Tierra del Fuego.

After driving from Punta Arenas in Chile and crossing the Magellan strait, we reached the archipelago called Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire.” It is divided between Chile and Argentina. Three weeks and over 4,000 kilometers driving from Santiago, we finally reached the end of the world in Ushuaia.

King Penguin Colony on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego.
King Penguin Colony on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego.
Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, It is known to the Argentines as the Lighthouse at the End of the World (Faro del fin del mundo).
Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, It is known to the Argentines as the Lighthouse at the End of the World (Faro del fin del mundo).

The southernmost city in the world concluded my Patagonian tour. I can look back on my experiences participating in an actual guided tour, and unfortunately, I have to admit that the decision to book it was the wrong one.

We learn a lot about our travel habits and how we choose to explore a new place when we travel, and I learned a big lesson through this costly and time consuming mistake. I am not at all of the type to be on group tours, especially those that do not have a set age range. The tour company I used was Tucan Travel – I do not recommend anyone using this tour company. The tour itself was loaded with issues; I have linked a copy of a portion of my letter of complaint to them in a blog post, linked here).

I didn’t feel as connected to the typical mentality of traveling in an organized tour. I met some really lovely people. A couple of them I can call my friends, people that I can visit whenever I travel to their country. However in my experience the negative aspects of an organized tour far outweighed the benefits. There is no flexibility in a tour, no option to stay just a couple of days longer in a place that I fall in love with. Even if the group gets along really well and the people are wonderful, I am still spending almost every waking moment with them. No matter the circumstances, spending too much time with the same group of people can become tiring. In group tour dynamics, the open minded mentality of meeting other travelers along the way is virtually nonexistent. Naturally, those who have the money to spend on a tour also have more money to spend at nicer restaurants, and since they’re generally traveling for a shorter period of time, they treat they’re experience as a vacation, and can splurge on certain things here and there. This at times clashed with my budget, especially since we were already in a very expensive part of South America.

I found that in a group tours, helplessness breeds helplessness. Travel should make people smarter, more resourceful and aware of one’s surroundings. Instead tours make people lazy; with the idea of not having to worry about logistics, this also means that when left on your own, the blind leads the blind, and you end up feeling lost and unable to cope with settling in a new location. You’ve done no research and now you’re left to fend for yourself and you stick with whatis comfortable instead of exploring the unknown. This is what i perceived while on the tour, and at times I took the lead and helped others sort out their itinerary-free days, especially because I was one of the few who spoke Spanish and could translate.

There are some people who spend most of their travels on group tours, and frankly it negates the basic philosophy of traveling. You pay someone a lot of money to show you only specific, highly visited parts of a country while adhering to a strict itinerary with the same group of people. That to me sounds like hell – it is certainly not traveling. It’s merely staying ignorant while seeing a new exotic destination.

Mostly, I felt out of control of my experiences with the group tour, and I wasn’t able to allow myself to become fully immersed in my journey the way I would normally. And so, I’ve made a decision to not ever take a group tour, ever again. Seriously. The mistake has been made and I can only take from it the lessons I’ve learned.

The truth is that traveling (and I do not mean vacationing) cannot happen through a tour. A tour is a shortcut. It does not replace the experience of figuring things out on your own. I am speaking from the perspective of a solo budget backpacker, but I feel this applies to all ages, budget ranges, and group sizes. I cannot recommend enough, for those without a strict timeline and with a similar independent traveler spirit, to take the more difficult route, no matter how much more complicated it may seem. The extra effort will be far more rewarding.

And now, for the first time in a really long time, I don’t even know what I am doing or where I am going next. It’s liberating. It’s fully present. I can put the tour experiment and the stresses that came with it behind me. I now take with me every single awe-inspiring and humbling moment as I wandered and explored, nature’s incredible beauty that I had the honor of witnessing, and the landscapes of the farthest ends of the earth that are forever imprinted in my mind. Patagonia was raw and surreal. It was absolutely pure magic.

