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South America

My Galápagos Islands Cruise: A Travel Dream Come True

galapagos tortoise dani1

The Galapagos Island have been a dream destination for me for as long as I can remember. I had this image in my head of remote islands with stunning volcanic landscapes and free-roaming tortoises and giant iguanas. I pictured the islands to be mainly uninhabited, and if there were people living on them, they would be outnumbered by wild creatures.
galapagos island iguanaI knew the best way to see the islands was to take a cruise, to sail around the islands for a few days, go on land excursions and snorkeling trips while enjoying life on the water in between. A few weeks ago, I finally boarded a plane to the Galapagos Islands and I was curious to see how the reality of a Galapagos cruise would compare to the picture I had in my head.
galapagos majestic yacht at sunsetAfter a two-hour flight from Guayaquil, we arrived on the island of Baltra, a small island that, other than being home to one of two airports in the Galapagos, is uninhabited. Flying in, we could see barren reddish ground below us. Baltra is the world’s first “green” airport, which means it is running on renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, wind farms, and seawater desalination.galapagos islandsBefore we were allowed to leave the airport, we had to pay the $100 National Park fee, and our carry-ons were searched. I quickly learned that it’s not allowed to bring apples onto the islands – or any agriculture goods, for that matter. Later I learned that it is strictly prohibited to bring any food on land with us when we set foot on the islands for land excursions.

From the airport, we took a bus to the ferry pier – everyone who arrives in Baltra has to go to the island of Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the archipelago. Within minutes of having boarded the ferry, we already saw wildlife: a pelican watched us suspiciously as we were boarding the boat, massive crabs crawled around the shore, and a myriad of birds were flying above us. On the short ten minute boat ride to the other island, we passed little mangrove Islands with more birds and a couple of spotted eagle rays swam in the water right next to the boat:
galapagos spotted rayBy now, we were on the Galapagos for 45 minutes – and was already completely smitten by the islands.galapagos islands pelicanWhen we arrived in Santa Cruz, we hopped on a bus which took us on our first land excursion, before we even boarded our yacht. We drove towards the center of the island, and as we got further away from the shore, the grey, dry bushes and branches that cover the rocky ground were replaced by a lush green forest. A rainstorm had just passed through the island and the smell of fresh rain mixed with the smell of the flowers and plants was mesmerizing.
galapagos yellow birdOther than the road that cuts through the green in a straight line, there was no sign of human existence anywhere. At some point, we passed through a village. Nothing more than a few little houses, each and every one flanked by banana trees; a donkey standing on the side of the road.

Our destination? Giant tortoises! We were on our way to see tortoises in the wild, and when we turned off the main road onto a dirt road, my excitement grew. I knew that seeing Giant Tortoises would be a highlight of my trip. It didn’t take long until we started seeing giant tortoises in the grass next to us, and several times our bus had to drive around tortoises on the road. Could this place even be real?!
galapagos giant tortoisesWhile initially we all let out excited aaahs and ooohs every time we saw one of the distinctive big, unmistakable shells, the tortoise spottings became more and more regular until there were dozens of tortoises everywhere around us.
galapagos giant tortoiseWhen we finally reached the end of the road, it felt like we were in tortoise paradise. We were surrounded by tortoises of all sizes who were sitting in the high grass, happily munching away on leaves and straw. They couldn’t care less about us, a group of camera-toting tourists, literally fresh off the boat.
galapagos giant tortoiseBefore we went on a walk around the area, we had lunch at a small restaurant, Rancho Manzanillo, on an open terrace overlooking tortoise territory. As a vegetarian, I am always a bit worried about the available food options, but here, I had nothing to worry about: my vegetarian rice dish was scrumptious.
galapagos lunchBellies full, we all put on wellies and headed down to a pond where the tortoises like to gather.
galapagos giant tortoiseOur naturalist guide – obligatory on every Galapagos cruise – told us that giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrate species, easily reaching over 100 years. The oldest on record lived to be 152 years, but it’s not impossible that there’s a tortoise somewhere on the islands that was already alive when Charles Darwin stopped in the Galapagos in 1835.
dani galapagos islands giant tortoiseWhen Darwin arrived, there were 15 different kinds of tortoises on the islands, now the number is down to 11. Hundreds of thousands of tortoises were killed when whalers and pirates stopped at the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are not on the brink of extinction anymore – but still an endangered species, there are only 15,000 of them left in the Galapagos, which is a tiny number.
galapagos island hammock tortoise
We learned that there are only two places in the world where giant tortoises live: in the Galápagos Islands and in the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

And the word ‘giant’ is the perfect word to describe these massive creatures, which often exceed five feet (1.5 meters) in length and reach up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms) in weight.

We spent a couple of hours with tortoises, which let us watch them eat, chill and even mate, and the two hammocks in between a couple of trees provided a perfect place for that.
galapagos mating giant tortoisesAfter saying goodbye to these gentle giants, we made our way to the port of Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora. This town is the most populated urban center (population 12,000) in the Galapagos Islands and this is where the yacht that would take us around the islands over the next few days was waiting for us.
galapagos islandsThe 16-person aptly named Majestic was amazing: eight cabins for two people each, a gorgeous sun deck with Jacuzzi and sun chairs, and a beautiful dining and lounge area.
galapagos yacht majesticWe got a quick introduction to our floating home over a welcome cocktail before we changed for dinner. My cabin wasn’t big, but it didn’t feel crowded. And most importantly: it had a big, comfortable bed. The nights are the time when the boat is moving from one place to the next, so you want to have it comfy.majestic cabinAfter our first Galápagos sunset and a delicious buffet dinner, we stayed up and chatted for a while, but most people retreated to their cabins around 9pm. It was a long day and we would have an early start the next morning.
galapagos majestic yacht at sunsetAt 6am, I woke up after a mostly well-slept night. I woke up once around 2am, which was when the boat started moving, which made me feel a little seasick. Luckily that feeling passed and I was able to sleep for a few more hours.

After waking up, I headed upstairs to the deck for a quick morning workout, and because I wanted to see where we were anchored. I got up to the deck just in time to see the sunrise. I saw an island to my right and an island to my left, Santiago and Isabela. A bunch of birds were flying right over my head, and they kept flying with the boat the entire morning. A frigate bird watched me from the navigation mast as I did some sit-ups.
frigate bird galapagos islandsI could hardly believe how serene it felt. The Islands seemed uninhabited, there were no other boats. It felt like our boat was the only one cruising around the archipelago, but I knew that there other boats out there, somewhere.
galapagos islandAfter a generous breakfast buffet of pancakes, eggs, breads, cheese, ham, yogurt, porridge, muesli and fresh fruit, it was time for our first wet landing. This means, taking the dinghy to an island near us and getting wet up to the knees while disembarking the dinghy.

Our first stop of the day was Santiago, which was inhabited by a small colony of fisherman until the 1950s, but has been uninhabited since the last of them left to join a bigger settlement on one of the other islands.
espumilla beach galapagos island walkWhen we jumped out of the dingy and waded through the shallow water onto the beach, I thought to myself, this is how Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panamá, must have felt like when he was blown off course during a voyage to Peru and landed in the Galapagos Islands instead. A deserted beach, lush green vegetation, a volcano looming in the background. The island hasn’t changed much since then.
galapagos beachThe beach we landed on is called Espumilla Beach because of the foam (espuma in Spanish) that is created as the waves crash against the shore.

