63 Kilometers into the Yungas of Bolivia

Google Bolivia, and amongst some of the first things you may read is that up until a new road was built in 2007, Bolivia was home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road. To quote my Lonely Planet guide, “the road between La Paz and Coroico was identified [as such] by an Inter-American Development Bank report, citing an average of 26 vehicles per year that disappeared over the edge into the great abyss.”

Now that the replacement road brings passengers more safely to their destinations, naturally the tourism market has taken over the old road, offering guided bike tours down the 63 km “Death Road.” It’s basically a must-do on any backpacker’s Bolivian itinerary, but I’m not a thrill seeker so I was definitely nervous. But what is life if it’s spent inside your comfort zone? So I mentally prepared myself for the last month or so, and finally got up the courage to conquer this famous ride. I’m happy to report that 1. I survived without a scratch, 2. I wasn’t freaking out the whole time, and 3. I had so much fun! Luckily some thick fog prevented us from seeing the treacherous cliffs from the start, but as the mist cleared it revealed some incredible views of the dramatic surroundings. The gravel road is barely wide enough for two small cars to pass so I understand why it gets its name! Unfortunately, peering over the cliffs reveals the remains of many fallen buses, a very eerie reminder that this wasn’t a Disney World attraction with safety nets and invisible barriers to protect me. In fact, many cyclists get seriously hurt on this ride, one of the reasons why I left all of the aforementioned details out of what I told my parents I was doing before I departed La Paz (I’m very sorry Mom and Dad!). Despite all this I would argue that unless you’re being unintelligent about speed and your general personal safety, it’s a really amazing day of mountain biking through some incredible nature. Highly recommended on your next trip to Bolivia!

A very foggy start to our ride

It’s tradition to take a swig of this very strong alcohol before the ride…

…and to give a little to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to ask her to keep you safe

Wearing 4 jackets and 2 pairs of pants trying to stay warm in the rain

Finally some sunshine and a few less layers!

After a long day of the winding 3,600 meter (10,800 foot) descent, we were rewarded with a pool and a buffet lunch in the tiny town of Yolosita – well deserved and much appreciated. Instead of heading back to La Paz, I went to Coroico with two friends where we planned for some hiking, waterfalls, and coffee plantations the next day. Sometimes my favoroite places are the hardest to get to, and Coroico is one of them. Our “minibus” looked like it was 50 years old, and it bumped along a similarly daunting gravel road for 9km before reaching our destination. I’m thankful I’ve outgrown my childhood car-sickness because South American transportation would be really challenging otherwise. 

Coroico is a small pueblo that sees lots of gringos fresh off the Death Road. It’s surrounded by lush green mountains (Las Yungas), home to some of Bolivia’s best coffee farms. Never heard of Bolivian coffee? That’s probably because up until ten years ago coffee was the #1 product from the Yungas, but now it’s fallen behind coca leaves – a much easier plant to process and a much more lucrative business for a farmer. Although Bolivia is high on the list of cocaine production around the world, coca leaves do serve other purposes. Many indigenous cultures use the leaves for rituals. Chewing the leaves can help the intense symptoms of altitude sickness. You can find coca tea, coca candy, coca beer, coca cake…the list goes on. What I didn’t know is how harmful it is to its environment because it’s not native to this particular region. According to the coffee farmer I spoke with, after 5 years of harvests, the ground where coca is grown becomes infertile and it takes 20-40 years to recuperate itself. 

A coca farmer hard at work in the mid-day heat

Hot chocolate with coca extract 🙂

Coffee on the other hand is a very naturally growing crop in the Yungas. The owner of the hostel we stayed at recommended we check out M&M Café for some of the good stuff. I’m so glad we went! Mauro and Maritza, the sweetest couple in Coroico, grow their own coffee and serve it in their cute café near the main plaza. We chatted with their son, Maurito, for a while and he told us they also offer tours of the coffee farm, complete with the opportunity to participate in all the steps of the coffee preparation process. Of course I was sold! Up until this moment, I hadn’t had real coffee since Colombia because of the widespread consumption of instant Nescafé in Chile and Bolivia, something I will never, ever understand. 

M&M Coffee is the real deal. I was feeling utterly exhausted from my bike ride the day before, but two cups of their coffee had me feeling like a million bucks. We chose to hike to their house so we could check out the waterfalls along the way and they offered to drive us back after our 4 hour (!!) tour. This was shaping up to be the perfect type of day. 

