The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Last January I was sitting in a café in Raleigh, NC with my best friend Claire. For a few months prior we had been vaguely talking about backpacking together, but she had decided it was time for her to look for a more stable job that allowed her to live closer to her family. I knew this was a possibility, and as she finished the sentence that I knew was hard for her to tell me, a question popped into my head. It actually felt like this question landed on the table between us and slapped me in the face. It said: “So Kelly, are you going to go backpacking alone, or are you going to forget about the idea entirely?”

I asked the question out loud to Claire, and her response was exactly what I needed to hear. “You can absolutely do this!” And that was that. The decision was made. Claire had done some backpacking in South America after her study abroad semester in Cusco, Peru, so we pulled out Google Maps and she started rattling off a list of must-see places in Bolivia and Peru. She also knew a little about the gringo trail in other parts of the continent, and soon I had a rough itinerary of places to visit. I ordered Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring and began researching my first solo adventure. At the top of my list of priorities was how to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was Claire’s biggest recommendation and it required some advance planning.

At the height of their history, the Inca Empire spread from Ecuador to Chile and east into Bolivia. Cusco, Peru was the center of their empire, and the Inca Trail was a 40,000 km network of highways to connect the various places to Machu Picchu, one of the most sacred of all the Inca sites. In an effort to preserve this Inca citadel, the government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to begin the 4 day, 26 mile (43 km) hike on the Inca trail which leads you along a mountainous path of Inca ruins and stunning nature. Hikers must be accompanied by a licensed guide employed by an authorized company for the duration of the trek. Permits must be purchased months in advance because of their limited quantity, and for this reason, many backpackers I met chose to hike other routes to Machu Picchu since planning is the last thing most backpackers are doing. (If you’re interested in how to hike to Machu Picchu for free, check out my friend Nick’s blog about the Salkantay Trek!)

Claire convinced me that the Inca Trail was the way to go and when I looked online, June 15 was the earliest date I could get a permit. I knew I would need to be back for my summer job the following week, so I bought the permit with Alpaca Expeditions before I purchased any flights. I remember receiving my confirmation email after paying a deposit and thinking, “okay, I guess this trip is really happening.”

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Getting ready to begin at kilometer 82

The price tag for this trek is no joke: $650 is the average cost! You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. I wanted to make sure that the company I chose had high standards for paying their staff, and Alpaca Expeditions also seemed to follow environmental and sustainability best practices. The cost includes food and water, transportation to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. I felt good about my choice, and continued to feel good about it after asking my guides lots of questions about the circumstances under which they and our incredible team of chaskis* worked.

*Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to the group of porters who traveled with us.

Hiking with a dedicated group of porters made this trek immensely easier, and to be honest I will probably never do a hike this way again. These men worked so hard for the sole purpose of my happiness over these 4 days, and the humanitarian in me couldn’t believe that I was participating in this type of industry. I am aware that for many people this is the only way they could have completed this hike, and I both respect and understand that. From a humanitarian perspective however, although the porters in my group seemed to be paid well and treated fairly by the company they work for, it is not an industry that I want to support again. I don’t want to disrespect anyone who disagrees with me, but I don’t feel I can write about my Inca Trail experience without being honest about my thoughts on this topic. For this reason, I have decided to elaborate in a separate blog post in an effort to not take away from the experience of the hike itself, and you can read more about it here.

The day finally came to start the trek and I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco at 4:30am by our chipper guides, Herlín and Manolo. We drove for about 5 hours and made a quick stop in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis before arriving at kilometer 82 where the hike begins. As soon as we arrived, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day.

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Our chaskis preparing their packs to hit the trail

Claire had described the experience as the physical feat of her life so I was nervous. I had read a lot about the difficulty of the trail because of the altitude and the steep inclines and descents. It turns out that having just finished the Ausangate Trek the week before was incredible training for this hike. The altitudes on the Inca Trail are lower than where I had been for 2 and 1/2 weeks, so I was definitely acclimatized. I wasn’t going to be carrying nearly as much weight in my backpack thanks to the chaskis. For the first time in my life, I was one of the more athletic people in the group. If you know me, this has never, ever been the case for me. Although I love hiking. exercising doesn’t bring me joy (especially cardio) and I’ve never been an athlete. During these 4 days, I was primarily at the front of our group instead of bringing up the rear like all of the other hikes I’ve done. I promise I am not trying to brag, but I was quite proud of my ability and felt stronger than ever.

