Tag Archives: female travel

5 Things to Know Before Taking a Galapagos Islands Vacation

As I set off for the Galapagos Islands I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was heading to a place I had dreamed of going all my life, and I knew I could speak Spanish well enough that I would be able to find my way around, but I had not done any official research whatsoever. While there, I talked with many people and picked up tips and tricks which made the most of my week on the amazing islands, but this article will share a list of 5 things you should know before you take a Galapagos Islands vacation.

Giant tortoise Galapagos Islands

1. There are hefty taxes to get on to the island. Before you check in at the airport you must scan your luggage, and pay a $20 tax for visiting the islands. Don’t lose this ticket stub because you need to show it when you leave the islands! Upon arrival to the islands you must pay $100 to enter if you’re not from South America, $50 if you’re from South America, and $8 if you’re from Ecuador. Blue Footed Boobies

2. If you want to see the 3 main islands and make the most of a trip that is 7 days or less, look in to flying into an airport on one island and flying out on another island. You could fly in to Santa Cruz, spend a few days, then take a boat to Isabela, spend another few days, then come back to Santa Cruz and pass on to San Cristobal to spend your last few days. Boats do not go from Isabela to San Cristobal or vice versa, you must pass through Santa Cruz.Marine iguanas Galapagos Islands

3. If you’re flying out of Santa Cruz, you have two (or three) options for how to get to the airport. Option 1- take a taxi to the bus station ($1) and catch a bus at either 6:30, 7, 7:30 or 8AM. Apparently once the buses fill up they leave, so these times are approximate. I arrived at 7:45 and there were no more buses. I had to pay the full $18 to be taken to the canal in the taxi, which is Option 2. If you have an early flight, you could also try and talk to one of the dive shops (Option 3) beforehand to hitch a ride with them when they take off at 7am to head to the same canal which you must cross to get to the airport. They will charge you a little something, but it will be less than the $18 taxi fee. My flight was at 12:45 and I ended up leaving at 7:35 from Puerto Ayora to get to the airport and wait for a few hours. It’s not so bad. There are gift shops, places to eat, and places to sit, both inside and outside. Make sure you have something to do to pass the time. Galapagos Islands

4. If you do one paid tour on the Galapagos, make it the Los Tuneles tour on Isabela Island! With this snorkeling trip you will see as much marine life as you do while scuba diving, and you will also walk across amazing lava bridges and encounter hundreds of blue footed boobies, as well as spot dozens of penguins and sea lions. It is amazing to swim up close and personal with sea turtles, white tip reef sharks and rays, as well as massive schools of fish and even sea horses! In low season the tour costs around $75, and in high season it’s around $90, but it is totally worth every penny. Isabela island is by far the most natural and beautiful of the islands. On Isabela you can also see flamingos, and visit a giant tortoise hatching center, as well as snorkel for free at Concha Perla.

Los Tuneles Galapagos Islands

5. It’s actually kind of chilly! Despite being right around the equator, I found the Galapagos to be quite chilly. However, take this information with a grain of salt. I was there in September when the island was being affected by El Niño and I had several cloudy days. Bring long, lightweight pants as a safety precaution. I used mine every night. Also, having a room with hot water was much appreciated because after spending some time swimming in the ocean I felt chilled to the bone, and it was nice to come back to the room and warm up with the hot water. Galapagos IslandsThese are just a few useful things I learned while traveling the Galapagos Islands. Have you ever been, or would you like to go? What are some things that you would share with other tourists who are about to take a Galapagos Islands vacation?

sunset on Galapagos Islands

Minca Colombia is a Must See for Nature Lovers

Just 45 minutes outside of Santa Marta, Minca is an experience not to be missed. With the rolling tree covered hillsides, plentiful flora and fauna, and refreshing rivers and waterfalls, Minca is a nature lover’s paradise.

World's Largest Hammock Casa Elemento

 After spending nearly a week in the colorful coastal town of Cartagena, hiking along the beautiful beaches in Tayrona National Park and exploring the historical city of Santa Marta, I needed a break from the heat. I set out towards Calle 11 where I caught a 4 person “collectivo” group jeep taxi for $7000 pesos each.
The 45 minute ride out of Santa Marta and up into the mountains of Minca flew by as I shared travel tips and stories with some “travel brahs” from England and an Australian girl. The Brits were going to Casa Elemento and I decided to go to Casa Loma with the Aussie. It was a steep 20 minute hike up a path behind the town’s church, to the right. I had brought all my belongings, so I was loaded down. When I finally got to the top, I dropped my bag, and gratefully accepted the glass of water that was handed to me. Then I turned around and reveled in the breathtaking view that stretched out before me.

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 My first night in Minca consisted of one of the oddest gatherings I have ever attended, but my next two days were just what I was looking for.

Carpa Roja

 As I came down for coffee the next morning, I selected an open seat next to a guy studying Spanish. I had intended to do some work of my own, but soon we were talking, and I came to find out he was from Iran and his mom owned a flower shop and taught floral design classes there. That certainly caught my attention! Then I found out he had been traveling South America for the past two years, and he was chock full of advice on places to see and explore. How cool! I tell you, when you’re traveling, everything and nothing happens by chance.

Minca

 My new Iranian friend had already hiked to one waterfall that morning, and was setting off for another in a few minutes with a French couple. I liked his energy, and happily accepted his offer to join them. The next two days were full of exploration in nature, swimming in rivers, eating fruit from alongside the road, hiking to miradors and checking out all sorts of unique hammocks and coffee plantations along the way.

Colombian Flowers

 If you have two days in Minca, and like to hike, check out these two options. If you get tired along the way you can always cut a hike short or hail a motorbike or taxi in the road- nearly all will be open to driving you to where you need to go for 20,000 pesos or less.

