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? 

 
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

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. 

 
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

5 Tips for Avoiding Water-Related Illnesses in Colombia

 

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

“Stupid gringos, stop drinking the water,” my friend from Spain exasperatedly demanded. He had a point; somehow, my boyfriend and I both were infected with water-related illnesses within 6 months of living in Colombia. His was picked up by absent-mindedly drinking the tap water in Cartagena, and mine in Medellín – causing me to end a trip two days early in lieu of a personal tour of a clinic – IV included. I was back to normal in a couple of days, but unfortunately this really did make me a “stupid gringo.” The reality is half of Colombia does not have access to clean drinking water. Some lessons are forever learned the hard way, but it wasn’t the first time my ignorance and privilege were challenged while abroad, and it surely won’t be the last.

The contamination of Colombia’s drinking water comes from pesticides, fertilizers, mining, discharge of industrial, livestock, and human waste, and the occasional oil spill. The government has taken some initiative in remedying these problems, but they’re far from solved. In La Guajira, home to Colombia’s biggest indigenous population - the Wayuu, families struggle to collect enough water to survive – corruption, mismanaged funds, and a place at the bottom of the priority list have been of no help, despite the Health Director Fernando de la Hoz’s assessment, “More people die of drought and dirty water in Colombia than from the armed conflict. And the risk of dying from illnesses related to water is four or five times higher in La Guajira than anywhere else in the country.” Yet, the local coal mine uses 7.1 million gallons of water per day trying to keep up with the coal demand from the U.S. and Europe, as the documentary El Río Que Se Robaron” (Translation: The River That They Stole) illustrates.

My research on this subject humbled me, and as I began to write this article about tips for avoiding water-related illnesses, I couldn’t bring myself to do it without sharing the Wayuu’s pressing struggle for survival.  In 2016, clean drinking water is regrettably still a privilege – not a human right.  Thus with every drink taken using the following five tips for avoiding water-related illnesses in Colombia, let us reflect on the impact we have on one another in the choices we make.   

1.    Drink sterilized water only. You can boil water for 3 minutes, treat with iodine tables, or invest the innovative LifeStraw bottle or SteriPen to avoid bottled water.

2.    Avoid drinks with unfiltered ice (“Sin hielo por favor”).

3.    Order juices with milk instead of water (“Con leche sin agua por favor”).

4.    Avoid raw vegetables (especially lettuce) and fruits (except those with a thick covering like oranges, bananas, or melons).

5.    Be smart about street vendors. Look for vendors who don’t handle money and food with the same hands, and choose a vendor with quick turnover to ensure food hasn’t been sitting out for long.

These recommendations are not unique to Colombia; they can be used around the world in the too many countries where safe drinking water is not available. 

  1. Colombia Reports, “Half of Colombia has Dirty Drinking Water.”
  2. Hydratelife.org, “The Water Situation in Colombia: Both Good and Bad.”
  3. Vice.com, “A Severe Lack of Clean Water is Killing Indigenous Children in Colombia.”
 
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

10 Tips for Traveling Sustainably in Colombia

 

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

Avoid Bottled Water

According to National Geographic, there are currently 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic litter in our oceans. One way to help make sure that number doesn’t keep rising is to avoid bottled water. Many people do this at home but accept it as a necessary evil while traveling, but there are options such as the Steripen or LifeStraw Bottle that purify water on the go. I used the Steripen while in Africa for a month with zero water-related illnesses, but I love that the LifeStraw bottle doesn’t require batteries, which is another environmental and packing perk.

Eat Local 

Not only does eating local provide you with a richer cultural experience and support local economies, it also reduces your carbon footprint by reducing how far food has to travel. In Colombia, you can search “Mercados Campesinos” and the city to find out when and where local Farmer’s Markets are happening. For example, in Manizales they’re the 3rd Saturday of every month in front of the University of Caldas.

Colombia is also a great country to seek out agrotourism, especially if you’re a coffee lover. As Shannon Mullen explained in “Colombian Coffee: From Crop to Cup,” “Behind every cup of coffee there’s a struggle to build stronger, healthier, more sustainable communities. There’s an effort to be part of the full circle of life by giving back to the land and being able to pass on history, traditions and culture to the next generation.” Agrotourism is an experience to connect with where our food products come from and from under what circumstances. It can’t be denied that the more you know, the more you care.

Ask Before You Go

Before you book a tour or an accommodation, take time to ask some questions about the business’s sustainability practices. Not only will this help you make an informed decision, but it will also help create a demand for sustainability. Some questions you might ask are:

  • Do you have a recycling program? / ¿Tiene un programa de reciclaje?
  • Is your building energy efficient? / Es el edificio energía eficiente?
  • Are you actively involved in local conservation? How? / Está involucrado activamente en la conservación local? Cómo?
  • Does your business benefit the local economy? How? / ¿Su negocio en beneficio de la economía local? Cómo?

One of the best experiences I had on the coast of Colombia was at Costeño Beach Surf Camp & Ecolodge - not only because of the relaxed atmosphere but also because of their practices. They provided filtered water to guests for only $3,000 COP per day instead of charging $5,000 COP per bottle of water like most other hostels. Power was also shut off during the day to help conserve energy, and they hired local cooks, masseuses, yoga instructors, and transportation personnel. Realizing how much I appreciated these values inspired me to always investigate a business’s practices before booking. 

Walk, Bike, or Use Public Transit 

We travel to experience new places, and there’s no better way to see more of a city than by walking or biking. Seek out bike rental businesses and walking tours. If you’re traveling across town, take the bus, metro, or cable car like a local would. The public transit system in most cities in Colombia is efficient and inexpensive.

Leave No Trace 

As I’ve shared before, the litter I saw on the Lost City Trek shocked me and turned me off from other popular group treks. Please adhere to basic Leave No Trace principles to help conserve the environment for future travelers and generations.