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Historic old ship in the Bay of Ushuaia.
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Shipping containers bordered by colorful Lupine flowers.
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Sea Lions on the Beagle Channel
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Bridges’ Isles on the Beagle Channel in Ushuaia

Tucan Travel Negative Review.

Below is a portion of the letter of complaint I wrote to Tucan Travel for their “Villarrica” tour from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina. I normally do not submit such lengthy reviews, nor do I publish them on my blog, however the issues from this tour were so severe that it is necessary that people are made aware before booking with them in the future.

****

The first week and a half of the tour was of extremely poor quality from the part of not only Tucan but from the driver Richie and the guide Kim. I felt that myself amongst this large group of 27 (much too large for a tour of this kind) was a burden on both Richie and Kim’s vacation. I was hesitant to ask questions because the reaction and attitude I received in reply had an undertone that I was asking far too many, and that they were annoyed and frustrated with any question. Anytime there was a miscommunication between guide and group (of which there were many), the response was that we as a group did something wrong and that we were at fault as we misheard. There was never any accountability for mistakes or misunderstandings, all of which were on the part of the guide and driver for not relaying the correct information. Examples include details that every tour guide should know such as the location of the official tourist information offices, the activity levels and degrees of difficulty of the optional activities, the up to date prices of these activities, and the names of the restaurants that we will be having group meals. Much of the time neither guide nor driver knew the answers to these questions, or if they did they were incorrect.

In Bariloche we arrived at 7pm and we only had an hour before group meal to sort out the excursions for the next day, exchange money, do laundry, and do any food shopping. We 
weren’t given a map or told what types of activities there are to do in any detail, 
only she pointed out the tourist office which was actually not the correct center. I ended up leading a group of frustrated and frantic retired-aged women to the tourist office where I translated all of their questions and helped them with their itinerary for the next day. This was not my responsibility whatsoever, and furthermore does not make for an enjoyable first day in Argentina. If Kim had properly informed us of what to do and physically brought us to the information office, the whole fiasco would have been avoided. I 
did not pay thousands of dollars to be everyone’s translator and tour guide.

Tucan Travel imposes all the responsibility to Kim to be the point-person for every single aspect of our tour, which as a result led to a poorer quality experience. If the driver could also be a resource for questions, health concerns, or general know-how of a particular region, we as travelers would not have to overburden Kim as a group of 27 constantly asking her to help us. Richie has been a driver for many years, and he knew nothing beyond the task of physical driving. Even when asked about the name of the restaurant that he always goes to in a city for group meal, he could not even be bothered to remember the answer and would just reply “I don’t know.” Every single answer to a question would be, “I don’t know,” or “that is not my area of expertise, ask Kim,” or “I am just the driver.” This is quite frankly a poor attitude to have, and whatever Tucan has in place as a system to just give responsibility to Richie as merely a driver is wrong and is not at all what we pay for. One person for 27 people is not enough.

It is unacceptable that our tour guide and driver spoke limited Spanish. I speak a very good amount of Spanish, and if I wanted to go through the trouble of negotiating and working logistics I would have traveled on my own. On almost a daily basis I was translating for everyone in the group, helping them with ordering drinks to asking for directions, and at times I would be overwhelmed with addressing to their needs while also trying to sort out my own. Furthermore, neither guide nor driver have a phone that works in Argentina or Chile – Kim working for 5 years in south america, 2 of them in Patagonia, one would think that Tucan would provide inexpensive SIM cards and data plans that would allow the ease of making and confirming reservations. It is unsettling that should there be an emergency, no one has cell phone service that would be able to call for help. I had to turn on roaming and use my own US-based data plan to email the ice trekking provider to try and set up the activity. I did not pay thousands of dollars to have to think about booking an excursion and spending money on roaming, incurring very high charges.

