Friday, August 30, 2019

An Alternative to the Long Bus Rides

Yesterday was a long travel day: 12 hours total from door to door. But that's not as long as it would have been had I traveled the 1,126 km from Cali, Colombia to Guayaquil, Ecuador overland. That would have taken more than 30 hours on multiple buses, taxis and a border crossing on foot. After some pretty rough rides through southern Colombia, which involved not only the usual winding mountain roads but also major road construction and/or horrible road conditions like huge potholes, on buses and in minivans with no air conditioning which means inhaling tons of dust and diesel exhaust through the open windows, I didn't want to experience that again.
Standing on the Pan-American Highway outside Otavalo waiting on a bus.
Thus I decided to fly from Cali to Guayaquil to position myself for a return to the Galapagos Islands (more on that below). Direct flights were over $400 so I looked at other options. After diligent research, I did something I would never recommend to the average traveler: I bought three flights on three different airlines on the same day. My itinerary was Cali to Bogota (on Avianca), Bogota to Quito (on Wingo), and Quito to Guayaquil (on Tame). The total cost for these three flights was just over $200. The bus(es) plus one overnight along the way plus the taxis at the border crossing would have cost at least $100.
The Colombian side of the border crossing at Rumichaca.
Because I flew on different airlines, that means I had to check in three times, clear security three times, and reclaim my checked luggage three times. Plus I had to go through immigration twice (out of Colombia in Bogota and into Ecuador in Quito) and customs once. Obviously if a flight had cancelled or been significantly delayed then I would have been in trouble and at risk of missing the next flight and therefore forfeiting my ticket. I was willing to take that chance because I'm not on a set schedule and don't have anywhere I have to be on a specific date or time, and, worst case scenario, I could always take a bus.
The minivan I took from Popayan to San Agustin, a 6-hour journey on horrible roads.
Each airline has different requirements regarding carry-on and checked luggage. The only one that was strictly enforced was Wingo, which is a budget airline that charges extra if you don't print your boarding pass in advance, if you want to choose your seat, if you want a drink of water on the plane, etc. They have a 20 kg checked bag limit and my bag currently weighs 22 kg so I had to remove a couple of small packing cubes to reduce the weight. No problem!
My luggage at my Airbnb in Cali. I have a suitcase that normally weighs 20 kg plus a
backpack for my electronics. I also have a collapsible day bag for carrying food on travel days.
While I was standing in line to check in for my second flight, I remembered that you are required to have proof of onward travel when entering Ecuador. When I entered by bus from Peru they did not ask. But it is much more common to be checked if you fly into the country. If you really don't have definite onward travel plans like me but need to have something to show the immigration officers if they ask, then there's an easy solution. Buy a one-way airline ticket out of the country through Expedia, as they have a 24 hour free cancellation policy. I purchased a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru while I was standing in the check-in line in Bogota. Then I cancelled it after I cleared immigration in Quito a few hours later.
Traveler's tip: purchase a refundable flight for proof of onward travel.
As it turned out, the immigration officer in Quito did not ask for proof of onward travel. She only asked if I had visited Ecuador before and how long I planned to stay. I told her that I knew I could only stay 47 more days (because you can stay a maximum 90 days in one year without a visa and I've already spent 43 days in Ecuador on this trip) and that I knew what date I had to be out of the country. She was happy with this answer and stamped my passport while saying "Welcome back!"
I'm collecting a lot of stamps in my passport on this adventure.
So now I'm in Guayaquil and plan to go to the beach for the next few days. From there I will decide if and when I will return to the Galapagos. It would be nice to spend a month there just relaxing and enjoying the beautiful scenery and wildlife and not feeling obligated to visit all the islands. As I wrote in my recent blog post, it's really not that expensive, especially if you're not spending money on day trips. Also, I'm in no rush to go to Brazil and particularly the Amazon while the fires are so widespread. Of course, I will get there eventually and am looking forward to spending several months exploring a new-to-me country.
I miss these Galapagos sunsets!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Galapagos Islands Two Ways Part I: By Land

When I decided to go to the Galapagos I was already in Peru (read more about my trip in the footer below this post). I had been thinking it would be nice to celebrate my 45th birthday somewhere special, but other than reading the pages of several guidebooks that I checked out from the local library and photographed before I left the U.S. last September, I had not done any serious research on the cost and logistics of visiting the islands. I contacted a few travel agencies based in Ecuador to get quotes on land versus cruise packages. I read every blog post written in the past two years about how to visit the Galapagos on a budget. I searched the Backpacking South America Facebook group for tips and recommendations from other travelers. I also found two extremely detailed and helpful Tripadvisor posts. When I was confident that I really could go to the islands for my birthday without spending thousands of dollars, I bought my flights. The date of purchase: June 11, 2019; the nine-month anniversary of my departure date from the U.S.
Arriving on San Cristobal Island
Based on everything I had read during my extensive research, I bought a flight from Guayaquil to San Cristobal and a return flight from Baltra to Guayaquil. You can also fly from Quito, but I planned to travel overland from south to north through Ecuador after visiting the islands and did not want to have to backtrack. Both of my flights were on Avianca which, for the days I chose to travel, offered the cheapest fare. You can also fly on LATAM or Tame.