As we walked down the beach, our feet sinking into the soft golden sand, we saw several turtle nests, and several turtles in the ocean, their heads peeking out of the water every now and again. Being able to visit such a remote place made me appreciate the fact that I was cruising around the Galápagos Islands rather than trying to explore them from an ‘island base’ – because it’s secluded beaches like this one that you just can’t get to unless you are on a cruise.
galapagos birdWe watched the ghost crabs quickly moving into their sand holes every time we got too close, pelicans and blue footed boobies dive bombing for food with a sudden plunge – head first – into the ocean, and an American Oysterhunter enjoying the solitude.
galapagos majesticOur second stop for the day: snorkeling! Our first exploration of the underwater world of the Galapagos took place just off the coast of Santiago. As soon as we jumped into the ocean we noticed how clear the water was, and we were surrounded by colorful fish immediately. On this first snorkeling trip we saw a small shark, a sea turtle and a spotted eagle ray. Not bad for a morning of snorkeling!
galapagos fishNext on our agenda was kayaking. We got to see the same coastal area we just explored underwater, except that we are now above water. We kayaked along the rocky cliff side of the island, watched some seals lazing in the sun and some blue footed boobies sunbathing on the rocks. Whenever I turned around, I saw nothing but the open sea. It truly felt like we were the only ones out there. So far, I still had not seen a single other boat.
galapagos sea lion on rockWe got back to the boat and had lunch, and right after we polished off our plates the boat started its engines to bring us to our next stop. While we were cruising, we had time to make use of the sun deck and the jacuzzi. The luxury yacht is just as much a part of this experience as the landscapes we passed and the wildlife we saw.
galapagos islands cruiseA couple of hours later, our stop for the afternoon came into sight: nothing more than a barren rock in the ocean, surrounded by smaller rocks, all bleak, without any sign of life on them. There were, however, four or five other boats anchored here, and we soon learned why: Bartolome Island is home to some spectacular lava formations, the most remarkable one being Pinnacle Rock, a rock formation that rises high into the sky.
galapagos islands pinnacle rockThe tiny island is said to have some of the most beautiful landscapes of all of the Galapagos Islands, including a tuff cone of an extinct volcano that can be climbed that offers stunning views over Bartolome and the other islands, and a variety of red, orange, green, and black volcanic formations. Sadly, we had frolicked in the water for too long during our morning excursion that we ran out of time to climb the volcano before sunset, but there was still time for another snorkeling session.
galapagos islands excursionWhat the island lacks in plant and animal life is more than compensated by the surrounding sea. This is a popular spot for Galapagos penguins, and sure enough two playful penguins joined us on our swim for a while. Watching them whiz around us and chase each other was highly entertaining. After they left, we swam slowly along the rocks on the shore and spotted several sharks, spotted eagle rays, star fish and a myriad of colorful fish. We all agreed that this snorkeling session was better than in the morning – and that one had already been amazing!
galapagos penguinBack on the boat, we had just enough time to change into some dry clothes before we set off on a short sunset ride in the dinghies to see the penguins again, this time on shore, and take pictures of the lava rock formations.
galapagos islands penguiinsAfter our sunset excursion, we had our nightly briefing for the next day and were told that we’d have breakfast at 6am. Another early start, and since we had such an action-packed day, everyone retreated to their cabins as soon as we finished another scrumptious dinner.
galapagos majestic dinner tableWhen my alarm went off at 5.30am the next morning, I was everything but ready to get up. My skin burned from too much sun and too little sunscreen the previous day. We fueled ourselves with a filling breakfast and at 6.30am we were already on our way to our first stop of the day: Las Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island.
galapagos beachAgain, we arrived on a completely deserted beach, the only sign of life were the fresh traces of sea turtles who came onto the shore to make their nests in the sand. Looking at the traces, our guide commented that we must have just missed them, that’s how fresh the tracks were.
sally lightfood crabsThe only ones who joined us on our morning beach walk were the hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Crabs that move quickly on the rocks along the shore, already visible from far away, thanks to their bright orange/red bodies. These agile little crabs were supposedly named after a Caribbean dancer, and the way they can climb up rocks on vertical slopes and run in four directions, I can see why someone said they resembled a dancer.
galapagos islands sally lightfoot crabsWe walked over to a little lagoon which is known to be a popular feeding place for flamingos. When we got there, we saw only one lone flamingo marching around the muddy water, but the flamingo population on the Galapagos is only 600, so even seeing just one of these distinctively colored birds felt special.
galapagos flamingoAfterwards, it was time for another snorkeling session. This time, we got to swim with turtles! Even though I’ve swam with turtles in the Philippines and in Mexico, it never loses its magic for me.
galapagos sea turtleThe species of turtles we swam with, the Green Sea Turtle, is the only kind of sea turtle that nests on the Galapagos Islands. Like many species of sea turtles, the Green Sea Turtle is an endangered species, their nests often destroyed by other animals, and the tiny hatchlings being eaten by birds before they can even reach the ocean.
galapagos turtleWe followed these majestic creatures around the coral for a while, watching them feed on sea grass and going up to the water surface to get air every once in a while. For me, it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning.
dani galapagos beachWe returned to the boat where, as always when coming back from an excursion, we were greeted with fresh fruit juice and snacks. We spent the rest of the morning on board, enjoying the sun deck, reading a book, or just gazing out at the ocean.
galapagos cruiseOne thing I loved about the cruise was how well we ate. Sometimes it felt like all we did was eat – especially that morning. In between our post-snorkel snack and noon we got to try another tasty snack of cheese filled plantains and then it was already time for lunch. Lunch was always served buffet-style, including vegetables, rice, some kind of meat and a fresh salad. For me as a vegetarian our chefs prepared a special dish for each meal, including vegetarian ceviche (the rest of our group got ‘real’ ceviche).
Galapagos Yacht DinnerAfter a couple more hours on the boat we reached Santa Cruz where we got off the boat to spend the afternoon in the small town of Puerto Ayoro, to buy some souvenirs, have a drink, or to check our emails (there was no Wi-Fi on board). We all loved the sea lions that seemed to have taken over the town – they were lounging on an otherwise empty dock, frolicking in the water, and stretching out on some benches along the pier.
galapagos sealGetting a glimpse of small town life on the Galápagos Islands was fascinating – can you imagine growing up in a place that remote? The town didn’t have much more than a bunch of souvenir shops and restaurants, a few small hotels and a big playground for kids to play.
galapagos pelicanWe got back to the boat just in time for another beautiful sunset, and then it was already time for our Farewell Dinner and Farewell cocktail. The days on the boat had gone by way too fast!
galapagos cruise sunsetThe cruise was not quite over yet though: On our last morning, we got up early for one last sunrise snorkeling session around Kicker Rock, a rock in the middle of the ocean that is popular with hammerhead sharks. dani galapagos islands yachtAnd yes, it didn’t take long until we spotted the first shark! In addition to sharks, we were joined by a group of sea lions, a lonesome turtle and again, hundreds of colorful fish. A memorable end to our four-day cruise.
Snorkeling
After breakfast, we disembarked in San Cristobal where we were once again entertained by the local sea lions who take up every single free spot around the pier. One last moment with these adorable creatures, and then we were off to the airport, where one last adventure awaited us.
galapagos sealSince our cruise ended in a different island than we departed from, we got to take a tiny 8-seater plane back to the main airport in Baltra. I ended up in the co-pilot seat, terrified at first, but quickly easing into the experience and enjoying the vast ocean views with a little island coming into view every once in a while. This was my first time in such a tiny aircraft, and having a front row seat for it made it even more exceptional than it already was.
galapagos tiny planeAs we approached the airport in Baltra, where our connecting flight to Guayaquil was waiting, I felt the strong urge to skip the flight and stay longer in the Galapagos. I was not ready to get back to the mainland, where emails, work and deadlines were awaiting me. I wished I had more time in this remote paradise – the Galapagos Islands had captivated me in a way no other place has had a grip on me in a long time.
galapagos kicker rockI am not sure if I’ll ever get to return to the Galápagos Islands, but if I do, I’ll make sure to spend more than four days there – I already missed the Majestic, which we had left only a couple of hours before, and I wanted to explore the islands we didn’t get to see on our cruise – like Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island or the beaches of San Cristobal Island.
galapagos land iguana

Stay tuned for a full article on how you can visit the Galapagos Islands – on a cruise like I did with Galapagos Luxury Charters, or independently.