Tucan Travel‘s slogan is “adventures with passion.” There was not a single time when I felt the passion in showing us the beauty of Patagonia. Patagonia speaks for itself, and were it not for such an incredible destination, far less people would be blind by the tour itself. The guide and driver did the bare minimum for their participants, and the fact that it takes the traveler to make a complaint about the lack of infrastructure and systems to make the process easier for them is appalling – after many years on the road one would think to take the initiative to ask for cell phone service, for example. One would think that the tour guide and driver would make the observation that the eldery people on this trip were not even made aware that this tour included intense days of 8-9 hour trekking, and to inform Tucan that the website does not even make a special note of this. There is no indication whatsoever on the website of any high level of physical activity, and I am appalled that Tucan does not specify and remind people of the difficulty level of this trek. I know that less people would book the trip had they known of the amount of hiking. This only shows me that Tucan would rather take people’s money and throw them under the bus instead of helping ensure they have made an appropriate decision.


In Torres National Park, we were given one guide for all 25 of us at the park at the time. This would prove extremely frustrating, given that the group clearly divided into two fitness levels, one that would move far quicker than the other. Based on previous hikes Kim should have informed Tucan so that we could be given an additional guide in Torres. The amount of money I paid for this trip to hire proper guides that would only cater to a slower paced group is unacceptable. Day 1 of Torres National Park we did not even complete the Peninsula trek around Grey Glacier because the group moved so slowly that we wouldn’t have enough time. That is incredibly unfair for those who are able to complete the hike, but cannot do so legally in the park without the aid of a guide. Furthermore, on Day 3 in the French Valley, because I had experienced the slow pace and wanted to make sure I reached the summit in time before the last Catamaran would take us across the lake, me and a few others had to run ahead of the guide and make it to the top. 
I was horrified by the quality of included meals that Tucan has allowed for on this trip.
The only meal that was of the correct portion size, was hot, and had adequate 
amount of protein was the last night in Torres del Paine, which Kim made a curry with rice. All other meals consisted of a small bowl of pasta salad with no protein, ham and cheese sandwiches (of which I could not eat either ham or cheese), and empanadas. Given that breakfast includes usually a meager bread, coffee, and 
jam for breakfast, our included lunches on the road were not at all sufficient. We 
were left hungry and almost every time had to purchase snacks to make sure we were satisfied. I am a petite young woman, and I can only imagine how the large men on this tour were able to cope with the small portions and little protein. The 
amount of money we have paid to only have a handful of provided lunches is 
unacceptable. Over half the trip we had to go to the supermarket and provide our 
own packed lunches for the day, and without kitchens in the hotels (except 
Pucon) we had to resort to eating sandwiches, the very same food we were given as included meals.

On Christmas Day in El Chalten, we were told that we had a late morning and that we would leave at 12pm. Check out of the hotel was 10am, and so we were ready 2 hours beforehand to leave because we couldn’t stay in our rooms to relax. All of us were in the lobby ready to go, and neither guide nor driver were anywhere to be found. We found them in the room having just come out of the shower, and they proceeded to accuse us that we were told we were only leaving at 12 the night before, even though during breakfast Kim told us if we were all packed up early after check out we could leave for El Calafate earlier. Every single one of us were waiting in the lobby while the two of them were going about their personal business, all on our dime.

The end of our trip in Ushuaia was left on a sour note as well. On the day trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park, Kim came onto the hired tour bus at the last minute to tell us she would not be joining us on the hike. She quickly pointed to a map and said that the trails are easily marked and that we would have no trouble figuring it out on our own. We were left without an English speaking driver, and I had to translate for everyone’s questions. Still, there was a terrible misunderstanding of where we would be dropped off and picked up, and for over half a us we did not have a chance to properly explore the trails, as there were lots of different ways of seeing the park and some of them would not allow us to make it in time for the 3:30pm bus. We are not paying to be thrown on a tour bus without any knowledge of where to go.

Tucan has a company should be taking far more care in ensuring we have fully qualified, professional guides and drivers, ensuring our safety, that we are properly fed, that we have the resources to seek help, that we are well informed of the activities and their difficulty levels, and that we are, more than anything else, having a really amazing time. Tucan has done none of those things for me, and I will make sure that others know of my experience so that they can book a tour with another company that will provide for them in the ways I was not.