Pozo Azul

 Day 1– Set off for Pozo Azul and spend the day hiking up the river, stopping to sun yourself on the rocks and swim along the way.

Pozo Azul

 All locals can point you in the direction of Pozo Azul, and it’s probably a 30-45 minute walk up the road from the central area in town where all the colectivos and motorbikes wait. The trail is off the main road, and when you reach a restaurant on the side of the road there will be a sign. Pozo Azul is free to enter, and many locals go there to picnic and jump off the rocks on weekends.

Pozo Azul

 We hiked up the river, past the jumping point, and kept going and going until we hit one final, powerful, gorgeous waterfall. With each step we took there were less people and the scenery got even better. It was an awesome way to spend the day, watching birds and butterflies and the wind in the trees, swimming when we got hot, and absorbing the heat from the rocks when we got cold. Make sure to bring food and water so you don’t have to leave due to hunger setting in.

Pozo Azul

 There is a trail along one side of the river, which we took to speed up our walk back. If you would prefer to take that right from the start, it is to the right of the river as you approach it, and it says “Minca Aqueduct”. Technically you’re not supposed to go there…but some rules are meant to be broken. 😉

Pozo Azul

 Day 2– Wake up with the sun and set off hiking for Mirador de Los Pinos, a beautiful lookout point at the top of the mountains. To get there, walk past the church along the same road you would take to get to “the waterfall”. It’s a beautiful walk, with lots of bird sitings and trees providing shade the whole way. There are also dozens of fruit trees lining the road, and we indulged in mangos, jocotes, guava, mandarins, and some other pod-like fruit during the climb.

Colombian fruit

 About 45 minutes after leaving the center of Minca you will come to “the waterfall” or “la cascada”. There’s a 3000 peso cover if someone is attending the entrance, and the waterfall is tall, beautiful and refreshing, but there isn’t much of a swimming hole. We were short on time, so kept hiking, but if you love waterfalls and have the time it’s worth a stop to cool off before continuing on with your hike.

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 After approximately 2 hours, if you’re taking it slow, you will start to see signs for “Casa Elemento“, which means you’re almost there. When you get to Casa Elemento, pause and relax in the World’s Largest Hammock. Maybe have some breakfast or a cup of coffee, and ask them if they’ll draw you a map to Los Pinos and La Victoria. If you’re feeling too exhausted to continue, you can always have them call you a motorcycle as well.

World's Largest Hammock

 If you’re fit to go on, Los Pinos is another 15 minutes up the hill, always keeping to the left, and walking through a coffee plantation. If you’re lucky, and the season is right, you will encounter delicious “mora” or black berries along the way.

Mora

 When you finally get to Los Pinos you will feel so accomplished! It’s a spectacular view, and the tall pine trees at the top provide shade and add a freshness to the air that, when mixed with the breeze, is pure bliss.

Mirador Los Pinos

 If you want to turn this walk into a loop, rather than retracing your steps, continue on down the road for another hour or so until you come to La Victoria, on the right hand side. Stop here to learn the history of the oldest operating coffee plantation in Colombia. We didn’t take the tour, but we had the most delicious sandwich ever, and ended up talking to the German property owner, Mickey, who told us about how he came to negotiate with the Guerrilla back in the 80s to get this property back after they took it over from his parents, who bought it in the 50s.

Minca

The coffee is free, the food is phenomenal, and the Nevada Cerveceria is there, brewing its “Happy Jaguar” and “Happy Toucan” in the old chapel on site. Despite being tucked away in the mountains, over 24,000 tourists have been registered here in the two short years that they have been keeping track of their visitors. It is such a cool place to visit.

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After walking the property, you could grab a bite and a beer and recharge at the La Victoria restaurant, or you could even take it with you to eat later as you make your way back to the road to continue on down the hill. You will actually run in to Poza Azul before getting to Minca, so if you didn’t walk up the river, as previously suggested, you have another chance to indulge in a spectacular nature hike. Whatever you do, if you’re a nature lover and a river lover, don’t miss the chance to hike Pozo Azul!

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When the time comes that you must leave the paradise of Minca, there are always jeeps and rickety cars waiting to bring you back to Santa Marta or wherever you must go. If you’re in a rush, you can pay the whole taxi fare, ~28000 pesos, or wait until the car is full, at ~7000 pesos a person.

Minca Colombia

In my time in Minca, I stayed at Casa Loma, which was a steep 15-20 minute hike up the hill and to the right behind the Church, and I had the pleasure of visiting Casa Elemento while I hiked up to the Mirador Los Pinos lookout point.

Casa Elemento

There are quite a few hostels and guesthouses all throughout Minca, especially en route to Casa Loma, and most have either the option of either private or shared rooms, or a hammock. Casa Loma is close to the village, serves food, and had a stream of tourists pumping through when I was there. Casa Elemento was much more removed from Minca, being a whole motorcycle ride up the hill, but it had an epic view, a massive hammock, a swimming pool, and on-site food, plus tons of fruit trees all around.

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As you can see, Minca is absolutely amazing. A trip here, whether it’s a day, a week, or a month will leave you feeling naturally refreshed by re-establishing a connection with the great outdoors. Take a break from the city and take a trip to the paradise that awaits you in Minca, Colombia, a must see for nature lovers. 

The Period Party

Woooooofff. I had just walked at least 500 steps up a mountain with my overstuffed bags and set them down with pleasure. The hostel hostess quickly brought us water, and we sat there, drinking it down and drinking in the view that stretched out before us: rolling, tree covered hillsides as far at the eye could see. The city of Santa Marta sprawled out in the distance, now over an hour away. 