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48 Hours in Santiago de Chile

Santiago De Chile

The booming Chilean capital can be hard to figure out for some tourists, but Santiago has so many beautiful attractions – from sprawling markets to vast parks, and picturesque neighborhoods to world-class museums. 48 hours is nowhere near enough time to soak up the true nature of this five million strong South American city, but following this guide will give you a true taste of the city, from its main attractions to its most charming markets and quarters, plus where to find the best views and where to devour typical Chilean dishes and drinks.
santiago with andes mountains chile1

Day 1

10am: Plaza de Armas and the cathedral

Before you start your tour, get yourself a BIP card for public transport (available in all metro stations). You can buy single use tickets for the city’s efficient, clean, art-packed metro system, but buses accept BIP cards only, so it makes the most sense to use it for both. Pay 1,500 Pesos ($2.20) and then load it with as much credit as you need – 5,000 Pesos ($7.36) should be plenty even for an active 48 hours in Santiago.

Exit the metro at the beautiful Plaza De Armas, the city’s central plaza and home to kilometro zero, the central point from which the city has continued to sprawl out in all directions. The plaza is home to historic buildings such as the incredibly ornate Central Post Office, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia and, as in nearly every Latin American city, the main cathedral. Although it might appear a bit bland from the outside, do not skip a trip inside, which is packed with impressive details and treasures you would never guess were there from the building’s façade.
Santiago Cathedral and Plaza De Armas

11am: Café con Piernas and Window Shopping

Head down one of the pedestrian shopping streets – Ahumada or Estado – that connect the Plaza De Armas with the Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue, the city’s main artery. Either one makes for good window-shopping and both have several (above-board) Café con Piernas, (coffee with legs). These unique coffee shops are a Santiago institution, where waitresses flaunt their legs while serving fairly good quality coffee to ogling men and gossiping ladies. Although some can be of a seedier variety, the ones on the main drags – Café Haiti and Café Caribe – are filled with people of all ages, even families, who stop in for coffee.
coffee with legs waitress

1pm: First Views Over Santiago

Once you reach Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, turn left and head towards Cerro Santa Lucia. Set just inside the mighty Andes Mountains, Santiago itself is mainly flat, but there are two cerros (hills) right in the city center that afford perfect views of the city. Santiago was founded right on Cerro Santa Lucia, but today it is appreciated more as a lookout over the trendy Lastarria neighborhood and, on a clear day free of smog, the views that spread out over the city to the Andes mountains beyond. The hill itself is gorgeous, with majestic fountains, intricate Spanish tile work, even a European style (mini) castle and gorgeous gardens on every level, all the way to the top.
Santiago Cerro Santa Lucia with views

3pm: The Lastarria Neighborhood

After enjoying the views, it is time for a break – and you are right next to the best neighborhood to relax – Lastarria. Just a short walk further down on Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, turn left on Jose Victorino Lastarria, the main street through the barrio (quarter). Lastarria is popular with tourists and locals alike, and you will see many locals flock here to eat in the excellent restaurants, chat in creative cafes, and take in the interesting architecture and colorful neo-classical buildings, including the gorgeous Ivy House. On the weekends, there is a little flea market and if you need a quick pick-me-up, Café Wonderful (Lastarria 90) is truly wonderful indeed.

If you’d prefer to sample Chilean wines, you can do this just a few doors down at BocaNariz (Lastarria 276). They have over one hundred native wines on their menu and also offer several sample options where you can try three different 50ml glasses of wine. Our tip: the Fresh & Fruity white wine sample on a warm afternoon is perfection.

You could eat in any of the many restaurants on Lastarria, but for a hearty meal head to La Fuente Alemana for a truly Chilean lunch experience – even Anthony Bourdain stopped here for lunch and loved it. This old-fashioned diner-style restaurant has seats around a large, square, open kitchen – just pull up a seat at the counter and watch the cooks prepare massive lomitos – Chilean-style sandwiches loaded with roasted pork, avocado, lettuce, tomato, cheese and other ingredients. There are other branches around town, but the most central we’ve seen is at Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins just across the river from Barrio Bellavista near the Baquedano metro station, just a short walk further down from the Lastarria neighborhood, on the way to the next stop: Bellavista.

After you’ve eaten, head further east from here, either on Merced or Parque Forestal, the park across the street, until you get to Plaza Italia.
santiago lastarria neighborhood

5pm: The Bellavista Neighborhood and Street Art

Once you have reached Plaza Italia, turn left and cross the Mapocho River and you will find yourself on Pio Nono, the main street of the Bellavista neighborhood. Bellavista is a bohemian area with a fun, youthful vibe that is packed with restaurants, bars and clubs, many of which are located on Pío Nono street. Pio Nono leads straight to Cerro San Cristobal, your next stop. Meander through the side streets of this barrio to see centuries’ old mansions, colonial houses and the best street art in the city. Bellavista is also home to Pablo Neruda’s Santiago home La Chascona (just follow the signs up around the hill) and definitely check out Patio Bellavista – filled with shops and restaurants, including one of my favorite breakfast/brunch spots – a French bakery/restaurant called Le Fournil.
Bellavista neighborhood Santiago

6.30pm San Cristobal Hill

Take Pio Nono to the end to reach the bottom of Cerro San Cristobal, the city’s second highest hill with a 14 meter tall Virgin Mary statue on top that can be seen far and wide. San Cristobal affords the best views and if you are not too tired, you can hike 45 minutes to the top. If steep hikes on uneven terrain aren’t your idea of fun, you can also either hop on the funicular (when it’s working) or take a free bus up to the top (when it’s not).
santiago and andes

9pm: Party at a Santiago Institution: La Piojera

Leave your fancy clothes at home and make your way to La Piojera, a gritty cantina just around the corner from Mercado Central (Calle Aillavilu 1030). This local watering hole is the ultimate Chilean experience, packed with the entire gamut of Chileans (and a few savvy out-of-towners), all there to enjoy the bar’s infamous Terremotos (earthquake), a deliciously strong drink made of Pipeño (a sweet fermented wine), pineapple ice cream and Fernet Branca (herbal liquor). A half liter costs less than US$4 and is enough to make you stumble (hence the name).
La Piojera Santiago de Chile

A Quieter Alternative: The Clinic Bar

La Piojera can get pretty crowded, loud and rowdy, especially in the summer months and on weekends. If you are looking for a quieter, more intellectual vibe, I recommend The Clinic, named after the satirical Chilean newspaper The Clinic (comparable to The Onion), which pokes fun at the country’s right wing party in posters and the menu – which is printed in a satirical newspaper format. If you speak Spanish, you can get great insight here of Chile’s current political issues, relationship with neighboring countries and also some witty, sharp international commentary. Along with the political statements you can also enjoy typical Chilean dishes and drinks here.the clinic bar santiago

Day II

9am: Barrio Brazil and Yungay

Assuming you’re up and running the next morning after your big night out, don’t skip a morning trip to Barrio Yungay and nearby Barrio Brasil. Here you’ll find sprawling 19th century mansions of wealthy landowning Santiagueños, quiet squares with towering exotic trees rustling in the breeze and cute local cafes to pass the time. Although these two neighborhoods are just a few metro stops from the Plaza de Armas, most people do not visit here. The best place to start is the Republica Subway Station (on the red line). From here, take Maturana into the neighborhood, and don’t miss the Basilica del Salvador and Plaza Brasil on Huerfanos, the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de la Precio Sangre Church on Compana de Jesus, and Plaza Yungay on Rosa.