Torres Del Paine

Camping in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was an incredible experience. It pushed my limits physically; we had two 8 hour-long trek days totaling in over 37 km (22 miles). I am not an experienced hiker, but I found the Torres and French Valley treks not at all as difficult as I had imagined they would be, and they both had incredible viewpoints that awaited us at the summit. I related hiking to people’s experience with running; for them, it is a form of meditation, a way to clear their mind and just allow the body to move itself automatically. I had plenty of time in those hours to hike in silence and was easily able to switch off all the thoughts in my head as I stayed focused on the trail. Hiking also gave me time to think about just about everything in a clear and non-emotionally cluttered way. I realized how people can become life-long hiking addicts in seeking both the adrenaline and the meditative reflection that comes with experiencing the outdoors in such a physically demanding way.

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Sunset in Puerto Natales, Chile.
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Grey Glacier icebergs at Grey Lake.
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Grey Glacier in the background, Torres del Paine.
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Beautiful yet bizarre Patagonian cloud formations.
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Paine Massif pink sunset after 18 hours of daylight.
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View of the Torres tours after a 5 hour long hike along the Torres trek.
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Peering into the valley at the end of the French Valley trek.
Panorama of the French Valley.
Panorama of the French Valley.
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The lagoon’s piercing blue color comes from the minerals of the glaciers.
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The Paine Massif.

And now I’ve made it to 2016. It’s New Year’s Day, and the city of Punta Arenas (four hours drive from Puerto Natales, the home base of Torres Del Paine National Park) is a ghost town. We were warned that the Chileans close everything on New Year’s Day, and they weren’t kidding; merely two restaurants and a cafe are open in the vicinity to our hotel, and not a single store, bank, or supermarket is open. So today is a much needed day of rest in Patagonia.

My first reaction as I looked back on this past year was that so much has happened, too much, and it’s truly mind blowing. It was a year of so many changes, new experiences, and hardships. I thought, if I continue at this pace each year, I would certainly burn out by the age of 35. This year was a roller coaster on every level. But I am grateful for all the highs, the lows, and of the swinging pendulum of feeling secure and of being thrust into the unknown.

I traveled and then I came home. I celebrated the coming of 2015 on a small island called Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, sleeping directly under the stars on an empty beach with only 30 others to see the gorgeous sunrise with me. I was completely engulfed in nature and in beauty, and although I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing with my life, I had the reassurance of my immediate next steps, which was going back to New York to begin working full time for a startup. I spent the rest of January in Cambodia and Vietnam, and despite the career that awaited me, I came home to a freezing February storm completely heartbroken. I had spent the previous six months traveling on and off across three continents. I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Southeast Asia to achieve any sort of closure in my adventures, and upon my return I didn’t have a chance to process what I experienced. And so one of the many reasons why I am taking the time now in South America is because I made that mistake a year ago.

I worked and then I didn’t. I began working at the startup in February and dove right in, kicking off in San Francisco for two weeks with the startup’s founder. I learned what it took to grow a company from the ground up, and I also learned of the risks involved in joining a tech startup while it was merely a seedling. Unfortunately this startup, among the 99% of new businesses, had come to a standstill, and I had to leave. And so I decided to reset and travel to another region I had yet to explore.

Friendships showed me more about myself than ever before. Some old friends faded, some were rekindled from the past, and some grew even stronger, becoming family. My friends are growing into themselves by taking different paths, some of them intersecting with mine, and all of them beautiful and scary in their own right. It’s been fascinating to watch my friends grow up in such a variety of ways, and it’s given me the chance to evaluate my priorities and how I fit into the conventional cycle of adulthood. This year was also marked by a new set of people that entered my life; I found community in a group of people who share similar values, who are there to help me, and who embrace the path I am taking. Through these friends I expanded my world of music, dance, spiritual practice, and self expression. I went to Burning Man for the first time, and learned what it was like to live completely in the present.