I started to take note of my immediate surroundings, and noticed that there were many women in the entry room, and more continued to huff and puff their way up into view as they climbed the steps. As conversation began to unfold, I came to understand that they were all gathering here in the woodsy setting of the hostel to have a “women’s meeting” and that I was more than welcome to join. I always love meeting strong women who are active in the community so I was elated at the offer. I set up my hammock, took a quick shower, and joined the women for their early evening gathering. 

There were many red sheets strung up between the trees, creating a sort of red tent, and women were entering one at a time. Outside the tent, one woman was wafting the smoke of a bundle of burning rosemary around each woman who was awaiting entry, and once she had been “cleansed” the tent would open, and a woman dressed in all red placed a red flower “bindi” on the forehead of the woman entering, welcoming her to the tent. 

The whole procession reminded me of the best parts of India, with the smoky scents hanging in the air, and the bindis. As I waited outside the tent, the women were so kind, saying they were happy I had come, and I was happy to be there. I had no idea what I was in for. 

I was welcomed in to the tent, the same way as the others, and I took a seat on the red carpet that covered the earth. There were some other foreigners from the hostel, or transplants to the town of Minca, and we chatted amongst ourselves as we awaited the beginning of the meeting. Spread before us were a variety of delicious treats, and finger-painting like pictures hung above an area with a book, a flower, and a glass of water. Incense was lit and its aroma drifted around us all. 

  

Eventually the last person entered the tent, and the woman in red began to address us all. Everything was in Spanish, as I imagined it would be, and she started explaining to us about the “Tienda Roja” book, which was the basis for this meeting- a meeting intended for women to honor themselves and learn to love their menstrual cycle. 

The leader of the meeting started by telling us a bit of the history of where the idea for the “Carpa Roja” group came from. Historically in some cultures when women were menstruating, they would put up a red tent, and the women would go inside, separate themselves from the world and reflect during that seven day cycle. She went on to describe how each week of our cycle was like a season: spring, summer, fall or winter, and how we should pay attention to the feelings we have during these seasons. She even encouraged that perhaps we make art during our menstrual cycle, and then she gestured up to the “finger paintings” that were hanging in the tent and told us she had made them using her own beautiful blood. I tried to keep an open mind. 

I had heard there would be meditation during the meeting which is part of what drew me in, and there was, but it wasn’t at all as I was expecting. During this meditation we closed out eyes and were told to go back in time, to the day we first received our periods. We were to talk to our past selves and process the thoughts and emotions that arose. Afterwards we were asked to share how we felt about all this. 

At one point, a woman came in to the circle, late and with her young son. When it came time to sit in a circle, hand to uterus with the person next to you, the little boy asked, “What’s a uterus? I can’t feel mine. Where should I put my hands?” This provided some comic relief, and the leader told him to put his hands to his heart. 

During another portion of the meeting all women stood, and a red string was passed from person to person, connecting us all. We then went around and in turn we said who we were. For example, I am Holly, daughter of Lori, grand daughter of Edith, and mother of all my dreams and projects. For each of these things we wrapped the string around our wrists, paying homage to all the uteri before us, and all the uteri that would follow. 

As a closing project, we were given a piece of paper with a chrysalis on one half, where we were supposed to write things we wanted to overcome, and on the other half we were supposed to draw a butterfly, signifying what we would become. Then we left the tent, stood around a bonfire, tore the paper in two and burned the pieces, saying what we wanted to overcome and what we want to become. 

We closed this multiple hour meeting with songs around a fire. This was possibly the most enjoyable part for me, except I was so hungry I could barely concentrate, and the leader kept wanting to sing another and another and another song. After some truly lovely songs about being a beautiful woman who is one with the earth we went back to the tent where we all passed around the treats and reflected upon this unique Carpa Roja group and what we got out of the meeting. It was a long meeting, much longer than I was anticipating, and the whole experience was definitely a surprise to me. I don’t think I was the only one who went in to the meeting blind, I think some others had no idea they were about to join a 3.5 hour long “period party”, but it was an experience to remember, to say the least.

Apparently this is a global group, with meetings in multiple countries, so if you’re actually interested in getting involved, seek it out. In English the book is called The Red Tent and the groups are called The Red Carpet. 

Climbing El Peñol the Gigantic Rock of Guatape Colombia

When you first spot the great rock of El Peñol de Guatape it is impressive. As you get closer and start to clearly see each individual step you must climb to reach the top it is downright intimidating. However, don’t let this stop you from actually climbing El Peñol! The 360 degree view of the surrounding lush, rolling hills which pop out from the man-made reservoir is worth each one of the 740 steps it takes to reach the top.

El Peñol Guatape, or El Penol Guatape

 As you make your way up, pause frequently; enjoy the view. Think of all the work that went into constructing these solid, concrete stairs that you’re climbing. Take note of the air plants which cling to the rock, and run your hands over the rough texture of the walls, noting the different minerals and colors that come together to make up this gigantic wonder.

El Peñol Guatape, or El Penol Guatape

 When you make it up to Step 675 of El Peñol breathe a sigh of relief -you’re technically at the top! However, you will quickly notice that there is another large structure, with more stairs, which tempt you to climb them for an even better view. You might be tired, but trust me, those next few steps are worth it!

Climbing El Peñol Guatape, or El Penol Guatape

 At the top of the rock there are snacks, refreshments, and trinkets available for purchase, so why not have a look? If it’s a warm day and you’re in the mood for a treat, enjoy an arequipe and queso ice cream on a stick while listening to the traditional music of the Colombian country people and soaking in the spectacular surrounding view.

View from El Peñol Guatape, or El Penol Guatape

 The first person to climb El Peñol was Luis Villegas back in 1954, and he was the visionary behind putting stairs up to the top so others could enjoy the view as well. At the very top there are many artistic facades, or  zócalos, honoring him and his dream.

