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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I stopped planning my every move about a week into my trip and started moving through places faster than I thought I would. This meant I had seen everything I’d wanted to in 2.5 weeks and I suddenly had so much extra time in Colombia. I woke up the morning of Thursday, April 13 having no clue where I was going next. After a few hours of reading blogs and Lonely Planet guides, my friend Adrien and I booked flights to San Gil in the Santander region (known as the adventure capital of Colombia) for the next day. It turned out to be a very long day of traveling, complete with flight delays (boarding and then deplaning to wait for the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen to pass), incredible mountain views from the bus ride on windy roads, and traffic jams for goats crossing. We got there on Friday of Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week), an extremely important holiday for Colombians and a very busy weekend for traveling. For days people had been warning us to book things in advance but it’s hard to do when you don’t know where you’re going to be. Because of that and our last minute planning, the only hostel available was the crappiest place I’ve ever seen. C’est la vie!
The first thing we did when we got off the bus was try hormigas culonas – literally translated to big ass ants! These huge bugs are toasted up and served as a local delicacy. They were surprisingly good!
Our first stop the next day was the local market for some fruit before heading out on some adventures. I’ve never seen larger produce in my life! The green fruit on the right below is called guanabana. The English translation is soursop, so unfortunately I have no idea what it is, but when blended with milk and sugar it makes for a delicious morning treat, one of my favorites in Colombia!
While Adrien did some extreme white water rafting, I walked a part of the Camino Real, a path connecting a few colonial towns near San Gil. I was the only gringa on the bus to Cabrera where the Camino starts. I was told the bus would leave at 9am and be a quick 45 minute ride. After an hour of multiple stops within a few blocks of the bus station to wait for fellow passengers to buy their groceries from various markets, we finally started down the dirt road to Cabrera. Along the way we dropped off people at their farms, groceries at people’s houses, and even some beers to a farmer at his…roadside bar? We arrived 2 hours after I got on the bus. This is Colombia – where no one has an accurate sense of how long anything is going to take.
The Camino was so beautiful and I saw almost no one on the path the whole day. It was very similar to El Camino de Santiago, which I walked in Spain during Semana Santa exactly a year before. I hiked up a boulder filled mountain, walked through farms, crossed busy highways, and of course passed through the beautiful towns of Cabrera, Baricharra, and Guane. I stopped for lunch at a cute cafe where the waitress sat me at a table with 3 French girls. They were happy to have me join them but it was certainly bizarre to be sat with them without consulting them first. The hike itself was relatively easy despite the heat and I finished in 5 hours. It was actually nice to spend the day on my own doing something I love so much. On the bus ride back, two young nuns prayed and sang hymns all the way to San Gil which was a nice reminder that it was Easter weekend in a very religious country.
That night we were headed to The Lost Inn, a hostel up a steep dirt road where no taxis wanted to drive. After multiple failed attempts to convince someone to drive us, a police officer who had been directing traffic left his post to help us (meanwhile traffic continued to move as it had when he was standing in the middle of the intersection, so I’m not sure why he was there in the first place). He helped us call the hostel who sent their friend in his pickup truck to get us, and while we waited we hung out with him and his police friends who were very convinced that I’m more free in Colombia than I am in the US. It’s an interesting point to think about, and I wish I could’ve picked their brains more on the topic.
The next day we planned to go to a hostel in the mountains that offered rock climbing and yoga but we didn’t realize it would take us 5 hours to get there. We were told we might have to hitchhike some of the way since it was Easter and buses ran less frequently. That wasn’t so appealing but luckily we had only made an email confirmation and were able to cancel it without a penalty. Another instance where having no plan would’ve been better. So at the last minute (literally as we were about to put our bags in a taxi) we decided to go on a day trip with a group leaving less than an hour later for zip lining, canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls), and cliff jumping. I’m quite afraid of heights but since this was so spontaneous I was basically in a harness being told to jump before I had time to think about what I was doing. Like most fear-inducing experiences I was really glad I did it in the end. After all, life inside your comfort zone is way less fun!
Back in San Gil, we tried to get a night bus to Monguí but everything was full of people returning from their holiday weekend. So there we were walking through town at 5pm looking for a hostel. Showing up to a place and asking if they have beds available is a really cool experience. Of course they did because this is a common backpacker stop and the city had quieted down significantly from the previous days. Our bonus day allowed us to visit some natural pools in Curití. Santander is such a beautiful part of Colombia and I’m so glad I had the time to explore it!
Roughly 18 years ago, my parents sat me and my brother down to give us some important news. I was 11 at the time, and like any American kid, I crossed my fingers that it was Disney World. (We actually did go there that same year, but that was not the news they had to share.)
“We’re having another baby.” My wildest dreams were coming true! I always wanted a baby around but never thought it possible.