I have struggled with family, those whom I share my flesh and blood, for the majority of my life. This past year I chose to deal with family obstacles in a different way. I chose to put myself first and to live my own life. Although at first that may sound selfish, I have become far more aware of my own faults and of my role in both my nuclear and extended family units. A proper and fully functional family sphere cannot ever be defined as black or white, as there is no right or wrong way to deal with family relationships. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s the imperfections of a so-called “dysfunctional” childhood family that, whether we chose to admit it or not, take part in defining how we live our adult lives.

Far more has happened that I choose not to write about here. What I know is that last year, I thought I had a lot figured out about my immediate future. I thought those feelings of not knowing were relatively resolved. What followed was far from what I could have imagined. It was an adventure: crazy, beautiful, and surreal. Everything happens for a reason, and I am learning to trust that the sequence of events, the causes and effects of my actions, are all lessons. This year’s moments have both given me joy and have challenged me. They are riddles that I’ve been given an opportunity to explore and to one day be able to solve. Things are more unresolved than ever before, but what I realize is that embracing this fact, in the end, is actually the whole point of it all.

El Chaltén & El Calafate

Patagonia is known for its extreme weather. One day in Patagonia can see 15-20cm of snow, followed by high winds, and can close with warm sunshine and a clear sky, melting all the snow away. We experienced these extreme changes in weather in El El Chaltén and in El Calafate, two Patagonian towns in Argentina. In El Chaltén we did an 18 km (11 mile) hike in and around Mount Fitz Roy. It was a beautiful trail, but the weather was marked largely by heavy, low clouds that gave us rain, snow, and wind, before the skies opened toward the end of the day and offered us some sunshine. This is the reason by locals never check the weather – they know to dress in layers and expect anything throughout the day. They say it isn’t proper Patagonia if there isn’t wind.

In El Calafate we took a day trip to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the many glaciers in the Patagonian ice field. Our day started out with a snowstorm, but by evening we were in t-shirts on our way to dinner, the bright sun setting only after 10pm.

El Chalten 18km hike.
Stopping at a stream during the 18km hike at Glacier National Park.
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Piedras Blancas, Glacier National Park in El Chalten.

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The sky opens and the rain clears at the National Park in El Chalten as we near the end of the hike.
Snowy morning at Perito Moreno Glacier, 2 hours away from El Calafate.
Snowy morning at Perito Moreno Glacier, 2 hours away from El Calafate.
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Perito Moreno Glacier, 250 sq km in size, and 47 sq km larger than the capital city of Buenos Aires.
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The glacier has a total ice depth of 170 meters.

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The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing.
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The very same afternoon on the drive back from the Glacier to El Calafate.

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Blue skies and melted snow on the way to El Calafate.

 

Route 40, Patagonia.

The bus roars silently as we drive through the vast plains of Patagonia. The landscape changes not ever-so-suddenly; within mere moments the snow capped mountains and the tall, thick green evergreens transform into a rolling summer steppe. Short, stubbly shrubs and pockets of grass are peppered with grazing herds of sheep. The spectrum of deep green and blue grasses against the golden yellow sand and rock carefully coexist with the jagged mountain ranges that touch the low, dramatic cloud formations in the sky.

I can recall the cloudless, sunny skies from only hours before: the impressively green mountain ranges created undulations of height along the horizon its negative spaces offeredglimpses of their snow-capped counterparts in the distance. The lush countryside was dominated by monkey puzzle trees, evergreens, purple and pink lupines, and yellow flowers. Severely still, turquoise colored lakes emerged between the valleys.

The lush, mountainous landscape outside of Bariloche.

But this image is gone now, as it’s replaced by the Patagonian steppe. Sunshine and cloudy skies are at play, creating paintings of shapes along the rolling hills. The strong winds pull the vegetation in our direction, as if guiding us along our path. Within the blink of an eye comes the rain. It departs as quickly as it came, leaving behind only the clouds that create a kaleidoscope of shadows below it.

