Camping at Laguna 69

 
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
— Sarah Williams

The sound of the neglected seat belts clanged like cheap wind chimes, and the shadow of the mountains against the opposite rock face grew taller and taller as the sun said good night. A fellow traveler looks up and snaps a photo with her cracked smartphone as we drive by the turquoise lake at the entrance of the park. After, she continues watching Netflix. 

It's what I'd just seen a hundred hikers do that same day. Organized tours pick you up at 5 AM, drive you to a trailhead, rush you up the steep trails climbing to 15,000 ft. altitude until you reach the most iconic lake in all of Huascarán: Laguna 69. You have 30 minutes to take your photos; then it's a rush back down against the dark. 

How often do I do the same? Glance up, smile slightly, and then turn away? To be in the middle of a beautiful moment, only to break it for the sake of distraction or to avoid a little discomfort. But today, my phone was off. I didn't even bring a book to get lost in. 

It was Aaron's 29th birthday, and we decided to go up slowly, with a tent and sleeping bags. Our packs were heavy, but we stopped to catch our breath from the altitude and beauty more often and even stopped for a lunch along the river.

We arrived at the lake as the tour guides were shepherding people down. Before we could set our packs down...it was just us. Our tent went up. The sun went down. The stars come out. Aaron and I shared our last cocoa packet and kissed under the Milky Way. It was a moment no future cruel plot twist could ever take away and only possible by our decision to stay awhile. 

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all rainbows. I froze my ass off. I laid in my sleeping bag for an hour before I willed myself to crawl out of the tent to pee. Underprepared as always, my sleeping bag was a joke and my snow pants wouldn't fit over my new expat-living-in-Latin-America-hips (but damn if I didn't hike 2,000 meters up in 3.5 hours wearing a massive pack). Thankfully, my boyfriend was sweating in his fluffy, rated to -20 degrees bag and offered his snow pants to me (I said a small prayer of thanks as they slid over my hips).  

But despite the cold, we still woke up to the bright glimmering lake...a brighter blue than the color of that sapphire Rose dropped in the ocean at the end of Titanic. We had breakfast with some climbers who passed by headed to hopefully reach the summit of Pisco later that week. As we packed up to leave, day hikers started pouring in. I cheered them on as I descended, "You're almost there," "Only 15 more minutes, "Right over that ridge!" It was a brutal hike to do in a day...and only to arrive for a moment then return. How often I do the same...struggling to go in circles as fast as I can?

On the bus ride back to Huaraz, I was happy I didn't just glance up this time. I stared out the window the whole time, with my nose metaphorically against the glass. I was happy to have a break from the to-do lists and the cravings for constant comfort and entertainment. The chance to slow down. To enjoy. To notice. To breathe. 

I made a bed out of mountains. If only for a night. I lived among stars and the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. In light and dark. For better or worse. 

The driver says it's only 2 hours back to the hostel, but I have a feeling it'll be 3. 

"Tranquila," as they say. 

P.S. Yep...3 hours. I counted. Change is hard. 

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Backpacking South America: Our 5 Week Itinerary

 
Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

My relationship with trip planning is similar to Jack Barnes & Brett Ashley's relationship in The Sun Also Rises. You know...unhealthily impossible but also obsessively devoted. On one hand, I am a research nerd through and through. I have never visited a new place without first reading everything I can about it; it's an old habit picked up from a childhood filled with adventures with my trusty sidekick: Library Card! I read Rick Steve's Guide to Italy cover to cover before my trip there (I only visited 5 of the 20+ cities described). But had I not been such an obsessive planner, I never would have ended up driving through the Dolomites and staying in a cabin in Castlerotto or enjoying the best meal I've ever had at Mascaron in Venice (thanks Rick Steves - the original travel research nerd!).  