Mauro’s passion for coffee was palpable. He took such care in explaining each step of the process to us. First we went out into the fields and picked some ripe berries off the trees. Berries sprout at different paces on the trees from August to October and are harvested at equally different times between May and July. Mauro only uses the highest quality berries for his coffee, which means he’s very selective about the ones that he picks and some are tossed because of their lack of quality. 

Step two is peeling the berries, which was by far my favorite part. Mauro’s machine is powered by a bicycle and when he saw how excited I was about this, he let me be the one to pedal. The berries are funneled in from the top and the bicycle somehow (maybe magically) peels the shells to reveal the beans covered in a gelatinous fluid. 

They then ferment in this fluid for 14-20 hours and need to be stirred at 4-6 hour intervals. Mauro said there’s a fine line between when they’re ready and when they’ve fermented for too long, something he said you just have to “know.” I trust him. The berries are then washed and left to dry in a green house for 5-7 days until they reach 11-12% humidity. Another extremely specific detail that I guess you just know.

The last step is to roast the beans which Mauro does over his very small gas grill. Toasted beans are packaged and after about a week they’re ready to be ground and finally enjoyed!

Mauro explained that since coffee trees are so natural to the region, all coca farmers in the area have coffee trees but they don’t have time or want to deal with the process of harvesting them since coca is worth more money. Five percent of the farmers in the area take the time to pick the good quality berries to sell to Mauro to use in his coffee, 10% pick whatever berries (meaning lower quality) and sell them to other coffee farmers in town, and the other 85% do nothing with the berries that grow on their land. That’s a lot of unappreciated coffee!

The most striking thing to me about Mauro and Maritza is that they’ve only been making coffee for two years. When I asked what they did before, Mauro shrugged his shoulders and said he worked on many different types of farms his whole life, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it so much. “Ya he encontrado mi pasión, ahora estoy vivo.” “I’ve finally found my passion, now I am alive.” I couldn’t contain my smile!

Of course I bought coffee beans from them, and Mauro also let me take a small bag of coffee that I toasted myself. Between all that and what I bought in Colombia, I’d estimate that about 7% of the contents of my backpack is now coffee. 

Coroico was the perfect escape from the mayhem of La Paz. The minivan driver that brought us back to La Paz whipped around that new winding asphalt road on whatever side of the double yellow line he pleased. The reggaeton was blasting and there was an infant in the front seat. Unfortunately in South America, a seat in a car that has both components of a seatbelt available is hard to come by. Although not necessarily what I would consider up to safety standards, this is certainly all part of the experience. 

This is just one part of the long and winding new road

3 Days in a 4×4

Recently I crossed the Salar de Uyuni, a 3 day trip across the desert into Bolivia that ends at the largest salt flat in the world. To get there, you have to take a 4×4 with a group, and if you’re lucky like I was, you get the sweetest Bolivian driver as your guide. The majority of the 3 days is spent driving along the long desert roads, but the stops you make along the way are truly spectacular. Here are some photos from my trip through beautiful southwestern Bolivia. 

Bolivian border crossing

Loading up the Jeeps

Filling up the gas tanks for the day

Pablo, the greatest guide in all of Bolivia!

Natural Hot Springs

La Laguna Verde

Hard to tell but those are flamingos in that red lake

Everyone needs a llama selfie!

Stayed a night in a hotel made of salt!

4×4 crew for the journey across the desert

Perspective photos at the Salar

An Unexpectedly Long Stay in Santiago

In the very early stages of planning my trip to South America, my friend Jaime who I worked with in Boston and who is from Chile connected me with his brother, Matias who lives in Santiago. It’s always great to have someone you know in a new place. I thought maybe I’d get to meet up with Matias and some of his friends for drinks one night, or at the very least have some suggestions of cool places to visit. He offered me a free place to stay which was way more than I could have asked for and we figured out both our birthdays fell in the same week I would be there. I planned to stay for a couple of days and move right on to the wine vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina. I ended up staying for 11 days!

My time in Santiago was mostly spent with Matias and his mom Mónica eating as much traditional Chilean food as I possibly could. Ceviche, mariscos, pastel de choclo, cazuela, mote con huesillo, chorrillana, sopaipillas, chacarero, asado, empanadas…and of course pisco – the strong alcohol made from grapes. It’s deliciously easy to drink as a pisco sour and painfully difficult to forget about the next day with your killer hangover. 

Ceviche de pulpo and a pisco sour!!

So much meat!