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This map shows the 26 mile hike to Machu Picchu

The first day starts out at 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in the Inca jungle – on a sunny day (which we were so lucky to have the whole time) it is hot! As we hiked up, we could see the Urubamba river below surrounded by lush green mountains. As we got a little higher we could also see a glacier in the distance (I sure do love looking at glaciers!!). We passed Patallacta, an archaeological site believed to have been a common place to stop and rest for Inca travelers along the trail on their way to Machu Picchu. The hardest part of the day came after lunch with a steep incline before arriving at our campsite.

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Patallacta

When we arrived at our campstie our chaskis were there working hard to set up and cook us an incredible meal. Seriously, the meals they prepared each day were impressive! I don’t think I could make this caliber of food in a full kitchen with all the amenities, never mind in the middle of nature with a camp stove lit up by a few headlamps. After dinner we gathered in a big circle with our guides and chaskis, and everyone introduced themselves and where they were from. Our guide translated to Spanish and to their native Quechua*, and I was so proud to be able to communicate my story in Spanish! The chaskis also told us what they were each specifically carrying in their bag. I was really happy that we had this time to learn a tiny bit about them and to make them feel like they were also a part of our group. After learning a little about the constellations thanks to some amazing stargazing, we were off to bed early to rest up for another long day of hiking.

*Although many Inca traditions were lost during the Spanish invasion, the Quechua language was kept alive and continues to be spoken in the Peruvian highlands. The Spanish were mainly interested in cities and places at lower altitudes. This was not so much the case for other indigenous populations in South America such as the Muiscas from Colombia.

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My spacious home during the trek

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Hard at work making a delicious dinner

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These meals seriously impressed me!

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Yummmm!

Day 2 was by far the most challenging day of the trek because it involves hiking to two summits and then ascending them both. After an intense ~3 hour uphill climb, we reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet), the highest point of the trek. The top is incredible, complete with more glacier views. You can also see the trail leading from the campsite where you start the day, and I felt a huge sense accomplishment seeing what I’d just done.

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Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet)

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We all made it!

Hiking down the other side was much harder than hiking up in my opinion. It’s the first time that I’ve ever used hiking poles, and I was so thankful to Justin in my group who had rented them but didn’t want to use them. We basically spent the next hour and a half walking down steep stone steps. Justin let me hang onto the poles for the rest of the trek, and they made the downhill parts SO much more manageable.

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What goes up must come down, as they say.

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If you look closely you can see our chaskis making their way past these ruins

After lunch it was uphill again for another 2 hours where we saw some waterfalls and more breathtaking views. We passed two Inca sites this day, Runcu Raccay and Sayacmarca. Inca sites had various uses depending on their location. Some were temples used for religious ceremonies and celestial observations while others were centers of urban life and agriculture. Agricultural sites are located at different elevations based on the crops growing there, which included potatoes, coca leaves, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and corn.

I was beyond exhausted at the end of day 2, and it was a struggle to stay awake through dinner. When we woke up early the next morning, the spectacular 360 degree view which had been covered by clouds the night before was the first thing I noticed.

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Our campsite on Day 2

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Sure you can brush your teeth, but first we take a selfie.

We hit the trail again after breakfast for a much less strenuous and equally beautiful day. We had the Salkantay glacier in the distance and passed two more Inca sites: Phuyupatamarka and Wiñay Wayna. Both of these are only accessible via the Inca Trail, and they were two of my favorites. Since there weren’t many people around, it was easy to walk around and enjoy the structures without any crowds. We took some time at both sites to learn about some history from our guides (the details of which I really wish I wrote down or could have retained).

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Salkantay Glacier

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Herlín and Manolo making rope from straw

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Well hello there!

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Phuyupatamarka was my favorite of the ruins

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Admiring what we’ve accomplished

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If you don’t take a llama selfie, it didn’t happen!

