A Week in Vietnam: Part 1, Hanoi

A stopover to Australia turned into a hectic, sweaty week in Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay to Mai Chau.

I’d like to preface this post by confessing that I’m playing catch up on many of my travel experiences. When I started this blog nearly five years ago, I was embarking on an unforgettable trip to South America. I felt free and inspired, a childlike need for expression fueling my fingertips. I realize now that more than pure expression, I was honing my craft. Writing is a skill that one must practice, and soon my desire to travel began to subvert my motivation to create for the sake of creation. By that, I mean, I soon put my hands to work typing for others, the goal of payment my only concern. With more money came more experiences, more trips around the world. I found this in my drafts and figured, why the heck not? So now, many moons later, I will attempt to pick up where I left off. This is my week in Vietnam.

Hanoi:

My Aussie travel buddy Becs and I had stopped in the middle of the Huc Bridge in Hanoi to take a photo of the iconic red structure and the Ngoc Son Temple in the distance, when we were accosted by a fresh-faced young American man who asked if we’d be so kind as to take his photo. We learned that he was traveling alone, that social cues meant little-to-nothing to him, and that he had clearly just discovered hostel life.

“Where are you staying?” he asked as we handed him back his camera.

“Oh, just a nice hotel,” I answered, noncommittal. “It’s called the Tirant,” Becs supplied helpfully.

“A hotel?” he asked, as if he were surprised that we should do such a thing. Then a look passed his face, as if it had dawned on him that we hadn’t yet become aware of the existence of hostels. “Here’s a little tip,” he said, all finger-wagging bravado. “If you want to save a ton of money, you can stay at a hostel. They have them everywhere, and they’re much cheaper than hotels.”

Here’s a tip to my readers. If you’re going to Southeast Asia, you can probably afford to splurge a little. While my preferred type of accommodation is usually hostels, hotels and nice meals come cheap in that part of the world. It’d be rude not to see how the other half vacations.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered if it weren’t for Becs and her travel prowess. She found us a sweet deal with a tour company called Blue Dragon Tours– “See Indochina at its purest!” Debatable tagline, but for $250, we got a two night stay at a centrally-located 3-star hotel (that felt like a 4-star hotel), a two-day-one-night tour of Ha Long Bay, and a transfer service from the airport to the hotel, the hotel to Ha Long Bay, and Ha Long Bay back to Hanoi. Only those who have struggled on packed, smelly, sweaty buses in foreign countries, lugging along their cumbersome backpacks while trying to keep all important belongings safe and sound can know the absolute luxury of being driven somewhere. Decadence is removing the weight of your backpack from your shoulders, reclining in your own seat in a car, and basking in the cold artificial air conditioned breeze that dries the sweat off your brow.

Here is an account of how it went:

DAY 1: 

As I flew into Hanoi from LA, I felt muggy just looking out of the plane window. From overhead, I could already see the French colonialism in the architecture, the roofs of buildings in dull shades of red and blue. Beyond the thick layer of mist rose what looked like soft, subtle mountains, green and lush. As the pilot prepared us for landing, I noted how pleasantly strange the Vietnamese language sounded to my foreign ears, like vowels repeatedly stopped short.

My driver picked me up at baggage claim, and I was grateful to Becs for setting this up. After a long flight, it was nice not to have to navigate public transit in this, the most culturally shocking place I had been so far. We drove alongside motorcyclists driving the wrong way on the street, past many areas that were in the process of development, cement frames rising amongst the otherwise dull landscape alongside buildings with slated tile roofs, typical of what I expected to find in Asian countries. Everything around me looked as though it had been the recipient of hard rainfall.

My driver and I spoke in halted English. He told me that he was a Christian, and I told him I was raised Jewish. He said he didn’t know what that was, so I explained that I was like Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, from the Bible. I received a blank stare in response. Then he told me that I was very pretty.

When we reached the Old Quarter, I saw my first tourists, my fellow travel comrades. The streets seemed to clean themselves up the deeper we got into the Old Quarter, although, that is not to say that the streets that I walked on were truly clean. Just cleaner than the outskirts, which were heaped in places with wet garbage.

We arrived at my hotel, the Tirant Hotel, a large yellow edifice that blends quaint French colonial architecture with the grander Western influence. The lobby was opulent, the rooms swanky. Atop shiny wooden floors were two twin beds with crisp white sheets and gold trimming. The shower door was lined with a golden metal, and there were a couple of small, sweet bananas and a large bottle of water waiting for me. I showered quickly and ran out the door to explore, my bra stuffed with strange bank notes.

Hotel room at the Tirant Hotel, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hotel room at the Tirant Hotel, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Tirant Hotel, Vietnam
View of Hanoi from my hotel window

The streets in the Old Quarter overflowed with small shops selling elephant-printed harem pants, flowery porcelain crockery, beaded jewelry, paintings of women with conical hats in rice paddies. Shop owners and their families lay prostrate on the floor of the shops, moving as little as possible to combat the stifling, moist heat. I walked past two women and a man squatting on the curb, cleaning and gutting chickens. They laughed and splashed dirty chicken water at each other. It warmed my heart. The sidewalks were inadequate, more often than not filled with parked motorcycles, so I walked in the streets. Navigating required real attention, as the disorienting cacophony of moped and motorcycle honks took over my senses. That, and the many smells. Raw fish, perfume, something spicy, garbage, all pervaded by the constant whiff of incense sticks on the offerings to Buddha outside every place of business.

Shops in Hanoi
Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
Street in Old Quarter, Hanoi
Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
Snacks, Hanoi
Man smoking large pipe, Hanoi, Vietnam
Smokin a pipe
Street snack vendors, Hanoi, Vietnam
Ladies selling sweets
Locals, Hanoi, Vietnam
Locals

Hanoi, Vietnam

If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, the constant beckonings of shopkeeps, restaurant proprietors, and day spa owners should be no stranger to you. Every where you look, you are offered a good price for this, a deal for that. Becs and I spent a chunk of time walking through the streets, enjoying excellent, cheap massages ($10), buying patterned shirts, and just generally eating everything. Some standouts include:

Che: A three-coloured bean dessert drink thing that involves crunchy ice, some jelly-like substance, sweet beans, and a little puddle of sweetened coconut cream on the bottom. I was told not to consume the ice in Hanoi, but it was sooo hot. I survived.

Che, Hanoi, Vietnam
Che, sweet colour bean dessert.
Che bar, Hanoi, Vietnam
Che bar
Che restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
View from the inside of the Che restaurant

Traditional Banh Mi: Mine included a bit of egg (omelette style), this hybrid French-Vietnamese sandwich is originally made with a smattering of pickled veggies and a rich schmear of pate on a small crusty French baguette.

Banh Mi, Hanoi, Vietnam
Banh Mi in Hanoi
Bahn Mi restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
The set up
Bahn Mi restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
The Patrons

Vietnamese Iced Coffee: A dark roast coffee sweetened with a shot of sweetened condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee is unique not just for its pairing with tasty canned milk. Ca phe chon has a less bitter taste, and that’s due to the peculiar way the Arabica coffee beans are harvested. In short, civet cats eat the beans, their digestive systems ferment the beans and break down the proteins, and then the beans are harvested from the feces. The result is a rich, less bitter brew, that hypes you up from a pleasant mix of intense caffeination and sugar rush. It’s the shit. Pun intended. Obviously.