As my July 5 departure date neared, I continued to travel overland through northern Peru. In my spare time I made a checklist of all the things I needed to do before going to the islands as I had read that cellular service would be limited or nonexistent and that wifi was not particularly fast or reliable. I also created a Google Doc that would be available offline (although I ended up printing a copy as well for making notes on the go) where I compiled all of the information I had gathered from my research. I did not book anything in advance other than my flights and my first three nights at a hostel in Puerto Baquierizo Moreno, the main town on San Cristobal Island. My return flight was on July 24 so as to give myself plenty of time to see and do as much or as little as I wanted once I reached the islands.
My first on many beautiful Galapagos sunsets
While I could write pages upon pages about how much I love the Galapagos, the primary goal of this post is help you understand the pros and cons (and costs!) of visiting the islands independently versus taking a land-based group tour or a cruise. All of the information below is based on my personal experience as well as the research I did while I was in the islands. Prices are per person and include all taxes and fees unless otherwise noted. I have embedded links to other websites, blogs, travel agencies, etc. for easy access to more detailed information about a particular topic.

Transportation - Flights

As mentioned above, I purchased my flights only three weeks before my departure date from mainland Ecuador. Since I didn't have a specific date I needed to travel (other than wanting to celebrate my July 12 birthday somewhere on the islands) and I was already in Peru and could travel overland to Guayaquil, I did a flexible date search on each airline's website. Remember that I also wanted to fly into one island/airport and out of another, so I specifically searched for one-way tickets. FYI - I did check round-trip prices using only one island airport and Quito just to compare. I would not have saved any money either way, but it's definitely a good idea to check.

At the time of my search in mid-June for flights in early to mid-July, all three airlines were charging $100-200 one way from Guayaquil to San Cristobal in economy class. For the return in late July to early August, the average was closer to $200-300 (Baltra to Guayaquil). I chose the dates with the cheapest flights and paid $121 inbound and $202 outbound for a total of $323 round-trip on Avianca. Note that the prices included one checked bag up to 22 kg and one piece of hand luggage.
View of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal from my inbound flight
Since returning to mainland Ecuador, I have continued to check flight prices. For flexible dates in August, September and October, I can easily find flights for $100 each way.

One other unavoidable expense is the $20 Transit Control fee you will pay when you check in at the airport on the mainland. You receive a receipt in the form of a card which shows your dates of entry and exit (don't worry if the exit date is not correct) and states that you cannot earn money or stay in the Galapagos longer than 60 days in a given year. You must retain the duplicate of this card as you will have to present it when you check in for your return flight to the mainland (that's when the proper departure date will be recorded in their system).

Transportation - On or Between Islands

Once you are on the islands, you don't need to spend much money to get around. Most of the free sights are walking distance from the main towns on each of the inhabited islands. Depending on which airport you fly into or out of and where you are staying, you might need to take a taxi or public bus to get to your accommodation. My hostel on San Cristobal covered the cost of my taxi from the airport, which is actually walking distance from the main town.
La Loberia beach on San Cristobal is on the far side of the airport but still walking distance from town
To travel between islands you take a lancha (a speedboat that holds around 30 people). This is a fixed price of $30 but you can negotiate to $25 each for multiple ferry rides if you purchase your tickets in advance from one of the travel agencies on the islands. Note that there are also limited inter-island flights operated by Emetebe but expect to pay at least $150 one way.
Inside the lancha going from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz. Two hours on rough seas!

We all have different comfort levels. I am accustomed to sleeping in bunk beds in hostel dorms, with no air conditioning or heating, and shared bathrooms which often have no hot water and sometimes no toilet paper, in places that are not the nicest or the cleanest. I do read reviews thoroughly if I am booking accommodations in advance, and I always try to balance the price with the possibility of a decent night's sleep. While there are fewer dorm beds on the islands and almost no possibility of camping due to strict national park rules, there is still plenty of budget accommodation available.
It might be tempting to camp on the beach with the sea lions, but it's not allowed.
I ended up paying an average of $15 per night for a variety of shared and private rooms; some even included breakfast and all had communal kitchens so I could cook or refrigerate leftover food. I found that the best way to get the cheapest rate was to: 1) speak Spanish; 2) ask locals if they know someone with a room to rent; 3) deal directly with the owner and tell them you don't need a receipt; 4) pay in cash. You can also usually negotiate a slightly cheaper rate if you stay longer. Note that the average cost in well-reviewed budget accommodations is $25 per night and can easily exceed $70 per night at many places.

Food and Drink - DIY

As mentioned above, I usually stay in hostels with kitchens so I can occasionally cook my own meals, boil water for coffee or tea, or store items like yogurt (or beer!). Each of the main towns on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela has a local market as well as a variety of grocery or convenience stores. In anticipation of prices being higher on the islands, I purchased a few staples on the mainland and put them in my checked luggage: wine, granola, peanut butter, energy bars, spaghetti sauce and pasta. Note that your luggage will be inspected before and after each flight and ferry ride; most fresh fruits, vegetables and meat products are prohibited to be transported from the mainland or between islands.
Supplies I purchased on the mainland. I saved more than 50% on about half of these items.
I went to the markets and multiple stores on each island to purchase items and/or check prices. On average, packaged goods were 50% more expensive than on the mainland. Fresh items, if purchased at the market and particularly if grown locally, were comparable in price. For beer, wine or liquor, it definitely pays to shop around as I found a wide range of prices for the exact same items. The difference between stores, even just a few blocks apart, was anywhere from 25-50%.

Food and Drink - Restaurants and Bars

I love to try the local or regional specialties and the Galapagos was no exception. However, after traveling throughout much of South America and spending a week in southern Ecuador before I flew to the islands, I had already tasted much of what was available. Eating out in the more tourist-oriented places on any of the islands will cost you an average of $5 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $15 for dinner. Some places have the same menu all day long; others have different prices according to the time of day. A large bottle of beer, glass of wine or cocktail is usually at least $5. Many places offer all day happy hour where you get three beers for the price of two, or two cocktails for $8.
This huge bowl of ceviche which came with rice and plantain chips cost $6.
I rarely eat at a "upscale" restaurants while traveling long-term unless I am celebrating something (my birthday!) or researching the craft beer scene. Instead I seek out the busiest local spots that are away from the main tourist streets or at/near the local market. In the Galapagos, you can eat from the "menu del dia" at one of these places for an average of $4. That includes a fresh juice, large bowl of soup, and a choice of entree. Occasionally it even comes with dessert! If you want to drink alcohol you can go to the market and buy a 330 ml bottle of the national lager beer (Pilsener or Club) for $1.25 ($2 for the larger bottles) and then take it to your hostel or sit on the beach or on the boardwalk.

