor Wat. I magically changed the weather to imagine myself under the sweltering sun, drenched in the pouring rain, and riding through the hard winds. I would make sure my clothes and shoes were appropriate for each scenario.

-Three bikinis: they are small and easy to carry, so I decided to be luxurious and bring three.

-Three pairs of shoes: my everyday walking shoes (I have Ryka sneakers that aren’t that loud white old granny kind. Wear something you’re not embarrassed to wear, because you’re going to wear them almost every day), nice black leather sandals (for days I don’t want to wear the sneakers, and to go out at night), and my walking flats, which I find very comfortable and is sort of the wild card pair.

-Sandals: my Havaianas flip-flops are essential for the hostel showers and the beach.

-10 pairs of underwear, 2 bras, 5 pairs of socks

-One pair of jeans

-One sweater

-One blouse

-One short jumper

-Two pairs of shorts

-One pair of leggings

-6 shirts

-2 dresses, one casual and the other a simple black dress.

-One sleeping t-shirt

-Sleeping shorts

-One light, large scarf. This can be used to keep warm but also to wrap around your shoulders or legs when entering temples.

-One beach cover up

-Small red purse for when I go out at night and when don’t want to carry my Sherpani

Toiletries: I won’t list everything, except a few items worth noting. Remember you can always buy items there, so don’t bring a large bottle of shampoo.

-Bring two sets of travel sized shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel, and when you run out buy more there.

-Bring a travel pack of makeup remover wipes – not necessarily for makeup removal but when you need to wash your face and can’t get to water or it seems very dirty, use the makeup pads.

-Travel size tide packets: in case you want to wash your clothes by hand in the sink

-Two small bottles of hand sanitizer for your day to day.

-Travel pack of wet-ones.

-Three 2.5 oz cans of mosquito spray. Small cans are portable and easy to bring in your day bag when you travel.

-Two CVS SPF 30 sun lotion pouches. I love these because they save a lot of space by using less plastic.

-One small Neutrogena SPF 55 face lotion. I bring this in my Sherpani every day.

You can buy more sunscreen and mosquito spray when you get there as needed, but it’s always good to bring a little bit to start, especially if you love a certain brand of sunscreen for your face (aka that’s me) and there’s no guarantee they’ll have it there.

Medications: This does not include any prescription medications you individually must bring with you. I like to take the following with me in small amounts just in case: ibuprofen, emergen-C, burts & bees throat drops, Gas X tablets, and midol.

Jewelry: I don’t bring anything valuable. I brought two of my favorite (inexpensive) rings that I wore on the plane, one necklace, two bracelets, and two pairs of earrings. Southeast Asia is a great place to buy jewelry. I didn’t bring many items so that I can buy some fun items there.

Makeup: A personal decision, but I packed just the minimum. When I travel I rarely wear makeup, unless I go to a bar or nice restaurant at night, then I put a little mascara and powder on.

Random Items:

–Hair ties, you can never have too many!

–Lip balm, with SPF 15.

-One small tube of hand cream

-6 individual packs of tissues: always bring tissues with you in Asia! A lot of places won’t have toilet paper, or it won’t be of the best quality.

-Small notepad and a pen

-Sunglasses: don’t bring your favorite $300 Chanel sunglasses, but don’t bring cheap $7 ones either. I brought my Cole Haan sunglasses. Make sure you like how they look on you because they will show up in all your photos!

-Hat: I don’t really like hats, but I know they are necessary especially in the hot Southeast Asian sun. Mine is easily fold able.

-Two plastic bags. I use one to separate my dirty clothes before I do laundry, and the other is just extra in case I need it.

-One paperback book and two magazines. My kindle broke; otherwise I would have brought that along with me instead.

–Lonely Planet pocket phrase book for Southeast Asian languages

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From Amazon.com

Total weight of my backpack: 12kg: yay, success!

 

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My bags are all ready to go!

This post also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.

Beyond Machu Picchu: Peru Travel Guide

I recently returned from the incredible country of Peru. My mother’s family is from Brasil, and so I’m quite familiar with the largest country in Latin America. However, I wanted to explore another country in South America, and being that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list, I quickly chose Peru as my first venture to the western side of the continent.

I present to you my humble travel guide, based on my first hand experiences there, complete with do’s and don’ts, a sample itinerary, and some tips on how to make the most out of your vacation in Peru. I should note that to avoid writing a book-length post of my advice, I am focusing on specifically the cities I have visited, and I do not get into much detail on activities to do in each city. It is more of a compilation of elements that stuck out that I thought people should be prepared with before they go to Peru. This guide is also geared towards travelers on a budget and who are willing to be more adventurous, backpacker style. However, any visitor to Peru can take bits and pieces from this post.