Vietnamese iced coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam
Vietnamese iced coffee

DAY 2: 

The next day we decided to hit up the tourist sights, a task that would prove to be rather daunting in the sweltering heat, as we navigated through smog and moisture so thick, a machete could have cut through it.

First stop was the Ngoc Son Temple, or the ‘Temple of the Jade Mountain’. This Buddhist temple rests on a small island on Hoan Kiem Lake, and it was on the iconic red bridge (named the Welcoming of Morning Sunlight Bridge) to the island that we happened upon the aforementioned over-eager American traveler. The temple itself is dedicated to La To, the patron saint of physicians, General Tran Hung Dao, a badass who defeated the Mongol army in the 13th century, and Van Xuong, a scholar. As my first Buddhist temple, it was an experience, albeit a touristy one. I loved the recognizable sloping hip roofs of the temple itself, the gnarly, twisted trees on the island, and the overflowing offerings to the Buddha.

Huc Bridge, Ngoc Son Temple, Vietnam
Huc Bridge (Sunbeam Bridge) that leads to Ngoc Son Temple
Picture on Huc Bridge taken by awkward compatriot.
Ngoc Son Temple, Vietnam
Trying to be all zen buddha…
Buddhist offerings, Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam
Offerings to the Buddha
Prayer, Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam
Woman at prayer in Ngoc Son Temple

Becs and I walked around the lake and into the city, away from the Old Quarter. Women in pointed hats tended to the bright orange flowers surrounding the lake, and tourists flocked to such statues as one dedicated to Ly Thai To, who was the founder of the Later Ly Dynasty in Vietnam. He reigned from 1009 to 1028, and is most known for relocating the imperial capital to Thang Long, modern day Hanoi.

Ly Thai To, Hanoi, Vietnam
Ly Thai To, founder of modern day Hanoi

Next we made our way to Hoa Lo Prison, later known by US troops as Hotel Hanoi, a prison built by French colonialists in 1896 to suppress the Vietnamese resistance. Touring this structure I learned about its history and evolution from a prison for Vietnamese revolutionaries to one for American POIs (like John McCain). I was mainly struck by the patriotic rhetoric, so full of propaganda and one-sided tellings, in many of the captions on the walls. It amused me because it held up a mirror to how our museums might appear to an outsider, how the story changes when it’s told by the opposing side.

On the wall was an ‘Introduction to the Remains of Hoa Lo Prison’:

“The French colonialists changed Hoa Lo from a famous trade village specialized in producing ceramic into a prison that confined and persecuted both the body and the mind of thousands of revolutionary patriotic soldiers. Many leaders of the Government and Vietnamese Communist Party used to be imprisoned here.”

Through a combination of recreated rooms, photography, art, and large-scale models, one could get a sense for the tortuous life of Vietnamese political prisoners at the hands of French colonialists. The rooms dedicated to the history of American pilots who were kept in the prison during the Vietnam War showed a rather different side than we, as Americans, are taught of captivity. If we’re to believe the laughable literature on the walls, it seemed as though the American POIs had a rather lovely vacation that involved playing volleyball outside and enjoying Christmas dinners together.

Photo of women prisoners of Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Women insurgent troops who took part in Ba Dinh uprising arrested and kept by French colonists
Cell D, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Cell D, Hoa Lo Prison
Quote from "Regulations of Hanoi Central Prison", Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Quote from “Regulations of Hanoi Central Prison”
Death Row, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Death Row
Prison uniforms for Vietnamese revolutionary prisoners, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Prison uniforms for Vietnamese revolutionary prisoners
Cot and uniform for American pilots and prisoners of war during Vietnam War, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Cot and uniform for American pilots and prisoners of war during Vietnam War
Photo of John McCain being treated in Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
Photo of John McCain being treated in Hoa Lo Prison

The rest of the day generally consisted of walking, slowly to conserve energy, through the packed streets and staring at the many offerings of food available on street corners, in curious steaming vats, in make-shift restaurants with child-sized plastic tables and chairs that appeared to begin in someone’s living room and expanded onto the street… See below:

Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
Street food
More street food
Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
MMmmmm
Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
Fresh fruits
Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
The plot thickens
Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
Curiouser and curiouser
Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam
Double double toil and trouble
Backstreets of Hanoi
Mood
Night falls on the streets of Hanoi
Dope offering to the Buddha

As night fell, we decided to go for some civilized street food, and by that I mean, the contents of our plates were cooked outside on the street, but we sat down to eat at one of those tiny tables rather than my usual method of eating street food, which is to scarf and walk. Becs and I have both traveled enough to know that if the locals are filling up the place, then it’s probably delicious. The restaurant we chose featured a woman surrounded by bowls and buckets of iced shellfish, some of which I had never seen before, others easily identified as oysters, crabs, and prawns. Directly in front of her, as she sat on a plastic chair on the street, was a large silver caldron and a small cook fire with a grill over it. On top of the grill she placed freshly shucked oysters and clams to cook in their shells and spooned some sort of spicy-looking green sauce over the meat as they cooked. We ordered mainly by pointing and then took a seat amidst the natives.

Shellfish in Hanoi, Vietnam
Shellfish in Hanoi
Street chef, shellfish, Hanoi, Vietnam
Street Chef

Street Oysters, Hanoi, Vietnam

Dining alfresco, Hanoi, Vietnam
Here’s what I mean by small plastic tables and chairs…
Oysters, Hanoi, Vietnam
Fresh oysters
Street cooking in Hanoi

Miracle of all miracles, we did not get any form of food poisoning from the street oysters we consumed that night. Instead, we found a quiet rooftop bar with an empty rooftop pool where we could wind down with a fruity cocktail and soak our aching feet.

Check out Part II of my week in Vietnam, coming soon…maybe…

by Rebecca Bellan

9 Tips for New Travelers

Traveling for the first time can bring you a whirlwind of emotions, from excitement to fear. So I offer you a bit of advice to help you take that first step into the wonderful world.

 

I’m talking about long-term, solo travel, here. Just because you spent a week by the pool at a resort in Mexico, getting drunk off margaritas and riding ATVs on the beach, doesn’t mean you’ve truly been to Mexico or traveled. So for the individual looking for a more real experience, but who is maybe afraid to take the plunge, keep reading.

I’m no expert, and I certainly have a lot to learn, but I’ve figured out a few things that I wish I had known when I first started traveling.

1) While saving up money as a fallback is a good idea, you don’t need to be rich to travel. So many people that I talk to back home are always saying how they’d love to do what I do, but they don’t have the money. And I do? You just have to want it. What’s the point in slaving away at a job you hate, living the same life every week, just to scrape by? Hell, I can just scrape by anywhere in the world, but at least I’ll be adding experiences to my belt, possibly on a beach somewhere…

2) No, hostels aren’t gross and scary places. I don’t know if it was that ridiculous horror flick Hostel or what that has made so many of my fellow Americans fear hostels, but many of my friends and acquaintances back home have been horrified by either my staying in hostels or my suggesting that they stay in hostels. Either they think they’re bound to be dirty places, filled with leering foreign men who are just waiting to rape you or rob you in your sleep, or they are just not thrilled with the prospect of sharing a room with 11 other people. My advice? Get over it. Hostels, in my experience, are often the highlight of a trip. Sure there are some shitty ones, but for the most part they offer a home away from home and are a great way to meet other travelers and find things to do. You needn’t worry about privacy, either. There is definitely some unspoken rule about reading other people’s energies. If you want to be left alone, your new roommates will pick up on that and stay clear, and if you want to make friends, the possibilities are endless.