Barrio Brazil was an upper-class neighborhood in the 1800s, and many of the mansions from that time remain, while Barrio Yungay feels more typically ‘Latin American’, with colorful, if slightly crumbling, colonial houses and cobblestone streets. In Barrio Yungay, from Plaza Yungay, walk Libertad three blocks south to Peluqueria Francesa, an old-fashioned barbershop / fabulously decorated eatery. Stop for a coffee (or breakfast) here to take in what feels like a time-warp to the 1920s, with walls decorated with memorabilia like movie posters, antique furniture, dolls, and a surprisingly rich collection of barbershop-related paraphernalia. Perhaps more importantly for some, Happy Hour here is actually ‘Happy Day’ (10am to 9pm) and Pisco Sours are only $3!
Santiago Barrio Brasil

12pm: Museo de la Memoria

Before leaving Santiago, a trip to the Museo de la Memoria, Santiago’s Human Rights Museum is an absolute must.

From La Peluqeria Francesa, take Compañia de Jesus four blocks to the west and turn right on Chacabuco, where you will see the museum on the left side. Entry is by donation only, so spend an hour learning about Chile’s very dark and recent history under Pinochet’s military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990. Tens of thousands of innocent citizens ‘disappeared’, more were brutally tortured and countless starved under this strict dictatorship. Although so many Santigueños were affected, people today are focused on growth and the future, so this is your best chance at engaging in any dialogue or learning much about the regime in any detail. In line with Santiago’s affinity for incredible architecture, of course, the building itself is an incredible, modern structure conceived by a group of Brazilian architects.
santiago human rights museum

2pm: Quinta Normal Park

You’ll no doubt need to relax after the museum, so head right across the street to Quinta Normal park, a large park where you can take a boat ride on the lake, relax with a picnic, watch happy kids splashing in the fountains, or, if you truly are a super tourist, you can visit even more museums: The Natural History Museum, the Science and Technology Museum, the Museo Ferroviario (Railway Museum) and the Artequín Museum are all located within the park’s borders.

3pm: Mercado Central

After the park, take the subway (the station is located right at the park’s entrance) to Santiago’s Mercado Central, located at the Puente Cal Y Canto Metro Station. The easiest way is to take the red line to Los Heroes, change onto the yellow line here and take it two stops to Puente Cal Y Canto. Mercado Central is clean, bright and packed with fish stalls and quaintly decorated restaurants for some of the freshest fish dishes in the country. If you are into seafood, this is the perfect place for lunch!
Mercado Central Santiago

5pm: The Sculpture Park

Take the subway #2 from Cal Y Canto two stops to Los Heroes and change onto line #1 to Pedro de Valdivia. Exit and turn north on Concepcion, cross the river again and you’ll be right inside the free Sculpture Park, which has the best concentration of public art in Santiago, a city proud of its public art collection. Within walking distance of the Gran Torre de Santiago, which is the tallest building in South America, the park has over 30 wood, bronze and steel pieces by popular Chilean artists.

If you don’t care much for art, you can also just sit in the park and enjoy a book or have some ice cream, or, if you are a fan of panoramic views and want to enjoy more of those, from the highest viewpoint in Santiago, head to Sky Costanera, the Observation Deck on top of the Gran Torre de Santiago. Since the skyscraper is the tallest building in Latin America, you’re enjoying vistas from the highest observation deck south of the U.S. here! Tickets are pretty cheap – CLP10,000 (US$14.75) on a regular day, and only CLP7,500 (~ US$11) on Wednesdays.
santiago sculpture woman

8pm: A Delicious Dinner

After marveling at the beautiful sculptures, it’s time for another delicious meal in Santiago! If you are up for vegetarian food, you’ll find the best vegetarian restaurant in all of Santiago within walking distance from the park – El Huerto is located on Calle Orrego Luco 54, near the Pedro De Valdivia subway station. Other restaurants on the same street, a quiet side street of the busy Providencia neighborhood, include the popular Le Flaubert and Café Del Patio. If you didn’t check out La Fuente Alemana on your walk yesterday (or want more lomitos!) you can also find a branch of the popular sandwich bar on the way from the park to the subway (Avda Pedro de Valdivia 210, on the corner of Andres Bello).
El Huerto Restaurant in Santiago De Chile

Where to stay in Santiago

Since Santiago is a sprawl of several neighborhoods, and with 5.5 million people the 7th most populous city in Latin America, picking a place to stay can be a daunting task. Which neighborhood is the most convenient for a few short days of urban exploration? Which neighborhoods are safe? Which hotels in Santiago are good?

Luckily, Santiago is a pretty safe city – especially compared to other Latin American metropoles – and has a fantastic public transportation system. Buses and subways bring you everywhere in no time, and if you prefer getting around by car, you’ll be happy to hear that Uber is operating in Santiago now.

As for hotels: The W (near the Gran Torre skyscraper) is your best option for a splurge, and several other well known high-end international brands such as Marriott, Sheraton, Crown Plaza, RitzCarlton and Grand Hyatt all have hotels in Santiago. If you don’t want to spend that much, there are plenty of mid-range hotels that often have great deals (on my second visit to Santiago I stayed in a swanky apart-hotel with amazing views over the city for only $50 a night) and of course there are dozens of hostels, if you are traveling on a budget.Modern and historic Santiago

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Polaroid of the week: Street art in Cali, Colombia

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week colombia cali

The place I was most excited to visit in Colombia after Las Lajas sanctuary was Cali, Colombia’s third largest city and the salsa capital of the world. Last year, when I traveled through Colombia for nine weeks, I always saw myself stopping in Cali for a week or two to take salsa lessons – it’s almost a compulsory ritual for solo female travelers in Colombia it seems. You go to Cali and learn how to salsa. But then I flew to Mexico on a whim and never made it to Cali.

My excitement about visiting Cali faded quickly, however, when I read the following section in Wikitravel’s Stay Safe section:

2016: Drive by robberies are frequent. A group of two or three motorcycles will pick a random passerby and surround her, pointing a gun at her and quickly emptying her pockets. The whole thing takes less than a minute. Apart from taking a taxi everywhere, there’s not much you can do about it, because they operate at daytime and even in “safe” neighborhoods too. Apart from common sense(which will minimize but *NOT* eliminate the risk of being robbed), empty your wallet of any unnecessary debit/credit cards, carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the original (If you have an ID card that can be easily replaced, it’s even better), don’t carry a lot of money. If you have an expensive phone, you might want to carry a cheap phone while in Cali. You could wear pants with hidden pockets, because the objective of this crime is to make a quick getaway, not to take a lot of stuff. That said, realize most tourists in Cali don’t get robbed.

Yikes.

I was a bit freaked out, to be honest, and even cut my trip short, instead adding another stop to my tour of southern Colombia. I’d stop not only in Popayan but also in the small town of Pasto.

By the time I finally got to Cali, I had built up this image in my head of the city being a dangerous, gang-infested place where I’d get robbed for sure. Instead, I found a city I instantly liked, and which I didn’t find scary at all.

I went for runs along the beautiful river walk, I wandered around the downtown area, climbed to the top of Acueducto Park Hill for lovely views over Cali, I enjoyed strolls through Simon Bolivar Park while munching on fresh pineapple (for $0.17 a piece I developed an addiction quickly!), and I admired the colonial buildings as well as the awesome street art in the San Antonio neighborhood.

Speaking of street art – somehow nobody ever talks about Cali’s awesome street art scene. I’ve read several articles and blog posts on Cali that talked about the city’s churches and a cat sculpture park and salsa bars and museums, but no mention of the street art.

Hence I was surprised by the amount of street art I saw all over town – but what a pleasant surprise! I loved the colorful murals and graffiti and couldn’t stop snapping away with my phone. The one thing I didn’t dare bring along on my wanderings around town after reading that little paragraph on Wikitravel, was my dSLR camera. I never felt unsafe taking my iPhone out until I was stopped by a local who told me I shouldn’t be walking around with my phone out, but always hiding it.

Luckily, I never found myself in a situation that had me fear for my safety though. Instead, I had a lovely time in Cali. Next time, I’ll come back with more time and will stay long enough to learn salsa.