As referenced above, I did splurge by going to a local brewery for dinner on my birthday. I had two pints of beer and a burger with fries. The total cost was $27.
Birthday burger and beer at Santa Cruz Brewery

One more unavoidable expense is the Galapagos National Park entry fee. This is currently $100 for adults and $50 for children under 12 years old. You must pay the entire amount in cash (U.S. dollars only) upon landing at the airport in the Galapagos. That means you must have sufficient cash with you when you leave the mainland.

Each of the three main islands has a variety of wonderful places you can visit for free just by walking from the center of town. There are beautiful beaches and snorkeling spots, hikes through the forest, volcanic craters, and land tortoise research centers. You can also take the local bus (on Santa Cruz), rent a bike, or hire a taxi (cheaper if shared with other travelers) to explore places a bit farther inland.
Snorkeling at Tijeretas Bay, San Cristobal with playful sea lions
I went everywhere I could possibly go on my own on foot on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz Islands. One day I rented a bicycle ($15) and loaded it in a taxi ($20) to go to Puerto Chino, a beautiful beach on the southeastern side of San Cristobal. From there I rode (and walked as a lot of it was uphill) 25 km back across the island, stopping at multiple places of interest along the way.
Bicycling across San Cristobal Island
You will also want to do a few guided tours by boat as these are the only way to visit the uninhabited islands and see some of the unique endemic wildlife or to get to places that are not accessible overland (other than on a cruise). Prices for day trips range from around $110 up to $250 per person depending on the destination and if you are snorkeling versus diving.
Waved albatross on Espanola Island, the only place in the world where they nest
I chose to do two full day snorkeling and hiking trips from San Cristobal. I booked both through Islanders Galapagos after I got to the islands. My Kicker Rock day trip cost $115 and my Isla Espanola day trip cost $180. Note that I got a discount for paying cash and for booking two trips with the same travel agency.
Kicker Rock, a popular snorkeling and diving spot, off the western coast of San Cristobal Island

As mentioned above, everything generally costs more on the islands and you will save money by coming prepared. Don't forget to bring items like sunscreen, wide-brim hat, swimsuit, beach towel, sandals, a refillable water bottle, etc. from home. You can rent snorkel gear (mask and snorkel) for about $5 per day. The price is higher if you also want fins and/or a wetsuit but it makes sense to bring your own if you have it (and if you're not traveling long-term like me). I bought a cheap snorkel set at a sporting goods store in Cuenca and then sold it to another traveler when I left the islands. My only other cost in this category was washing a load of laundry on Santa Cruz Island.
Preparing to snorkel at Kicker Rock. The water was very cold!
My Expenses

These are my total costs for 12 nights (13 days) on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz Islands. Note that I was actually on the islands a total of 19 nights (20 days) but the final week was spent on a cruise, which I will write about in detail for my next post.

Transportation - Flights $322 + $20 transit control fee
Transportation - On or Between Islands $52
Accommodation - $206
Food and Drink - DIY $78
Food and Drink - Restaurants and Bars $85
Sightseeing - $310 + $100 national park fee
Miscellaneous - $22

Total expense = $1,195 or an average of just under $100 per day.

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Hi! My name is Alethea. I am a 45-year-old female with a U.S. passport. I speak English, French, and Spanish. I am currently traveling through all of Central and South America solo. I travel on a budget, stay in dorm rooms in hostels, eat at the local markets, and walk or take public transportation everywhere. I have been traveling like this as often as possible for the past 25 years. As of today, I have been to all 50 U.S. states as well as 89 countries on six continents.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

An Overnight Bus Ride That I Would Prefer to Erase From Memory

Before the bus even left the terminal in Cajamarca last night, they distributed plastic bags to anyone who wanted one. If I hadn't previously done my research, I would have thought they were for trash.
The view of Cajamarca while returning from Cumbe Mayo yesterday
on a winding and unpaved mountain road.
I had booked seat 4 using Turismo Virgen del Carmen's online reservation system. I've been traveling all over Central and South America for more than nine months now and, ninety-nine percent of the time, seat 4 is in the first row on the passenger side next to the window. It's generally my preferred spot, depending on the overall configuration of the bus. The online seat map indicated that would be the case. But, of course, it was wrong. I was still in the front row, but on the opposite side, directly behind the driver. There was a floor-to-ceiling wall in front of me and almost no leg room, but at least I could still see out the side window.
A screenshot of the bus company's seat map. I reserved
seat 4 which was actually where seat 1 is on this diagram.
The bus had approximately 30 seats total.
Virgen del Carmen is the only company currently operating the route from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas, which follows the incredibly scenic but, by most standards, terrifying road 8B. I had been looking forward to traveling this route for weeks but, when I arrived in Cajamarca and started researching bus schedules, I quickly discovered my options were even more limited than I expected. I even went to the official Peru tourism office to verify that what I was seeing online was accurate. The verdict: due to construction work during daylight hours which blocks a section of the one-lane road completely, it is only possible to travel this route at night.
We departed Cajamarca on time at 6:00 p.m. as the clouds changed from white to golden to fiery pink. There were a few other international travelers (backpackers) on board besides myself, but everyone else was Peruvian. The age 20-something guy beside me immediately started talking at full voice on his cell phone as did the woman in traditional dress sitting directly behind me. The older man beside her was coughing frequently and sounded heavily congested. None of them smelled great either; in fact, I immediately put menthol balm under my nose to mask their collective body odors and stale breath that hovered in the air around me during their lengthy phone conversations.
Soon we were outside of the city limits and quickly climbing up a two-lane paved road. There was a fair amount of traffic in both directions and, of course, the bus driver didn't waste an opportunity to pass anyone going too slow by his standards. In spite of the movie playing on the overhead TV screen at a loud volume, I could still hear the driver talking on the phone and was worried he might get distracted while navigating the frequent, sharp curves with little room for error. People started vomiting within the first hour and, if you haven't already figured it out, used their plastic bags as intended. Thankfully none of them were near me, so I managed to avoid a second-hand barfing incident.
As soon as it was completely dark I realized the moon must be full, as I could still see the majority of the landscape from my window on the left side of the bus. It was also getting much colder as outside air was coming in through a couple of open windows, but I was thankful for the fresh air circulating around me.
After two hours of riding on the winding mountain road, we arrived at the bus terminal in Celendin. We all got off the bus to eat dinner, which was included in the price of the ticket (total 80 soles or around U.S. $15). We sat in a small communal dining room on plastic stools and were all served the same thing: a plate of rice plus a starchy potato concoction and a small piece of chicken, along with a cup of sweetened chamomile tea. It was a bit bland but was hot and tasted fine.