Luis Villegas and El Peñol Guatape, or El Penol Guatape

 The way down from El Peñol is a different route from the way up. By the time you reach the bottom, your legs will probably be shaking. Again, take it slow and enjoy the journey. Once at the bottom, head up the road to the magically colorful town of Guatape.

El Peñol Guatape, or El Penol Guatape

 The town of Guatape is covered from the waist down with the impeccably painted zócalos depicting different flowers, animals, cars, or scenes of traditional Colombian life, like the famous “silleteros” who carry things like flowers from their farms to the cities in containers on their backs.

Silleteros

 Back in the 1980s the leaders of Guatape decided to beautiful the town, and thus began the creation of the artistic zócalos. Because of this, easy to spend hours wandering about Guatape, enjoying the cheerful colorful houses, and admiring the details of the town.

Calle de Recuerdos in Guatape

 If you are traveling in Medellin, Colombia, then a day trip to El Peñol and Guatape are definitely a “must” on your to do list. From climbing the rock to exploring the town, you will be happy you took the time to come out and explore.

Calle de Recuerdos in Guatape

Driving the Colombian Countryside to Tierradentro

“If I hadn’t had two years of living in Costa Rica for training, this would be quite intense,” I said to my mom, as we both breathed a sigh of relief after passing through yet another mud pit on our way from Silvia to Tierradentro.

“Well, this is still quite…exciting,” she replied, having finally selected a word that truly captured the moment.

Driving in Colombia

 We had set off from the small town of Silvia only a few hours before, climbing up into the mountains on a lesser-traveled route to get to San Andrés de Pisimbalá, the closest town to the historical tombs of Tierradentro.
Our driver had selected the current route after asking around town and finding out that the main road to San Andrés was blocked by a landslide which had taken place 15 days prior. What we didn’t know when we set off, however, was that this new route we were taking was perhaps even more treacherous.

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  As we got higher and higher into the mountain range, we became further from civilization. Soon, we were in the middle of nowhere, in a misty fog, and the road had turned into sloppy muddy ruts from the wheels of the busses and motorcycles that had passed on before us.

Driving in Colombia

 We safely passed our first little landslide and mud patch and the road reverted to its normal compact dirt country road.
“Thank goodness that’s over,” said my mom. She had no idea we were only just getting started.

Driving in Colombia

 We spent the next five hours crawling through the mountain roads. The views were beyond breathtaking, with mountains upon mountains as far as the eye could see, and lush green countryside all around, but the roads were in terrible condition from the rain.

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  From time to time we would encounter an unmarked fork in the road and our driver would always look to me, and say, “What do we do?” or “Qué hacemos?” in Spanish, like I had the answer. Thank goodness that despite being in the middle of nowhere, we always seemed to find someone who could confirm our route, whether it was a child, a cowboy, or a “mala indígena”, a “bad indigenous person”, as our driver said under his breath after he got directions from a man cutting plants alongside the road.

Driving in Colombia

 “What’s mal??” asked my mom, snapping to attention when she recognized a word in Spanish. When I told her what the driver said, her eyes opened wide. She had done a lot of research for our Colombia trip, and the guidebooks had mentioned that the mountains around Tierradentro had a reputation for being a guerrilla stronghold. As we continued on our muddy, hilly, beautifully dangerous route, her mind ran wild with what-if situations where we got stuck in this desolate mountain region.
 At one point we were behind a “chiva”, a bus-truck that was full of people with supplies they had bought at the Silvia market down below. We watched as the men unloaded bag after bulging bag of rice and beans and other various supplies that would have to last for the next month until they went back into town to buy more.

Driving in Colombia

 Along the route we also had several encounters with horses carrying loads of sticks, which would be used as cooking wood in the houses. It was quite funny because usually these horses or donkeys would appear in our path right as we finally had a dry, straight patch of road where our driver was hoping to make up for lost time and go a bit faster.

Driving in Colombia

 One horse ended up galloping in front of us for a few minutes before darting off to the side of the road and another swayed its hips from side to side slowly walking in front of us, apparently unaware of our existence, with no owner in sight.
The last stretch of the drive was some of the most nerve-wracking of the whole five hours. Our driver was a champion, carefully easing his way down through the steep muddy stretches, maneuvering around busses and horses, and maintaining his calm when the going got tough. When we finally arrived to San Andrés de Pisimbalá, and immediately found our hotel, La Portada de Hospedaje, we all could have kissed the ground with gratitude and relief.

Driving in Colombia

 The next two days were spent blissfully relaxing at La Portada, in the quiet town tucked in the lush mountains of the Huila Departamento, and exploring the awe-inspiring archeological tombs and indigenous statues found in Tierradentro.

San Cipriano Colombia is an Adventure Unlike Any Other

“You know you’re in Colombia when your jungle guide is 15 years old and he tells you to walk faster so that he can have more time to play at the waterfall with his younger cousin and brother,” said my mom, as we laughed and reflected on the incredible day we had just spent exploring around San Cipriano, Colombia.

San Cipriano Colombia

The adventure began with a ride on the “brujitas”, which are essentially wooden bench-carts on train tracks, being pushed from behind by motorcycles.

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We piled onto the benches with about 15 other people, and before we knew it we were speeding down the tracks with nothing to hold on to and nothing to hold us in.

San Cipriano Colombia

As we sat there with the wind whipping our faces and the scenery rushing past us we couldn’t help but laugh with excitement. It was unlike anything we had ever experienced!

San Cipriano Colombia

Up until about 12 years ago people were actually powering these carts with man-power, pumping a stick lever to move them along the train tracks. As the need for speed grew, motorcycles were incorporated and now locals and tourists alike fly through the lush jungle.

