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Peru On A Plate: Win A 9-day Culinary Trip To Peru For Two

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Peru has been on my mind lately – a friend of mine asked me to join her on a trip to Peru in September, and had I not already committed to another trip, I would’ve jumped at the chance of joining her. My last trip to Peru ended abruptly, and I have been itching to return ever since I left Cuzco two and a half years ago. After finishing the 5-day Salkantay trek through the Andes to get to Machu Picchu, I’ve been keen on doing some other multi-day treks in Peru: the Cordillera Blanca mountain range around Huarez in the north of the country is supposed to be stunning, and I have no doubt that I’ll love Colca Canyon near Arequipa in the south.machu picchu from wayna picchu peruAnd then there is the mystical oasis town of Huacachina in the midst of mighty sand dunes, the Islas Ballestas which are a wildlife lover’s dream, but I’d also love to return to Cuzco to see more of the Inca ruins around there (Machu Picchu is just one of many more) and to delve more in the city’s amazing food scene, and then there’s Lima, where people also rave about the fantastic restaurant scene and trendy neighborhoods like San Isidro, Barranco or Miraflores.dani in cuscoPeru’s breathtakingly beautiful and diverse landscapes have gotten a lot of praise from travel publications and travelers for a long time now, but it is Peruvian food whose popularity has increased notably over the past few years – which is why I am excited to share the giveaway below, for a culinary trip to Peru (click here to enter if you can’t wait).

It seems like every major city around the globe has at least one Peruvian restaurant these day, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper even ran an article a while back about how Peruvian food has captured food lovers’ hearts in England, quoting gourmet chef Alain Ducasse: ‘Peru will become one of the leading actors on the global culinary scene.’

And he was right: Peruvian food is being gobbled up all over the globe, but of course it never tastes as amazing as it tastes in the country itself, with locally sourced fresh ingredients. I’ve already touched on the fabulous food scene in Cuzco when I told you why Cuzco is worth a trip, and the restaurant scene in Lima is booming even more. New restaurants are opening constantly, and not justpisco sour your ordinary type of restaurants, but sophisticated eateries that pride themselves in serving avant-garde dishes that leave diners impressed and longing for more. Lima’s most popular restaurant, Central, is regularly voted in the World’s Top 50 restaurants and a must-visit for any foodie, Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston was recently voted the best restaurant in all of South America (!), dessert lovers will be blown away at Malabar while Maras inside Lima’s brand new Westin Hotel will satisfy fine dining aficionados.

La Rosa Nautica is a Lima institution for Pisco Sours right by the ocean, and speaking of Pisco Sours: make sure to have them daily while you’re in Peru! This typical Peruvian cocktail is made of Pisco, a type of Brandy and Peru’s national drink, and sugar, egg whites, key lime juice.

So what makes Peruvian food so special, you ask? Thanks to Peru’s multicultural heritage, it is the perfect example for fusion cuisine: it combines pre-Inca and Inca influences with the cuisine of European, Asian and West-African immigrants who all brought their local dishes to Peru where they tried to recreate them with the ingredients they found in Peru. The country itself has an incredibly diverse range of foods – ranging from seafood heavy dishes on the coast to fruit-loaded plates in the Amazon and the Andes with potatoes, quinoa, corn and other crops. The different cuisines started to melt into each other and enrich one another, creating a unique and unrivaled culinary experience.quinoa salad at quinoaOn a trip to Peru, you’ll discover that each region has its own regional dishes, only few dishes are typical for the entire country. Culinary treasures you shouldn’t miss are alpaca steak, anticuchos (beef heart kebabs), cuy (guinea pig), lomo saltado (beef tips that are stir fried with onion, tomatoes and spices), and aji de gallina (chicken in a yellow pepper sauce with hard-boiled eggs and olives). Vegetarians will love the tasty sauce of Papas a la huancaina (potatoes in a creamy cheese sauce, a dish I could have eaten happily every day while I was in Peru!) and papa rellena – stuffed potatoes with vegetables, hard-boiled egg, spices and olives (also available  with meat).

