Bogota is huge. It’s a bustling, economically rich and vibrant city. Despite it being known as a quick stopover destination, I truly had a fantastic time there. My friend Lorenzo, who is native to Bogota, was my host and guide. Perhaps I am biased as I had a very local experience of the city, and was able to see far more than the average backpacker. I don’t have much to say or to reflect upon from visiting this city, other than that Bogota was the perfect culmination of my time in Colombia. I fell in love with the country, and I can’t wait to go back.
I met Viviane during my day-long hike in the Cocora Valley in Salento, a quaint country town nestled in the Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone) of Colombia. A small group convened from my hostel to begin the roughly 5 hour hike; Viviane joined our jeep and asked to hike with us. At first I was not very happy to have her in our group – she was an older woman, and I assumed we would have to travel slower and take more stops to accommodate her and not leave her behind. Furthermore she was French and spoke very little English; I was the only one of the 6 of us that spoke any French at all, so reluctantly I became the designated translator. What the day began as a nuisance actually ended with a friendship, and far more importantly, a deeper understanding and appreciation for the art of solo-travel.
Viviane is from Chantilly, just outside of Paris. She spends 8 months traveling and 4 months back home in France. When I met her, she was on her third year of traveling in this way. She spent her first and second 8 month-stints in the countries of Southeast Asia as well as in India and Nepal. This was her third year of long-term travel, and she was taking on the South American continent. This may seem like an incredible experience for most of us. One would assume I was talking about a young college graduate who was taking on the world before settling into a long-term career. Or she could be a freelancer who works virtually, only returning to her home country for a short period of time to take care of offline business.
Viviane is 64 years old. She is divorced. She retired three years ago, exactly when she began traveling. She has two grown children, each with their own families and with little interest in traveling with her. She’s a female solo-traveler just like me. Only she is of an age rarely seen in these circumstances — most women wouldn’t dream of traveling alone, especially at that age when they could take their retirement money and live comfortably in a warm vacation destination. Viviane chose to do things a little differently.
She had never traveled outside of Western Europe her entire life before she retired – she always wished she could go away, but as a single parent with two children, she couldn’t afford to. Instead of taking the route of self-pity for being alone, she chose to travel just as she always wanted to. She wasn’t going to let being alone get in the way of her adventures. And Viviane is not the sit back and relax type of traveler. She hiked up the mountain exactly the way we did – and truthfully that hike was not easy. It was an extraordinary challenge for me, and I could only imagine how Viviane was able to hike up this mountain without any friends or relatives beside her as support. I was in complete awe at her perseverance and strength. She did not give up even though so many people younger than her would have done so.
More awe inspiring is her travel story. So many people, particularly women, fear they cannot travel long term. Moreover, after a certain age, people feel they cannot partake in the adventurous, off the beaten-path experiences that backpackers skillfully accomplish. The travel as couples and most likely have not backpacked previously in their younger days. They skip the day-long hikes, the excursions to remote jungle areas, to the beaches that require the extra climb, the optional extreme sports experiences. They don’t socialize with younger people, they don’t make new friends. They don’t try new foods or venture off the detailed pre-determined tour itinerary. Instead, they travel in packs, sticking with the tour guide and seeing the most popular sights in each city. They are merely on vacation. It is not the traveling that backpackers know so well. It’s not the traveling I seek and it’s certainly not the traveling that Viviane is doing at this very moment.
Instead of recalling the incredible time I had in Salento visiting coffee plantations and wandering about the Cocora Valley, I chose to tell the story of Viviane. To inspire people to travel. To show them that traveling can be done at any age, and can be done alone and with equal intention as the younger travelers. Of course at that age traveling alone can have it’s downsides; Viviane did mention how sometimes she wish she had a companion. But to make up for the lack of a partner she has made so many friends, many of whom retired as well, who she has traveled to various countries with. She has made friends with local families who have proudly shared their culture with her. It sounds all too familiar to the journeys of the typical young backpacker. It only shows that traveling can be done at any age. And it should be done at any age, and without fear or regret.
I want my last days to be occupied with travel, just like Viviane. Don’t we all dream of this? If she can do it, so can we.
As I explored the city of Medellin last week, I’ve come to face the effects of solo-traveling and the social dynamics of meeting other travelers. In Colombia so far, I’ve made friends with people from Holland, England, the United States, France, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany. Every person I have met had their own story and brought with them a piece of their culture that I had the pleasure of learning from. There were times when all I wanted to do was interact and learn from other travelers, and particularly at night it was obviously more enjoyable to join a group of party-goers. But, there were many other times that I craved sight-seeing and exploring completely on my own. I am constantly questioning the true reasons why I choose to travel alone, and how interactions with others plays a part in my whole experience.
There are far more men than women traveling alone; I’ve found that female backpackers mostly travel in groups or as a couple. I often wonder when I meet other female solo travelers what their intentions are. Some are young and in between their studies, others are between jobs. Others still have burned out from work, were fed up with their jobs, and decided to quit and travel indefinitely. Not at all coincidentally, most of these solo travelers are not in a relationship. Do these women travel to meet new people romantically? Is it because they’re sick of the dating lifestyle in their home country and want to meet men from all over the world? Is it for temporary pleasure, or with the intention of seeking someone for the long term?