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Quito – A chilly welcome to Ecuador

quito views5

I was surprised by what I was reading on my Kindle. “Set in a picturesque valley some 2,800 meters above sea level, Ecuador’s lofty capital sits just 25km south of the equator. Its historic Old Town is a splendid maze of cobbled streets, colonial architecture and churches, dazzling attributes which helped it become UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site (along with Krakow) in 1978.”, marveled the author in the Independent article about Ecuador I was reading while enjoying my very first cup of scrumptious Ecuadorian hot cocoa.quito hot chocolateThe article made Quito seem like a gem of a city, a town so beautiful that it would sweep me off my feet. The problem was, I just didn’t feel it. I had spent three days in Ecuador’s capital, my first stop on my trip through the country, which is usually enough time to make me fall for a place. But Quito and I, we just didn’t connect.quito viewsI was a bit wary of visiting Quito, after hearing stories of robberies, people throwing feces from church towers to distract you so that they can take your belongings (see here, here, here, and here), and Quito being a bit sketchy all around.quito street artThe cab driver who brought me from the airport to my hotel (a great opportunity to practice my rusty Spanish during the 45-minute ride) put me at ease, however. Quito had gotten much safer over the past few years, he assured me. I had nothing to worry about.Ecuador QuitoAnd so I excitedly took off on my first exploration of Quito, headed straight for the Old Town. And it  was pleasant, yes – I just didn’t think the churches and the architecture that I saw there were ‘dazzling’, and I also wouldn’t call it a ‘splendid maze’. Lofty – yes, I could agree to that, because Quito is, at 9,350 feet (2,850 meters), the second highest capital in the world – only La Paz, Bolivia, is higher. Was I missing something? Upon returning to my hotel, I did some further research to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and through Alex in Wanderland (who also wasn’t the biggest fan of Quito), I learned about a free walking tour.QuitoThe next morning I joined about ten other travelers on a tour of Quito’s Old Town, this time with commentary from a local, and including a few spots that I had indeed missed. Did any of them wow me though? Unfortunately, I still didn’t love the city, but I have to say that I am glad I joined the walking tour because it gave me a much better understanding of the Ecuadorian culture and some insights into the life, history, and politics of the country.QuitoOur guide Andrea took us to the central market for example, where she gave us an introduction to the local fruits, and where I was excited to learn that one of my favorite Colombian fruits, lulo, grew in Ecuador, too, but was known as naranjilla here. Andrea introduced us to several other Ecuadorian specialties, whetting my appetite for the Food Tour the hostel offers once a week for only $10(unfortunately).Ecuador MarketThe walking tour also brought us to my biggest oversight: The bohemian La Ronda neighborhood with narrow cobblestone alleys and colorful houses, which I found more charming than any other part of the city I’d seen so far.La Ronda QuitoBut even with Andrea’s lovely introduction to Quito, I still wasn’t too impressed. It didn’t help that it was raining every day during my entire stay, which means the city was always covered in a layer of clouds and the temperatures were in the 50s – too cold for me to be comfortable. Instead, I never left my guesthouse without my rain jacket and a scarf.quito new town viewAs for my taxi driver’s comment about Quito having become much safer, Andrea still warned us that it wasn’t a good idea to walk up El Panecillo Hill, on top of which the 45-meter-tall Virgin of Quito thrones over the city, (made of seven thousand pieces of aluminum!) a popular sight for tourists, but apparently not save to walk to. My guidebook had also warned to walk up this hill.quito statueOverall I felt like there was just not a whole lot to do in Quito. I visited almost all of the churches, including the beautiful, ornate Neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional which turned out to be my favorite, and where $2 bought me admission to the bell towers, which offered great views over the city, albeit the cloudy skies never went away for long enough to make it a truly stunning view.Basilica del voto nacionalJust a short walk from the Basilica del Voto Nacional church was the Centro De Arte Contemporaneo De Quito, the Contemporary Art Museum, which, I was happy to find out was free to visit. For an art lover like me, it turned out to be a highlight of my visit to Quito. During my visit they had a photography exhibit about a native group in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which was superb, as well as the ‘Tres mil leguas de algodón’ exhibit by Ecuadorian artist Fabian Patinho for which he photographed women who were comfortable in their bodies in underwear in an intimate setting and then turned them into acrylic paintings.quito contemporary art museumAs I walked out of the museum, I noticed that the walls across from the museum were covered in murals and graffitis – the best ones I’d seen so far! The street art felt like an added bonus to this artsy morning.Quito Street Art EcuadorI almost made the same mistake Alex In Wanderland made to skip the ‘New Town’, but after reading in her article that she regretted waiting until her last night in town to check it out, I decided to head over there to see how it compared to the Old Town. Again, it didn’t blow me away, but it was nice to see that there was an area with lots of restaurants, bars and nightlife, something I hadn’t seen to the same extent in the Old Town, and as I ventured further away from Plaza Foch, the main square in the New Town, I found especially the little plaza Borja Yerovi with its colorfully painted houses and murals delightful.New Town QuitoI even decided to stay in the new part of town upon returning to Quito so that I’d be right by some nice coffee shops and bars, and maybe check out the nightlife. I congratulated myself on that decision when I stopped in Quito for the second time a few weeks later.QuitoTo be honest, I wouldn’t have come back to Quito had it not been for a mountain biking tour of Cotopaxi volcano I wanted to do. Since this particular tour only runs on weekends, I didn’t get to do it during my first visit, but I really wanted to climb at least one volcano in Ecuador, so why not go for the second highest active volcano in all of South America? Cotopaxi is one of the highest volcanos in the world, reaching a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters).cotopaxi volcano climbAgain, the weather gods weren’t on my side when I returned to Quito, but I tried to make the best of my volcano tour. On a grey and rainy day, our group of six piled into a minivan, and when we arrived in Cotopaxi National Park, the volcano was hiding behind a massive cloud. We drove up until a parking lot to do a short climb up to Refugio Jose Rivas at 15,953 feet / 4,864 meters – the highest point you can climb to at the moment. Summiting hasn’t been possible since August 2015, when the volcano woke up and started spewing ash again for the first time in thirteen years.Cotopaxi Bike Tour EcuadorAs we were making our way to the Refugio, it started snowing, and what started out as light snow turned into a considerable snowstorm by the time we reached the top. The snow turned into rain when we descended again, ready to hop on the mountain bikes, ruining the experience I had been very much looking forward to.dani cotopaxiWe arrived at Laguna Limpiopungo at 12,566 feet (3,830 meters) completely soaked, muddy and chilled to the bone. The flora and fauna of the Altiplano, which I had admired when we were driving through the Altiplano that morning, was barely visible in the rain, and I couldn’t even bring myself to take out my camera and snap a picture of the lagoon, which is popular with birds and would have made for the perfect place to end our tour at. This was certainly not the mountain biking adventure I had been hoping for, but I guess you can’t be lucky all the time.cotopaxi bike tour daniWhen I was dropped off in Plaza Foch, the center of the bar scene of Quito’s New Town, after the tour, I knew I had made the right decision to stay in this part of town: the plaza, which had been quiet the night before, was bustling with people, the coffee shops and restaurants were all busy. It was Friday night and I was determined to make my last night in Quito a memorable one.QuitoI found a lovely vegetarian restaurant, El Maple, and right across the street from it, a fantastic artisanal German micro-brewery, Cherusker Cerveceria. On the same street (Joaquin Pinto), I checked out The Lucky Charm Pub, and around the corner Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, which happened to be right next door to Radar, a gay and lesbian bar. So while I didn’t grow fond of Quito during my two visits, I felt like I ended them on a good note with a little taste of Quito’s superb nightlife.Quito

Have you been to Quito? What did you think of Ecuador’s capital?

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Stunning Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week colombia las lajas

There are landmarks and monuments that you see a picture of and you just think: ‘Wow! This place looks amazing! I want to go there one day.‘ I feel that way every time I see a picture of the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the rice terraces in Bali, but also lesser known places like the ‘Swing at the end of the World‘ (where I made it to last month). And Las Lajas. You might not have heard of Las Lajas, but maybe you’ve seen a picture?