I went to the top of the tallest building in South America, La Costanera. I rode a teleférico to the top of El Cerró de San Cristóbal for a great view of the city (and it’s unfortunately high levels of smog). I went to the beach. I learned lots about the traumatic human rights violations that occurred between 1973 and 1990 under Pinochet’s dictatorship. I also unpacked my backpack and didn’t look at it again for the full 11 days. It was a nice change of pace. 

Mónica and I at the top of La Costanera

Selfie action at the top of San Cristóbal

I also had the opportunity to experience my first earthquake while in Chile. In fact, Chile shook hundreds of times while I was there but I only noticed it about 4 of the times. The big one was measured at 7.1 and I just happened to be standing on the 17th floor of a building at the time. Chilean engineers have found a way to build structures so they’re less rigid and they sway a little with the tremors. It honestly felt like I was on a boat. Since everyone around me assured me this was completely normal seismic activity, no pasa nada, I decided against mentioning it to my parents; however, it was big enough to make international news. Needless to say they weren’t too happy to hear the news from the TV instead of from me. Lesson learned. 

One of my reasons for sticking around was to celebrate my 29th trip around the sun. Although I knew I’d have a great time celebrating wherever I was, it sounded a lot nicer to be with new friends on my birthday. Matias, Mónica, and their cousin Tom made sure it was a very special day for me. It started the night before when we went to the beach for what Matias promised me would be the best sunset of my life. It was a cloudy day but we were very optimistic about what we would see. Unfortunately the clouds never cleared but it wasn’t until it was completely dark out that we finally admitted we wouldn’t get to see the sky lit up in color. It was still a great place to share a bottle of wine and lots of laughs with a new friend. On the bright side, I have a reason to come back to Chile! 

Thanks to FaceTime my Mom was with us at the beach!

Celebrations continued the next day when I finally tried a Terremoto (Earthquake…in liquid form). This drink is white wine, grenadine, and pineapple ice cream. It gets its name for the fact that it’s very easy to drink and when you stand up, everything seems to wobble a little, similar to how a real earthquake feels. From there we went to “Los Adobes de Argomedo” where we watched some Cueca, traditional Chilean dancing that varies by region. I even got pulled out of the audience to participate! Dancing is one of my favorite activities, especially when it includes some sort of cultural connection. To top it off, the host of the show announced that it was my birthday and the whole restaurant sang to me in Spanish. My heart was so full of joy!!

The last year has been challenging for various reasons. I moved home from Spain to live with my family for the first time in over 6 years. I felt lost in terms of what I’m doing with my career (this is still true but I’ve calmed down about it a lot). I was recovering from a broken heart. I knew I wanted to keep traveling but I never imagined doing it by myself. A strange thing happened to me in Santiago – for the first time in a long time I felt like myself again. I laughed, a lot! I sang a lot too, which is usually something I’m very shy about and only do when I’m in a particularly good mood. I’m not sure why all this is true. Maybe it was the place, or the people I was with. Or maybe it’s because I’m successfully doing exactly what I love most – exploring new places, meeting new people, learning new things. Whatever the case, I’m leaving Santiago with the sweetest memories of a place I never thought much about visiting. 

It was never my intention to stay in Santiago as long as I did, but my time there further proved something I’ve learned many times in my travels – it is never the place itself that makes a place special, it is the people you meet there that carry all the importance. I have met some of the sweetest people here, the kind that make it hard to say goodbye. I will absolutely be back to this strangely long and skinny country, probably much sooner than I would have thought before. 

Birthday celebrations with Tom, Mónica, and Matias!

The Muiscas of Monguí

Monguí is the smallest pueblo I visited in Colombia and it came on my radar as a recomendación from a French guy that my friend and I met in San Gil. Accommodations are relatively expensive there but he gave us the name of a guy we could stay with who rents out a room in his house for very cheap while his son is away in the military. It was essentially like staying in an AirBNB except that the host didn’t advertise anywhere online. This French guy (I apologize for my inability to remember names) also told us about Maruja, a woman who leads guided hikes through the Páramo around Monguí. That was about all the information we had about this place before arriving at 1am after a very long bus ride from San Gil. It’s also yet another reason why having no plan is the only way to travel like this. I learned more in Monguí about Colombia’s indigenous history than I had in any other place I visited, and I decided on going there about 24 hours before showing up. 

Maruja and Emigdio, our guides for the 8 hour hike, are brother and sister who dedicate their work to teaching people about the Muiscas, an indigenous civilization who lived in the Páramo in the Boyacá region of Colombia. After the Spanish invasion of Colombia in the 1500’s the Muiscas slowly started disappearing and are now completely gone, with no trace of their language and little knowledge about their customs and traditions. Maruja and Emigdio work to teach people about this culture in hopes of keeping the memory alive. 