Part of me thinks that there’s always some odd little thing “wrong” with the women who travel alone. There’s something they’re running away from, some aspect of their lives they enjoy hiding, and they in some way are reinventing themselves to the strangers they meet. It is quite liberating to wander about without any pre-judgement, without anyone knowing who you are and where you come from; you can be whomever you want, however you want.
Is there a reason why I seek to travel alone? Why I sometimes feel that after getting to know some people along my journey all I want to do is get away from them and just leave? When you meet people while backpacking, you become fast friends. You share that common love of travel, and the icebreaker is always related to your current travel plans. Where are you coming from, where are you going, how long are you traveling for, where are you from originally? Sometimes it can be exhausting to engage in these conversations while accelerating your friendships – other times it’s thrilling and enriching. Learning about others consumes a lot of energy. Add building relationships to visiting city sites during the day and to partying at night, and you quickly become drained and tired.
True, it’s easy to travel with someone else in order to share the planning burden and to have the peace of mind of always having someone to go out with and to share in your experiences. However, I sometimes don’t have any desire to share in my experience with someone. Some days I don’t want to be friendly or nice to everyone I meet. I just want to do my own thing. I often feel this way back home as well. I just want my time to myself, and after spending too much time with people all I want to do is get away from them. I fear that there’s something wrong with me, that I won’t be able to maintain any relationship because I truly enjoy my alone time.
Am I traveling alone because I can’t be around anyone else? Because I am running away from reality? Am I bored with people? I do get bored with some of the people I meet. Even though they are interesting and have so much to share, after spending the entire day and night with them, all I want to do is get away.
Constant interaction means not ever taking time to reflect and to quietly observe the world around you. I had little time to myself in Medellin, and although I am grateful for the people I’ve met, I haven’t been able to just be. I felt trapped, as if I am being forced to do something that I don’t want to do. After all, it’s my journey, so why am I compromising with others.
Is that selfish of me? Maybe it is. And, why do I even bother to engage with people if I mostly likely won’t see them again (with a few exceptions). At the same time, that’s what’s so cool about the social dynamics between backpackers. The friendships are temporary, and if it’s not working out, soon enough you’ll go your separate ways. You’ll be left with only some photos to preserve any memories of your adventures together.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to resolve these feelings of why I crave traveling alone. I could list out all the benefits and negatives of both solo travel and group travel, but I suppose the only real answer is that for everyone it’s different. When you travel alone you gain so much, but you also give up so much. It’s a give and take experience. Oddly enough, solo travel is far more time consuming and requires a higher level of social skills, but it is incredibly rewarding.
Medellin: what an amazing city. I can honestly say it’s the first city I’ve encountered in South America where I would consider moving to and working in.
I was pleasantly surprised by how modern and functional Medellin is, and how easy it is for visitors to explore. The Paisas are warm and friendly, they want to teach you about their culture and their home. They are proud of where they came from, no matter how grim history has been to them. Yes, Medellin was at one time one of the most dangerous cities of the world, plagued by Pablo Escobar and the drug trade. It was a violent place, its people were dirt poor, and there was no infrastructure. But now it boasts the only metro system in Colombia. I went on an incredible walking tour of the city (Real City Tours, the best free walking tour I have ever been to) and our guide was so passionate and proud of his city. He told us that the reason why the metro is so clean, functional, and safe is that it’s symbol of the good that came out of the conditions the people of this city were exposed to. What came out of a city of crime was this incredible metro system, built by people who had never built a metro before. The metro was the one thing they could cling to, one part they could be truly proud of.
Decades have passed, and the city has transformed. It’s become a safe place for visitors and locals alike, with growing businesses, an emergence of haute cuisine, a surge of new construction, increased trade and commerce, and tourism. The money does not come from drugs in this city – it comes from the businesses and the hard working people who run them. And our guide was right about the metro – it has not a scratch, not a mark of graffiti. It runs on time and often, and people have a huge amount of respect for their public transportation system.
Another important element of this city is that it has successfully experimented and implemented with urban planning. For 2000 pesos (60 cents), you can ride across the entire city and also take it’s two cable car lines. The cable cars connect to the poorer slums., allowing for a social mobility and accessibility I haven’t seen in any other metropolitan city in South America. Someone who lives in the poorer neighborhoods can work anywhere and pay little to do so without compromising quality and safety. The city has built 9 huge, beautiful public libraries. Medellin now boasts a healthy economy, safety, and a much higher standard of living. It’s an incredible feat, one that other developing countries should look to as a model – what comes to mind are the favelas of the large cities in Brasil, a country that does little to promote mobility and to improve the daily life of its poorest citizens.