We departed again by 9:00 p.m. and now the bus was completely full plus there were at least three additional people, including a second driver, in the front compartment along with a ratty twin mattress pushed up against the only entry door which they seemed to be taking turns laying on.
I had already attempted to wear my seat belt during the first leg of the trip, but quickly discovered that, while there were two across-the-shoulder belts between each pair of seats, there was nowhere to fasten them. I even used the flashlight on my phone and asked the guy beside me to help look. We checked multiple seats but they were all the same: belts but no fasteners.
As soon as we left the city limits of Celendin, I realized the road was only one lane. Not only that, but there were no shoulders on either side, no guardrails, and no street lights. The drop-offs were straight down; when I looked out my window I often couldn't see the edge of the road, only the vast emptiness of the more than 500 meter drop to the bottom of the canyon. Combine that with what sounded like a party happening in the driver's compartment: loud talking, laughing, music, and smoking. Several times I even detected the odor of alcohol. There was a digital speedometer in the passenger compartment next to the TV screen, so I could clearly see how fast we were going. While the speed limit for almost the entire section of road between Celendin and Leymebamba is 15 - 30 kph, we often would accelerate to 40 or even 50 kph and then have to quickly decelerate to veer around the never-ending sharp curves. It was absolutely terrifying and I had to close my window curtain to avoid having a panic attack.
I was chewing ginger candies, sniffing my menthol stick, and trying not to think about driving off the cliff, but that did nothing to alleviate the unsettled feeling in my stomach which had started gurgling up shortly after we ate dinner. I have been motion sick what seems like hundreds of times in my life, but this time it was the smell of cigarettes coming from the driver's compartment directly in front of me, the inability to move around in my seat, the lack of fresh air, and the food I had just eaten that cumulatively caused me to vomit sometime around midnight. Thankfully I was prepared and, along with plastic bags, I was carrying wet wipes, tissues, etc. and had everything in my day bag which was sitting on my lap.
I felt better after purging my entire dinner, but my stomach was still cramping. We did not stop again for a bathroom break or even to stretch our legs for the duration of the bus ride, so when we arrived in Chachapoyas at 5:30 this morning I was definitely much worse for the wear. I had notified the hostel when I booked a few days ago that I would be checking in very early and, thankfully, they had already agreed to let me have my dorm bed as soon as I arrived. I basically just laid down fully clothed on top of the comforter and put another blanket over me and slept for three hours.
Today I have been sick with intestinal issues all day, which means that I was right about the food causing me to vomit. Of course, the motion of the bus did not help, but I've survived so many bus rides on every type of road imaginable and managed not to throw up on any of them. I hope I feel well enough to start exploring Chachapoyas tomorrow. The good news is that I have not made any definite plans for onward travel so can take as long as I need to rest, recover, and enjoy the sights here before continuing on towards Ecuador.
Above is a screenshot of my Google Map from where I started in Cajamarca last night to where I arrived in Chachapoyas this morning. Whereas the map says you could theoretically drive this in about eight hours, you really have to go very slow on this dangerous one-lane road and by bus, excluding the dinner break, it took just under 11 hours.
Since I could not take any photos, I searched online for someone who might have driven this route in the daytime. Here's the link to their blog post about this particular stretch of road, along with some fantastic photos:

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Adios & Ciao Argentina, Hola Bolivia