But on the other hand, an anxiety starts growing of all the things I "must do" or "should do." Lists and schedules take over rational thought. The only trip I've ever taken where I didn't have an itinerary was a week alone in Paris. I had a great time stumbling across sites with little to no plan, but when I got home, the things I "should have done" hit me. I went to Paris, and I didn't visit a single museum. There was apparently more to do there than bicycling around without destination, eating all the cheese and bread I could find, and reading in a variety of jardins. 

As we plan our itinerary for 5 weeks in South America, I'm seeking that sweet spot between well-read traveler and tourist with a to-do list. My first step was the painful realization that I couldn't do everything there was to do on a continent in a month. I also knew I wanted to spend a week at least in each country, so Aaron and I narrowed it down to Peru, Argentina, and Chile. I spent weeks experimenting with BootsnAll's Multi-Country Airfare Search Engine. By adjusting dates and airports slightly, I was able to save thousands of dollars on our flights. Once I had the smartest flight schedule, I double-checked I couldn't get the route cheaper on Expedia or Priceline. As it turns out, the flights were $423 dollars less per ticket on Expedia compared to BootsnAll. In the end, we purchased multi-destination tickets we designed ourselves with 5 stops: Medellin, Lima, Buenos Aires, El Calafate, and Santiago for $1,048 USD each.

June 28th: Medellin, Colombia >>> Lima, Peru 

July 11th: Lima, Peru >>> Buenos Aires, Argentina

July 15th: Buenos Aires, Argentina >>> El Calafate, Argentina

July 26th: El Calafate, Argentina >>> Santiago, Chile

August 1st: Santiago Chile >>> Medellin, Colombia

We're spending 12 days in Peru, and our musts are Huascaran National Park and - of course, Machu Picchu, which will add an overnight bus ride, a separate flight to Cusco, and train tickets to Aguas Calientes. We're spending 4 days in Buenos Aires and 11 days in Patagonia (we hope to visit the Argentinian and the Chilean side - buses in the winter permitting). Finally, we'll spend 5 days in Santiago, and we hope to spend at least 2 of them snowboarding at Valle Nevado.

Our budget for two people for 5 weeks is $5,000 USD. Since we've already spent $2,100 on our flights, that leaves $2,900 - or $85 dollars per day for the both of us for everything else. We have some expensive things on our itinerary (like Machu Picchu and Valle Nevado), so we'll be doing a lot of camping in Peru and Patagonia to make up the difference. This will be the longest and most expensive trip we've planned so far, but I am giddy waiting for our departure date. 

Have you been to Huaraz, Lima, Cusco, Buenos Aires, El Calafate, El Chalten, Puerto Natales (especially in July?), or Santiago? What advice would you give? 

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Motorcycle Colombia: The Coffee Region's Belalcázar & Marsella

 
 
 

This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel

I slid on my leather jacket and tugged my helmet over my ponytail. I threw my leg over the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle and gave him a thumbs up. We were about to embark on our first overnight motorcycle adventure in the coffee region of Colombia. The mountainous coffee region of Colombia is filled with quaint farming towns, and we wanted to experience them on two wheels.  My previous idea of an adventure was curling up with a book and coffee, but that’s the finest phenomenon of love and travel – it inspires the formerly unknown, and so off I rode, in search of a new story and a good cup of coffee along the way.

Our first stop was Belalcázar, Caldas. We were drawn to the town by the huge Christ Redeemer statue on a hilltop. Because it was a few days before Easter, there was a line to climb up and look through Jesus’ eyes. We opted to spread out on the grass in front of the statue, stretch out our legs, and watch the local scenes unfold. Families posed for photos, teens showed off their strength playing on the railings, and all were in their Sunday best. There were a few booths sprinkled about where you could buy a trinket or two and a restaurant serving up hot platters of arepas, frijoles, chorizo, and patacones.

We continued after lunch, twisting and turning with the mountain roads. I could tell my boyfriend was in a motorcyclist’s dream as we leaned into each curve cutting through the cool Andean air. At one point, we joined another group of local riders who probably could have ridden those roads with their eyes closed. We followed their confident lines until we had to turn towards our next destination – Marsella, Risaralda.