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Manolo speaks Llama.

After dinner on our last night, we gathered up as a group with the chaskis again to thank them for all the hard work they had done to make this trek possible for us. I was so happy to not need a translator for what I wanted to say, but even still it was difficult to find words to express the gratitude I felt for what these men had done for us. They even made us a cake on the last night – in the middle of nowhere in the woods! Using a campstove! It was truly incredible.

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Our campsite on Day 3

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View from my humble abode.

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Seriously, they made us a cake in the woods!

Day 4 begins very early as groups rush to make it to the entrance of the last part of the trail. The gate doesn’t open until 5am but people start lining up to wait there at 3am. We were the second group in line. When they opened the gate, I walked right through and kept a steady pace until I arrived at the Sun Gate two hours later. I was among the first 10 or so people to arrive, and although I am not motivated by competition, I was happy that I arrived before 490 others obstructed the views. It made up for the hoards of people  I was about to bump into walking around Machu Picchu who had arrived from the train that morning. From the Sun Gate we looked down over Machu Picchu and watched the sun rise before the final descent into the ancient citadel.

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Machu Picchu itself is amazing, but I have to say that after 4 days in the woods, being surrounded by chipper, freshly showered tourists is quite annoying. I was so thankful for all the time spent listening to the history with our guides in some of the more peaceful sites because it was hard to focus on our tour inside with thousands of people pushing through the narrow walkways. The most impressive part of this ancient city is that it was built completely by hand without the use of modern technology, high up in the mountains. I don’t know how people weren’t careening down the sides with the pure weight of the stones they were carrying. Also amazing is the fact that when they were taken as slaves by the Spanish Conquistadors, the Incas kept Machu Picchu (along with some other sites along the trail) a secret, and instead purposefully led them to other sites with less importance than Machu Picchu in an attempt to preserve it.


I dedicated this hike to my cousin, Alex David who passed away in Peru in 2010 while fulfilling his dreams of seeing this beautiful world we live in. He shared my deep love for travel, and I’m told he especially loved Machu Picchu after hiking the Inca Trail. I’m proud to be following in his footsteps and aspire to be a great adventurer like him!

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I added the top rock to this cairn in honor of Alex.

I spent a lot of time hiking by myself during this trek because I was moving so much faster than my group. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to hike with them, or because I was trying to be as fast as I could, but it turned out that I was very prepared for the challenge and I was moving at a pace that felt good to me. I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences of the past 3 months and try to make sense of how fast it flew by. In the end, it felt symbolic that I was often hiking on my own. I came to South America by myself to see if I could do it. I had a lot of doubts and I was really scared to be alone, but I’ve come a long way since the planning had begun in that little cafe in Raleigh.

My flight back to Boston was the following day. The Inca Trail was the first thing I planned and the last thing I did on my 3 month adventure. There was something strangely satisfying about ending my trip at the exact spot that made me make this trip happen in the first place. As I sat watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, both for completing this hike and for successfully living out of my backpack and moving around South America on my own. I listened to my favorite song, We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow, which I discovered on my Camino De Santiago, and took a moment of solitude to reflect on how far I’ve come. I couldn’t help but cry happy tears. I’m so proud of myself.

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Among many other things, South America taught me how to fly!

 

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.

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Learning about the cacao plant

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Maruja teaching me about the Páramo ecosystem

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

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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.