San Cipriano Colombia

To catch the brujitas you start in a town called Córdoba and for 10,000 Colombian Pesos each way you can pile onto the brujitas to be pushed over rivers and across bridges deep into the jungle to find the town of San Cipriano.

San Cipriano Colombia

A fresh, crystal clear river flows through San Cipriano and many people come to swim and refresh in the deep river water. People climb up the rocks and trees on the banks and jump into the depths of the river with a crowd observing and cheering them on. It is also possible to rent inner tubes and walk up the road in order to float back down the river.

San Cipriano Colombia

The town of San Cipriano has a lot of Afro-Colombian influence and the food is distinct and delicious, with fish from the river as a main option on all menus.

San Cipriano Colombia

While there we enjoyed flavorful “sancocho” fish soup served in mix-matching bowls, with big chunks of sweet plantain and potato, and a fried fish lunch, as well as “torta de coco”, which are sweet coconut muffins served in half the shell of a coconut.

San Cipriano Colombia

As you walk the streets you will also see many locals selling a creamy white liquid in whatever recycled plastic container they happen to have. This is supposedly an aphrodisiac, but then again the Colombians seem to call everything an aphrodisiac, from goats milk with honey to various fruits and vegetables.

San Cipriano Colombia

As we were enjoying our lunch, a warm afternoon rain shower passed through and we watched several local boys start a game of soccer in the field across from the restaurant. It was a mix of splashing in puddles and chasing each other around the field in pursuit of the ball, but it was so cute to observe.

San Cipriano Colombia

We happened to be in San Cipriano during a national holiday, so there were many visitors and all the children were free from school. Apparently the town is usually quite quiet during the week, but because of this holiday it was extra alive and festive.

San Cipriano Colombia

After lunch we decided to search out some waterfalls, and this is when we were connected with our local 15 year old guide, Jhonny. As we walked down the street we got to know about him, and even met his younger cousin and brother, who joined us on our hike to the waterfalls. They had very limited English, and kept trying to engage my mom in a rapid-fire Spanish conversation, in between searching for river shrimp. They were amusing to say the least.

San Cipriano Colombia

Just as we were about to cross the river an old local man asked us if we were going to the waterfalls. When we told him yes he laughed at our sandals and told us we needed boots… All three of our little guides had them, but we decided to continue on, hoping for the best.

San Cipriano Colombia

As we hiked the muddy, root-ridden path, climbing up steep waist-high step wells we realized what kind of trek we were in for. Several groups of people passed us, going the other way, and they were caked with mud from their hands to the toes. It was around this time that Jhonny told me that we needed to hike faster, to make it to the waterfall and avoid nightfall in the jungle. It was only 3pm, but the shade of the thick vegetation foreshadowed just how dark the place would be come sunset.

San Cipriano Colombia

We started to get worried, but Jhonny assured us it was just “dos bajadas más” or about 15 minutes more, down two more steep declines, and we really wanted to swim in the waterfall so we persevered. In the end it was worth it. After another short walk up a river, we could hear the thundering of the water from the falls, and soon we walked up on a solid green wall, with mist hitting us before we were even to the swimming pool.

San Cipriano Colombia

There was another family there, celebrating the free day together, and we all decided to head back to the main area at the same time. Somehow the walk back only took us 30 minutes in comparison to the walk there, and by the end, the mother of this family of strangers was inviting me to stay at their home and get to know her kids. The Colombian people are truly some of the kindest and most hospitable people I have met in all my travels.

San Cipriano Colombia

After some final relaxation in the river it came time to catch the final 6pm brujitas to leave San Cipriano. Once back to the drop off point, we found a mob of people waiting to leave the jungle village. We came to understand that we needed to get a number which would give us our order for boarding the brujitas and when they finally called “80” we climbed up to the train tracks, selected our seats and prepared for takeoff.

San Cipriano Colombia

We rode back with the sun setting behind the lush jungle, creating gorgeous palm tree silhouettes on the horizon. By the time we got back to the station, I had made yet another friendly Colombian host-friend, and as we said our goodbyes I was simply in awe at the incredible adventure we had experienced in San Cipriano, Colombia that day.

San Cipriano Colombia

Have you ever experienced San Cipriano or anywhere like it? I am pretty sure it is a one-of-a-kind place. If you ever make it to Colombia, definitely take a day and check it out. You will never forget it!

Things to Do While You Find Paradise in Pokhara Nepal

Do you love good food? Do you love meeting new and interesting people? Do you love nature, spectacular views, and hiking or trekking? Do you love the convenience of a tourist town, with a laid-back vibe that allows you to feel like a local in a matter of days? Then Pokhara, Nepal is for you.

Absolute bliss. That is exactly what I felt as I stepped off the tourist bus, after spending 8 hours winding my way along the mountainous roads which brought me from the dusty capitol city of Kathmandu to the lakeside town of Pokhara, Nepal. After previously spending 21 days in India, Nepal was a breath of fresh air, and Pokhara seemed like paradise.

I came to the city with absolutely no idea what I was in for, but I quickly realized that Pokhara is the type of place that is full of possibilities. Whether you come for a weekend, or for weeks on end, you can happily pass day after day in this little lakeside paradise, or branch out and see the surrounding mountains and lakes.

Phewa (Fewa) Lake Pokhara Nepal

Arriving in Pokhara:

From the Tourist Bus stop, you will need to take a taxi into town; it’s walk-able, but with a big bag or suitcase, you will be much happier to pay the 200-250 rupees and save your walking for when you’re exploring around the town.