3) Learn a trade. I can bartend, serve and generally work in any sector of the hospitality industry. I am also a writer and possess a fair knowledge of social media, brand marketing, research, etc. These skills have helped me find places to work in exchange for food and a place to sleep. And when the day comes that I can stop moving, I’m sure that these skills could also provide me with a paid job in a foreign country. Sites like workaway, helpx and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are great sources to find volunteer work in exchange for room and board and at least one meal a day. From working the front desk at a hip hostel in Santiago, Chile, to picking grapes in a vineyard in Italy to helping at a zoo in India, the opportunities are endless.

4) Trust people. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans seem to generally not trust foreigners. Our media has instilled us with such fear of “the other” that many Americans are afraid to branch out. “You’re going to Colombia?!?!” Friends and family would ask me. “But it’s so dangerous. Don’t get your head chopped off!” Ok, Mom. Colombia was a grand old time, and I felt perfectly safe there. The whole world is dangerous, even America. That doesn’t mean that everyone is out to get you. Using sites like workaway and helpx is a good way to realize that the world is full of good people, just like you, who want to help you and welcome you into their country. Couchsurfing also promotes building bonds with strangers. Obviously, keep your wits about you and trust your gut, but you won’t immerse yourself in any culture if you stay hidden in your bubble.

5) Embrace the journey, not just the destination. I get it. You’re eager to make it to the next city. But what about all that space in between? You may not save time, but you’ll certainly save money and gain experience if you take the long way. Instead of flying, try booking passage via boats, buses or trains. You get to see much more of a country when you take your time moving through it, and you train yourself in the art of patience along the way.

6) Enjoy just being somewhere new. Every traveler knows that small thrill in the pit of your stomach, that quiver just below your ribs and into your heart that bubbles up and out of your throat, manifesting itself into a giddy giggle. It’s the excitement of being somewhere new, anywhere. It could be a pit stop in the middle of Colombia or a big city in Vietnam. Every place on Earth that you haven’t been before is new and offers fresh stimulation that should be celebrated.

7) Learn to be low-maintenance. When you’re backpacking or traveling for a long period of time, chances are, you’re trying to save money. You’re probably also trying to save luggage space. Many people aren’t good at traveling because they find it difficult to live without their comforts. If you’re serious about seeing the world, then you need to learn to be comfortable with less. I wouldn’t call it “survival,” but it’s damn near close. Carry the essentials and be thankful when you get a bed or a hammock to lie down in. Accept any free meals offered to you. When it comes down to it, you’re not going to need all the things you think you’ll need, and chances are, you can buy whatever you’re lacking in your backpack along the way. This lesson never became more clear to me than when I was backpacking in South America with only a handful of comfortable outfits, no makeup and a kindle. As long as I can stretch my legs and read a book, I can be comfortable anywhere.

8) Plan, but also be spontaneous. Resist the urge to spend hours scouring the internet and planning out an exact itinerary. Don’t only rely on your guidebook. If you’re going for a long period of time, planning out everything will only serve to limit you. With each new hostel or town you enter, you will meet so many people, locals and travelers alike, who will tell you where they went and show you pictures, so that you’re now wishing you didn’t bother buying that flight to Santiago out of Cusco, and you’d much rather have more time in Peru so you can see some other cities, maybe venture into Bolivia… The point is, you’re free and you can go wherever you want. Your choices and your plans will constantly change. Accept it, and go with it.

9) Embrace your freedom. Travel solo. Maybe you disagree, but I don’t think that you’re truly free if you have to worry about someone else’s wishes. For this reason, I prefer to travel alone, and I think that new travelers should learn to go it alone, as well. I’ve noticed, from traveling with others and from talking with people I’ve met in hostels, that traveling with a best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend can often harm your friendship and your experience abroad. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every friendship or relationship, but I’ve found that when you travel with someone you’re comfortable with, you tend to complain more to them about the strains of travel, and they complain back, fueling a circle of negativity. When shit hits the fan, you’re more likely to blame each other than keep a cool head and just figure it out. When you’re alone, you have no one to blame but yourself if something goes wrong, so you just move forward because, in a foreign country, you don’t want to dwell on hiccups and attract attention to whatever situation you’ve gotten yourself into. Another issue comes up when you want to do different things. Maybe your friend wants to stay up all night getting drunk with those cute Argentinian boys, but you want to get a good night’s rest so you guys can make that 8 am tour of a waterfall. Maybe you want to talk to that Swedish nice girl with the guitar, but your friend hates her because she was loud in the dorm rooms that morning and woke her up. Somebody either has to trudge along unhappily to something they’re not interested in, or you guys split up for a few hours.

There are good parts of traveling with others, of course, including having someone to watch your bag at the bus station while you go to the bathroom or rub your aching shoulders. However, I’d prefer, at least in this stage of my life, not to be tied down by anyone or anything, and to have the freedom to do whatever I feel like, wherever I feel like doing it.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel, Minca, Colombia

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

IMG_3177

The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

IMG_3188

Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Coastin’ with some bad bitches

girls hanging by the pool at Dreamers Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia

The people you meet traveling are half the fun.

I loved having the chance to make lasting friendships with a great group of Australian girls in Colombia.

I was sitting in the courtyard of my Cartagena hostel, el Viajero, sweating through my yoga pants, when the baddest girls I ever met caught my attention. There were five of them holding grocery bags, the thin blonde in front donning some kind of a grim reaper marijuana t-shirt. I remember wondering how these apparent backpackers had the means to be rocking cute outfits and makeup, whereas I only packed comfy staples and some tinted lip balm.

Later that day, I ran into the girls again in the hostel’s subpar kitchen while we made our respective dinners. I admired the way they all chipped in together, comparing their collective process to the countless times I had single-handedly prepared meals for my culinary-challenged friends. They were unexpectedly kind in offering me up their knives to use to cut up my red pepper and onion and were even more surprisingly friendly when I interrupted their meal to ask for a lighter to light the stove. As I handed the lighter back, I looked at the blonde one and said, “I like your shirt. If you’re ever in need, let me know.” I smiled and walked away, happy that I had already found a connect and wasn’t offering up an empty promise, and satisfied that they looked at me with hope rather than disgust.

I didn’t see the girls again until I was heading out to smoke a joint around the corner from the hostel. The tallest one with the most piercing blue eyes, Greer, was walking back to her room where I could hear the other girls howling with laughter. We acknowledged each other, she looking graceful in an Amazonian way in her long skirt that I soon found out were a staple of hers. I showed her the joint and asked if she’d like to come along, to which she happily agreed.

“You wanna invite your bitches?” I asked, hoping she wouldn’t be offended that I called them bitches. She didn’t flinch.

“Nah, they’ll just smoke all your stuff,” she replied.

I don’t remember what we talked about while we passed the joint back and forth, but I remember that she was easy to talk to. Long story short, the rest of her crew welcomed me into their group so seamlessly, I wondered how I hadn’t met them before or why I couldn’t find a group of girlfriends this laidback in the states. The last few nights we spent in Cartagena, lounging on chairs in the courtyard and chatting, I was astonished by how sweet and giving these girls were to each other. There was no cattiness, no jealousy. Just a few bad bitches having a good time, and I was honored to be one of them for the time being.

