Snorkeling Together: The Coral Islands of Rosario

 

This post was originally written for Colombia Eco Travel

Popular travel blogs often preach about the benefits and advantages of solo travel. And for good reason - traveling alone can be an enriching and eye-opening experience. However, the solo traveler hype can overshadow the joy of traveling with family. Exploring with family gives travelers the chance to make and share precious memories together. Even Christopher McCandless, one of American history’s most beloved solo travelers, wrote in his journal towards the end of his life that happiness is only real when shared.

I spent a year living and traveling in Colombia before my boyfriend’s mom, Charlene, came to visit. There were many joys in sharing what I had learned about Colombia with her. Charlene teaches the 3rd grade in the United States, and I knew when we were planning her trip that she deserved a fun, relaxing, and stress-free two weeks through the most magical experiences in Colombia.

The first experience that made the list was snorkeling near the Coral Islands of Rosario off the coast of Cartagena in the Caribbean sea. The Coral Islands of Rosario and San Bernardo, or the Parque Nacional Natural Islas Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo in Spanish, is one of the 46 National Parks in Colombia. The park features one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country, featuring many small islands, peaceful lagoons, fragile reefs, and mangrove swamps. Within the park, it is possible to see the spotted dolphin, West Indian manatee, hawksbill sea turtle, green sea turtle, cat shark, and more than 150 species of fish and 50 species of birds.

The park is one of the best places in Colombia to immerse yourself in the rich, biodiversity the country is known for. I knew Charlene would enjoy seeing the Park by boat, but I also knew it would be really fun to organize an activity she had never done before: snorkeling! What was so special about the experience was that she had never been snorkeling or explored coral reefs before. Sharing this unique travel experience in Colombia multiplied the joy because I was able to see it for the first time through someone else’s eyes.

We arranged a snorkeling tour of some of the best reefs with a local guide. He provided us with snorkels, goggles, fins, and even swim noodles for when we grew tired. Snorkeling is a great activity for the whole family because you don’t have to be an advanced swimmer to enjoy it. Our guide drove us on his boat to some of the best and most accessible snorkeling spots and gave us as a quick tutorial on snorkeling safety and tips. He gave us as much time as we wanted to explore the reefs.

The water was clear, turquoise, and perfectly warm. Charlene beams that the day’s highlight was the schools of blue, lustrous fish we were able to follow around.  After we tired, our guide arranged for a local fisherman to bring us a fresh, hot, and reasonably-priced lobster lunch. After lunch, a local entrepreneur came by our boat to display some locally made jewelry, which Charlene absolutely adored. After the memorable snorkeling, a delicious lunch, and some souvenirs to remember the trip, our guide brought us to one last snorkeling spot to explore a sunken pontoon plane. That night we had dinner at one of the many hotels in the area and toasted our Limonada de Cocos as the sun set over the Caribbean sea.

Overall, it was a privilege to go on an underwater, National Geographic worthy adventure together without the hassle or stress of diving. The experience of snorkeling in the Coral Islands of Rosario was without a doubt...better when shared.

Snorkeling tours of the Coral Islands of Rosario and San Bernardo can be arranged through Colombia Eco Travel.

 
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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

I Peed My Pants in Patagonia

 
Fitz Roy Viewpoint

Fitz Roy Viewpoint

Our view of Laguna Los Tres in July

Our view of Laguna Los Tres in July

Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.
— Stephen Hawking

Earlier that afternoon, we reached the Fitz Roy viewpoint in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares as the clouds parted. The view was clear for only the 30 minutes we spent there that day. It was beautiful serendipity. And yet...

Three hours later,  I was crying. Maybe for 90 seconds. That's how cold it was. And that's how stupid of an idea it was to camp in the middle of winter in Patagonia. But it was my own romanticized idea nonetheless...a plot point in a quest to travel South America on the cheap when traveling in luxury is clearly the way to go. Don't let any of the budget braggers deceive you with their feigned holiness. My boyfriend, Aaron, asked if I was OK as he yet again pondered the mysteries of females.