The town is basically divided into two parts- Central Lakeside and North Lakeside. The Central area is a bit more upscale, more for vacationers, while North Lakeside is more budget backpacker style. I visited Pokhara twice during my month in Nepal, the first time staying in Central Lakeside, and the second time staying in North Lakeside. Both are wonderful, but in all honesty, I much preferred North Lakeside. There is more character all around- from the streets, to the restaurants, to the people- and you get a lot more for your money. There are many “Guesthouses” all around, so if you get let out around Sabina’s Momos or Wheat to Sweet Bakery, you can start to walk and ask around. On the North side of town, $10 for a room is a *splurge*. For instance, I stayed in the Guesthouse Tri Shatki Buddha, which has an amazing rooftop view of the lake, and provides private rooms with their own bathroom and hot shower included for only $3 a day… You really can’t beat that!

If you would rather stay in Central Lakeside, just ask the taxi to let you out there, and start looking around for a hotel. Pokhara is a full of places to stay. My first time I stayed in Pokhara I was at a place just up the road from Once Upon a Time Restaurant and for $40 a night I had a room very similar to my $3 room, only with a large living room area and an included breakfast…but wouldn’t you rather explore the different restaurants and choose the food you want, rather than eat from a semi-warm buffet??

Eating in Pokhara:

There are so many restaurants it’s hard to decide where to go. From my experience, you probably can’t go wrong with any of them, but a few of my favorites are as follows:

Europa Restaurant – it’s a small restaurant boasting the “best burgers” in town, but I happened to go there for breakfast…and it was a-mazing. Their spanish breakfast alone has a portion which is generous enough for two people, and it costs less than $3. I seriously could have eaten there morning, noon and night. The seating area is very limited, as the space is attached to the kitchen and house, and oftentimes the owners’ kids will help take your order or count back your change.

Flying Spirit–  it kind of has a shack look about it, but as you step down from the street and into this little restaurant you are greeted with a beautiful view of the lake, a cozy seating area, and hand-written menus with drawings and quotes from patrons added in on the back pages. I tried the spinach and cheese momos, and the falafel, and both were the best I had eaten in my entire time in Nepal.

Freedom Cafe– from the outside, this place doesn’t look like much. It has a simple, green, average looking sign depicting it’s name, but when you enter it’s as if you’re stepping into a tree-house hut wonderland, complete with live music and a wide variety of mouth-watering food options. This is the type of place where you will want to go again, and again, and again… I had a perma-smile on my face the entire time as I sat cross-legged on cushions, swaying with the music and savoring every bite of my veg enchilada.

Perky Beans Cafe– This cafe is in Central Lakeside, making it a bit more pricey, but the honey latte I received here was so out-of-this-world good that I had to go back for more… They also have wifi and a prime view of the main street, so you can sit and people watch while you sip on an afternoon latte.

Maya Restaurant– Maya actually means “love” in Nepali, but the decor of this restaurant had masks which reminded me of the ancient Mayan culture. Located in Central Lakeside, the restaurant has dark exposed wooden beams and a fireplace in the center of the top floor, which they kindly started up for us when a cold rain storm blew in. If you sit in the top patio area, you can look out on the street and people watch, which is fun, and if you sit more towards the center you can enjoy the music- sometimes they even have a live Nepali band playing.

Adventuring Around Pokhara:

At the beginning of your stay, pass half a day walking the waterfront of Phewa (Fewa) Lake. Stop to have a drink in one of the little bamboo cafes along the way, or grab a fresh-squeezed juice from one of the food huts. There are several places with Bob Marley or Beatles themes, so even if you don’t stop for a break you will hear their music drifting along with the breeze.

Spend the other half of your day exploring the smaller streets off the “main drag” of the city. Here you will find a few stores where you can make your own arts and crafts, and it helps support the local Nepali people. It is a great opportunity to spend some time with locals and learn their about their culture and their trades. One such place is called Backstreet Academy, and another place specifically run by Nepali women was called Kriayt.

Another fun way to spend a day is to rent a boat and paddle across to the base of a trail where you can hike up to the World Peace Pagoda. This is a fun way to see Fewa Lake from a different perspective, and to also enjoy a short 45 minute hike up to the beautiful Peace Pagoda. Spend some time reflecting on the and soaking in the views along the way, and maybe even stay for a tea at the top.

If you would like to see a less modern version of Pokhara, catch a bus, or take a taxi to Old Pokhara where you can spend a few hours walking around and seeing the “local” side of things. You won’t find many tourists, but as you meander the streets from temple to temple you will get a taste of the normal Nepali life.

Pokhara is also known for paragliding, and at any given moment you can look up in the sky and see dozens of paragliders soaring through the air near the mountains. You can look into details in many shops located on the main street through town. They even have certain companies where a hawk will fly by you to help find the best air currents.

If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, rent a mo-ped, only $6 a day, and take a short 30 minute cruise to the nearby Begnas Lake. Here you can also walk around the lake, or rent a boat and paddle to the middle, then take a quick swim. It is fun to get out of Pokhara and see a more local side of the Nepali culture as you make your way through the towns and villages on the way to the lake.

Hiking and Trekking Around Pokhara:

Many people come to Pokhara to use it as a starting point for a trek. This is great because Pokhara has all you need in order to prepare for a trek through the Himalayas. There are hundreds of stores lining the streets where you can rent clothing, sleeping bags, trekking poles, and sometimes even boots, and whatever you can’t rent, you can buy. Always remember to try and bargain a little bit, but the prices are already so reasonable it’s hard to complain. On the outskirts of Pokhara you can also buy your TIMs permit and your Entrance permit near the Tourist Bus Station. Be aware that you must have 4 passport photos for this! If you don’t already have them, you can buy them along the way.