After spending the past few weeks traveling from central to northern Argentina, I had to make a big decision: whether or not to cross the border into Chile for the sole purpose of visiting the Atacama Desert. The desert was always on my "must see" list for this trip, particularly because I enjoy looking at the night sky, and the Atacama is considered one of the best places in the world for stargazing. However, my timing was completely off and I would be in the desert during the week of the full moon, when the observatory is closed and all stargazing tours are cancelled. While there are still many days' worth of sightseeing in the area, I ultimately decided to skip it. Further explanation as to why will be given at the end of this blog post.
Desert landscape in Tilcara, Argentina.
I made this decision on Tuesday, April 15. That means I only had two days to plan and prepare for my next destination: Bolivia. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, as I'm accustomed to making my onward travel plans at the last minute. But Bolivia presented a complication: as a U.S. citizen, I am required to have a visa to enter the country. Of course, I did my research regarding visas, immunizations, and other requirements for entering every country in Central and South America before I left the U.S. last September. Thus I knew that, in order to enter Bolivia and Paraguay in particular, I would need very expensive ($160 each) visas. I could have applied for these in advance by sending my passport to the appropriate Consular Offices in the U.S. But I ultimately chose not to do this because I wasn't 100% sure I would make it to either country during this trip and I did not want to spend that amount of money for something I might never use.
Me at Teotihuacan in Mexico in September 2018. Only one week into the trip,
I had no idea if or when I would make it to Bolivia.
When I was in Santiago, Chile for two weeks in late March and had already passed the six-month mark of my trip, I knew the odds were very high that I would make it to Bolivia. I inquired with the Consulate General of Bolivia in Santiago, and they advised me to fill out the online application and get my visa at the border. I still did not know when or where I would cross into the country, which made me a bit nervous, but I knew I would be traveling through Argentina for several more weeks so I thought I had plenty of time to prepare.
Making new friends at a hostel in Santiago, Chile.
As so often happens, I was busy sightseeing, figuring out where to go next, socializing, etc., and never found time to prepare all of my documents for the border crossing. It's not that I forgot; I did ask at almost every hostel if they had a printer so I could begin assembling the necessary documents. I also tried multiple times to get U.S. dollars (from ATMs or from other travelers) which I needed to pay for the visa.
Another new friend, Agostina (Agos), in Salta, Argentina.
So when I decided to go from Tilcara, Argentina straight to Bolivia instead of crossing back into Chile first, I had less than 48 hours to prepare. Here's what the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia says you must have:

In addition to the visa fee of $160 USD, you must present a visa application form with a 4cm x 4cm color photograph, a passport valid until the date of departure from Bolivian territory, evidence of a hotel reservation or a letter of invitation in Spanish, round trip ticket or copy of itinerary, proof of economic solvency (credit card, cash, or a current bank statement), and an International Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever.

I also read several blog posts from other travelers who had crossed the border at the same location without having a visa in advance. The most recent and most helpful post had similar information regarding what the author had to do to get her visa.

My hostel in Tilcara did not have a working printer so, after filling out the online visa application, creating a hypothetical itinerary, booking a hostel for my first few nights in Bolivia, and downloading a recent bank statement; I then converted all of those documents to PDFs and uploaded them to Google Drive. I also took photos of my passport and vaccination card and uploaded them to my Drive. Then I went to the local internet cafe, logged into one of their very old computers, and downloaded the documents to the hard drive so they could print them. Unfortunately, they did not have a color printer, and I soon discovered that in the tiny town of Tilcara there was only one shop which had a color copier. The girl told me she could make photocopies of my passport and vaccination card but that the copier was out of toner and more was arriving by bus (yes, that's how everything is transported in much of Central and South America) that afternoon. A few hours later I finally had all of the necessary documents in hand for a total cost of $2.12.
I had already walked into town and had a few hours to wait for the toner to arrive,
so I revisited Tilcara's church which was all dressed up for Semana Santa.
I had asked everyone at the hostel, the one local bank, other businesses, etc. if I could exchange pesos for dollars but no one had any. By pure luck a German guy and his Russian girlfriend checked into my dorm room and they were carrying some U.S. dollars as a backup. They had just enough to give me the $160 in cash that I needed for the visa and in exchange I sent them the equivalent in euros via Paypal.
La Albahaca was a great hostel with a friendly vibe, including
a delicious communal dinner on my last night in Tilcara.
On Thursday, April 18, I boarded a bus to La Quiaca, the border town in northern Argentina. After 3.5 hours of scenic driving through Jujuy province topping out at over 3,700 m or over 12,000 ft above sea level, I stepped out of the bus in La Quiaca happy to get some fresh air. The temperature was 74F but felt more like the mid-80's because of the intense sunshine and lack of shade. I asked a local for directions to the border and started walking. Fifteen minutes later I had reached the immigration checkpoint to get my stamp out of Argentina.
Approaching the border between Argentina and Bolivia.
There were only a few people in line and in less than five minutes I was standing at the window. The agent flipped through my passport and immediately said (in Spanish) "You know you need a visa to enter Bolivia, right?" I told him that I knew and that I had all of my documents ready. He told me to wait a minute and disappeared from sight. Then a woman came out to the sidewalk carrying my passport and told me to follow her. We walked across a bridge, which is also the official border, and into an office on the Bolivian side.
This is the bridge at the border between La Quiaca, Argentina and Villazon, Bolivia.
The woman, who appeared to be in her early 30's, asked for my paperwork, which I promptly handed over. After looking at each piece of paper, she got out a blank white folder and put all of the documents inside, then started writing my passport information on the front cover. In the meantime, she told me to step over to the next agent and pay the visa fee. I took out the $160 U.S. dollars and the agent immediately told me he could not accept it. I had seven $20's and two $10 dollar bills but the agent said he could only accept $100's. I asked where I could change the smaller bills for $100's. He said there were lots of currency exchange places along the next few blocks and I could try there. Then he said that I could also pay in Bolivianos which came as quite a surprise given everything I had read or heard from other travelers.
This is one block from the border on the Bolivian side. The vendors have put up
sheets and blankets to protect their wares from the afternoon sun.