When to Go: I went during low tourist season, which is from November to March. Even though you risk rains during these months, it’s much less crowded than during high season (June to September). Because I was traveling during low season, I didn’t have to book my hostels, transportation and tours in advance. The only exception was Machu Picchu, which you should book early, as it only allows a certain number of visitors per day, and even earlier for the Inca trail (people have told me they booked the Inca trail 4-6 months in advance).

Getting around: It is far easier and more economical to take the bus when travelling from one city to the next. These busses are not uncomfortable Greyhounds. Rather, the seats can go down as far as 180 degrees, and your ticket includes a meal and drink, a pillow and a blanket. There is wifi on board as well. Cruz del Sur is the one of the highest quality bus companies. Ticket prices range according to route: I took the bus from Lima to Arequipa, which took 16 hours, and it cost me 90 soles ($30). From Puno to Cusco my six-hour bus ride cost 49 soles ($16.50). Flights can cost over 130 dollars during low season, so overnight and day busses are the way to go. When you take a taxi anywhere make sure you find out the standard price to that specific place so you know what you should be paying, or else the taxi driver will overcharge you.

Accommodations: I’m a big fan of hostels; I travel alone and on a budget, and hostels make it easy to meet people from all over the world. At almost all of the hostels breakfast is included, which consists of bread, butter, jam, and tea/coffee.

Food: Peruvians eat very little red meat. Instead, they eat a lot of grains and potatoes. The most common foods I found was chicken, fish, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce. Almost every meal I’ve had, whether at a local market or a restaurant has been so yummy! The best thing to do for lunch is to order a “menu” at local food spots. For between 8-12 soles ($2.70 – $4), you’ll get a soup, salad, rice, a protein (commonly chicken or fried fish), French fries, and a beverage (usually tea). Common menus include a quarter chicken with rice, French fries, soup, and salad for 10 soles ($3.37). At the local markets you’ll find these menus for even less. The restaurants in Lima and Cusco will be more expensive, but you can always find a local restaurant for all your meals. For a snack there’s fresh juice everywhere, which costs between 5-7 soles ($1.69 – $2.36). A bottle of water is costs between 1.50-3 soles (50 cents to $1). Don’t forget to drink a lot of water, especially when acclimating to the high altitude! Beer costs around 7 soles ($2.36), and the famous Peruvian Pisco sours can range from a cheap 12 soles ($4) to a fancy 22 soles ($7.42).

What to Bring:
Backpack: Visiting Peru is generally more of an adventure and hiking experience. Bring backpackers backpack and not a suitcase You’ll be travelling to a lot of cities and will be trekking, and backpack is so much easier.

-Sunscreen: the higher the altitude the closer you are to the sun, so even if it’s cold you’ll get sunburned.
Bring hiking boots. Almost every ruin or cultural site you go will require good shoes. If you don’t have hiking boots then wear rubber soled sneakers, because in the rain things can be very slippery and dangerous. However, hiking boots are an absolute must if you’re doing Waynapicchu and the Colca Canyon trek.

-Layer Up: The weather varies throughout the day, especially at high altitudes, so layers are key. At one moment you’ll be sweating in the sun, and the next it’ll be cold and windy. My savior for those cold nights and 4000 meters above sea level was my purple Uniqlo puffer jacket, which can be folded into a small little pillow like ball when you’re not using it. I brought that with me everyday wherever I went.

-Pocho: It also rains on and off, especially in Machu Picchu, where the weather is most unpredictable. Bring a small plastic poncho with you when you go hiking.

-Other items: sunglasses, a hat, long pants (preferably the comfortable and breathable hiking type), and warm socks. Having your own towel can be handy on the Inca Trail and the Colca Canyon trek, and some hostels only provide towels for a fee. And bring a lock so you can use it to store valuables at hostels. Most hostels have lockers.

-Rent Gear: You can also rent hiking boots, backpacks, walking poles, and other gear at some hostels or independent shops in Cusco.

People: Peruvians are really friendly and helpful. It does help to speak a little Spanish, however, because many people don’t speak English. It’ll make your life easier if you learned a couple of key Spanish phrases.