There are many companies which offer trekking guides, but if you’re in Pokhara for a few days you are bound to find a few people who might want to go with you. All the trails are quite clearly marked, and there are “tea houses” or guesthouses along the way, so fear not. I personally did the trek to the Anna Purna Base Camp (ABC Hike) and added on Poon Hill at the end. It was during March and I couldn’t have asked for a better time. The days were warm, the nights were cold, and the hillsides were in full bloom with the national Rhododendron flowers. It was spectacular!

Another shorter, yet equally spectacular, hike near Pokhara is the hike up to Sarankot. Many people take this mini-trek in the morning to watch the sunrise over the mountains. The views of the lakes all around, and of the snow-covered mountain peaks changing from light blue to a brilliant white with the golden glow of the sun is beyond beautiful.

Evening Activities in Pokhara:

In general, nightlife doesn’t go too late in Nepal, but in Pokhara you can always find something to do, from movies to music to live fire-dancing shows.

The Pokhara open-air movie theater is a really fun way to pass an evening. For around $2.50 you can sit under the stars and watch an old-school movie, or maybe even catch a double feature!

Silk Road Restaurant has live music on Wednesday nights, making it a great place to go have a drink and meet some people with great vibes. The restaurant alone is worth a visit just for it’s beautiful ambiance of painted walls and a gorgeous garden.

Blues Bar is a popular place to catch some live music and to meet other travelers while dancing.

While walking around town, keep an eye out for any posters that might tell you of things going on in the area. For example, when I was in Pokhara, some travelers who practiced fire-dancing had settled down for a few weeks and they were putting on shows every Friday night. It was pretty incredible to watch them practice their passion, and to meet other interesting people while there.

As you can see, there is no shortage of things to do in the little paradise town of Pokhara. Once you settle in and start meeting people, the town will feel like home in no time. The hardest part of your visit will be summoning up the will to leave.

 

Make the Most of Your Visit to Monteverde Costa Rica

Tucked away towards the center of the country, you will spend several hours driving to arrive in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Despite the fact that it is one of the country’s top tourist destinations, the roads remain unpaved, and they curve along the mountainsides as they climb higher and higher into the luscious cloud forest that awaits you. Take it slow, and enjoy the journey. The drive is worth it- Monteverde is amazing.

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When most people say “Monteverde” they typically mean the whole area around the actual National Park of Monteverde. Santa Elena is the city which is a “hub of activity” with restaurants, hotels/hostels, supermarkets, shops and the Amigos bar. Although the area is quite small, it is brimming with things to do. If you love to hike and be out in nature, this is the place for you.

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If you decide to take the trek to Monteverde, the following list will help ensure that you make the most of your time in the area…

1. Go zip-lining or walk the suspension bridges

Monteverde is known for its magical cloud forest, and two great ways to experience this forest are either to zip-line through it, or to walk in the sky while crossing the incredible suspension bridges. Zip-lining will take you zooming through the canopies and across open expanses where you feel as if you’re a bird, soaring through the open sky. The suspension bridges will also take you to amazing heights, but with these you will walk through at your own pace, which lets you look around longer and soak in all the details. Both experiences will get your heart beating and will leave your mouth dropping open in amazement…and if you’re really gutsy, be sure to try the Tarzan swing towards the end of your zip-lining experience. This swing will be one of the most terrifying, yet exhilarating, experiences of your time in Costa Rica.

There are several places which offer these services, and you can book a tour ahead of time while walking through Santa Elena. I chose Selvatura Adventure Park and was 100% satisfied with the experience.

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2. Hike Curi Cancha Nature Reserve

Curi Cancha Nature Reserve is full of wildlife, easy walking trails, and spectacular scenery. The trails are well-marked and the rangers at the entrance will help you select the route that’s best for you. Every time I have visited this park, I have been lucky enough to see the cute pizotes (they look like a raccoon’s cousin) hanging out around the picnic tables, as well as dozens of hummingbirds buzzing around the feeders in the trees. Curi Cancha is up a small dirt road just to the left of the Monteverde Cheese Factory. You can always stop here before or after your hike for a sweet treat or something more substantial to eat.

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3. Climb the hollowed out strangler trees

While hiking around, you will see many tangles of vines covering trees. If you get closer and stick your head into the vines, you may be delighted to find out that some of these masses are hollow within, and very easy to climb. “Strangler trees”, as they are called, start out as a seed in the branches of existing trees, and over hundreds of years they grow down and cover the tree, suffocating it until eventually the tree within dies and decomposes, leaving behind a natural tree-ladder. If you decide to climb up these central tunnels, you can look out the “windows” at the forest beyond and depending on the tree, you may be able to climb all the way up to the top and emerge out in the canopy above for the view of a lifetime. There are strangler trees all around the area’s cloud forests, but I found at least half a dozen to explore in Curi Cancha alone.

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4. Take a night tour

A night tour offers a whole new perspective on the  beautiful forests you have already explored during the day. It is incredible to see the different creatures which come out at night, and to also find the daytime creatures curled into a ball and sleeping in the branches. There are many places which offer night tours in both English and Spanish, and they typically start around 6pm, just after sunset.

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5. Stop at Stella’s Bakery

Stella’s is an absolute must if you are anywhere near Monteverde. Located shortly before the Curi Cancha Nature Reserve, it offers a delectable menu with both savory and sweet items, as well as juices, teas and coffees. The best part about Stella’s is the wide variety of birds which come to the feeder just outside of the main eating area. In the time it takes you to drink a coffee, you will probably see over a dozen different exotic birds right outside the window!