After my micro-breakdown, I got up and unrolled my - not one - sleeping bag - but two - plus a fleece liner that touted on REI's website to bring your bag's rating down at least a season (as far as I could tell, this was a malicious lie). I braced myself and took my hands out of my gloves long enough to eat (thanks to Aaron for the hot food). It was 4:30 PM, but - there was nothing else to do but go to sleep. I zipped up all three bags and then - and only then - realized, I sort of had to pee. Under any degree of normal circumstance, this wouldn't be a big deal; I usually act older than a three-year-old. But the idea of unzipping all these layers, peeling off my pants and my long, wool underwear and baring my already frozen bum to the winter night...well, it was enough to trigger more tears. I told myself through gritted teeth that I could hold it until morning. When the sun is out. When there is some hope for survival in what I was dramatically considering a life or death situation, so I drifted off...Aaron already sleeping soundly beside me. 

But in my dreams, I was in a luxury hotel with thick, red carpet. I breezed through ornate gold doors to find a glittering porcelain throne. I lifted my layers of tulle to tinkle like a lady. 

Then I woke up.

...and immediately realized my reality. I was in a tent. Sleeping next to my outdoor guru boyfriend. At the base of Fitz Roy. In the Southern Hemisphere's coldest month: July. And like a good wannabe ultralight backpacker - I'm wearing my only pair of pants…and they were definitely warm and damp. I quickly scrambled outside and finished relieving myself. I didn't know what else to do except get back into my sleeping bag(s) and go back to sleep. 

When I woke, I contemplated whether or not it was entirely necessary to tell Aaron. I mean, as far as humiliation goes...this was up there. Especially considering my adamant belief we should never see each other go to the bathroom. We'd been together just over 3 years, so he's seen me ugly cry. He's seen me hyperventilate. He's heard me throw up all night. He's felt the weight of my baggage that I usually only joke about. His response is usually somewhere between deadpan and detached. On occasion his eyebrows say, "Don't you think you're overreacting a little?" I usually am, but that was besides the point today.

I procrastinated getting up as long as possible, despite the pretty imminent need to cover some serious miles. So I took a deep breath and confessed that yes - in the last 24 hours, I had cried and peed my pants. Aaron didn't laugh or show disgust; he just offered me his snow pants to wear. And so, with a wince, I unzipped my 3-layered pee cocoon and hiked two, icy hours to Laguna Los Tres only to find it covered in fog, hiked five hours back to El Chalten, and then furiously washed my pants in the shower with hand soap. 

Sometimes you cry and pee your pants. Sometimes you want to wonder, "Why me?" Forget all that. Just keep going. And laugh a little. 

P.S. My friends totally get me. 

 
1 Comment

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

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

The Truth about Traveling

 
Valparaíso, Chile

Valparaíso, Chile

Over the last six weeks, I've traveled throughout Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile. I've slept on airport floors (as I do tonight). And in buses. So many buses. I've struggled in another language in different accents to get from here to there and back again. I've worn the same clothes for over a week. I have 4 currencies in my wallet but no clear idea how much money is actually in there. I've developed tendonitis in my right foot and been colder and dirtier than I've ever been. I've fretted over spending too much money on this or that. I've stared hopelessly at maps trying to remember street names and bickered over the best route. My pants are too tight from eating whatever is cheap and convenient or too magnificent to pass up...which once was guinea pig. Usually the wifi is so bad wherever I am, I can barely upload a photo or catch up on the news, let alone try to FaceTime with family or friends. I've slowly been learning to forgive and accept the fragility and imperfection of everything, including - most importantly - myself. I haven't written much down because I'm too exhausted at the end of each day...but I can't wait to write my future post: "I Peed My Pants in Patagonia," which is a hilariously true story for another day. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, "In the end you're just happy you were there - with your eyes open - and lived to see it." At least, I'm really hoping that's how it ends. 

 
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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