The agents said I could leave my bags in the immigration office while I went in search of more cash. They also kept my passport. I took my day bag containing all of my debit and credit cards, cash, etc. and started walking up the street into the town of Villazon, Bolivia. There were tons of "cambios" on both sides of the street as well as shops and vendors selling just about everything you could possibly want. I went into a few of the exchange places to check the rates (I still had some Argentinean pesos that I wanted to convert to Bolivianos) and to ask if I could trade my $20 and $10 bills for $100's. The answer was the same everywhere, "no." I quickly realized I would need to find an ATM to get enough Bolivianos to pay the visa fee. The nearest one was four blocks uphill farther into town. Thankfully, it worked with no problem, and I withdrew enough money for the visa plus enough cash to get to Tupiza.
The view of the border from the Bolivian side.
When I returned to the immigration office a crowd had gathered on the bridge at the border crossing. A few members of the local press were there as well. Everyone was watching a group of school children along with several adults and a handful of musicians. They were all dressed in red and were either wearing or carrying large bags and boxes of food items like rice, flour, and potatoes. As I walked up they started dancing and marching at the same time. Even the immigration office staff and armed border patrol guards came out to watch. They told me it was a protest relating to the taxes or fees for transporting goods across the border. I honestly have no idea why children were involved but I suspect it has something to do with education or welfare. They danced their way back and forth along the Bolivian side of the border for about 15 minutes, then we all went back inside the office to process my visa.
The protesters.
I ended up paying 1,100 Bolivianos (approximately $156) for a 10-year multiple entry visa. Once they had put the visa into my passport and attached a copy to my folder, it was filed away in a large cabinet. The same woman took me back across the border into Argentina and gave my passport to the agent there so I could officially be stamped out of the country. Then she gave me my passport and said "It's finished now." We walked together back into Bolivia and I retrieved my luggage from the immigration office. I thanked the woman for being so patient and friendly (we even did the typical Latin American greeting of a kiss on the cheek) and we said our goodbyes. The total time from start to finish, including the currency exchange and trip to the ATM, was one hour. It would have taken less than 15 minutes if I had the "correct" cash.
Woohoo, I'm legal!
I then walked back uphill about six blocks to the rapidito terminal to catch a ride to Tupiza. I had to wait about 20 minutes until the next minivan filled up before we could leave, but since I was one of the first people to arrive, I got to sit in the front passenger seat. This turned out to be a good choice because they ended up squeezing a total of nine adults (including the driver) and two infants into the small van. Plus the road between Villazon and Tupiza was pretty curvy on the second half and I imagine I would have felt motion sick if I was sitting in the back. Two hours later I was settling in to my single room for the next three nights and feeling quite proud of surviving the border crossing. Keep in mind that I did all of this in Spanish and at an altitude of over 11,000 ft!
My ride from Villazon to Tupiza, Bolivia.
One final note on the reason why I didn't go back into Chile. I already knew from my travels in March that Chile was definitely more expensive than Argentina. I had done my research on San Pedro de Atacama and knew that I was going to spend an average of $75 per day on lodging, food, and tours into the desert. Even the bus ticket to San Pedro was almost $40, compared to a total of $10 to go from Tilcara to Tupiza by bus and rapidito. I would also still have to pay for a bus and/or tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, Bolivia, a minimum of $30 for the bus and around $200 for a 3-day tour of the desert and salt flat.
The places circled in red are where I will
overnight on my tour (going clockwise).
Instead, I came directly to Tupiza and from here, tomorrow, I will depart on a 4-day/3-night tour all the way to Uyuni. I will still get to see the Bolivian side of the Atacama Desert plus similar geological features like geysers, hot springs, lunar landscapes, lakes filled with flamingos, an active volcano, and finally the famous salt flat. My daily cost here is less than $20 and the all-inclusive tour costs $200. Thus I will spend less the half of the money I would have spent getting to San Pedro, touring the desert, getting to Uyuni, and touring the salt flat. And when I went to the tour office to prepay for my tour yesterday, I was able to get rid of all of those "worthless" $20 and $10 dollar bills!
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria
in Tupiza, Bolivia.
So in the end it all worked out, which I was totally confident about the entire time but probably caused myself some unnecessary stress by not preparing everything for the visa further in advance. I continue to be thankful for so many things including all the friendly and helpful people I've met on this trip, my overall health and well-being, and the amazing scenery and culture of Central and South America.
Wall mural in Tilcara, Argentina.
Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Story About Safety While Traveling

I am compelled to write this post because of my friend, Matt Kepnes, also known as Nomadic Matt. I don't recall where I first heard about Matt, but I know he created his Nomadic Matt Facebook page in April 2008, which is around the time I decided to plan an around-the-world trip. I joined Facebook in late 2007 and quickly learned that it was a great resource for meeting like-minded travelers and for getting the latest information about places I wanted to visit.

I first met Matt in person at a meet-up in Portland, Ore. in July 2014. It was a fun night of making new friends with other world travelers based in the Portland area, several of whom I'm friends with to this day (shout out to Kalong Wong and Marin Hoag). Over the years Matt and I have followed similar paths, even choosing to live in the same cities for a while but never at the same time. He has continued to build his business through his website, books, online courses, and nonprofit organization FLYTE.

Today, Matt posted his story about getting stabbed in Bogota, Colombia, which inspired this blog post. That's because I was traveling in Colombia at the same time as Matt, and was literally days behind him on a similar itinerary going from Medellin to Bogota via the coffee regions of the northwest. I was quite surprised when he cut his trip short without any real explanation, and I honestly thought it was due to an illness in his immediate family that necessitated a last-minute flight back to the U.S. I missed seeing Matt in Bogota by just over one week and now I know why.

You need to read Matt's story to fully understand why I'm writing this. One of the most frequent questions I have gotten, both from locals and other backpackers over the past six months of solo travel in Central and South America is, "Do you feel safe as a female traveling alone?" The others, paraphrased here, are similar: "Is it safe to go to Honduras, El Salvador, or Nicaragua?" "Has anything happened to you?" "Were you ever afraid?"

So here's my experience.

The overall answer is "No, nothing bad has happened to me on this trip." The truth is that I have taken many precautions including not going out after dark in many places, not walking on deserted streets, not traveling on overnight buses, and not going to a bar alone, especially at night. I have met many other travelers, male and female, who have run into trouble in this part of the world. After listening to them tell their stories, the bottom line in almost every case is that they got complacent.