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6. Catch your own fish dinner

If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, continue past Monteverde towards the town of San Luis and go catch your own fish dinner at the Rancho de Lelo. On the drive, you wind down into the valley and see the San Luis Waterfall in the distance, before eventually passing the school and curving towards the right to find the sustainable Rancho, which is actually a project in conjunction with the University of Georgia. The drive is only about 15-20 minutes beyond Monteverde, but as we made our way there, my passengers began to exclaim that we couldn’t possibly be on the right track… until we came upon the sign below, and then entered our own personal paradise. One thing I learned from my two years in Costa Rica is that you can’t judge a place based on the appearance.

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Places to stay:

Santa Elena / Monteverde has many options of places to stay, ranging from hostels to bed and breakfast hotels. Two places I highly recommend, due to their hospitality and wonderful owners, are the Monteverde Rustic Lodge, and Cabanas Valle Campanas. Both are owned by Costa Rican families, and have beautiful accommodations which are only about a 5 minutes drive from the city center.

Many visitors spend a few short days in Monteverde, and if you are one of them, make sure to keep this list in mind. These six suggestions will help you have a unique and memorable experience, and when you leave you will know you have made the most of your visit to Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Have you ever been to Monteverde? What were some of your favorite things you did while there?

 

Live Each Day to the Fullest, Toastmasters Edition

For as long as I can remember, I have always strived to make each day count. I am not a sit-on-the-couch kind of girl, I’m a get-up-and-get-out-there kind of girl. I love to see the world. I love to explore new places, or even go to familiar places but with a fresh set of eyes. When I travel, I apply this same mantra of “live each day to the fullest” as I make my way around the world.

The first time I lived outside of Michigan, it was for one summer working as an intern in Dallas, Texas. There, I embraced another one of my mantras, which is to “be a traveler, not a tourist“. While in Texas,  I got to know a lot about Dallas and the surrounding areas, and when I wasn’t working, I was immersing myself in the Texas culture.

A while back, I was going through boxes of old things, and I came across a speech I had written for a Toastmasters group I participated in while living in Dallas. Toastmasters is a group which helps people improve their public speaking skills in a fun and safe environment, and the group is always looking to reach potential new members. At the end of the summer, the interns in Toastmasters decided to put on an event for other co-workers to come and see if they may potentially want to join the group…Below is my speech for the event, and although some parts are kind of silly out of context, it still reminds us all to live life to the fullest, and embrace life as travelers, not a tourists.

“Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist”

Holly Haveman, Summer 2009

When I first found out I was going to be interning in Texas, I didn’t know what to expect. A scorching summer and a whole bunch of cowboys were the first things that came to mind. Whatever it was, I knew I was going to make the most of it.

I knew I wanted to positively impact my work environment, to meet new people, explore new places, and learn as much as I could about everything in the process. In a nutshell, I knew I wanted to live each day to the fullest.

I got a letter from my friend in the mail the other day, and in it was a bottle cap. Now, it wasn’t a Snapple cap, but I know you still would have liked it, Mr. Christopher Rose.

On the inside of the cap were words of wisdom, and they said, “Be a Traveler, not a Tourist.” I immediately knew I liked what this cap was telling me.

I started thinking about my time here in Texas, and I realized that quote perfectly described how I lived my summer, as a traveler, not a tourist.

Travelers must immerse themselves in their surroundings, get out of their traditional comfort zone, and see what the world has to offer. 

I have learned to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and to seek out things that don’t necessarily find you on their own.

As a traveler I was able to do so many amazing things this summer. Throughout the summer, I actively sought to find local events that were happening, and jumped on any opportunity to experience something new. I have been told many times that I have seen and done more in Texas than some people who have lived here their whole lives.

This summer I have done things I never would have imagined doing… I watched an Indy race, shot a gun…in fact, I shot more than one gun! I rode a bull…just kidding! but I did watch bull riding, and I did ride a dirt bike through the desert all on my own!

I helped build a house, and I’ve eaten down-home cookin’ like fried okra and chicken fried steak- which I didn’t even know existed until I came here… I also learned how to country western dance, as well as dance like a flapper in the ’20s.

I fed a donkey, and a zebra, and a cow…I killed a cockroach outside of my hotel…I mean, I am really impressing myself with this list!

Now, before this summer, I had never worked in a “corporate” setting, so coming here was a huge step outside of my “comfort zone”. Through my first project, I met many people in different departments and positions. Every worker has something to contribute, and I tried to take away what I could from each person I came across.

Toastmasters was a big help in easing me into the corporate workplace because it helped break up my day and it introduced me to all you fine people! I am sitting in a room full of intelligent and creative minds, and I am extremely glad I was able to be part of this group.

When we first started Toastmasters, many of us were unaware of our Um’s, Er’s, Ya Know’s and so on. We didn’t know that a “broken arm” didn’t necessarily need a sling or cast, that the “fig leaf” wasn’t only found on trees or Greek statues, and that badges could serve as distracting play tools.

We quickly learned from the rattle of the posturologist, and eventually even started making up our own names for distracting things like, “playing the bongos”, “the hugger”, and “scoliosis”.

Toastmasters has been a wonderful opportunity to grow and learn from each other, while at the same time learning about each other. I’ve absolutely seem improvements in all of our public speaking skills, and I know we consciously take what we learn from Toastmasters and apply it to our everyday lives.

This whole summer has been a learning experience, and that was what I was hoping for. I met new people, made new friends, explored my surroundings, and I found out there is more to Texas than cowboys and extreme heat.

I want to end this speech by reminding you all to live each day to the fullest! Go into everything with an open mind and a fresh set of eyes, and strive to do your best. Tasks may seem daunting and some jobs may seem unconquerable, but give everything a fair shot and I know you will surprise yourself.

I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to speak to you today, and to meet and learn from you this summer. I can now add this summer spent in Texas to the list of things I’ve done as a traveler, not a tourist.