Green trees become sandy flatlands as we head further south.

The tiny houses offer evidence of life among the severe vastness, quickly disappearing as if a mirage. Blending along the hillsides that protect them from the elements, blurred into the landscape. Bless the farmers who live along this desolate route. Summer brings them the daylight, but winter takes away their heat as fast as it does the light. One can only imagine their lives on the plains as the seasons change.

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Horses rest, cows graze, rheas care for their newborn babies, and wanaca gallop up the hills and across the plains in packs. These wild animals are never alone, except for the majestic condor, seen only once. A rare sighting as the largest bird in the world glided slowly close to us, looking for prey.

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And then, the flatness of the steppe transforms the scene. The ever expansive flatness extends for miles and miles, extending all the way to the horizon, withnot a a hill or mountain in sight. We drive through a piercing 6pm sunlight that won’t meet darkness for another four hours. Pink flamingos wade in the little ponds along the road and baby armadillos cross the highway. Utter flat nothingness. The wind is strong and the sky is dotted with white clouds. We are taken off road, for miles on end, slowly tumbling along in the gravel. I realize how foreign we are in this land, in the way we’ve invaded the sea life within Earth’s deepest oceans we’ve crossed paths with the flora and fauna in Patagonia, only to be completely humbled by what we explore.

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I had the pleasure of riding 1,386 km (861 miles) along Route 40 on a two day drive from Bariloche to El Chaltén (and will go back on this route at a later date for a four hour ride El Chaltén to El Calafate). Route 40 is the longest route in Argentina, and one of the longest in the world, stretching 5,000 km (3,107 miles) from the province of Santa Cruz in the south to Jujuy in the north, and running parallel to the Andes Mountains. Two, 12 hour stints of driving along this route gave me an incredible sense of the Patagonian landscape, and above are the reflections of my experience while on the road.

After two, 12 hour days, we finally reached the incredibly beautiful stretch to El Chalten.
After two, 12 hour days, we finally reached the incredibly beautiful stretch to El Chalten.

Pucón


This past Saturday was by far the most memorable part of my journey thus far. I am proud to say that I attempted and succeeded in something that I have never done before – I climbed a volcano. And not just any volcano – Volcán Villarrica is the most active volcano in Chile. I was pushed mentally, physically, and emotionally in a way that I haven’t felt in a really long time.

I am not a seasoned hiker – I’ve hiked only a handful of times in my entire life. The most challenging hike I had done prior was climb the steep mountain of Huayna Picchu, which offers an incredible view of Machu Picchu down below. Typical of how I do things, I decided to jump right in; not only would this be the longest hike I’ve ever done, but it would also be in entirely different conditions. It would be a proper ice and snow climb, complete with ice picks, waterproof gear, cramp-ons, and sturdy waterproof hiking boots fit for a climb of Mount Everest.

View of Volcan Villarrica from Huerquehue National Park

Volcán Villarrica is 2,847 meters (9,340 feet) high. It is active, having recently erupted in March of this year. The volcano has recently been deemed safe
to hike only 3 weeks ago, so we arrived at the perfect time. We were so fortunate to have had a beautiful, clear day on the day of the hike. It was warm, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. Often these hikes are cancelled due to even the slightest chance of poor weather, but for the day of my hike we were quite lucky to have had a perfect day.

We began our climb without a chairlift, which would have brought us quarter of the way up. Instead we climbed from the very ground up.