Iglesia María Inmaculada

Iglesia María Inmaculada

We arrived in Marsella right before the sunset, and we could see the beautiful church (Iglesia María Inmaculada) in the middle of the main square at the top of a steep climb. I held on tight, and in the square we found a handful of local restaurants, a cultural center (Casa de la Cultura), and the small and colorful cafe, Don Danilo. The café is a small, family business that also grows their own coffee – a mere 1 kilometer from their café. The owners are third generation farmers, and they plant, cultivate, process, roast, grind, and brew their own coffee, and it shows. It was easily some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, let alone in Colombia. Luckily we were staying right next door to the café in a small room they rent to travelers, which we found through AirBnB (although we learned it would have been less expensive to book directly, as usual).

Photo Credit: Dondanilo.com

Photo Credit: Dondanilo.com

The next day, we wandered through the church, and if I had known how to play chess, we could have played on the giant game board inside the cultural center. Marsella is well known for the Jardin Bontanico Marsella Alejandro Homboldt. This botanical garden promotes biological conservation through environmental education and technology and is a Heritage Cultural Site, awarded by UNESCO.  In addition to the tropical flowers, interactive science games, several species of fish, there’s even a 200-meter zip line.

Casa de la Cultura de Marsella, Photo Credit: Rutas del Paisaje Cultural Cafetero

Casa de la Cultura de Marsella, Photo Credit: Rutas del Paisaje Cultural Cafetero

Casa de la Cultura de Marsella, Photo Credit: Rutas del Paisaje Cultural Cafetero

Casa de la Cultura de Marsella, Photo Credit: Rutas del Paisaje Cultural Cafetero

Jardin Botanico de Marsella, Photo Credit: Marsella Educativa

Jardin Botanico de Marsella, Photo Credit: Marsella Educativa

After we finished exploring Marsella, we set off again winding through the mountain switchbacks ready for the next adventure.

If you’re interested in renting a motorcycle to explore Colombia, visit Motolombia.com.  This family-run business based out of Cali, Colombia offers several different models starting at only $99 per day and also offers guided tours throughout not only the coffee region but also all over the country.

 

5 Tips for Staying Safe in Colombia

 

This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel

From guerillas and paramilitaries to narco-traffickers and petty thieves – there’s enough violence in Colombia’s modern history to frighten off even the boldest of travelers.  However, the U.S. Department of State released an updated Travel Warning for Colombia on April 5, 2016 assuring travelers that tens of thousands of U.S. citizens visit Colombia every year without problem, but terrorism by extremist groups in the country is still a danger (as is true around the globe). Kidnapping has declined sharply in the past decade, but violent street crime remains a persistent problem, especially in Bogotá. Although terrorism and street crime are no laughing matter, they’re certainly not unique problems in a global context – nor do I think they should intimidate travelers from leaving Colombia off their South American itineraries. The most recent stories from Colombia paint a bright future, but it’s still important to keep your wits about you. Here are 5 tips for keeping you and your valuables safe in Colombia.

Check ATMS for tampering. 

While in Bogotá, a friend used an ATM that had been tampered with. The scam, often called “ATM Skimming,” resulted in her card information and PIN number stolen – and waking up to 3 maximum withdrawals she never made. Thankfully, after a few phone calls and weeks, her bank refunded the amount. Avoid the hassle by checking ATMs for tampering. Before you use an ATM ask: Is anything misaligned? Does anything look different (colors, fonts, etc.)? Does anything wiggle (especially the card reader)? If the answer is yes, move along. Also make a habit of always covering your PIN entry in case of installed cameras.

Order taxis through verified companies. 

Use an app such as EasyTaxi or ask a restaurant or hotel to call you one; when it arrives, make sure the number of the taxi matches the number you were given. This small step is not only to avoid being ripped off on a taxi fare but also to safeguard yourself against Paseo del Milionario, or Stroll of the Millionaire in English. This is a brutal con in which you’re driven around the city at gunpoint from ATM to ATM until your bank accounts are empty and your credit cards are maxed out. Needless to say, the peace of mind that comes from ordering a taxi goes a long way.