The Páramo is an ecosystem around the equator with a specific vegetation and it’s unlike any kind of nature I’ve seen before. Colombia’s Páramo is 36,000 hectares. We started our hike at 2,900 meters (8,700 feet) above sea level and reached the highest point at 4,000 meters (12,000 feet). My lungs could seriously feel the altitude as we went up. We spent the day steadily inclining while learning lots about this beautiful environment and how the Muiscas lived. The main plant here is called frailejon amarillo. This fuzzy plant grows one centimeter per year, and most of the ones I saw were taller than me. I’m about 164 centimeters tall, meaning some of these plants were close to 200 years old! The punishment for killing a frailejon is 15 years in prison (and just as a reference point for how important this is, killing one person in Colombia is punishable by 4 years in prison!). These plants capture the moisture in the air and prevent the water from being evaporated back into the air. Seventy percent of the rivers in colombia come from the Páramo and 30% comes from jungles and glaciers. We were even able to drink a little of the water out of one of the plants using a small piece of straw that Maruja found. Like so many others, this ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct because of global warming. Unfortunately some of this explanation got lost in translation while I was listening in Spanish and taking notes in English, but Maruja was extremely knowledgeable about the topic so I trust her expertise. 

The very knowledgable Maruja

Frailejones are also in danger because of farming on these lands. Cows are not native to Colombia, but they’ve been brought here for agricultural and economic purposes. We passed many frailejones that have either been trampled by cows or torn down by farmers because of their inconvenient location. Maruja was almost in tears when she saw these, and she does this tour everyday! Her passion for the Páramo was palpable. She is working hard to get UNESCO’s attention to protect the Páramo before it is lost forever. 

Maruja and Emigdio taking pictures and GPS location of this destroyed frailejon

Muisca culture was very linked to nature. Their Gods were Luna (Moon) and Sol (Sun). Every Muisca was equal, there were no hierarchies within their tribes. The matriarchy were the only people who had a bit of authority in the tribes in order to keep things organized. They generally lived to be between 100-108 years old because they lived very healthy lifestyles. They didn’t eat meat, they walked the mountains all the time, and most importantly they didn’t fight wars. 

Muiscas had a very sacred tradition for burying the dead. They were brought to the highest part of the Páramo (4,000 meters) and mummified and covered in gold dust before being buried in a hole that represented the womb. Death for them meant a trip back to the sun and to their mother’s womb. They were adorned with a lot of gold because they needed to go well presented on their trip to the sun in order to arrive and be received well. This went along with their belief that everything must go back to the Earth. It’s for this reason there aren’t any Muisca ruins, similar to what has been discovered from other indigenous cultures around the world. They only used natural materials in their buildings and it all got decomposed back into the Earth. 

Tombs where Muiscas were buried

Muiscas referred to Spanish invaders as their “little brothers.” Maruja painted the picture for us as to why. Imagine when you were young and doing something really cool and then suddenly your little sibling comes in and messes things up. That’s more or less what happened to the Muiscas. They were enslaved for no reason other than they were believed to be inferior, and if they didn’t speak Spanish they were killed. Exceptions were made for those who agreed to be baptized by the Catholic Church, and as time went on this baptism also came with a mandatory tax. Like many indigenous cultures, after years and years of death and destruction, the Muisca people along with their language and culture, disappeared. 

It’s challenging to articulate the sadness I felt when learning about the Muiscas. They seemed to live such peaceful, beautiful lives alongside nature – a true harmony. How is it possible that another culture can think themselves superior enough to barge in and destroy the other entirely? If we look at history, this has happened all over the world, and continues to happen today. Maybe not with such widespread killing but for sure there are still cultures that believe they are superior to others and they make life very difficult for those trying to live their lives through their own customs and traditions. It’s terribly sad to me that humans can’t seem to learn from their mistakes, and they continue paying the ultimate price. 

There are people who believe that while I’m traveling I am always on vacation. Of course there are days when I sit back and relax on the beach or visit some cool tourist attraction, but that is not my main goal in my travels. I travel to understand the world, to get to know cultures (current and extinct) and I try to learn something everywhere I go. I believe it makes me a more understanding, patient, and dynamic individual. Thank you to Maruja and Emigdio for contributing to my never ending education!