Lessons Learned at a Colombian Bus Stop

Not everything about traveling is glamorous and fun. In fact a significant portion of the time is spent being somewhat confused by cultural things that are so normal to locals. There are moments when you just don’t understand what’s going on, no matter how well you speak the language. I don’t mean for these things to sound scary. I haven’t felt nervous or in danger at all in Colombia. I just mean to say that it’s an inevitable part of the experience in a foreign country. For example on the bus ride from Cartagena to Taganga, the driver stopped every hour or so for a police officer to come on the bus (really it was a small van for about 15 people) to peek around a bit from the doorway. It seems that’s their way of being vigilant of…what? I’m not really sure. They don’t ask for identification or really say anything at all. I hear my fellow traveler Ronald’s voice in my head – “This is Colombia.”
Then there are moments of complete shock where you see something you may have imagined possible before but pleasantly lived in denial of its existence in the world. Like today for instance when I met an 8 year old girl in the bathroom at a road side “bus stop.” Her job is to flush the toilets with buckets of water because there was no running water there, and to collect 500 pesos (about $0.17) from every person who stops in. Another girl, maybe 5 years old, passes her buckets full of water from outside every few minutes. Heartbreaking. I got back on the air conditioned bus feeling heavy and confused about how the world can be so cruel to someone so innocent while here I am lucky enough to be gallivanting around this country. 

I apologize to my readers who follow my blog to read about the exciting things I encounter in my travels, but I also believe it is important to acknowledge the realities of traveling in developing countries. I’ve seen some confusing things in my travels, especially in Morocco and Romania, and I’ve observed countless moments and scenes that look very different from my cushy suburban American home, but this girl on the side of the road somewhere near Barranquilla, Colombia has been the most shocking to date. I’m sure something, somewhere, someday will top this one. For now I wish there was something I could do to change her circumstances, like hand her way more than 500 pesos and tell her to run to the nearest school she can find. Since I can’t do that, I’ll silently wish her the best and take it as another gentle sign from the universe that I’m on a journey to make a difference in this world, whatever it may be. 

I’ll end with a quote from the introduction of the safety video on my Delta flight to Cartagena. “The ones who truly change the world are the ones who can’t wait to get out in it.” Despite the confusion and heart wrenching moments, I still feel that way. More and more every day. 

Buen Camino

Last Spring, my best friend Claire and I set out on a journey that we’d talked about for a long time – El Camino de Santiago. Sound familiar? You may have seen Martin Sheen take his own Camino in the movie The Way. El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is an 800 km path that begins in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and ends in Finisterre, Spain. Traditionally a religious pilgrimage on foot, El Camino is a trail that stretches across the north of Spain through incredible landscapes and tiny pueblos (villages). Pilgrims can walk or bike their way to Santiago de Compostela, a city in Galicia, Spain where St. James’s remains are kept in the Cathedral. They carry a credencial, a special pilgrim’s passport that gets stamped at all the places along the way. This is used as proof of the pilgrimage upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela where the pilgrim is given their compostela, a document written in latin attesting that they made the journey by foot or bicycle. For many, Santiago is where the journey ends, but it is possible to continue on to Finisterre. This peninsula is the westernmost point of Spain and gets it name from the latin words finis terrae (the end of the world) because Romans believed it to be precisely that.

Claire and I knew we wanted to be pilgrims but only had enough time for a portion of the path so we decided to do 200 km in 10 days during spring break, 2016 and end in Santiago on Easter Sunday. What we didn’t know was how much more we would end up completing, and all the camino magic we would see along the way.

It’s safe to say we were the two most excited English teachers in Madrid as the school bell rang on the Thursday afternoon in March when we started our camino. We met at the train station carrying everything we’d need for the hike in our (matching) Osprey backpacks, including a bottle of wine for the 4 hour train ride to Ponferrada, Spain where we began.

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I remember feeling just like my 9 year old self on Christmas Eve; it was hard to sleep that night. We awoke bright and early the next morning to get our first credencial stamp from Ponferrada and find our first yellow shell and arrow, the official trail markers for the pilgrimage. Pilgrims also wear shells tied to their backpacks to identify that they’re walking the camino. Immediately, the people we passed (locals and pilgrims alike) greeted us by saying “buen camino,” the greeting that every pilgrim recognizes. It translates to “have a good walk” and it was just as exciting hearing it the 100th time as it was that very first morning.

We had mapped out our days and determined more or less where we were going to stay each night. There are endless guidebooks that indicate the best places to stay along the way. We quickly realized, however, that if we followed the plan we had made, we were going to arrive to our destination by noon each day! This was a problem because the villages along the way are so tiny that there’s literally nothing to do. We were walking a lot faster than what was recommended, so at lunch on Day 1 we decided to change our whole plan. We wrote it on a napkin to make it official – we were walking to the end of the world!