We started hiking at 8:15am, and 1,447 meters (4,747 feet) and 6 hours later, I reached the summit. On my way up I felt a roller coaster of emotions. From the very start the nerves in my gut were acting out, and on the drive to the base of the volcano I could feel anxiety take hold of me. But I vowed to reach the top and to not give up, no matter what it took. At one point on the way up I felt scared, unable to look down as I feared the steep slopes on the way back. We were told we would be sliding down the mountain with a little makeshift plastic sled that we carried in our backpacks. This sounded fun in theory, and we were told it is the best part of the hike to slide all the way down. But, looking below as I climbed, the downward slopes looked terrifying. One minute I was afraid of heights, the next I was giddy with excitement about sledding downwards. I kept thinking I wasn’t going to reach the top, that I would give up on the first ridge where so many people turned around and descended, but then when I got to the ridge all I wanted to do was keep going. We had about six breaks before reaching the top, and there were times where I wanted to skip the breaks and keep going. I would tell myself that I was going to slip and fall any second as we created fresh steps in the wet snow. Five minutes later, I felt a sudden sense of ease and with each step I felt more energy and strength. I thought, how easy is this! This hike will be over in no time, and it’s not half as bad as some of the other things I’ve done. One of the thoughts that came to mind was my PADI scuba diving training in Koh Tao, Thailand, where I had to learn how to take off my mask in the water at 17 meters deep. I remembered how mentally challenging it was to be able to work through that, and I realized this climb was perfectly do-able. During this climb I wasn’t as physically challenged as I thought I would be – my legs never gave way and although my heart was pumping at an extraordinary rate, I wasn’t breathless. The hike was tiring in that it was very long (the way down took 2 hours, making our way off the mountain by 3:50pm) and required a lot of mental strength.

The climb was a test in my ability to support other hikers. It is not a solo trek – there was a group of 12 of us, with 4 guides. Three people went back down with one guide after reaching the ridge, so most of the journey was with 9 of us and three guides. It’s an incredible challenge to make sure everyone is able to keep the pace of the guide, and to be sure that if someone falls behind that they can be motivated to keep going. Hiking can be individual sport, but in the case of a challenging ice climb of an active volcano, working as a group is as motivating as it is essential. One of the girls in our group had a bad knee, and she told me she didn’t think she would make it to the top from the very beginning. But one of our guides was with her the entire time at the end of the line, gently pushing her to keep going. We all made an effort to make sure she was okay and motivated. She reached the top, and I felt so much in awe in the strength of the human body.

At first I thought only crazy people climbed a volcano and actually paid money to do it, but after having done it I realized that we as humans crave pushing our bodies. Our mind is so powerful in controlling our bodies and our perceptions of what is “difficult” and “crazy” and what is “safe” and “easy.” World-class climbers and adventure seekers are not off the deep end, they are merely testing the limits of their bodies. Which, after having hiked for 5 hours the day before at a Huerquehue National Park, only proved to me that despite the enormous physical challenge, our bodies can indeed keep up and keep moving. If I, a city girl who grew up soaking up the sun on the beach as my only outdoor pastime, can find a way to push myself in this way, then so can anyone. It’s truly amazing how we can push through; with a shot of adrenaline and a clear and purposeful intention in your mind, we can do anything.

Over the ridge and halfway up to the summit.


View from the volcano during a mid-climb water break.

Any bad day at work, any challenges with friends and family relationships, any small hitches in health – none of these seem as big of a deal to me now. I came out of the hike stronger, and just a little bit addicted – I never thought that a beach bum would even consider hiking as a pleasurable activity, but now I have a glimpse of why people hike around the world for their entire life. This is definitely not the end of hiking for me – if anything it has just begun, and I can’t wait to take on more challenging treks.

The center of the volcano makes gurgling noises and emits sulfur into the atmosphere.
Our group that made it to the top of the volcano.

View of Volcan Villarrica from the center of Pucon.

 

Patagonia

En route to Santiago from Bogota.
En route to Santiago from Bogota.

I left Colombia and made my way to Santiago de Chile to start my tour of Patagonia. The primary purpose of this trip to South America was to see Patagonia. I left the country with the intention of pushing myself physically, to learn how to challenge myself in the outdoors, and to see extreme points of the world in it’s natural environment. I hadn’t imagined years ago that I would choose to travel to a hiker’s dreamland over other parts of the world. I’ve seen so much, but at this point in my life it makes sense to me to seek something new and exotic in an outdoor-adventure sense.