Length of Trip: Every time I visit a country I wish I had at least a month. But realistically, I think you need between ten days and two weeks to see Peru. Oftentimes people only make time to see Cusco and Machu Picchu, and these two places will certainly not give you the full experience. My personal itinerary felt rushed, however I did get a chance to see a lot in a short amount of time. Listed below are the places I traveled to, with some notes about each location.

-Lima (2 days, 1 night): One third of Peru’s population of 30 million people lives in Lima. It’s a large city, and one that shouldn’t be skipped. Here is where you splurge on food, as Lima is one of the most famous culinary capitals in North and South America. If there is any one thing to make a priority here it is to try their ceviche. I went to this lovely restaurant for lunch called Punto Azul. Be sure to get there early to avoid the lunch rush! Stay in Miraflores, the nicest neighborhood with the best restaurants and also with the most things to do. You can walk to the cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and watch the surfers catch waves down below. If the winds cooperate you can also try parasailing. The most charming neighborhood is Barranco. I recommend walking around during the day to see the contrasting architecture there: a stone house looking like it belongs in the English countryside can neighbor a one story colorful Latin home. The nightlife is also in Barranco, so be sure to head there for some drinks and dancing.

-Arequipa (2 days, 2 nights): Arequipa is a gem. Not as many tourists are familiar with this city, and it was one of my favorite places in Peru. If you’re up for some pre-Machu Picchu hiking, you can do a one, two, or three day trek in the Colca Canyon, which is about three hours outside of Arequipa. You’ll see volcanoes (including an active one), be immersed in the gorgeous Andes Mountains, and you’ll have the chance to see the rare Condor, the largest flying bird in the Western Hempishere. Arequipa and Colca Canyon are higher in altitude than Cusco and Machu Picchu, the top most point hitting about 4000 meters (13,123 feet) so it’s an ideal place to visit before doing the Inca trail so you can become acclimated to the height.

-Puno, Lake Titicaca (1 day, 1 night): If you want to spend more time in Arequipa and you only have a short amount of time, skip Puno. The city itself is not that pretty, and the lake’s floating islands felt very contrived and are quite touristy. But, if you have the time, traveling along Lake Titicaca is a nice experience. Lake Titicaca is occupied by both Peru and Bolivia, and often tourists take a bus from Puno to La Paz if they want to see Bolivia and the Bolivian side of the lake. Many people have told me that Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, is much more beautiful. Puno is even higher in altitude than Arequipa, so it’s another spot to help acclimate you to the height.

-Cusco (3 days, 2 nights): Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire, and so it’s history and culture is very rich. The city is truly beautiful. It caters heavily to tourists, so be careful to avoid the classic tourist traps and highly priced restaurants. But, I always say that places become tourist destinations for a reason, so do not let the large numbers of tourists prevent you from visiting the city. Definitely take advantage of what’s outside of Cusco. You can take day tours to the outskirts of the city to see Incan ruins, salt mines, and indigenous villages where the people only speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. If you have extra time you can take a multi-day tour to Manu National Park, part of which covers the Peruvian side of the Amazon Rainforest.

-Machu Picchu (1 night, 1 day): I chose stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and do a full day in Machu Picchu. If you want to do the Inca trail, add 3-7 extra days to your itinerary to allow time to do the trail.

Machu Picchu & the Inca Trail:
For those not doing the Inca Trail (which can last between 4 and 7 days), be sure to bring a small backpack, since there are weight limits on the rail line that takes you to Aguas Calientes. Bring just enough for one short overnight stay. There is luggage storage at Machu Picchu if you bring your backpack but don’t want to carry it around amongst the ruins. Buy food before you go up to Machu Picchu, because food there is limited and expensive, and you’ll want to have lots of water and energy bars near you if you get hungry. You’re not supposed to bring food into the ruins so keep it hidden in your bag so no one sees it. And, be sure to bring your original passport.

To really get the full experience at the Machu Picchu site, you most definitely should hike Waynapicchu, and not Machu Picchu Mountain. It really changed my whole experience. But it’s only for those who are physically fit and are not afraid of very steep steps. If you decide to hike up Waynapicchu, you should get the first ticket at 7am. The hike round-trip including photos took about three hours. If you get the later ticket at 10am, it will be very hot and crowded. In order to get there by 7am you’ll have to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and take the first bus up to the mountain at 5:30am. The bus ride is $10 each way and takes about 20 minutes to get up the entrance of the ruins. Once I finished Waynapicchu I explored the ruins in more detail for the rest of the day, leaving right before close at 4:30pm. By getting there early and staying late you’ll see Machu Picchu with even less crowds, and you’re able to take your time to relax and enjoy the site.