The first time I saw a photo of it was many years ago, before I even started my round-the-world trip in 2010. When my partner and I decided to make our way south from Mexico all the way to Argentina, I put Las Lajas on the itinerary. I didn’t even know where exactly it was, I only knew that it was in Colombia.

And then we stopped our travels south in Panama, made a detour to Europe instead of continuing on to Colombia (back then, we needed a change of scenery after nine months in Latin America).

When we returned to Latin America a couple of years later, we started in Argentina and wanted to work our way up to Colombia. We only ever made it to Peru (and then this happened). It was like I wasn’t supposed to see Las Lajas.

But last year, I finally made it to Colombia. I was finally going to visit Las Lajas! When I mapped out my trip, however, I saw where Las Lajas was located: all the way in the south of Colombia, close to the Ecuadorian border. I’d only make it there if I was going to Ecuador, which was something I’d contemplated, but eventually I ran out of time to visit both countries. Was I ever going to see Las Lajas?

Well, the Polaroid already gave it away, I guess. Yes, I finally made it to Las Lajas! I decided to add a whirlwind tour of Southern Colombia to my Ecuador trip, crossing the border overland. The town of Ipiales was my first stop in Colombia, and from there, it is only a short 15-minute drive to Las Lajas.

The church is built into a canyon, right over the Guáitara River, and the name actually refers to the rock that it is built into (laja is the Spanish word for this kind of sedimentary rock that’s found in this canyon). The entrance of the church, built in Gothic Revival style, is reached via a 160 feet (50 meters) high bridge over the river, and the height from the bottom of the canyon to the top of the church is exactly 100 meters (330 feet). It is a spectacular sight.

What makes Las Lajas special for Catholic pilgrims from all over Colombia and beyond is the story of how it came into existence in this rather odd location: In 1754, a woman and her deaf-mute baby daughter were caught in a storm in this canyon, and saw a cave they could find shelter in. Inside the cave, the little girl pointed at a silhouette illuminated by lightning – an apparition of the Virgin Mary – exclaiming “The woman is calling me!”. All of a sudden, the girl was able to speak. It is believed that the virgin cured her and caused people to start heading to the site as news about this miracle began to spread across the region.

A shrine was built, which eventually was replaced by a larger shrine, which then resulted in the construction of a church in the beginning of the 20th century in that very spot. It took several decades to finish the church that you can visit today. In 1952, Las Lajas received canonical coronation from the Vatican and it was made a minor basilica in 1994. In 2007, Las Lajas was declared on of the ‘Seven Wonders’ of Colombia.

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Swing At The End Of The World

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador Baños end of the world swingBaños is known as Ecuador’s adventure capital, and I knew there were a bunch of activities I could do here that would give me a nice adrenaline rush – rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, zip lining and canyoning, to name just a few.

The one attraction that gave me sweaty palms though? The infamous ‘swing at the end of the world;, where you dangle from a tree house over a cliff, high up in the mountains over Baños. It’s one of those places that you see a picture of and know you have to go there. Or is that just me?

For years, this was one of the only places I knew about in Ecuador. I knew about the Galápagos Islands, I knew about Quito, and the Swing At The End Of The World.

Since this was the thing I was most excited about doing in Baños, it was where I was headed to first. Initially I attempted hiking up the mountain, but when, after walking for an hour, I still hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the mountain on top of which the swing sits, I changed my mind and took a Chiva instead, a truck that’s converted into a tourist shuttle with benches in the back.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure if I’d actually swing on the swing or just take some photos, because I have a terrible fear of heights. But eventually I decided that I’d regret not doing it, and chances that I’ll ever return to Baños are pretty slim.

And so I got in line for about half an hour for two minutes of swinging over the cliff.. and I am happy to report that I lived to tell the tale.

I continued my adventurous week in Baños with a mountain bike tour along the popular waterfall route and two firsts for me: rafting and canyoning. How did that go? I’ll share my experiences in a detailed article on Baños soon… stay tuned!

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Polaroid Of The Week: Colonial Beauty in Cuenca, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador cuenca

When my mosquito bite count reached one hundred and my laptop’s cooling fan started making noises as if it was trying to tell me ‘I can’t deal with this heat anymore‘, I decided that it was time to get away from the beaches for a while and give both my laptop and my itching limbs a break. The beach had been nice, but I needed to get somewhere high enough for the mosquitoes to not get there. And so I headed to Cuenca, at 8,370 ft (2,550 meters) too high for mosquitoes to continue to feast on me and cool enough for my laptop not to overheat.

Cuenca is a popular expat destination, with 5,000 mainly North American expats living there, and it is easy to see why. Life in Cuenca is pleasant, cheap and tranquil. Mountains surround the city, and you can walk everywhere in the center. Cuenca has 52 churches and the best preserved colonial architecture in Ecuador, so much so that UNESCO declared the city center a World Heritage site. It was a city that I liked immediately – the first time I had this feeling during my time in Ecuador!

Without many ‘must see’ landmarks, I adapted to Cuenca’s slow pace and got into a nice routine of a daily morning run along the river, followed by a tasty breakfast in one of the coffee shops in the city center. I’d work for a few hours on my laptop and then head out and just wander the streets, curious to see what I’d find. I stumbled upon gorgeous colonial buildings, quaint plazas and plenty of good restaurants. After eating mostly Ecuadorian food for the past few weeks, I was delighted to find Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and tasty Italian food, including pizza (and I am a hard-to-please pizza snob!).

The only mistake I made? I waited too long to do a couple of things I had on my to-do-list, most importantly climbing the bell towers of the impressive Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Cuenca’s main church, built in 1887, whose domes of sky-blue Czech tile (pictured in the Polaroid) are visible from almost anywhere in town, and where the view from the top over the city is supposed to be fantastic. Instead of heading up there on a sunny day, I felt lazy and decided to ‘do it later’ – only that the blue skies never returned. Instead, I experienced a couple of rainy and grey days, making it also not worth it to go to ‘Turi’, Cuenca’s best viewpoint, to get a view over all the city’s red-tiled roofs.

However, I was still enjoying my time here, even though I didn’t make it to all the places the guide books recommended. Instead, I experienced Cuenca like a local, with a nice routine, slowing down my travels, and appreciating the laid-back atmosphere, before my action-packed next stop, where many adventure activities would await: Baños, aptly nicknamed Ecuador’s adventure capital.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Beach sunset in Montañita, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador montanita
After my week in hot and sticky Guayaquil I couldn’t wait to get to the beach for a fresh ocean breeze. I had heard great things about Montañita, a small village on the Santa Elena Peninsula on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. Montañita is the country’s number one surf spot, and, as I learned when I arrived there, a prime party destination for people from all over South America. Think South America’s answer to Ibiza, only with less mega clubs, but with loud music right on the beach instead, blasting from several discos right along the shore.

The problem with that? I was just not in the mood for a mega party, and I had also been warned about walking around town at night by myself. A couple of backpacking girls from Argentina were brutally murdered in Montañita less than a year ago, and I didn’t get a good vibe from the village. The beach was okay, but nothing special, and the waves were so insanely high that there was a red flag on the beach every day, warning people that the surf was intense and the current was strong.

I ended up preferring the two beaches south and north of Montañita – Olon to the north was much more charming, with seemingly nicer accommodation and cuter restaurants, plus several appealing beach bars and less tourists. Manglaralto to the south seemed like it lacked foreign tourists entirely – or at least I never saw any when I ventured down there.

What all three villages have in common: the amazing sunset spectacle the sky put on for us every single night. I made sure not to miss a single one – Pacific sunsets never disappoint.

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Searching For My Inner Demons In The Colombian Jungle: A Date With Ayahuasca

ayahuasca vines

I held the little bamboo cup with both hands and quickly gulped down the thick, dark liquid. The bitter taste in my mouth was repellent, and I tried to wash it down with some water as soon as I sat back down on the wooden floor of the ceremonial hut in the Colombian Amazon.