My itinerary of Patagonia was very ambitious and complex – I wanted to start in Santiago, Chile and head all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina. In between I wanted to stop in Bariloche, El Chalten, El Calafate, Punta Arenas, and Torres del Payne National Park. Doing this alone while also planning to camp in Torres del Payne on my own seemed a bit daunting. And so, for the first time ever, I booked a tour. Many who know me know that I don’t do tours. However, after having done quite a bit of research I found that going from place to place in Patagonia is difficult, and the overland travel routes are complicated. I found a tour that covered all the points I wanted to visit overland and that also started in Santiago and ended in Ushuaia, and so I booked it.

I was very nervous about the tour, not because of the actual itinerary or method of traveling, but because I am not sold on the idea of spending more than 20 days with the same group of people. And, people who travel in tours are usually not the people I meet on my usual backpacker-style adventures. The tour is certainly a budget one, and seemingly more independent than other tours, however I still felt really nervous leading up to the start of the tour. What would the people be like? I tried not to have any expectations, but I was afraid of being stuck with a group of thirty middle-aged obnoxious American couples and with a tour guide who’s English was questionable.

On the first night during our pre-departure meeting I realized that our group was not what I had initially expected. We were a group of 17 that would be going up to 27 people further along our trip. The group is primarily English, then American, followed by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. There are three couples, a few groups of two, and various solo-travelers, and their ages on a spectrum from late twenties to retirement age. Most of the people are women. We soon divided ourselves to younger and older groups when we coordinated daytime adventure activities. Being that the two groups’ tolerances for active physical activity levels among the age groups differ, it was a natural and subconscious divide.

I was a not surprised to see that mostly women join these sorts of tours. You don’t usually find young men on organized tours; they make up the large proportion of solo backpackers. This only validates the point I had made in my pre-departure letter about women traveling alone and how few of them actually do so. Even if they are actually going on a trip without a friend or partner, they are much more likely to travel in an organized tour in order to avoid having to worry about the specifics of city-to-city travel and of making friends along the way. A couple of people from the group are also solo backpackers like me, but for the same reasons that I chose to do a tour given the complexity of this region, they’ve also decided to go in this route.

I am pleasantly surprised that the group is much more fun and adventurous than I thought they’d be. The social dynamics of group travel, however, is something I am not used to. The general tendency of the group is to stick together during our flexible free days and plan all activities as a group. When I travel I am used to creating a plan and doing it regardless of others, and without compromise, while also allowing for flexibility of meeting fellow backpackers and doing day trips with them here and there. Travelers who use tours tend to not be as comfortable taking some day-trips on their own. They have a pack mindset where they are willing to compromise their initial plans and desires in order to meet the needs of the group in general. There is even discussion of sticking together in Buenos Aires, where most will be flying to after the tour. I can’t quite tell if some people in the group genuinely want to stay and experience the city with these particular individuals, or if they fear being left alone. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.

A tour by its very nature is a compromise; there will always be places you want to see and cities you want to stay longer in that you cannot do, as the itinerary is inflexible. I am a firm believer in being open-minded to the people I meet and to friendships I make. But I also know that all journeys come to an end, and I quite like the natural coming and going of people in each place I visit.  I see it as a beautiful thing to have a short-lived experience, which makes the time spent all the more meaningful.

I see this tour as another personal challenge for me. It’s a small experiment where I am curious to learn how I fit in to the social dynamics of building relationships with others and the small communities that are formed, both in pre-determined tours and in solo-backpacker travel. Will I be able to travel with the same group over a long period of time? Am I able to compromise my independent traveler spirit for this part of my journey? Am I up to the challenge of participating in these group dynamics while also having my own unique experience? Will the relationships I develop be more profound because of the sheer amount of time spent with these people, or does time not matter as much as the organic, unforced connections I make while backpacking? These are questions I will soon have answered at the tour’s end. All I know is that for now I am having a lovely time with my group, and most importantly, that I am privileged to explore yet another region of the globe – the beauty of Patagonia.

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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