There was Katarina, or Kat, with curly brown hair and a septum piercing. Hanging with her was like being near a reiki masseuse; she somehow could always read and adapt to your energy, and she really took the time to make sure her friends knew they were loved and at peace. Greer, whom I mentioned prior, is nicknamed Groel, which is perfect for her if you’ve ever met her. She’s tall and a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve never seen such a small waist consume so much food and beer. Leah, whom they call Wrecky because she’s always wrecked (not really though), is the blonde with the grim reaper marijuana shirt. She’s thin and beautiful with bright blue eyes and the best Australian accent I’ve ever heard, and she’s always quick to dole out compliments. Julia, or Jules, is sweet, thoughtful and affectionate. She’s the type of person who goes with the flow and seems to never lose her temper, and you know you’re being taken care of when you’re in her company. Elise, or Leisy, is Jules’s sister, a fact what no one had to tell me- I could tell just from noticing their many identical gestures and mannerisms. Leisy’s got a raspy voice and a husky laugh and she is all heart. When I had to leave the girls in paradise to fly back home, Leisy carried my bags to the bus and hugged me about a million times before we finally said goodbye.

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The girls by the pool in Santa Marta- (left to right) Leah, Kat, Elise, Jules, Greer

Since we had all planned to make Santa Marta the next stop after Cartagena, the girls excitedly and genuinely invited me to join them. I was skeptical of the easiness with which they included me at first, but it was all in my head. We ended up at the most beautiful hostel, the Dreamers, in the city that doesn’t offer much but a stopping ground to the rest of the coast, Parque Tayrona, and the Sierra Nevadas.

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In the week I spent basking in their insanely good energy and superb, unparalleled, frat-boy-meets-celebrity style party skills, we sat around in hammocks and were lazy by the pool, drinking mojitos and beers and ordering pasta from the hostel restaurant.

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We trekked to the forest in Minca, a small town nearby, to visit the waterfall at Pozo Azul, and we stayed at the Dreamers in Palomino where the only activity we truly engaged in was trying to stand up in the freakishly strong current of the ocean nearby.

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beach in palomino
beach in palomino

They showed me an awesome time at a nightclub overlooking the bay of Taganga, called el Mirador, and kept me awake yet asleep on my feet, way past my bedtime, at an after party that lasted well past sunrise. I listened intently as they told me about their small town in Australia called Geelong, and watched with amusement a zombie apocalypse tourism campaign done by their crazy mayor whom they all voted for out of humor.

I politely accepted or declined bumps, shared clothes, talked about boys, exchanged travel stories, cooked meals, brainstormed on different uses for vegemite, got drunk, passed cigarettes, had heart to hearts. They even gave me a nickname, Bec, to match all of theirs, which I found very touching.

pasta dinner
pasta dinner…i don’t know that guy who’s photo bombing
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure

I guess this isn’t a post on things to do in Colombia, but this is what I did my last week of my backpacking trip. I found some good girls and rolled with it, because it’s not always about climbing every mountain or visiting every national park or joining every tour. More often than not, traveling is about the people you meet and what they teach you about yourself. These girls taught me that it’s ok to just chill and enjoy the company around you. They showed me that it’s possible to be accepted as family just by being a good person, and they helped me recognize that I have worth and that I am loved.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

28 Signs You’ve Been to South America

Llamas in Chile are like cows in the US

Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.

If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.

I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!

You know you’ve been to South America when…

  • You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.

    Arepa con huevo, a Colombian delicacy
    Arepa con huevo, egg arepa, from Cartagena, Colombia
  • you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
  • muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
  • you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
photo credit- Blake Matich
photo credit- Blake Matich
  • you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
  • you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.

    Only costs a few soles to hold a baby alpaca in Peru
    Holding a baby alpaca in Cusco, Peru.
Alpaca hair makes a warm material for clothing in Peru.
Rocking my warm alpaca sweater from Peru.
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posing with a llama in Chile
Alpaca dinner
Alpaca dinner
  • you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
  • you’ve never been so sunburnt.

    Intense sunburn from an Ecuadorean sun.
    Nearly a year later, and I still have those tan lines.
  • you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
  • you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
  • you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
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Chilean money
  • you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
mmmmmm
mmmmmm
  • coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
  • you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
  • you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
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not as bad as the people who look like they’ve had a herpes outbreak on their calves, but still
  • you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
  • if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
  • you were seriously impressed by the street produce.

    Large avocados found in Medellin, Colombia
    AVOCADOS THE SIZE OF YOUR HEAD
  • the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
  • you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
  • you don’t fear insects anymore.
  • you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
  • you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
  • someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
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kill me
  • you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
  • your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
  • ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
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being a weirdo with matching ponchos
  • you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
Found a dog to play with in Salento, Colombia
Made good friends with this good boy in Salento, Colombia
Randall, the house pup of HI Arica
Posing with Randall, whom I met in Chile.

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by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

Salento: Not to be Overlooked

Salento, Colombia is a peaceful town in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia.

Enjoy the town’s serenity, cuisine, and artisan culture.

 

Most people come to Salento, a small town nestled in the Quindio region of the coffee triangle, to engage in the activities beyond its tranquil streets, such as visiting coffee farms or trekking the Cocora Valley. However, the historic cowboy town itself is an alluring stopping ground due to its 360 views of Los Nevados mountain range, its relaxed atmosphere, colorful colonial architecture, and talented artisans. The poncho and cowboy hat wearing locals move about with a practiced calm and always have a genuine, slow smile for the many foreigners who visit. The main square, complete with church, supermarket and police station, is flanked on all four sides by restaurants and filled in the middle with food trucks serving up traditional paisa style cuisine and the regional specialty, trout or trucha. The constant slightly overcast skies and high altitude near the mountains make for mild and cool temperatures in the damp air. The two spots that made me wish I had more time to spend in Salento were my hostel, La Serrana, and a little café called Brunch.

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the plaza when we first arrived
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the jeep stand

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Laura and me crouched in the back of our first jeep
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food stands in the plaza
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bandeja paisa- traditional gigantic plate of meats and starches

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side street off the plaza- notice the cowboy on the right

La Serrana

I met German man in Bogota who had been backpacking for nearly two years, and he referred me to this hostel, where, he said, you can cook using ingredients from La Serrana’s very own garden. The 20 hectares of lush farmland where the hostel makes its home is about a half an hour walk outside of the city, or a ten minute, 600 peso-per-person old army jeep ride, down a dirt road past damp farms and healthy looking cattle. La Serrana is a home away from home. Its property perches prettily among the emerald plains and hills of Los Nevados mountain range. With a family style breakfast and dinner, dim mood lighting and comfortable leather chairs and sofas, visitors to La Serrana really get to experience a taste of the Colombian hacienda lifestyle.

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main building

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the dining room
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an outdoor hang out near the fire pit

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the hostel’s garden

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delicious breakfast
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so homey

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While the breakfast was delicious and the grounds were incredible, my favorite part about staying there was a stray dog that roamed around the farm. I named him Randall after he accompanied me on a few walks into town, only stopping to terrorize the cows. I don’t know where this dog came from, but my new friend Randall escorted me many times for my entire walk from the hostel to wherever I had to go in town, occasionally linking up with me when I popped in and out of stores or restaurants.