The interesting thing about the camino is that the only activity you have planned each day is walking. You can walk as fast or as slow as you’d like and you always meet interesting people. The landscape changes dramatically along the path. We walked through farms of chickens and cows, fields of flowers, and vineyards of grapes – each beautiful in their own way.

Pilgrims stay in albergues along the way. These are hostals reserved only for people walking or biking across Spain. It’s really an incredible thing. People arrive exhausted, covered in blisters, limping, hungry, dirty, ready to relax – and of course drink Spanish wine. In my opinion the coolest aspect of it is having only a vague idea of where you’ll be staying that night, and when you get there, walking in and asking if there’s a bed for you. A bed in an albergue costs anywhere from €5-12 and some include a hot meal at night. They come in all shapes and sizes, and range from hotel-style rooms to 50 bunk beds per room. We even stayed in two monasteries during our trip (and unfortunately neither Claire nor I have one single picture of what some of these places looked like.) In the morning, just as the sun rises, a symphony of alarm clocks sings and everyone is up and out!

People walk the camino for a multitude of reasons. Traditionally people walked for religious purposes, but we met people walking because they love Spain, because they love nature, or because they wanted to exercise more. We met families walking together, strangers who had become great friends along the way, and lots of solo wanderers. There were lots of first-time pilgrims like ourselves, and lots of people walking their second, third…tenth camino. There are people who do it in stages and others who walk for about a month straight from start to finish. Sometimes you walk with people for days, and sometimes you go days without seeing them, but somehow the ones that stick out seem to somehow pop up when you least expect it.

This is the itinerary we ended up following (for a total of just under 300 km):

Ponferrada > Villafranca del Bierzo > O Cebreiro > Samos > Ferreiros > Palas de Rei > Arzúa > Santiago > Negreira > Olveiroa > Finisterre

Since we added on so much, this meant we stayed in places “off the beaten path,” meaning not the popular bigger cities that the guidebooks suggested. They were the tiniest of tiny places but it was in these places where we had the sweetest moments with our fellow pilgrims. My favorite place we stayed was Ferreiros, population 25 and 100 km outside of Santiago. Blink and you’ll miss it, literally. We stopped here almost by accident because I had gotten a blister a few hours before and that combined with what was rapidly becoming a camino-stopping knee injury meant I just could not walk anymore. So we ate dinner in the only place available to us, and spent the evening drinking wine with the sweetest Australian mother and son duo. We shared lots of camino stories, like how we all got bamboozled by “The Pancake Lady” – a woman not a day younger than 90 who ran out of her kitchen with a plate of hot pancakes and insisted we eat one. Then, mid-bite, she asked us for money (insert you’re choice of DOH! emoji here). Our night in Ferreiros was really hygge.

As we got closer to Santiago my knee made my walk more and more difficult. There was a point when I actually thought I was going to have to stop, just 20 km outside of Santiago, and the thought was devastating. But Claire kept me motivated, and just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, we met the Australians again and walked with them for a short while. Seeing them again after 3 days gave me the extra push of energy I needed, and somehow Claire and I finished the 40 km day at the Santiago Cathedral. We saw the Australians one last time while getting our compostelas and we made vague plans to celebrate with wine later that day, but unfortunately since none of us knew where we were staying, we never ended up seeing them again. I still think about them and wish I could have told them how much seeing their smiling faces helped me to make it that last stretch.

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We took a rest day in Santiago and stayed in the Parador de Santiago – a special treat from Claire’s parents and one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. We found a sweet family from North Carolina that we had met a few days earlier, and we shared an evening of celebration with them in the hotel bar. I was hopeful that resting my knee would heal it enough for me to keep going to the end of the world, but unfortunately the rest only made the pain and stiffness worse. So the last 3 days of my camino were a combination of buses and taxis while Claire walked, and each evening we met up again. Watching her set off without me that first morning was heartbreaking, but the NC family invited me to lunch with them so I didn’t have to eat alone that day. Their kindness truly lifted my spirits and it’s something I will never forget!