I vividly remember holding her for the first time in the hospital the day she was born. I remember the day she took her first steps. I remember showing her snow for the first time. And I remember how crazy life becomes when a cute little baby turns 2, 5, 13…
Well now Colleen is 17, and today she leaves for a class trip to Italy, which she has worked incredibly hard to pay for by herself. Proud doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about her for making this trip happen. Last June as I flew home from Spain, I wrote her this letter that I gave her before I left for Colombia. To celebrate her big adventure, I’d like to share that letter here. Enjoy!
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous
As I sit on the plane back to Boston reflecting on my two years in Spain, I can’t help but think back to Perugia where I began my travels and where my eyes and my heart were opened wide to the world. That city changed my life in so many amazing ways. I think it’s incredibly cool that your first international experience will also be in Italy. I know you are going to love it as much as I did!
I wanted to share some advice with you that the world has gifted to me. Take it with you on your journey 🙂
Be open to new experiences and be patient with the differences you encounter. They inevitably give us what we need to grow. Be tolerant of other viewpoints and values but never lose sight of your own. Be gentle to people who seem like they need your kindness most. Talk to people; listen to their stories. Share your own. Write. Dance. Smile. Explore. Be CURIOUS!! Surround yourself with interesting people. Allow them to color your world and be sure to do the same in return. Always listen to your heart because it knows exactly what it wants and needs, and it will lead you to the most beautiful places and the most incredible people. Lean into your fears and use them as tools to keep things in check – but also challenge them because most of the time they’re just there to keep you inside your comfort zone. And whatever you do, never let them stop you from following your dreams.
I’m so excited for you to hop on that plane and see where the world takes you. I’m very proud of you for working so hard to make this trip possible. Your journey will be different from mine and that’s the greatest part about it all, but I’m also excited for our travels to take us places together! So, where to first?
I love you so much!
Minca, Colombia is located in the mountains above Santa Marta. It’s another tiny town that has incredible scenery and lots of hostels, fincas (coffee farms), and motorcycle taxis. (Before I continue, I’d like to apologize to my Dad for what he’s about to read and will most certainly not enjoy.) To get to Minca you take a colectivo from Santa Marta which is a small van that charges per seat and leaves for Minca once it’s full. The hostel we chose was about a 40 minute walk from the town up a dirt road where cars can’t drive. Transportation options in Minca are on foot or on motorcycle. I love walking everywhere, but in the endless heat and with our heavy backpacks, it would have been dreadful. So although I wasn’t in love with the idea, I took a deep breath, asked the driver to go slow, and jumped on the back of his bike while he cradled my backpack in front of him and I held on as tight as possible. After about 45 seconds I was loving it, and very thankful for the service. This is Colombia.
For the next 3 days the only people at our hostel were the 7 of us and the family that lives and works on the coffee farm up the hill from their guest house. They left us alone for the most part except to cook us delicious meals. We spent the majority of our first day hanging by the pool, drinking Argentinian mate, and exploring the coffee fields around us.
Juan (I suppose he was the owner) gave us some lessons on the process of making cacao beans into chocolate and let us taste cacao from the plant. It’s hard to explain, but basically the bean is surrounded by a bittersweet white gooey substance that you can suck on. It was actually quite nice. I wish I could remember all the details about the drying process and whatever comes after that to make the cacao into chocolate but unfortunately I have a really bad memory for these types of details (and he was speaking rapid-fire Spanish which didn’t help). Juan also explained the process used to harvest coffee beans, and luckily there was plenty of their coffee to be enjoyed during our time there. If you ever go to Minca, stay at La Finca de San Rafael!!
The next day we hiked to el Pozo Azul which was a really nice waterfall (where we randomly ran into Sandro and his family from Taganga) and later we had lunch at a little roadside asador. Noteworthy here was the bizarre old man who owned the place. He was so excited to have us there; he shook all our hands con mucho gusto and when he got to me he shook my hand and very quickly kissed me on the lips! That was definitely an unexpected greeting. After we ate he asked if we would like dessert and held out his hand which had a huge handful of marijuana in it. We politely declined and left giggling about how crazy this guy was. The food was great though!
We also visited La Finca de Victoria, a huge family owned coffee farm. The owner’s wife Claudia gave us a tour and told us a lot more information that I wish I could have retained about how the coffee is harvested, dried, roasted, etc. She was excellent and her coffee was even better.
After dinner both nights we drank lots of mediocre Colombian beer, listened to music, played cards, and laughed a lot. As I’ve done many times in the past with some French students I’ve taught, I tried my best to learn some French but my goodness that language is impossible to pronounce! It was a really hygge experience all around.
Minca confirmed something for me that I’ve debated back and forth about for a long time and that is that I love mountains ever so slightly more than I love the ocean (although the ocean reminds me of home and that gives me a different sense of peace). I could stare at mountains for hours wondering what kind of animals are hanging around and just admiring their beauty. We had a great view of the sunset and an even better view of the stars later.