The reality is that all over the world there are people with bad intentions. Whether it's desperation as a result of extreme poverty, mental illness, or addiction, if you need money quickly one of the easiest ways to get it is to snatch a smart phone or other valuable electronic device, jewelry or wallet from an unsuspecting tourist. This is such a common occurrence in the big cities of Central and South America that the hostels and tour companies will almost always make you sign a disclaimer voiding them of any responsibility for your personal belongings or else will have signs posted throughout the premises or will verbally advise you to not have anything valuable in your pockets; to carry your purse or day bag on your chest; and to never have your cell phone unsecured in your hand.

The firsthand accounts I have heard have ranged from minor (but still a big hassle) like having a wallet pickpocketed from a backpack (worn on the person's back without locks or other security measures) in Valparaiso, Chile a few weeks ago to an assault that required hospitalization. In the second case, the victim was a middle-aged man who had gone to a bar alone to have a drink and, while he went to the bathroom, the drink was spiked with some type of drug that made him completely forget the next 48 hours. The assailants took him to an ATM where he withdrew his maximum daily limit, then they kept him in a locked room and forced him to give them his bank account information so they could get even more money. When they had taken all they thought they could get, they left him in an alley.

The closest I have come to being scammed or robbed (that I'm aware of) happened just a few days ago. And the only reason it wasn't a complete success was because I kept my guard up.

I was sitting on the seawall in upscale Vina del Mar, Chile last Friday afternoon. I had been walking all day and was tired, plus my phone was down to under 10% battery power and I wanted to connect it to my portable charger. I needed enough power to navigate my way back to the bus station in Valparaiso and then back to my apartment in Santiago. It was around 4:00 p.m. so still full daylight and there were lots of local families as well as tourists strolling by. I had my day bag in my lap with the straps looped over my shoulders and across my chest. I opened the bag to get out the battery pack, connected it to my phone with the micro USB cord, then immediately closed it again. As I was doing this, an older woman approached me.

She started speaking to me in Spanish, asking where I was from, how did I like Chile, etc. I have met many friendly locals in Chile so this was not that uncommon. Then she told me she was from Yugoslavia, said I was very pretty, and that she wanted to give me a travelers blessing. She asked me to give her some change and demonstrated how the blessing worked. Essentially, she would hold the coins in her hand along with a sprig of rosemary. She would say a prayer for my health, safety, onward travels, etc. and then would return the money to me.

She was sweet and seemed harmless and, initially, I didn't want to offend her by just telling her to go away. So I played along and put two 10 peso coins in her hand (worth a total of $0.02 U.S.). She didn't scoff at them and said the blessing, which I thought was a nice gesture. But then she told me that for it to really work I need to put more money in her hand. At this point I became more suspicious and did a quick check to make sure my bag was completed zipped up, even though it was still in my lap and physically strapped to me. She was very insistent that I should at least put paper money in her hand. Honestly, at this point I just wanted her to go away but didn't want to make a big scene. I knew I had a 1,000 peso note (worth $1.48 U.S.) so I got it out and let her do a more elaborate blessing. Then I told her "thank you, but that's enough."

After another minute or so of dialogue during which she tried to convince me to put a much larger bill in her hand (she was specifically referring to the 20,000 peso note which is worth almost $30 U.S.), another younger woman approached us. She was also holding a sprig of rosemary. That's when I knew for sure it was a scam. I remained friendly but insisted that I would not be getting out any more money for any reason. Soon enough, they left me alone and then I saw them join up with another woman and then a man as they walked off.

I know I was lucky because they did not get any money from me other than that 1,000 peso note. Nor did the woman ever physically come in contact with me. Considering that I now know there were four of them working together, I can only imagine how easy it would have been for them to follow me and overpower me, even though it was daylight and I was in a very affluent area with plenty of local people around.

I was angry at myself and at that woman for the next 24 hours. But, like Matt's very scary experience, it did not change anything about my overall impression of this country or of this trip. It just reminded me that I do have to be vigilant all the time, even though it's tiring to constantly be on guard. At least 90% of the local people I have come into contact with through all of Central and South America have been so warm, welcoming, friendly, and helpful, and they have often gone out of their way to make sure I was being cautious, felt comfortable in my surroundings, and was not alone.

I have felt far more threatened in other parts of the world and then I was traveling with a male partner. The only time I've ever been pickpocketed was in Paris, France when I was 15 years old. I was traveling with a group of about a dozen students from my high school. We were waiting on a train in the underground metro station one evening and a man and woman approached us and started asking where were from, how long we were visiting, etc. Then they frantically said they were on the wrong platform and were going to miss their train. Our teacher had instructed us to stand in a circle facing each other so we could keep an eye on our belongings. But when the couple ran off, another man standing on the platform told us to double-check our bags because he thought they were acting suspicious. Sure enough, I opened mine and my wallet containing all of my cash, travelers checks, and passport was gone.

The moral of this story is that bad things can happen to people anywhere, including to seasoned travelers. Yes, the frequency of events like petty theft is higher in certain parts of the world. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit those places. You just have to take a few more precautions than you might at home.