Reunited after a long day of walking (see right) and sitting (see left).

On our last walking day, I was determined to get back on my feet so I took a bus half way to Finisterre, giving Claire plenty of a head start so we could meet somewhere along the way and finish our journey together. It had been a rough 3 days of feeling like the camino had defeated me, but I did find a strange sense of peace when I finally saw the ocean and had some time to reflect on what we had accomplished. In that moment I realized that it wasn’t about finishing the camino that made it special; it’s the walking in between that makes the journey worth all the soreness and endless kilometers.

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As I watched the waves crash on this beautiful beach in Galicia, Spain, I listened to what had been our theme song throughout the whole trip, which says “if I were you I’d have a little trust.” (Pause your reading and listen to We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow.) These lyrics had guided us along the path each time we thought we were lost, and in this moment, I cried as I enjoyed the incredible scenery and the amazing feeling of relief and accomplishment for making it as far as I had, regardless of the means of arriving.

I was so thankful to walk the last 15 km into Finisterre with Claire, and that night we enjoyed the biggest seafood dinner I’ve ever seen. Here we are at km 0 with our napkin from day 1 and a very full credencial.

The next day we took a bus back to Santiago to attend the Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral before heading back to Madrid. We had already vowed to walk our second camino together, and in May we set out again to walk another 200 km from Pamplona to Burgos, this time with Jaime by our side. Our itinerary for this part was:

Pamplona > Lorca > Los Arcos (where we took a short bus ride to) Logroño > Azofra > Belorado > San Juan de Ortega > Burgos

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There are so many things I learned along the way, and as I sit here writing this 7 months later, it’s still difficult to articulate all the things the camino taught me. What stands out most is the incredibly liberating sensation of only having a vague idea of where you’re going, and I think this really resonantes with how things are in my life at the moment. Since I left Spain in June I haven’t really had a what’s next plan. As a 28-year old American, that can be really scary because our society really values having a plan. At the end of the day though, do things ever turn out as planned? Many things in my life have taught me that the answer to that question is a definite no.

In total I’ve walked about 500 km of the entire Camino de Santiago and I definitely intend on finishing it someday. My time on the camino has such a special place in my heart. These days I am practically living out of my Fjallraven Kånken backpack, and I carry a yellow arrow pin on it that reminds me everyday to keep going, with or without a plan.

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Medieval Family Fun

This past Sunday I experienced a new (to me) part of fall in New England – King Richard’s Faire. This renaissance faire lasts for 6 weeks every fall and it’s quite the event. My siblings had been before and raved about it, so this year I decided to join them for a day of family fun. I always thought of it as a bit tacky but I never expected it to be as awesome as it is.

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We set out for a day of medieval adventures, dressed appropriately for the occasion. The entertainment alone was quite impressive. There was the “big cats” show full of exotic felines from around the world, aerial acrobatics, lots of musical acts, and even jousting matches! Entertainers and visitors alike were all dressed for the occasion and it became clear that this is a thing people take very seriously. I saw pirates, bards, royalty, and fairies; kilts, corsets, crowns, and capes; bow and arrows, swords, staffs, and daggers. Although it is traditionally a renaissance faire, the amalgamation of anachronistic individuals made me feel truly lifted out of the 21st century into a world of wonder!

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We met the King and Queen!

By far the most impressive aspect of the faire was the artisans that come to sell their handmade goods. I was expecting lots of chatchsky souvenirs, similar to what you might buy on a trip to Disney World that then live on a shelf collecting dust forever. Boy was I wrong!  There were hand carved instruments like drums and flutes, high quality leather clothing, all sorts of ceramics and pottery, and lots of swords and jewelry. Not to mention the shops that had every piece of costume attire imaginable. There were experts on family history that could trace the origins of family names and then make you cool framed combinations of your family crests. There was even a glass blower doing demonstrations of how everything is made (make sure you wear the special glasses while you watch!). Of course, everything came with a steep price tag, but I did win a kilt koozie for my master archery skills (the kilt maker challenged me to a duel and I came out victorious).