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Me and Randall, a stray who hung around the hostel

 

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following us into town

Brunch

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If you’ve been reading, you know that I am an adventurous eater who likes to sample the local flavor when I travel. But that doesn’t mean I’ll turn down a burger and a peanut butter filled brownie. Brunch is also a traveler’s home away from home, offering guests (usually outsiders) an American diner-style menu, complete with pancakes and omelets, tuna melts and turkey burgers. The small restaurant is owned and run by an American (I think…could be Canadian, I suppose) gentleman who, legend has it, still does not speak Spanish. His manager claims to be from Bogota, yet speaks English like a Californian, and is the most gracious host, quickly scrambling to bring cucumber water to the table, answer any questions about the menu, or let us sample some of the restaurant’s homemade peanut butter. After Laura ordered the most delicious black bean burger ever and I ordered the teriyaki pineapple burger—complete with lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and fries— I set about reading the writing on the walls and picking up a deck of cards from the game pile to play a little Spit with Laura. We were barely into the first round when our food came.

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wall notes

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nice manager feeding us homemade peanut butter- i’m almost done with the jar I brought home

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Needless to say, everything was delicious. We came back as many times as our stomachs would allow, and to help us digest so we could order a brownie a la mode, we vegged on the couches and bean bag chairs in the movie room in the back, taking our pick of 1000 movies on a USB.

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watching ‘a knight’s tale’

by Rebecca Bellan

Mystical Cocora Valley

Feel suspended in time and space in the magical Cocora Valley in Colombia.

Walk amongst a garden of the tallest palm trees in the world outside of Salento, Colombia.

The old war jeeps that serve as taxis in Salento, Colombia can comfortably seat eight passengers, with two up front next to the driver and six facing each other in the bumpy back. The day I decided to see the Valle de Cocora, a valley that is located in the highest of the three branches of the Andean mountains and is home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, we somehow managed to fit thirteen passengers into the jeep- four squeezed together in the back, three hanging off the back, and two in the front with the driver.

The 45-minute drive under a threateningly overcast sky was scenic to say the least. I smiled the whole car ride to myself as the chilly, moist air rushed at my face through the plastic windows of the jeep. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they scanned rolling jade plantations, feasting black and white cows, trees that I had never seen before, and a clear river running over mossy rocks.

The stopping ground before the Cocora Valley is a small town in and of itself, with shops, restaurants, hotels and horses for hire.

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Originally, my intention was to simply see the valley for the tall palm trees and then take a jeep back, a short excursion. Most people do the Cocora Valley trek, which I ended up doing, which lasts about four hours and is fairly physically demanding, but we’ll get to that. As I walked up a road away from the town, the sounds of music and people trying to cater to the tourists and of horses’ hooves all began to fade slowly until there was nothing. I was alone walking down the dirt road towards the fog in the distance, and my only company was the sound of my boots on gravel.

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It’s hard to express the bliss of being alone. No friends from the hostel chattering about where they’ve been and where they’re going, no chipper tour guide exploiting his country’s heritage and beauty, no cars whizzing by. The only other living things around me as the skinny palms came into clearer vision through the fog were the quietly grazing horses and cows. I paid a ponchoed man standing under a green tarp something like 3,000 pesos to enter the Valley, and walked slowly over the thick, memory foam-like grass. My mouth hung open and my head tilted back as I marveled at these skyscrapers, swaying slightly at the top and looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. The cloud in the distance soon became the cloud I was standing in. The mist around me gave me a mystical feeling, and I sat down to meditate in my much-needed solitude.

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I don’t know how everyone meditates, or if I was even doing it right. I sat cross-legged on the damp grass, closed my eyes, and pictured myself as I was, a woman alone in the forest of palm trees. I felt the absence of other people around me, their energies no longer clouding my own. I envisioned the palms towering above me, and imagined that I was the wind that I heard rustling in my ears. I pictured the birds I heard chirping sitting in their nests, and I followed the river that I could hear running in my mind. When I finally opened my eyes, I could no longer see the palms that I had looked at before I began to meditate. The mist was shielding them, but then just as suddenly, those palms appeared before me again, and the cloud moved on.

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I took my time in the forest, making sure to stay near the dirt path while I looped through the trees. I followed grass stairs up which led to more path, going uphill and out of sight, so I continued. It wasn’t until about an hour into my walk, when the landscape started changing to thick woods and clusters of tall skinny, pine-like trees instead of mist and palms, that I realized I was probably doing the trek despite my original intentions. I looked at the map from my hostel. Not only was I doing the hike, but I was doing it backwards. Oh well. There’s supposed to be some waterfalls in here somewhere, I reasoned. It’s probably worth it.

when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
map from the hostel and my route
map from the hostel and my route

The ascension was difficult, but doable. Thankfully, I brought enough snacks and water. Soon, the fog was so thick and I was so high up that I couldn’t even see the valley anymore. It took me two hours to make it to the Finca, or farm, on the map. If you’re doing the same trail and come across a locked gate, just climb over it. I don’t know why it’s there.

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the gate you must vault
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the beautiful finca

By the time I got there, I was cursing my genetics. See, I’m a healthy girl. I’m fit enough, but along with gifts of big boobs and curly hair, my mother bestowed upon me the curse of bad hip joints. Every step was agony, so I begged the people at the finca for some form of painkillers and continued onward, or should I say downwards. The path back down the mountain (by this time I realized that I had climbed some small mountain) is steep, rocky and slippery. As I zigzagged down with cautious steps, I immediately picked up a giant walking stick and partnered up with some locals, an incredibly loving couple and their friend, who were very kind and informative about the nature and culture in this part of Colombia.

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Another hour and a half to the bottom, past the same river I had seen on the jeep ride here, over rickety bridges, around pools of mud.

my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
me and my walking stick
me and my walking stick
cool, rickety bridge
cool, rickety bridge

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Near the bottom, the rain began to pour. I was lucky I brought my rain jacket that protected my electronics, but I did not fair so well. We came out of the forest part and slipped about on strategically placed rocks and wood, dodging puddles poorly through the Cocora Valley, past a fresh water trout farm, and up another hill to the small town. I never truly knew the meaning of “soaked through to the bone” until that day. My hood was filled with enough water to quench the thirst of three dehydrated men. My shoes were squelching with each step. They didn’t dry for four days. We finally all made it to their car, panting and dripping and laughing. The nice Colombians offered to drive me back to Salento, which I gratefully accepted, and I shivered in the car with yet another smile on my face and another amazing experience under my belt.

last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard
last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Bogota and Street Food

View from Montserrat in Bogota

The street food in Bogota and Colombia in general will have you drooling.

Munch on arepas and papa rellena as you admire Bogota’s fast paced life and impressive graffiti.

 

Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is by far the most commercial city that I have encountered in South America. I only stumbled through a few neighborhoods, but I could tell that I wouldn’t get to know even a sixteenth of the city in the three days I would be there. It reminded me of New York in that limitless way that can keep you constantly entertained if only you had the time, money or energy to stay put and explore. The second I left my hostel and took stock of where I was, I felt plugged in.

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The streets and the people on them are sort of bleak and direct, moving nonstop underneath a smoggy sky. The indifferent pedestrians make cars stop by simply walking into the street. Bogota is not a walking city by any means, and the public transit, the Transmilenio, was confusing, but well organized, similar to the New York Subway.

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The architecture doesn’t give away where in the world you are. Symmetrical modern high rises in some neighborhoods blend with Tudor style houses in others, while Spanish Colonial buildings down the street clash with whitewashed, Greek-style frameworks with tiled roofs. I felt like I could be in Europe somewhere, maybe Poland or Ireland.

apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window
apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window

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What’s to do in Bogota? There are plenty of tourist options, much of which involving parks and museums and churches. Or you could do what I did and take the bus down to La Candelaria (either stopping at Las Aguas or Museo del Oro stops on the bus) and walk around taking pictures of cool people and world famous graffiti.