“You should be feeling the effect of the ayahuasca in about twenty minutes,” the shaman named William told us in Spanish. “If you don’t feel anything then, I’ll give you some more.”

He then pointed to my left, where on one side of the hut, the wooden wall was only chest high, above that it was open until the ceiling, like a window, but without glass.

“You’re very likely to throw up when the ‘medicine’ begins to work. If you feel it coming, throw up out the window.”

He then turned his headlamp off, the only source of light in the hut, and the four of us were suddenly sitting in the pitch black dark, cross-legged, waiting for the ‘medicine’, as William called it, to work.colombia amazonAyahuasca. A plant that grows only in the Amazon and which, brewed into a tea, is famous for its ability to open a door to another reality, to access a part of your brain that is normally not used. In the countries where ayahuasca can be found – Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia – the plant has been used for centuries by shamans to cure sicknesses and to open your mind to another dimension.

The brew, for which the ayahuasca vine is combined with the DMT-containing chacruna leaves, is a very strong hallucinogenic. Because it contains DMT (a psychedelic tryptamine compound found in around 60 plants on the planet, and which is illegal in the U.S.) and is highly visionary for some people, ayahuasca has become somewhat of a cool way to ‘go on a trip’ over the past few years.

Now you don’t need to fly all the way to the Amazon to attend an ayahuasca ceremony – you can also experience it in an apartment in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Berlin. Indigenous people, however, regard the calling of ayahuasca as a drug derogatory.ayahuasca experience summed upI was not looking for some sort of hallucinogenic trip, having never experimented with DMT-containing drugs in my life and apart from a couple of times in my early 20s, I have never felt the urge to try drugs in general. When my friend asked me if I wanted to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony, I was equally as intrigued as terrified. But the fact that I was intrigued and even considering it made me realize that something inside of me had shifted.

The first time I had heard about ayahuasca was when I had traveled in Peru in 2014, and back then, I found the whole thing just frightening. Never in my life would I do something like that, I thought to myself back then after reading a few first-hand experiences of other travelers and the short rundown of ayahuasca in my guidebook. Peru in particular is famous for its ayahuasca ceremonies, with people flying down from the States for weeklong ayahuasca cleanses. Because that’s what the brew, also called Yage, is supposed to do: cleanse you. Not your body, but your mind. From all the emotional baggage you are carrying, from traumatic experiences you can’t let go off, even from mental illnesses like depression.

I am certainly not suffering from depression, but as most of us, I’ve got a fair amount of emotional baggage. Several of the articles I read about ayahuasca mentioned that one night of ayahuasca would equal ten years of therapy – how could I not be intrigued? Other articles called ayahuasca a life changing experience, a way to overcome fears you believe impossible to overcome, a way to face your biggest demons.ayahuasca experienceIn one of the best articles on ayahuasca I’ve read, Kira Salek writes: ‘All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced – literally – to face his or her demons’.

While I was reading about it (I must have read every article on ayahuasca on the internet, and watched every documentary I could find on YouTube), I came across the statement that you shouldn’t be looking for ayahuasca, but that the medicine will find you when you are ready for it.

And that’s when I decided I would take part in the ceremony. I hadn’t been looking for it, but the opportunity presented itself to me. I was willing to do it, no matter how bad the demons were that I would be facing, no matter how deeply upsetting the experience could be.

Because you simply don’t know what the plant will reveal.

Some people said they were reliving moments from their childhood they had long forgotten about, some even said they were experiencing their own birth from the perspective of an onlooker. Where would my ayahuasca journey lead me?ayahuasca experience colombia daniThe first place it led me to was William’s hut in the middle of the jungle, somewhere outside of the small town of Leticia in the Colombian Amazon. My friend and I had taken a local bus for half an hour, asked to be dropped off on the side of the road where a small dirt path led into the jungle.We followed the muddy jungle path until the last houses disappeared out of our rear view, walking deeper and deeper into the jungle, the path narrowing more and more, and getting muddier the further we went. After nearly an hour, we finally reached William’s jungle home: a couple of wooden huts, a large circular structure with a thatched roof where the family cooks and works – like is common in this part of Colombia – and a covered area with a few hammocks where we would be sleeping after the ceremony.

William introduced himself, wearing regular clothes, including big rubber boots, and I couldn’t help but think: That’s not how I pictured a shaman. He told us to rest until he would come and get us for the ceremony later that night. There were four of us: a German (me), a Spaniard, an Italian and a French person. An international group, two girls and two boys, all four of us from different backgrounds and walks of life. The only thing we had in common was that we were looking for answers, and we were hoping that ayahuasca would give them to us.

While we were waiting for the sun to set, I turned into a bundle of nerves. I tried to ignore my rumbling tummy, because you are not supposed to eat anything 24 hours before drinking the brew, to ensure the ‘medicine’ would have its full effect. In addition, you are not supposed to have caffeine, dairy, gluten, sugar, meat, spicy food, alcohol and sex for a week before taking ayahuasca.amazonian skyI tried to calm myself: The plant had found me. I was supposed to be here. When I started my travels through Colombia I had no desire and no plans to visit the Amazon, and yet here I was, with someone I trusted, and I felt like we were supposed to cross paths just so that I would have this experience. I know how hokey pokey this must sound, because I am admittedly not a very spiritual person, but I really felt that the only reason I had boarded that plane to the Amazon – a spontaneous decision – was to participate in this ceremony.

These were also the thoughts that were running through my mind as I was sitting on the floor of William’s jungle hut later that night, waiting for the yage to kick in. ‘I am supposed to be here’, I kept telling myself, wondering what the plant would reveal for me. Would this be a life changing experience for me?

While we were all lost in our thoughts, William, who had changed into a more shamanic outfit with white pants and a white shirt before the ceremony, had started to sing shamanic chants accompanied by shaman rattles, mixed with shamanic drumming. These chants call upon healing spiritual powers, some of them are supposed to render the mind susceptible for visions, others are calling the plant spirits for healing, and others are calling the spirit animals for protection.leticia chickensThe music started to get louder and louder inside my head, and it now sounded as if there was was an entire village population playing instruments, and not just one person. I opened my eyes to see if there were other musicians in the room, but it was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything. I turned my head towards the open window, where I could make out the silhouettes of the trees and jungle plants, vaguely lit up by the moon.

A million things ran through my mind, and with every new thought I had I asked myself if I was thinking about this particular thing because of the ayahuasca or simply because I was sitting around waiting for something to happen.

All of a sudden, I felt sick to my stomach. At first, my hands were trembling, my lips were shaking, and then quickly, my entire body was shivering. I was freezing cold. This feeling was anything but pleasant. I was hoping that it would pass, but I couldn’t stop shivering. And then there it was: the urgent need to throw up. When it overcame me, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it over to the window, that’s how weak I felt. But somehow I stumbled over to the big hole in the wall, my hands reaching the ledge just in time before what can be described best as projectile vomiting began.colombia amazonI threw up vigorously, emptying my stomach out into the darkness of the jungle. I threw up over and over again, until there was nothing left inside of me.

The vomiting, politely referred to as purging in the world of ayahuasca, was part of the ceremony. I had read that this is supposed to clean your body completely, clean it from all the evil and bad and the toxins that has accumulated inside of it over the years. The thought of this being a cleanse was what kept me going through every puke spell, with tears running down my face, because that’s how fierce the throwing up was. There is only one thing in the world that tasted worse than ayahuasca, and that is ayahuasca thrown up.

I slowly made my way back to the middle of the room, but I was staggering so much that I decided I should instead lean on the back wall of the hut, giving my body additional support. I sat down, still shivering, still tasting the bitter taste of the ayahuasca in the back of my mouth. I was waiting for visions to start, to have some revelations, to take a journey into my sub-consciousness, or maybe re-live a traumatic childhood memory I had buried deep in the back of my mind.