A good time was had by all but the greatest part was getting to experience the day with my brother and sister who both love this kind of thing. It was nice to be included in this part of their lives, and it reminded me of the importance of trying new things, especially with the people you love.  I will definitely be attending the faire in the future!

 

Where is everyone?

About a month ago, Jaime and I visited Lithuania. Similar to how we chose our trip to Romania, Google Flights was showing really affordable flights to Vilnius and we had a long weekend. So we went. Our weekend was really relaxing and mostly uneventful, although I learned a lot about the former Soviet Union and the specific impact it had on Lithuania immediately following the country’s 3 year Nazi occupation during World War II. For some reason I’ve had a really hard time writing about this trip. I’ve tried a few times but what comes out doesn’t feel interesting enough to post. So instead of highlighting our weekend itinerary, I’ve decided to take a different approach to this post and just share my observations.

First a little (recent) history. The Holocaust was a very dark time for Lithuania as Nazis occupied the country from 1941-1944 and during this time nearly all (95%) of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred. Our AirBNB was located in the former ghetto which is still identifiable by arched entryways that used to have gates blocking entry from (or to, I suppose) the surrounding main roads. From what we saw, about half of the city looks like it has been in need of repair for a very long time, and some buildings look completely abandoned. So despite our cute, newly renovated studio, it’s hard not to imagine who used to live in that building and what kind of terrible life they faced outside of the walls of their home.

From 1945-1991, Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, a group of countries under Russian communist rule. The KGB (Russian secret police) had an office in Vilnius which is now a museum in honor of the victims of the genocide. The basement of the museum is preserved to look exactly as it was during the era when it was used as a prison for people arrested by the KGB. The upper floors have lots of information in the form of timelines showing when and how things happened from 1941-1991. The museum is a very solemn and sad place, but it does a good job of portraying how prisoners lived. From what I understood, anyone could be arrested for anything that did not comply with Soviet laws. This included people who were suspected of not agreeing with the form of government, regardless of whether or not they broke any laws. I’m really glad we visited the museum, but my heart felt so heavy when we left. Later we spent the evening bar-hopping and trying the variety of delicious beer Lithuania has to offer. It was a bizarre mix of cultural activities.

After only a few hours of being in the country we noticed something strange that was consistent throughout our trip and can be seen in most of the pictures we took: there are no people around. Walking around at any time of day, you see almost nobody in the streets. Once you enter a restaurant or a bar there are some people around, but still a surprisingly small number. Vilnius in November is very cold and rainy and the sun sets at 4:30pm, so I guess that makes a recipe for quiet streets. It’s a really eery feeling being in a place with no one around, even more so in the daylight than at nighttime.

So where is everyone? My personal thought is that their long history of being under such strict government rule might have instilled a cultural understanding that it’s better to be inside rather than out in public. I can’t be certain whether or not that’s true but it seems to be a likely possibility. It’s also possible that since it’s cold and dreary at this time of year, people prefer not to be outside. But then I think about the winters I’ve lived in Boston, MA or Portland, ME. Lots of people are outside walking around despite the really unpleasant temperatures and mounds of snow everywhere. So is this a cultural norm or just a coincidence?

I would have loved to talk with some locals about this and get their take on the matter. Unfortunately the people we interacted with (although for the most part friendly) were not particularly chatty. I always love asking taxi drivers lots of questions but none of the drivers that we rode with in Vilnius spoke English. On the contrary, anyone I spoke to around my age spoke English incredibly well which tells me a lot about how the education system changed after 1991. But another strange thing I noticed is that I did not see one postcard the entire time we were there, and I only saw magnets in the airport. The lack of what I consider to be the two most commonly seen souvenirs tells me that Lithuania may not be ready for tourism – or they may just not want it at all.

At times I felt a slight tone of resentment in some of the interactions I had in bars or when asking for directions. This is where it becomes really hard for me to articulate my thoughts about our trip. I can’t say I blame them really. After such dark times, maybe they just want to be left alone. I felt completely safe there but I can’t say I felt welcomed with open arms. I don’t necessarily think these are reasons not to go to a place like Vilnius, but it certainly has reminded me how important it is to consider other perspectives when formulating opinions about certain situations.