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You could have a cup of delicious Juan Valdez coffee, Colombia’s Starbucks equivalent. The Museo del Oro, Gold Museum, was pretty cool and informative as far as museums go.

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Riding the cable car up to Montserrat was beautiful and something to do. You can also walk, but the stairs were closed at the hour we tried to go, and I wasn’t having it anyway, what with the altitude and all.

Montserrat from the ground level
Montserrat from the ground level

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But I’ll reiterate—the city was just too daunting to decide what to do. It felt wrong, almost insulting to the locals, simply going from tourist destination to tourist destination when Bogota has so much more to offer as a legitimate place of living and working, not just one of those cities like Cusco or Florence that functions off of tourism. So, I bought stuff to pass the time.

"la mola" style jewelry
“la mola” style jewelry
spent a fair amount of pesos here
spent a fair amount of pesos here

There is always something to spend your money on, whether that be cheap watches and wallets from tables that line the streets, scarves or jewelry laid out on blankets on the pavement, the latest fashions from boutique stores, adorable puppies framed in windows and cages, or food. My god, the food. For every pizza place in Manhattan is a rotisserie/fried chicken joint in Bogota. While New York is obviously the capital of delicious nourishment, serving up literally anything you could ever want to eat, Bogota has one thing on the big apple- street food.

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Street food. I say it in a suggestive whisper. Hey. You wanna go find some street food? Like any good big city, Bogota is constantly moving and the locals have to keep up. Which is why, I’ve decided, they are on point with their street food options. All the carbs and flavors possible in one concise, probably deep-fried package. For those of you solid New Yorkers who think hot dogs, pretzels, halal plates and Nuts4Nuts are the best things to shovel in your mouth while you’re strutting down the sidewalk, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’ll just regale you with some of the delicious creations that I ate standing up in Bogota/Colombia in general.

Meat: Street meat is delicious. That is a fact. The end.

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Arepa Con Queso: This is the classic, guys. The first arepa with cheese that I ever had was a bit sweeter and more corn-like than a classic arepa, which is basically a somewhat tasteless, ground corn dough pancake thing, for all you Gringos. The round yellow cake is savory with just a touch of sweet from the corn in the soft dough and was moist enough to eat without a drink in hand.

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Arepa Sandwich: Arepas have the durability and neutral flavor to be the perfect base for a sandwich. My first encounter with arepa sandwiches was at Metro Arepas in Bogota, a small, open storefront with a kindly older man taking orders and a quiet, methodic woman filling my arepa with chicharron (fried pork skin) and cheese, brushing melted butter over the tops before she flipped it on the grill, and sprinkling salt onto the hot, greasy dough. I drooled as I watched her prepare my snack, and ate with gusto, licking my salty fingers and taking sips of Coke out of a glass bottle. The next time I had an arepa sandwich was at a super cool fast food strip along the highway in Medellin. While the menu over the counter boasted many different deli-style arepa sandwiches, I was in the mood for a burger and only didn’t order a burger at the counter over because I felt guilty not eating something Colombian. My messy, mass-produced, reheated patty topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo was the perfect combo of American and Colombian disgusting cuisines. My only regret was that I didn’t order fries to go with it.

*drools*

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*drools*

 

Arepa Con Huevo: Ok, so I know I need to quit gushing over arepas. I know so many people who hate them, although I can’t imagine why. If you’ve read the last two descriptions, you should have a decent idea at how versatile this Colombian staple is, so I don’t need to keep talking about it. I will, however, explain to you my final favorite, the arepa with an egg. On the corner of this street near my hostel in Cartagena was an angel who never smiled and was always making fresh arepasempanadas and papas rellenas. While everything she fried in her makeshift street deep fryer was the most tasty, I kept coming back for those egg arepas. She stood every night behind a table, flattening and rounding out premade dough, filling it with ham and some other mystery ingredients, and frying it for a minute, then slicing it open a bit to drop in a raw egg and fry it again. The egg cooks fully in this time and once the masterpiece is handed to you, you join the crowd of Colombians standing around the table, alternating between spooning sauce onto their snack and taking bites.

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arepa con huevo in street skillet
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arepa con huevo

 

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the beautiful cartagena arepa stand and ALL the sauces

Papa Rellena: Stuffed potatoes. Papas rellenas differ in innards from shop to shop and city to city, and none has ever been as legit as the first one I had. From the lookout point on the sidewalk, these lumpy yellow balls are about the size of a softball. They sizzle in oil before an attentive Colombian pulls them out with a slotted spoon and offers one to you, hot and fresh because they go that fast. The first tentative bite offers the taste of fried egg batter and mashed potatoes underneath. The second bite uncovers meaty rice beyond the layer of mashed potatoes, and under the rice is a hardboiled egg. Genius. Not all of the ones I’ve had were as good as this one. If you want this exact papa rellena, you can find it at one of the stands outside that big white Gothic church in Bogota. K?

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papas rellenas being made
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oh my
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here’s the church where you can find these arepas and much more

 

Hot Dog: After a night of drinking and salsa dancing in Medellin, I was quite famished. I asked the cabbie who was taking Laura and me back to our hostel if there was anywhere we could stop and eat. He pulled over on the side of a city road where a couple of men at a stand were serving up burgers and hot dogs. I ordered two dogs for myself and watched patiently as they completed what I thought was someone else’s order. Dogs were fit into warmed buns, and then topped with, if memory serves, melted cheese, cooked ham, bacon bits, beans, mayo, ketchup, pineapple sauce, potato stix, and more sauces. When the man handed them to me I laughed in his face, thinking it must be a joke. But I ended up taking them like a champ (aka giving one to my cab driver). It was the most serious hot dog that I ever put down.

stayin classy
stayin classy

Patacón con Todo: Patacón, fried green plantain, with everything, and they mean it. I was wandering around the streets of Cartagena when I stumbled upon the Plaza de Trinidad, an open, brightly-lit square in front of a church with impressive Christmas light fixtures. Among the few steaming street food stands, one in particular caught my eye. The two men working it had a good thing going. They worked together like a machine, bantering in between creating nine plates of food, one of which would go to me. One man cut up the fried plantains while the other dumped two kinds of shredded meat (I assumed pork and beef) onto the griddle, onto which the first man immediately squeezed a bunch of some brown sauce while he added some cut up hot dogs to the mix. The woman who accepted the money (at these stands, there were usually one or two people preparing the food and one getting paid) laid out the plates as best she could given the limited space, and one of the men immediately plopped a heaping portion of plantain on it. The second man sprinkled a healthy handful of shredded lettuce over it with one hand while he stirred around some white cheese that he dropped onto the grill to melt with the other. On top of the lettuce went the meat mixture, then the cheese, then all the sauces, then potato stix and quite probably some chicharron, and voila, Patacón con literally Todo.

this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel
this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel

Bogota was whatever, but here’s what I ate. Hope I made you hungry.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

San Pedro de Atacama: Part 2

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile offers endless adventurous activities.

From Sandboarding in Death Valley to the Salt Marshes at the Salar de Atacama.

 

So, in my last post, San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1, we explored the Moon Valley, the Lagunas Cejas, and las Termas Puritamas. Here’s the rest. Enjoy.