-Cusco (1 night, 1 day): There is so much to do in Cusco itself, so definitely give yourself some time before and after Machu Picchu to explore the city. Cusco is the place to get an inexpensive massage, which I desperately needed after trekking Machu Picchu. A one-hour massage is about 30 soles ($10). I went to a place at 250 Calle Marques that did an amazing job. The San Pedro market is where locals buy their produce and meats and it’s also where you can have a three-course lunch for 4 soles ($1.35), have fresh squeezed juice made from any fruit imaginable, buy coca leaves, teas, and candies, and buy hallucinogens legally such as the San Pedro cactus. Any souvenirs can be bought here for half the price. *A note about coca leaves and hallucinogens: These hallucinogens are deeply rooted in Incan and native indigenous cultures in Peru, and are completely legal to consume in Peru. They are, however, illegal in the United States, and so you’re at risk if you try to bring anything with you back to the USA. More about coca later.

Altitude Sickness: It is very common for visitors to Peru to experience altitude sickness, particularly if they’re not from cities of a very high altitude. People make the mistake of flying directly into Cusco from Lima. If you do this you’re going to get hit hard with a very sudden change in altitude. The best thing to do is to take a bus from any location and acclimate as the car drives higher up the mountains. And, it’s a great way to take you to a different city and acclimate before doing the Inca Trail and hiking Machu Picchu. The first day you’re in a high altitude city such as Arequipa or Cusco, take it easy. You’re not going to feel he difference right away, so even if you do feel fine, take it slow. I advise you to not immediately go walking around and sightseeing, because you’ll need to regulate your breathing. Take some ibuprofen before arriving and every few hours after that. If you think you’ll really get sick, then have a doctor prescribe you Diamox. Some side effects of altitude sickness are lightheadedness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and nausea. I found that my first couple of days in Arequipa I couldn’t eat as much as I normally did, and I had trouble falling and staying asleep. Definitely try to be in a high altitude for a couple of days to a week before doing Machu Picchu so you’re feeling completely acclimated.

Coca: Locals use a natural remedy for altitude sickness – anything based in coca leaf, most commonly coca tea. Drink endless amounts of this tea when you’re there. Coca is the main ingredient used to make cocaine. But as a plant it is completely natural and safe to consume. The coca candies are a fun thing to chew on when you’re hiking.

DIY or Organized Tours: This is always a personal choice, no matter where in the world you go. I find the best would be a mix of both. Customizing your day-to-day partially doing it on your own and partially with organized tours are also less expensive and although it’s more work to plan everything, it can be very rewarding. The only area where a tour is essential is Machu Picchu, since the number of people allowed into the site each day is limited.

Money: The Peruvian currency is the Nuevo sole (or sole for short). Right now it is about 2.9 soles to the dollar. Things are relatively inexpensive in Peru, especially if you’re not afraid of getting away from the tourist restaurants with English menus and try the local spots. The most expensive parts of your trip will be the entrance fees to the different sites outside of Cusco and the train and entrance fees to Machu Picchu.

Bring Cash in Dollars: Unlike in Europe, where it’s better to use the ATM than to pay high commissions to exchange money, the ATM fees in Peru are really high. Every time you want to withdraw money you pay about 14 soles ($4.72) each time, not including the fees your individual bank will charge you. Either take out what you think you’ll need in one shot, or better yet bring unused US dollars with you to exchange Make sure your bills are clean and crisp because they don’t take torn money at all, even if it’s just a little used or damaged. They are very strict about this.

Shopping: The most typical thing to buy is the 100% alpaca wool scarves, hats, sweaters, and gloves. You’ll also see bags, sweaters, scarves, blankets, baby Llama dolls, keychains, and even sneakers made in the typical Peruvian colors and patterns. Definitely leave some space in your backpack for some purchases. There’s definitely something for everyone, as items range in price according to quality, as you can find a similar scarf made from synthetic materials or from 100% baby alpaca.

A Final Note: Peru is a vibrant country, and you’ll never forget your experience there. Enjoy the wonder of Machu Picchu, but don’t be afraid to venture out and explore other cities, each of which add their own unique element to the Peruvian cultural landscape.

Ladies, Looking to Travel the World Alone? 8 Tips on Savvy Solo Travel

I spent a little over a month this summer backpacking through Europe. I’m a seasoned traveler. However, this was my first time truly traveling by myself. As a woman, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive at first. But I quickly realized that this was a journey I just had to make. It’s a traveling experience that I recommend all women take at least once in their life. I want to share with you some tips and recommendations for your next trip as a female traveling alone, no matter where in the world you decide to experience that journey.