Travel during the day. 

Public transportation, like buses, is generally safe in Colombia, but I would recommend traveling during the day if possible. It’s easier to be alert when it’s bright and early, and bus robberies historically occur on late buses.

Be vigilant with your belongings. 

Being vigilant means being a little more paranoid than you feel is necessary. For example, if you have a purse on your lap in a cab, keep the windows up and doors locked – especially while stuck in traffic (there are so many stories like these in Bogotá). If you’re headed out for the evening, only bring what money you need and leave the rest behind locked doors. On a bus? Keep your backpack in your lap or between your legs. Headed to a busy market or square? Skip the jewelry and fancy accessories. And in case of a robbery…remember, nothing you own is more valuable than your life.

Be informed; stay informed; look informed.   

Memorize emergency numbers: Colombia’s “911” is 112 or 123, and the U.S. Embassy’s Emergency After-Hours Telephone is +(57) (1) 275-2701. Here’s a list of Spanish phrases in case of emergency. Check the news regularly; you can find news about Colombia in English at ColombiaReports.com. Ask locals which neighborhoods should be avoided; they know better than any online forum. It’s also important to look informed; keep alcohol to a minimum, especially if you’re alone. Know where you’re going and study maps ahead of time.  

Colombia’s newest tourism campaign is based on the idea, “The only risk is wanting to stay.” But risk is everywhere and in everything we do; I could never proclaim there is no risk in Colombia – or anywhere for that matter, even my quaint hometown. But I can tell you this…the risk is greatly reduced by taking some basic precautions, and yes – your dream will be to stay. 

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Recipes Inspired by Colombia: Strawberry Maracuyá Pie

 

Song in video, "El Optimista," performed by Colombian guitarist Andrés Villamil

It's almost April in my home state of Washington, which means that Aaron's mom's rhubarb stalks will almost be ready for baking. Aaron's mom makes this irresistible strawberry rhubarb crisp; I can smell the sweetness of the strawberries as they melt together with the tartness of the rhubarb, and I can taste the first warm bite with that sugary and buttery oat topping.

But my seven month expat status was craving a little bit of Americana, so I set my sights on a classic fruit pie, despite being far away from any rhubarb. Thankfully there are plenty other tart fruits to choose from in Colombia (see my Guide to the Exotic Fruits of Colombia). I chose maracuyá (a green and wrinkly passionfruit popular in juice) as my rhubarb substitute and set to work on creating an expat pie spinoff. The result? The first of more Tasty-inspired cooking videos from Colombia to come!

 ¡Buen provecho! 

Crust: 

  • 2/3 cup plus 2 tbsp. softened butter
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4-5 tbsp. cold water

Filling:

  • 3 cups sliced strawberries
  • 2/3 cup maracuyá pulp (or other available passionfruit) 
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 5 tbsp. water 

Directions: 

Preheat oven to 400 F (200 C). 

For the crust, cut butter into into flour and salt until particles are the size of peas. Sprinkle in cold water 1 tbsp. at a time until dough cleans the sides of the bowl. Cut in half, roll into a ball, and chill for 30 minutes.

For the filling, combine strawberries, passionfruit pulp, and sugar in a small saucepan. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. While simmering, combine cornstarch and water until lumps disappear. Add cornstarch mixture to fruit and sugar and simmer another 2-3 minutes until thickened. Let cool. 

Roll out 1/2 of your chilled dough (I use plastic wrap on top and bottom for easy handling) to fit your pie dish; dough should extend past the edge at least an inch. Add the filling. Roll out the the other 1/2 of your dough into a long rectangle. Cut strips for lattice top. Weave the strips on top; then flute the edges. Brush with milk, and sprinkle with sugar. Cover edges with foil for the first 30 minutes in the oven; then remove. 

Bake for 40-50 minutes total, or until filling is bubbling, thick and the crust is golden brown. Let cool before slicing and serving. 

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451