Day 4- Sandboarding in Death Valley:

There are many speculations as to how Death Valley got it’s name. Some say that it’s because there is no life there, but that’s not true because we passed a few bushes, foxes and falcons on the way. Some say that the area was a sacred place where shamans came to die. Our guide from San Pedro Sandboard told us that the real name came from hippie guides who came out to San Pedro to work in tourism and named it Death Valley to make it more commercial and attractive to visitors. Whatever the reason, it’s still pretty badass to say that you went sandboarding in Death Valley.

As our van rocked and swayed through the high rock walls and dodged giant pot holes, our guide explained that La Valle de la Muerte is similar to La Valle de la Luna in that it is a salt mountain range, which more or less means that it was molded by desert rain, wind and sun overtime to raise vertically, giving the region a unique natural sculpture with different colors due to a variety of minerals. (Shout out to my high school science teacher, Doc Rachell. If you’re reading, Doc, how’d that sound?) I tried to grasp the science behind the scenery while I kept an eye out for Tusken Raiders.

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Our guide, a sun-and-wind wrinkled dreadlocked chainsmoker, turned up the deep-bass electro music as we pulled up to the bottom of the valley. We all stood sweating in the sand as he passed around ancient snowboarding boots that fit no one and pushed people who didn’t already know if they were goofy or regular to see which foot they instinctively landed on.

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Once we all had a board, we trekked diagonally up the sand mountain, taking small steps to conserve energy. About fifteen of us lined the tip of the ridge and strapped ourselves into our boards as the guide dragged on a cigarette and explained how to ride. The thumping bass at the bottom of the hill was amping me up, and I tuned in and out of the guide’s speech. This was the same as snowboarding, I assumed, and I kind of knew how to do that. An eager German who was the first one to strap himself into his board went down the hill first. Everyone waited hesitantly when he made it to the bottom, reluctant to attempt the feat in front of everyone else. A cool Aussie with a wicked beard named Blake was the next one down.

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At the top of the sand mountain looking down.

I looked around again at the nervous tourists and decided I’d be the first girl to go. I jumped a bit to get some sand off my board and slid down.

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The first turn I tried to make, lifting my toes and leaning a bit on my heels, had me on my ass. The sand is much thicker and more resistant than snow, and the only way I could make it down fast and with any adrenaline rush was to point my board straight down and lean on my back leg, something I’d be terrified to do on a snowboard.

It was over as quickly as it began, and I stared up at the hill, reluctant to carry my board up it again. I made it up and down again three more times before I was too exhausted to continue. Walking in the sand is hard enough without the added stress of wearing heavy, uncomfortable board boots and carrying the board up. The people of San Pedro truly needed to invest in sand lifts.

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Day 5- Salar de Atacama:

As you might have gathered thus far, it is nearly impossible to see any of the desert sights in San Pedro de Atacama without booking a tour. Or maybe I just didn’t try. Anyway, you catch yourself conversing with other tourists in your hostel or in a restaurant or just on the street because, let’s face it, San Pedro is literally made up of tourists and the people who serve them, saying things like, “We’re doing the Moon Valley tonight and the geysers tomorrow,” or “Nah, we’re not doing the salt marshes or the geysers because we just came from Uyuni and did all that in Bolivia,” or “Yeah, I have to book my Uyuni tour and buy a few rolls of toilet paper for it.” It almost makes you not want to participate. Almost. But I didn’t take an overnight bus all the way out to this uninhabitable desert to kick it at my hostel. I had already done the Moon Valley sunset tour, the bike ride to the Lagunas Cejas, the day at the hot springs, and sandboarding at Death Valley. The two big leftovers were the geyser field called El Tatio, which would have me up and at it in below freezing temperatures at 4 am, and the Salar de Atacama, at 7 am. The geysers, bursts of hot air and water shooting out of the ground, were obviously the cooler choice, but silly me I forgot my winter coat and I definitely forgot my will to wake up before the sun rose. So, salt marshes it was.

I have this annoying habit of booking tours without doing proper research about said tour. Maybe I should put a stop to this. My tour group of about thirteen people piled sleepily into a minivan. We stopped in the peaceful village of Toconao, known for some church of San Lucas, which is made of volcanic stone and adobe, causing it to be warm when the sun is out and cold at night, like a cold-blooded snake. The wood that makes up the ceiling is made of dried cactus, an aesthetically cool, light-colored wood. On the outside of the church are carvings of a llama and a donkey to signify the unification of Chile and Spain. Our tour guide, who conducted the tour in Spanish making me strain to listen before my first cup of Nescafe, talked about the four characteristic trees of the region and their respective uses, like making flour for bread or something.

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Church of San Lucas

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staircase in church made of dried cactus wood

 

The town of Toconao boasts their hand made crafts. We stopped in one shop that sold Alpaca wool weavings, among other things. Their ancient loom sat in the back with the llamas, and as our guide fed the spunky animals hay, he explained that the people here don’t eat llamas, but they do eat llamos, the males. I thought that was OK.

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old school loom

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Toconao, meaning, “place of stones” in Kunza, the language of the Atacameno people, is made up of about 1000 inhabitants who mostly work in agriculture, cultivating potatoes and corn or making sweet wine and pisco.

After our short, but informative tour of the village, we settled back into the car and drove next to views of limitless desert. The air around the looming sand mountains was wispy in the distance. I would have thought it was fog if I didn’t know how arid this desert is, so I deduced that it must be a combination of sand in the wind and wisps of smoke from the active Lascar volcano.

Our first breathtaking stop in the Salar de Atacama was the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is managed by the Atacameno community of Socaire, along with the National Forest Corporation. Not that this place was a forest, in any common sense of the word. The reserve itself covers 180,000 acres of desert. We stopped in the Soncor Sector and watched pink and black flamingos create a mirror image in the Chaxa lagoon, dipping their heads in the water and wriggling their long necks like snakes as they searched for tiny shrimps to eat. The three rather graceful species of flamingo that live here (James, Andino, and Chilean) spend twelve hours a day with their heads in the water, devouring 800 grams of shrimp a day.

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The salty pathways through the garden of white volcanic rock and salt crusts crunched and sparkled beneath my hiking boots. I didn’t know flamingos could fly, and was in awe to see their pink bellies soaring above my head and against the background of the valley of San Pedro and the five principal volcanoes surrounding the 100 kilometers of salt marshes, each one marking the border with Bolivia or Argentina. Dragonflies whizzed by my head and mated over the crusts of sulfur along the shores of the lake, giving them a yellow color and making the air smell like how I imagine Munchkinland smelled after the Wicked Witch threatened Glinda and then left in a huff.

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flying flamingo

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While at the reserve, our guide prepared us a lovely breakfast, complete with rolls, mashed avocado, scrambled eggs, cookies, coffee, tea and more.

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What would a tour in South America be without more churches? The purely tourist church of Bartolomeo de Socaire is made of adobe and stone and topped with a hay roof. It was whatever. The building was surrounded by crops of corn, alfalfa, green beans, sunflowers, potatoes, quinoa…yada yada. The town Socaire is the last town before Argentina and it is made up of a whopping 150 residents. Moving on…

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We drove on smooth, paved roads that wound rhythmically around the mountains and volcanoes and through fields of rocks and sturdy, yellow tufts of sun-stained grass called paja brava. If you squinted as you sped by the plains, you could trick yourself into looking at a field of poppies or sunflowers.