On my last day in Medellin I visited Comuna 13, the once incredibly violent and poor slum. The neighborhood’s colorful houses host dozens of street art on the building façades. The government built an escalator that allows its residents to travel to and from Comuna 13 to the commercial neighborhood below, an equivalent of a 28 story climb, in 6 minutes. I could hear the pride in the security guard’s voice when I spoke with him as he recalled the history of this once considered the most violent neighborhood in the world’s most violent city. Opened in 2011, it serves Comuna 13’s 12,000 residents and is free to use. It was incredibly safe, and it’s residents are proud of having visitors. They want to show how much they love their neighborhood, and how they take great care of the escalator and of the street art. This profound respect for their home parallels their relationship to the metro system – it’s a deep source of pride to them that their city is rebuilding itself, and they will do whatever it takes to keep the city in it’s state of prosperity and transformation.
One of my first thoughts arriving in Cartagena was how similar the city is to my native city of Recife, in Brasil. Firstly, the extreme tropical heat and humidity, which gave me a pleasant jolt as I exited the plane and walked outside across the Tarmac to the gate. I immediately felt my travel mojo take over me like a wave – the travel high I know will help sustain me until the end of my journey.
Arriving at the airport, a huge line forms at immigration and security doesn’t even arrive to check our passports for another 10 minutes. The whole immigration, baggage claim, and customs process taking over an hour, I am reminded of the laid back nature of my coastal city in Brasil and the parallels with this city – there is little need to rush in this third world country.
Such is Colombia. I smile. I realize that I’ve started my journey with the opportunity to just settle into the city of Cartagena, and to release any expectations of the stresses and bustle of New York City. I’ve dutily arrived in South America, and although some areas more than others will resemble more of the structure that I’m used to in my day-to-day and in my travels to Europe, I shall entrench myself into a slower pace. Yes, busses will be late, it will take far longer to get from point A to point B than advertised, you’ll wait too long for your meal a restaurant, and you’ll learn of all the daily inconveniences that you otherwise take for granted, such as how ATMs are extremely rare in most areas and that gas stations across the street from Petroleum factories may actually be out of gasoline. These minor oddities mark the pace of this city.
I am Brasilian and Greek, two notable cultures with a more laid back lifestyle. But, for better or worse, I’m also very much a New-Yorker at heart. And so the slowness is a challenge for me, as it is whenever I go back to visit my family in Recife. But this is a journey where I accept the challenges and learn from them, no matter how insignificant this all may seem to an outsider. Unlike the other times I’ve traveled, where I would find myself acting like a frustrated New Yorker trying to catch a subway or push through Times Square, I’m going to pause, breathe, and remember where I am and who’s culture I’ve been graciously allowed to experience. It may seem odd that as an experience traveler, I haven’t yet thought to settle into the circumstances in this way. But truthfully I have only been able to let go of my habits only half the time. It’s humbling to allow myself to let these inconvenience just be.
I need to remember how life has gone on in this way in a given place far longer than I arrived, and it will continue to do so after I’ve departed. This attitude is not to be confused with an excuse for or allowing bad behavior. Rather it’s a deep acceptance of a culture and of one’s very temporary place in it, of being given the chance to dive into the fish tank instead of just watching and tapping the glass from the outside.
Being given this chance also means I get to experience all the good things which in almost every case, far outweigh the bad. This is what traveling is all about. This is why the “bad” is equally important in one’s experience.
The good things in Cartagena are magical. Fresh fruits and fruit juices, yummy cheese Arepas, the colorful buildings next to the old churches within the old city walls. The friendliness of the people, their nonstop urge to eat, drink, and party. The salsa music and never ending love of dance. The crystal blue waters off the Rosario Islands. The colonial history rooted in the Castello San Felipe. Botero Sculptures. Cartagena is full of life and deeply rooted culture. Getsemani, the backpacker’s area, is the Brooklyn to the old city’s Manhattan, yet only a short walk away.
A local lunch or dinner “Menu” consisting of fresh fish, rice, salad, fried plantains, and soup will push you back $3. A bowl of freshly cut fruit, $0.64. An Aquila beer, $1. It’s no surprise backpackers love Cartagena. And there’s a party every night of the week. An old villa converted into a hostel hosts a well known party on its roof every Wednesday night, where foreigners and locals drink and dance to live salsa, reggaeton, and local champeta music all night long. It was amazing to see the almost equal mix of Cartagena’s men and women partying until 5am with the backpackers. The salsa bar and the nightclub I went to the night before were no different. It’s one of the few cities I’ve been to where there is no divide among the locals and tourists, where the best parties are welcome to all.
I visited the Mercado Bazurto on my last full day in Cartagena. I left my phone, backpack, and camera behind, and only took enough money to get myself there and back. It’s not recommended to go there with any valuables for there is a high rate of pick-pocketing. And so unfortunately I have no photos to document the hustle and bustle of this incredible market. Shoes are sold across from the fresh fish, fruit stands next to a barber, and raggaeton music blasts in a makeshift bar/restaurant alongside a live birds and chick vendor that dyed the chicks hot pink and blue. It was crowded, noisy, dirty, chaotic, and most of all, fully alive.
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.
-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.
-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:
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.
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.
-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.
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.
-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.
–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.
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 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
-1 pair of hiking pants.
-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 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.
-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.
-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.