In case you're wondering, I also have comprehensive travel insurance and do not travel outside of the U.S., particularly on longer trips, without it.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Six Months on the Road

I have officially been outside the U.S. for more than six months now. My "departure anniversary" date was actually on March 11, which happened to be my first full day on Rapa Nui. Easter Island was fantastic!! But, after more than four months of travel through Central America, which I wrote about sporadically and summarized financially in a blog post; then one month of travel through Colombia; then two weeks of cruising around the southern tip of South America with my family (my husband Greg plus my mom and my stepdad); it was time to press the pause button.
Santiago and the Andes mountains viewed from an aerial tram.
My trip has truly been an excellent adventure so far and thankfully devoid of any major issues. After spending a few weeks exploring central Mexico, I traveled overland through all seven countries in Central America then flew to Medellin, Colombia and traveled overland for four weeks through the western part of the country to Bogota. From there I flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina to meet up with my family for the cruise. Eighteen days later they flew home from Santiago, Chile and I flew to Easter Island. Five nights later, I was back in Santiago without a plan for onward travel.
Panorama of Rano Raraku and Ahu Tongariki at sunrise. A truly spectacular experience!
Thirteen days later I'm still in Santiago. After a few nights in a hostel dorm in the Barrio Italia area, where I made some new friends and had fun socializing, I knew that I needed to find somewhere more quiet to rest, relax and figure out where to go next. I also needed time for a sort of "personal wellness check" because, when you travel the way I have for this long, it starts to wear on you mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Glacier-watching from the ship on the way down to Ushuaia.
For example, I have lost almost 20 pounds since I left the U.S. last September. Trust me, this is a good thing, and is a result of a number of factors: I walk (and hike) more than I did in Portland; I have to pull and lift my suitcase (which weighs 44 lbs) on a regular basis plus I'm carrying a backpack with my Chromebook and other most valuable items (total weight approximately 9 lbs) AND a day bag with water, snacks, sunscreen, etc.; I don't drink nearly as much alcohol as I used to, especially beer, nor do I eat as much (usually a very light breakfast, a larger meal for lunch, and a snack for dinner). In case you've cruised before and are wondering, I did very much enjoy the wonderful food on the ship and never worried about what I ate but was conscious of not overeating just because I had 24-hour access to plentiful, delicious, free food. I only gained about three pounds during the two-week cruise and have already lost it because of the intense heat and miles of walking I did on Easter Island as well as in Santiago.
Me on Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago.
Up until now, while there have certainly been times I felt lonely, it never lasted very long because I was always on the go, meeting new people in the hostels, researching and exploring new places, and just soaking up the rich culture of Latin America. Some days were more challenging than others, not so much because I was alone but because I faced a daunting 12 hours of travel by bus or because of illness. Truthfully, the vast majority of the time I am much happier traveling by myself because then I don't have to worry about someone else. I get to do what I want to do when I want to do it without considering someone else's opinions, needs, likes and dislikes, etc. I only have to look out for myself.
Facing my fears (claustrophobia and acrophobia) at Ana Te Pahu on Easter Island.
I had to switch gears completely when I met up with my family in Buenos Aires. Suddenly I had to be conscious of other people's wants and needs, warn them of the safety hazards and other dangers of traveling down here, and act as a translator and tour guide. While the cruise didn't go exactly as planned due to two missed port calls caused by bad weather, we still had a great vacation overall. We spent some quality time together, saw some amazing scenery, and I definitely enjoyed not having to cook, clean, share a bedroom with total strangers, or figure out what to do or where to go every single day. And yet, it still left me exhausted and even a bit sad, because I know I won't see my family again for many more months.
Ronnie, Greg, me and my mom at the Palacio de La Moneda in Santiago.
After a busy five days exploring Easter Island on my own and insufficient wifi to do any trip research or planning, I was also starting to feel stressed. The thought of having to decide where to go next, how to get there, where to stay, how much it should cost, etc. truly seemed overwhelming (because it is, but normally I don't mind and consider it part of the challenge of this type of travel). The distances down here are sooo much greater than in Central America. Plus I know I can't go everywhere and see every single place I've ever read about in South America; it's daunting to figure out how to narrow down the list.
Greg and I with a map of South America during one of
the formal nights on the cruise. Where do I go next?!?!
After a few days of unsuccessful attempts to find the "right" place to stay, I ended up rooming with a family in one of the oldest neighborhoods (Nunoa) in Santiago. I found them on Airbnb. Their house was built in the 1920's and has been mostly remodeled; it is large by Chilean standards. The family was very friendly - a husband (architect), wife (preschool teacher), 15-year-old son, plus a housekeeper who comes every weekday to cook and clean and treated me like her daughter. None of them speak any English at all, only Spanish. My small private bedroom had a full-size bed, a desk, plenty of storage for my belongings, and even a mini-fridge. I thought it was a great deal at $115 total for seven nights (after several discounts). Unfortunately, a new apartment building was under construction next door and there was constant loud noise from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Not the peace and quiet I was hoping for.
My bedroom at my first Airbnb in Santiago.
While I did accomplish some things on my To Do list, I couldn't concentrate long enough to do much research or trip planning. Then I ended up having a horrible migraine for almost 48 hours over the weekend, which completely put me out of commission. Thankfully, my friend Jen happened to reach out to me at just the right moment and offered me her $100 Airbnb credit that was about to expire. With that in hand, I decided to stay in Santiago one more week, but "upgraded" to a 24th-floor one-bedroom apartment near the Santa Isabel metro station. I have the place ALL TO MYSELF and it's absolutely perfect for me.
The view from my current Airbnb, but I have a panic attack if I go out on the balcony.
That's where I'm writing this post from now. It only took a day or so after "moving in" here to finally feel rested and more relaxed. I have made significant progress on my travel planning and tomorrow I will take the day off to go to Valparaiso. Then I have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy in Santiago before I take the bus to Mendoza, Argentina on Monday. It's fall down here and therefore harvest time. I think the vineyards will be a good spot to chill and drink wine for a few days.🍷

So THANK YOU, Jen, and thank you to my family and friends who continue to support me and cheer me on from afar. There's almost always a point during long-term travel when you "hit a wall" as my friend Terri-Lynn just wrote about on her blog yesterday. The important thing is to recognize it and take as much time as needed to deal with it. And then get yourself together and hit the road again!