Rio de Janeiro.

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Ipanema Beach

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

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View of Rio from the top of Morro dois Irmaos.

 

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Street art at the Vidiga Favela
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Behind the scenes waiting to parade in the Sambodromo.
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My costume!

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Florianopolis.

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Praia Mole

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

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Praia Matadeiro

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

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

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

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

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

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Praia Jurerê

Iguazu Falls.

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

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

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Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian side.

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Montevideo.

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Sunset in Montevideo

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

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

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

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Having a maté the traditional way in Punta del Este

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

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

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The old town of Colonia del Sacramento

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

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Traditional asado at Montevideo’s old city port.

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

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Punta del Este’s marina by night.
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“Los Dedos” sculpture at Playa Brava
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Sunset at Playa Mansa

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

 

Buenos Aires.

Me with Mafalda, the famous Argentinian comic character from the 1960s.
Me with Mafalda, the famous Argentinian comic character from the 1960s.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, mostly because I have been thoroughly enjoying the freedom of not having a schedule. No tours, no deadlines. Just visiting places at exactly the pace I want.

After Ushuaia I flew to Buenos Aires. I know I will get a ton of backlash from this, but I didn’t fall in love with the city the way so many others do. It is very European-looking, and as rightly people say it’s the Paris of South America, unlike any other metropolitan city on the continent. Frankly, I feel that the Porteños (the people who come from the capital) try too hard to live up to what Buenos Aires is supposed to represent to outsiders, and their egos are hard to suppress as they talk about the wonders of their city. The rest of South America isn’t too fond of Argentinians, and Argentinians don’t really like Porteños. Maybe I am biased being that my family comes from it’s larger neighbor, Brasil. But I have to admit that even as a New Yorker, I was surprised by the nose-in-the-air feeling of the city. Porteños don’t say they are from Argentina when traveling, they say they are from Buenos Aires. This sentiment is all too familiar to New Yorkers who when they travel wouldn’t even think to call themselves Americans. I should be used to the Porteño attitude. However, rightly or not, as I travel South America I let my Brasilian roots direct my expectations, reactions, and observations of a particular place. As a Brasilian I wouldn’t be able to live in Buenos Aires. But as a Brasilian I also wouldn’t be able to live in Paris, a city I fell in love with when I studied abroad there. And so visiting Buenos Aires allowed my never ending struggle with my identity surface, and I felt confronted with how I was supposed to act or feel based on my upbringing.

Unfortunately (or not), my Greek heritage doesn’t affect me the way my Brasilian ethnicity does. When I reflect on my Greek identity, I can only think of my Greek-American after-school activities during my childhood that my grandmother (without filtering my sentiment here) flat out forced me to participate in. This included Greek school, Sunday school, Greek soccer, Greek dance, and weekly Greek youth group. For better or worse, despite it having been such an intense presence in my childhood for over 8 years, I have let that part of me stay in the past where it belongs.

So that leaves Brasil. I am first generation Brasilian, with only my mother living in the United States from her entire family. I grew up visiting my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, extended cousins, and family friends in Recife my entire life. I spoke Portuguese with my mom and with Brasilian relatives and friends that she frequently hosted at our house. We still speak Portuguese, although when I am angry or upset I usually switch to English, as it’s easier to properly convey my emotions in that way. Growing up with cousins all within the same age range made it easy to transition to being “Brasilian” whenever I went to visit them. I didn’t let much of American culture influence my behavior while I was there, and aside from a small American accent in my Portuguese, I felt right at home.

Lately things have changed, and every time I go back to Recife I find my values more aligned with how I live my life in New York. One of the biggest issues I have with visiting my city is that it’s increasingly become a more dangerous place to live. I am comfortably apt at taking the subway at 4 am alone after a night out in New York City. In Recife, I wouldn’t dream of walking half a block alone in my own neighborhood past 9 pm. It’s two different worlds, and the one I try to fit into in Brasil only makes me feel more trapped. When I’m there my independence is gone, and so my behavior changes. Just as it has changed my family as they adjust to this safety problem, one that only in the last decade has become significant enough to affect quality of life. Recife is still very much a third world city in the way it’s people think and behave, and I am often frustrated at how some things haven’t changed despite the resources available, or how some behaviors and customs reflect an ignorance that has no excuse in our globalized world. I can also observe my mother often feeling the same when she visits home. I will be visiting family in Recife in early February; we shall see what happens then.

I find myself switching between my “Brasilian” and “New Yorker” selves whenever I travel. When in Western Europe, I feel like a New Yorker. In Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East, the cultures were so exotic to me that I honestly felt just plain “Western.” When in Colombia, I felt such a beautiful connection to Brasil as I saw so many cultural similarities between both South American countries. In New York, it’s a sporadic sway between both sides, depending on the situation (and can be a whole other blog post). In Brasil, well, that’s the ongoing conversation I have with myself, one that is directly affected by my relationships with my immediate family as I see how our values and ways of life are changing as we grow up.

In Argentina, especially Buenos Aires, I had never felt so Brasilian in my life. I felt so proud to come from a country whose people are so warm and welcoming, and who inject passion into everything that they do, whether it be dancing, eating, talking to people, loving one another and fighting with one another. They are proud to be South American, and to be descendants of not only Europeans, but of Africans and indigenous peoples. Brasil is rife with corruption, the widest income gap on the continent, violence, gangs, and favelas. But it’s also a culture that, similarly to the United States, has accepted such a melting pot of ethnicities and has nurtured and integrated them into Brasilian culture.

This all sounds terribly harsh towards Buenos Aires. I truly enjoyed so many parts of the city and its people: the lovely hipster neighborhood of San Telmo and it’s Sunday antique market, the milongas where you can learn and dance tango every night of the week, the oddities and behaviors of drinking maté, dulce de leche that is to die for, the gorgeous and lush parks, the Porteño respect for Evita, and their love of nightlife and of staying out until sunrise. I met some wonderful Porteños who were gracious and proud to show me around and make me feel welcome. It certainly won’t be my last visit to Buenos Aires.

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La Boca Neighborhood
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Traditional milonga evening of dancing
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Street music in San Telmo
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Sunday antique market in San Telmo

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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.

Bogota

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.

Street art in Bogotá
View of Bogotá from Monserrate

 

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Anandamayi Hostel, one of the oldest buildings in La Candelaria.

 
 
Typical Colombian BBQ plate

 
The Salt Cathedral
    
  
  
   
  
 

Salento

Cocora Valley, home of the tallest wax palm trees in the world.
Cocora Valley, home of the tallest wax palm trees in the world.

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.

Cocora Valley's hiking group. Viviane is at the far right.
Cocora Valley’s hiking group. Viviane is at the far right.

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.

View of Salento's mountains from my hostel.
View of Salento’s mountains from my hostel.
Don Elias organic coffee farm in Salento.
Don Elias organic coffee farm in Salento.

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.