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When we arrived at the Miscanti and Miniques lakes, spreading out before us like a couple of large sapphires, you could feel in your bones how fresh the air was at a 4000 meter altitude. The lakes aren’t fresh water, and bits of salt crusted along the perimeter of that royal blue lagoon. According to the guide, the lakes were formed thousands of years ago when the Miniques Volcano erupted and blocked the waters that ran freely from the high system of mountain ranges, damming the rivers and streams. The area around the lakes was empty of tourists. In their place were vicuñas munching on the yellow grass, a type of camelid that are so climatized to the cold, high weather that they can run up to 40 kilometers an hour.

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All in all, it was a very pretty tour. But like I said earlier, I wish someone had told me that it would just be pretty before I woke up at 6:30 in the morning.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Eureka for Arica

Arica, Chile is a chill beach town on the border of Peru.

Enjoy perfectly sunny days by the salty Pacific.

The small beach town of Arica, known as the city of eternal spring, was the perfect place to recuperate after a month of jungle, high altitude, and constant learning about Inca culture. I couldn’t wait to see the ocean again, work on my tan, and rub salt water from my eyes.

Laura and I took the night bus from Puno to Tacna, a small desert town near the border of Chile, and then took a cramped colectivo (Colectivos change from city to city. This one was a 4-door that fit 5 passengers) across the border into Chile. After a few immigration procedures (Note to self: If you ever go back to Peru, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, lose the customs form you get when you enter the country. You will have to pay a fine upon leaving.) that were oddly strict about bringing in fruit from the other side, I was again sandwiched between the driver and Laura in the front seat of the taxi. Three pushy Peruvian women with bags of groceries and God knows what else hogged the back seat.

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The air in Chile was already different than the air in Peru. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the oxygen levels, maybe it was our proximity to endless ocean, but it felt simply more pleasant. I would soon learn that the people were, in my opinion, kinder and more patient than many people I dealt with in Peru. The sun was bright as it rose over the desert we were driving through at record speed. The driver began to point out a blue fog to our right, claiming it was the sea. I got butterflies. You could see a city and a tall, sandy cliff forming through the mist. Arica. Where flat square buildings painted bright orange, yellow, and pink studded the streets before the impossibly calm, light blue ocean and old ladies swept the sand from their tiled front porches. I couldn’t wait to strip off my many layers and slip into a pair of flip flops and a bikini.

We booked at Hostelling International Dona Ines, due to the good reviews about the staff and breakfast on Hostelworld. While the hostel is a little outside the main part of town, we chose this hostel over one closer to town due to the importance of having wifi in bed.

The main mode of transport in Arica is via colectivo, albeit slightly different from the colectivo that took us across the border and the one that took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. These shared taxis are more organized than desperate Peruvian colectivos. Each passenger pays 600 pesos (about $1) to ride in the assigned route of the shared taxi. (PS- Yeah, spending thousands of pesos each day took a lot of math and a lot of getting used to, especially when we’re talking big numbers in another language.) The colectivos that we’d get to know so well were the A and the 4, which passed through the town center, the bus station, and took us more or less directly to our hostel at the corner of Chapiquiuna and Blest Gana.

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A door in the middle of a cool mural opened to reveal an outdoor space filled with colorful art, a Christmas light covered tree, and a pool table. The walls were covered by notes to the hostel and funny jokes or insightful quotes, to which we naturally added. We were greeted by an old brown pitbull named Randolf and a long haired, sleepy-eyed Chilean named Brian. I dumped my multiple bags on the nearest table, removed my poncho, and sat on the floor to pet the good boy.

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We checked in quickly to a three-bed dorm with a hungover, sleeping Frenchman, a mini-kitchen and a private bathroom, raced into our swimsuits, and walked a half an hour in the sun to the beach, getting honked and whistled at the whole way. Normally, the raging feminist in me would have gotten mad at the audacity of these pigs forcing unwanted attention on me. But, I was in a good mood that day, so I smiled and waved at passing cars, feeling like an utter celebrity when they stopped to let Laura and me walk across the street rather than almost run us over like the drivers in Peru.

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our room

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walking over to the beach
walking over to the beach

The beach in Arica was windy and the water was cold, but Laura and I convinced ourselves that our blood could handle it. We were Northerners, after all, used to braving the nearly arctic Atlantic waters of New York and Ireland. Well, this water can’t have been much colder than what we were used to, but the wind chill made the 70 degree air feel like 60 degree air, and here we were without a towel or change of clothes. We air-dried as we walked the length of the beach and into town, stopping every ten minutes or so to apply baby powder to our chub rubs whenever we were in areas free of leering Chileans. (To be clear, I was never creeped out by the Chilean men, and never felt threatened. They only looked and said hello. Everyone here seemed too nice to cause harm or to offend.)

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The walk along the pavement was filled with bright colored street art and buildings to contrast the hazy, light brown sand. The city center was pretty chilled out. We found the main streets where one can dine or buy things one doesn’t need, both of which we did. Calle 21 de Mayo is a long, white-tiled pedestrian street. Restaurants, bars and stores line the sides while the pathway comes alive with shoppers, skaters, locals, tourists, and people selling handmade jewelry or bouncy balls or homemade sandwiches. The cliff, known simply as El Morro, which I hear offers a beautiful view of the city and sea, greets you near the bottom of the downhill commercial center, towering high and tan.

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These sites were enough to keep us entertained for our first day, so we set off back to the hostel, stopping first at the supermarket to pick up some ingredients for dinner.

Brian is a good DJ, and the chill waves of indie electro were already bumping when we returned. The over-excited, very friendly host Robert, who refers to every female as his “future ex-wife,” explained to us that we were going to party that night. So, after dinner, Laura and I put on makeup for the first time in a month and a half. I wore a dress that I hadn’t worn before or since. It felt nice looking like a real person instead of a hairy-legged, baggy-eyed, harem pants-clad traveler. Oh, did I mention that this was also the first time I bothered to engage in leg hair removal on this trip?

The four or five other guests all began to filter into the courtyard, along with a few older friends of Robert’s. One very large man I recall roared an awful lot. Rib-flavored Lays potato chips and airy cheese puffs were passed around as bottles of vodka, rum and whiskey were slowly emptied. When I wasn’t sitting quietly and happily, munching on free chips and listening to the conversations around me, I made my rounds, having engaging discussions with guests and visitors alike. I spoke to a Bolivian guest about threats to the rainforest, argued with an Aussie about who the best characters are from A Song of Ice and Fire, dabbled with the idea of letting Brian tattoo a wave on my back, and learned about the specifics of paragliding from one of Robert’s pilot friends. My hosts were gracious and generous, and wonderfully 420 friendly, and I slept peacefully after a night of good food and good company.

The next few days, Laura and I really took it easy. We went back to the beach and rented boogie boards from Punto Surf. The waves were too small to ride and we were soon too cold and freaked out by the giant jellyfish to continue playing. We checked out a smaller beach past the cliff, walked with our feet in the clear water, and enjoyed the feel of the sun on our skin. When we got hungry, we found a restaurant called Cafe del Mar on 21 de Mayo, which we returned to the next day because the food was so delicious. I highly recommend any of the crepes and the Churrasco, a steak sandwich that is very popular in Chile.

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churrasco sandwich
churrasco sandwich
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes

For us, Arica was a chance to chill out. When you’re traveling and constantly moving, it’s nice to afford yourself some time to be lazy, walk along the beach, and take advantage of strong wifi. Our next adventure would come in a few days with our trek to the beautiful desert of San Pedro de Atacama. Stay tuned!

 

Below you will find our additions to our dorm room wall:

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by Rebecca Bellan