If you ever visit Monguí, be sure to contact Maruja at Turismongui-ocetour for an unforgettable experience (+57 313 479 8492).

Reflections on a Month in Colombia

It’s really hard to believe that I’ve been traveling for a month and that my time in Colombia has come to an end. I can feel myself standing in my parent’s kitchen the night before I left, semi-freaking out about what I was about to do. Now a month into my trip, it feels like no time at all has passed.

Maps.me is a very cool app with downloadable maps that work offline and you can leave pins in all the places you’ve been!


One of the most memorable things about my time here is the people. Colombians are some of the most open people I’ve ever met. They’re so excited to know where you’re from and share a part of their culture with you. If you walk into a store, the shopkeeper will happily chat for as long as you want and never once hassle you into buying things. Everyone is so helpful when you stop to ask for directions or recommendations. They only thing that never made sense to me is their sense of time. If you ask 5 people how long it will take to get from A to B, you will receive 5 very different answers. I was once told it would take four and a half hours to go to the same place that someone else told me would take 45 minutes. Among the chaos of traffic patterns and bus stations, every single Colombian is super tranquilo and never seems to be in a rush.


Learning about the cacao plant


Maruja teaching me about the Páramo ecosystem


Chatting with a local butcher in Villa de Leyva about the cow head in the case


Teaching this sweet girl how to braid her pony’s hair while enjoying some coffee in her mom’s café

I stayed at a place called Macondo Hostel in San Gil, and when it opened in 2006 it was the fifth registered hostel in Colombia. Now just 11 years later, hostels are around every corner in just about every place I visited. That’s some seriously fast paced growth. But despite the ease in finding mochilero-style accommodations, Colombia doesn’t really seem prepared for the amount of tourism it’s getting, especially when it comes to transportation. I mostly traveled by bus around Colombia, and even the long distance buses are more like vans that hold anywhere from 10-18 people. That doesn’t mean that’s how many people actually ride in them. I saw lots of kids sitting on the floor, people standing for long periods of time – all while driving rather quickly around windy bends and crossing the yellow line to pass cars, motorcycles, and massive trucks. These busquetas stop constantly to let people on and off regardless of how long distance the bus is supposed to be. There are no bus stops so people get on and off wherever they want. There doesn’t seem to be a system to distinguish between intracity and intercity buses, which is very frustrating when your 4 hour trip becomes a 6 hour extravaganza. On top of all this, outside of the main cities of Colombia, there aren’t really any major highways. All travel is done along windy mountain roads which further extends travel times. From what I’m told, bus travel throughout the rest of South America is very different, and even sometimes luxurious. I’m interested to see how it compares.

Colombia is a very Catholic country and evidence of this can be seen in the religious symbols on every bus I rode throughout the country. Here are some of the saints that kept me safe around every cuerva peligrosa I passed.

For the last four weeks I’ve been living on a schedule where I didn’t know what day it was and I mostly had no idea as to where I was headed next. In my nervous preparations before leaving the US, I booked a few hostels in advance in various places around Colombia based off some vague ideas of where I thought I would be and when. With the exception of where I stayed my first two nights, any hostel I booked in advance I ended up cancelling for somewhere else on a different day. I’ve learned that I am definitely a planner and that it’s so hard for me to let that go. On the road, it’s cool not to have a plan, and in fact when you have nothing planned, that’s when the best things happen. This was my experience with Minca, which is the highlight of my month in Colombia. It’s also the reason why I had so much extra time to go to Santander and Boyacá, two regions I’d barely heard anything about before coming here. When you let go of planning it allows you to truly live in the moment. You don’t have to worry about what’s coming next, so the only thing to focus on is the here and now. The reality is that you meet cool people and sometimes it works out that you all want to go to the same places around the same time. Other travelers are constantly sharing information about their favorite places and activities, which is how I ended up in Monguí. And occasionally having no plan backfires, and what you thought you could do today (take a bus to somewhere else for example) needs to wait until tomorrow for whatever scheduling reason. In these moments it would be so easy to get frustrated, throw in the towel, and book an all-inclusive resort package where you don’t need to make a single decision. Or you can shrug your shoulders and bask in the moment. This is life, in this moment now. Speaking for myself, I get so lost in thinking about the next thing that I can never fully appreciate what I’m experiencing. I’m very thankful to Colombia and to my friend Adrien whom I traveled with for 3 weeks, both of which taught me on a daily basis the importance of letting that go. This lifestyle is amazing, it’s freeing, and it’s definitely addicting.