But nothing happened.amazonian rainforest colombiaInstead, I kept feeling dead sick, and I started to wonder if I’d survive the long way back to the closest hospital, which was in Leticia. There were no rescue helicopters here that could get me there quickly. Nobody even knew where exactly I was. I pictured myself crawling on all fours through the jungle back to the main road, trying to get to a doctor. For a moment I was convinced I would not survive the night, and started to spend a lot of time thinking about my family and all of the things I felt I should have told them before leaving them behind.

All of a sudden, I heard the familiar sound of someone throwing up. It was now the Italian girl who was puking, but she seemed fine and sat back down quickly. After her, the French guy headed to the window. William asked the Italian boy if he was okay, since he was the only one who hadn’t thrown up yet. The shaman offered him another cup of the brew, but he declined. Nobody wanted a re-fill of this disgusting tasting drink.

William continued to chant and drum, and I continued to sit there and try to distract myself from feeling like I was dying. The feeling reminded me of how I felt when I was 21 and lived in Ibiza, and my friend fed me half an ecstasy pill on an empty stomach. That had been such a horrible trip that I had vowed to never take ecstasy again – something I’ve stuck to until this very day.path to shamans houseA little bit later, the Spaniard announced that he needed some air and that he would step outside for a bit. I remembered reading about a boy who had stripped off of his clothes during an ayahuasca ceremony and ran out into the jungle, completely naked, and gotten lost. We’ll probably never see the Italian again, I thought to myself, there are probably jaguars out there in the jungle, and poisonous snakes and spiders.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Italian guy still not having returned, the shaman announced he’d step outside as well to check in on the Italian.  The drumming and chanting stopped and the three of us were sitting in absolute silence. The sound of the jungle – crickets, birds, frogs and other animals – seemed to multiply ten-fold, just as the instruments and chanting had seemed to me earlier.

William returned after a while and announced that he had drunk a little too much of the medicine, asking if we could spare some water for him. That is exactly what you don’t want to hear while you’re on ayahuasca: that the person who is in charge of the ceremony is unwell. The shamans drink the brew as well in order to open their minds to a third dimension and to guide us on our spiritual journey, but their role is also to help us in case we encounter a particularly bad evil spirit, that we are unable to handle by ourselves.colombia amazonWilliam checked in on us occasionally, calling us by our names and asking if we were okay. The Spaniard returned to the hut, assuring the shaman he was fine. The Italian girl and the French boy were both quiet, I had no idea if they were experiencing any visions or felt the effect of the ‘medicine’.

I thought to myself that we had to be about halfway through the four-hour ceremony and decided to lay down on the floor, since I still felt terribly sick, almost like I was on a boat that was swaying from side to side. Instead of facing my inner demons or having a grand spiritual awakening, I was just lying on the dirty wooden floor, waiting for this misery to be over. This was not how I had pictured my encounter with ayahuasca.

Finally William announced it was time to conclude the ceremony. He came to each one of us individually, chanting and giving us blessings, thanking Mama ayahuasca for leading us through this journey.jungle colombiaAll four of us walked over to the hammocks, none of us talking. I tried to swallow my disappointment about the experience that had been so not what I had been expecting. I thought for sure that I would have a life-changing experience, battling demons, facing a long forgotten childhood trauma and coming out of it as a new, better, grown person.

As I was continuing my journey through the Colombian Amazon a few days later, I tried to get over the sadness about the non-occurring revelations and realizations by reminding myself that many people don’t have any visions during their first ayahuasca experience.

A few weeks later though, it suddenly hit me: Something that had weight heavily on my heart for a long time had disappeared. Before the ceremony, I regularly found myself thinking about a certain thing that gave me grief, but that I couldn’t do anything about it. But that day I noticed that I hadn’t thought about it for weeks. Maybe William had been right when he told me the morning after the ceremony: “Dani, you threw up so much, you had many demons inside your body. But you cleansed yourself entirely of them.”ayahuasca experience colombia

You want to try ayahuasca? Here are a few things you should know:

1 Do your research

Ayahuasca has become so trendy in recent years that it has caused a growing number of fake shamans who try to benefit from the increased interest in ayahuasca. If you visit Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, you’ll see posters and announcements for ayahuasca retreats throughout town. Make sure to research the shaman or retreat provider, ask other travelers for recommendations. There have been several incidents, including deaths, during ayahuasca ceremonies in the past few years – see below.

2 The dark side of ayahuasca

Be aware that an ayahuasca ceremony shouldn’t be treated lightly. It can be a deeply disturbing experience, but there are also many reports of sexual harassment by female solo travelers, so if anything feels off, get out of there as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t have done the ceremony by myself, I only did it because I was with someone who I trusted.colombia amazon

3 Further reading

Read up on ayahuasca before simply signing up for a ceremony, only because you can now do them in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. This is NOT some sort of drug trip but is supposed to be a spiritual, cleansing, and sometimes cathartic experience.

I recommend reading:

(There are plenty of other good articles in publications like the New York Times, The Guardian, Elle, Vice, Cosmopolitan, LA Weekly – read as much as you can.)

ayahuasca experience colombia

4 The Amazon vs. the U.S.

No matter if you live in Brooklyn, Berlin or San Francisco, chances are that you can experience an ayahuasca ceremony there instead of having to travel thousands of miles into the Amazonian jungle to find a shaman. However, after reading a couple of articles by people who partook in ceremonies in the U.S. (see above), I cannot imagine the experience in somebody’s apartment or a yoga studio would have the same impact as a ceremony at the source of the vine: in the Amazon. I personally think that if you are looking for a possibly life-changing, healing experience, you should look into ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon, ideally retreats over several days with various ceremonies, in case the ayahuasca doesn’t reveal its full effect immediately, like in my case.ayahuasca experience colombia

5 Keep your expectations low

Since my ceremony, I’ve met several people who didn’t have revelationary experiences like Kira Salak had during her retreats (see article Hell and Back). But since I had read about her incredibly powerful ayahuasca journey, as well as several other, similarly cathartic experiences, my expectations for the night were very high, and weren’t necessarily met. I recommend keeping your expectations low in order to avoid disappointment.ayahuasca experience

*** Side note: I took most of the photos on the morning after the ceremony and they turned out completely blurry, which perfectly sums up how I experienced my first ayahuasca ceremony: in a blurry haze.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Taking In The Views Over Guayaquil, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador guayaquil

After cruising around the Galapagos Islands, I was in urgent need of a break to catch up on work projects and to deal with the hundreds of emails that had piled up in my inbox while I was on the boat (I get so many emails these days, I can barely handle the volume anymore!). I decided to stay in Guayaquil, the city where I’d flown to the Galapagos from, which happens to be Ecuador’s largest city, and one of the largest sea ports in all of South America. Beyond that, there’s not all that much to do and see for tourists though. A newly revamped river walk, the Malecon 2000, made for a great running track in the mornings, and for some good entertainment in the evenings (people watching, and an IMAX cinema that showed LaLa Land).

Just north of the Malecon sits Las Peñas, the city’s oldest neighborhood, where colorful little houses are built into the side of a hill, Cerro Santa Ana. The neighborhood used to be a slum, but a regeneration project transformed it into the tourist attraction that it is today. 432 stairs lead up to the top of the hill, each one numbered, so that with each step, you are painfully reminded you how many more stairs you still have to climb. Once you reach the top, however, you are rewarded with spectacular 360° views over Guayaquil and the wide Guayas River. There is also a little chapel on the top of Cerro Santa Ana, and a lighthouse which you can climb for even better views (including the chapel – see Polaroid). The brightly painted houses, little plazas with palm trees, and alleyways where cats were lounging in the sun and laundry was drying in the air made this my favorite part of the city – I even made my way up these cruel stairs twice, despite the relentless heat. That heat was what eventually made decide on my next stop: the beaches along the Pacific Coast, about 2.5 hours west of Guayaquil, seemed like a perfect place to escape the heat of the city for a while.

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