Buy Local

Support the local economy by buying handmade. Arts and crafts also help preserve a country’s culture. One example of this in Colombia is the mochila, a handcrafted bag made by the Indigenous Wayuu people. Before you buy, inquire how and where it was made. To browse a few of the styles, check out Chilabags.com, a Fair Trade company that works directly with Wayuu women and is committed to fair pay and good working conditions.

Say No to Animal Gimmicks

When visiting the popular city of Cartagena, you’ll no doubt notice the idyllic horse-drawn carriages. But according to Colombia Reports, 6 horses collapsed from malnourishment and dehydration in 2014, and locals have held demonstrations protesting the lack of regulations.  Thankfully in 2015, Colombia’s government passed a law that “animals must be considered sentient beings,” according to The City Paper Bogota. Hopefully this bill changes the landscape for animals in Colombia in the coming years, but for now it’s still best to resist all those touristy animal gimmicks.

Learn the the Real Story

Ask questions of locals with an open mind, and learn about the history and culture. I highly recommend the Culture Smart! series for brief but thorough overviews of a country’s customs and history. For example, Culture Smart! Colombia, written by Kate Cathey, provided me with a level of depth not found in typical travel guides and gave me a context for my traveling in Colombia.

Give Back with Care

 Seek out ways to contribute to the community. When I visited a teacher’s college in Zambia, we were given a list of what would be the most helpful for the local primary schools to make sure our packing space was best utilized. You can use sites like Pack for a Purpose to find out what local foundations and nonprofits are most in need of and ensure you’re not imposing. For example, La Brisa Local Hostel located in Santa Marta serves children from at-risk communities, and they’re currently in need of school supplies and children’s clothing. It’s become common for the children of the Kogi tribes who live near the Lost City in Colombia to ask passing hikers, “Dolce? Dolce?” Although they are impossibly adorable, resist handing out candy to children; in many communities, inadequate dental care can lead to serious decay and suffering in the long-term. 

If you want to visit a home, village, school, or orphanage know that these visits are best pre-arranged through a local community-based program. For example, in Zambia we volunteered to support local teachers in a local radio school program and taught a short English lesson we had prepared in advance. Poverty is not a form of entertainment for tourists, and orphanages are not zoos. Don’t just go to look – find out how you can contribute to the empowerment and economic sustainability of the community.  

Share What You See

 Travel is a privilege; with it comes a responsibility to share what you learn along the way. I’m passionate about sharing what positive social change Colombia has achieved in the last 20 years, especially in places like Medellín’s Comuna 13. My friend, Sarah Cockey, is also an exceptional example of this; her I am Change Project seeks to dispel myths and stereotypes about Arab culture based on her own personal experiences in Egypt. Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I really believe by traveling and getting to know new cultures and corners, we can make this beautiful planet a more peaceful place. 

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links, and I receive a small commission for your purchases at no additional cost to you.

 

Guide to Viva Colombia: Colombia's Budget Airline

 

Aaron and I recently took our first flight with Viva Colombia from Medellin to Santa Marta. The tickets were 1/3 the price of Avianca Airlines around the holidays. We traded a flight with Avianca for a flight with Viva Colombia and saved $250 USD each. 

I've read of many longterm travelers busing around Colombia, and it's certainly cheaper, but if you're limited on time, I suggest Viva Colombia as a budget-friendly and time-saving option. We traded a 14-hour bus ride for a 55-minute flight for only $60 USD more per ticket. 

Here are some of Viva Colombia's killer international promotions this month:  

However, like most budget airlines, there's some tricks to maximize savings and have an experience with minimal surprises. Here's what you need to know: 

  • Print your boarding pass at least 4 hours before your flight and as soon as 72 hours before or face a $50,000 COP charge the counter. 
  • They are very strict on weight/size of luggage. The only piece of luggage that is included in the cost of the ticket is a bag with weight and dimensions of up to 6 kg and 40x35x25 cm. 
  • DOMESTIC FLIGHTS CARRY-ON: You can bring a larger carry-on with weight and dimensions of up to 12kg and 55x45x25 cm for an additional charge, but note that the price for this service if purchased online is only $26,000 COP (approximately $8 USD), but at the counter it jumps to $46,000 COP. Worst yet, if they catch your bag oversize and/or overweight at the boarding gate, it jumps up to $66,000 COP. 
  • INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS CARRY-ON: Prices for carry-ons are higher flights to/from Lima, Panama City, Quito, and Miami. A carry-on with weight and dimensions of up to 12kg and 55x45x25 cm costs $22 USD online, and $32 USD at the counter. 
  • CHECKED LUGGAGE: You can check a piece of luggage up to 20 kg and 158 linear cm, which correspond to the bag total length + width + height.  For domestic flights, costs are $22,000 COP on the website, and $42,000 COP at the counter. International flights cost $22-$25 USD on the website, and $32 USD at the counter.
  • Make your baggage selection carefully; if you choose to pay for carry-on online, but show up and your bag is over the size or weight limit, they'll also charge the fee for a checked luggage, and you will not receive a refund. Luggage services can be purchased online up to 4 hours before your flight's departure. 
  • Viva Colombia does not offer refunds except under the following special circumstances: if the reservation is affected by the airline such as by delays or cancellations, or if the passenger is ill. 
  • If you miss your flight, you have one hour after the scheduled departure to request a change at the airport. If you do not meet this deadline, your ticket is lost. 
  • Our flight departed 30 minutes late; I have a feeling this airline is not one you want to book with if you have a very strict deadline, but if you're flexible - go for it and put the extra money towards an extra couple nights at your destination.

Here is the full list of FAQ on Viva Colombia's website in English. 

Happy flying! 

 
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