1. Embrace the solo spirit

Contrary to what you may believe, most people actually deeply respect the solo traveler, particularly if you’re a woman. You’ll look a lot more badass than you think you do, and even if you’re lost, you’ll have this aura of bravery and resourcefulness. I met some Danish locals in Copenhagen who were very impressed when I told them I was alone – it gave me a little self-confidence boost. You’ve made a conscious decision to travel alone – be proud of it.

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2. Don’t be afraid to say hi

Transportation on long journeys is the perfect time to strike up a conversation. When you’re traveling by bus, train, ferry, plane, (or maybe camel?) try to get to know the person next to you. On line to take a ferry boat heading from Split to Hvar Island in Croatia, I met a Colombian girl named Carolina. She was also standing on the ferry line by herself, and so I said “hi” and introduced myself. We ended up sitting next to each other on the ferry, and for the next three days we explored Hvar together. She and I became friends and we still keep in touch. I can honestly say my experience in Hvar wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t approached her. So just say hi, and be open to talking to strangers (even if you were taught otherwise as a kid). You never know where a simple “hi” will take you.

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3. Other solo travelers are approachable – and for ladies, can be a nice safety net

You’ll find that when you meet someone else who travels alone, there’s this immediate bond that you’ll have with that person. For some reason solo travellers are concentrated in hostels – and it’s pretty easy to make friends with others when you share a room with them for a couple of nights. Many hostels organize pub-crawls and other social events in the evenings, which is a great opportunity to socialize. For added safety when going out at night, find another lady to stick with – she’ll be like your wing woman that you have at home, and you’ll both be accountable for each other. As a woman I often found myself gravitating towards a fellow female going solo at my hostel when I went out – we were both in the same situation, and there’s an unspoken level of trust you end up forming with them.

4. Be social, but also be anti-social

Social media is a great way to connect with your friends and family back home. If you’re missing some real connections with people you know and trust, create a public blog with photos of your daily travels. If you have a smartphone that only works with Wi-Fi abroad, I suggest you invest in a cheap unlocked smartphone and buy a local SIM card with a data plan. This way you can be connected whenever you’d like to be.
But also, keep it a little anti-social. Try to journal or keep a private blog. Turn off your phone for a couple of hours every day. Remember the journey is about you, and being alone is a gift that very few people have while they travel. You’ll be happier for it.

5. You don’t have to actually couch surf to be a couch surfer

Couch surfing (staying in someone’s home for free) isn’t for everyone. However, it is a fantastic source of insider tips from locals. People who belong to the couch surfing community are really open to helping tourists, by definition of what they do by hosting people in their homes, so they are incredibly approachable. Create a profile and use it to connect with locals by asking them for tips, recommended eats, sites, shopping, and bars. If you want to take it a step further, you can take them up on meeting them in a public place. I connected with some couch surfer hosts in Athens and Reykjavik who offered to just to show me their city and the nightlife when I was in town. You can go to Couchsurfing.org to check it out.

6. You’re not really alone

You’re not the first to travel alone, which is a good thing! There are tons of online resources to help you. There’s Solo Travel Society, which has a blog and facebook group devoted to people who travel alone. There are also a few long-term female travelers who travel alone and blog about their experiences, such as LegalNomads and Adventurous Kate.

7. Connect with your third cousins

Meeting up with my mom’s friend’s son in Munich (as random as that sounds) really changed my experience of the city. One night he and his friends took me to a fantastic local pub, and I got to experience an authentic “Bavarian” night out. While you’re planning your trip, ask all your friends and family if they know someone in the particular city you want to go to, and try to link up with them. If applicable, make sure to pass through cities where you do have a good friend to meet up with, that way midway through your travels you can have some catch-up time with a loved one.

8. Smile

Trust me, it really helps. If you’re stressed, lonely, tired, or whatever, just smile. I promise it will help. And then usually something unexpected happens, and you’ll wonder why you weren’t smiling the whole time!

If you don’t feel like following any of these, at least remember this: Do something that falls a little bit outside your comfort zone – whether it’s engaging with other travelers, linking up with locals, trying a new dish, or saying yes to skydiving or para sailing. After all, no one from back home is watching; you’ve got nothing to lose. And, enjoy the ride; you’ll never forget it.

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This article also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.