I don’t know about you, but my mouth is watering right now – can you see why I am contemplating a return trip to Peru? And because Peruvian cuisine is so popular right now, I am excited about this LATAM sweepstakes, which will bring two lucky people on a 9-day culinary-focused trip to Peru, allowing them to discover Peru’s foodie scene from Lima, the Culinary Capital of South America to the magical, spiritual town of Cusco.cuzco plaza de armas3

The prize

A 9-day culinary-focused trip to Peru for 2, including:

  • Round-trip economy class flights for 2 people from anywhere in the continental United States, via LATAM Airlines
  • A 9-day trip between Lima, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu. The trip includes visiting historical places and discovering local cuisine
  • Outfits from Toad&Co
  • A specially selected travel gear package from AFAR
  • $500 worth of travel gear from Tour Radar
  • Two 38L capacity carry-ons from Away
  • An intimate cocktail class exploring the history of Pisco in the Museo del Pisco in Cuzco

Click here to enter

peru on a plate

This promotion is brought to you by Promperu in cooperation with LATAM Airlines, Intrepid Travel, Toad&Co, Campo de Encanto Pisco, AFAR, TourRadar and Away Travel. 

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Six things nobody tells you about Colombia’s Totumo Mud Volcano

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If you find yourself in Cartagena, chances are that you’ll come across posters advertising the Totumo Mud Volcano. It’s sort of a rite of passage in Cartagena – if you come here, you’ll visit the volcano. So obviously, I signed up for a tour, not sure if it would be fun to take a mud bath with a bunch of strangers or not.. But what could I do? The Cartagena rite of passage, you know?totumo mud volcano colombiaAnd so I found myself in a mini van with 16 strangers on a sunny Sunday afternoon, ready to join the thousands before me, getting a mud bath in a volcano. Once you get there though, you quickly realize that this isn’t really a volcano filled with mud, it’s more like an upside down cone filled with mud. There were other things that nobody told me before I headed to Totumo, things I would have been glad to know before I go, which is why I’m going to share six of them with you right here:totumo mud volcano advertisement

1. You’ll get up close and personal with strangers

The mud volcano is actually closer to a puddle of mud than anything else, but picture a really really deep one, maybe even bottomless. If you take a tour to Totumo, like most people do, because it’s the cheapest and easiest way from Cartagena, you and 16 fellow mud enthusiasts will change into their swimsuits and head up the ‘volcano’. One by one, you’ll descend into the mud, slowly going down a ladder from the top, because the mud is much lower than shown in the pretty advertising posters around town. The mud used to reach up to the top of the ‘volcano’, and I’m not sure where it all went but you have to descend a good 20-16 feet (6-8 meters) now to get into the creamy, smelly mud. Considering that there are several guys selling bottles of this good ol’ mud at the bottom of the volcano, they might have sold all the mud that used to fill up the volcano, but who knows. Anyway, once you’re in the mud, be prepared to be groped by some Colombian dudes who are spending all day waiting inside this mud hole, eager to massage white people for a small fee (COP4,000).

One by one, the rest of your group will join you, or maybe you are one of the lucky ones last in line, looking down sceptically on everyone floating in the mud, wondering if you really want to get in there. But as the mud hole fills up, you’ll quickly befriend everybody else because you all realize what a ridiculous situation you are in, and the fuller it gets, the closer you’ll get to everyone. I felt quite a few hairy legs, boobs, feet and other body parts while I was floating around, thinking to myself how weird it was that I wasn’t sinking.

Pro Tip: Don’t be one of the fools who dip their entire head into the mud – there’s nothing to clean the mud off your eyes, and your hands are muddy, too!dani mud volcano totumo

2. You might not make it out alivetotumo mud volcano ladder

Once you decide that you’ve had enough, you will try to make your way out of the mud, which now that the mud hole is quite deep means relying on a rickety old wooden ladder, which is extremely slippery, thanks to all the mud monsters who’ve made their way out of there before you. So hold onto the rails for your dear life – literally! The story of how you conquered a mud volcano is a good one, but you have to make it out alive to live to tell it.

3. Prepare to be studied and stared at

totumo volcano daniOne thing that was interesting was that during my visit, several tour buses pulled up. At first I thought: wow, it’ll take forever for them all to take a mud bath, because the hole doesn’t fit a 48 people bus load, and a minivan load of 17 already takes a while to get in. But then I realized that they don’t come to take a mud bath. Instead, the Latinos walk up to the rim, stare at the gringos (including you!), snap your picture, and then walk down again after pointing at you and chatting about you with their fellow observers. They’re probably thinking: Why the hell do these gringos pay so much money to get into this stinky puddle, ruin their swimsuits in mud and get their hair all muddy? It feels particularly humiliating when you’re the one who is in the process of emerging from the mud, looking like a mud monster, and have a guy grope you to get some of the mud off you with his hands before you make your way down to the cleaning area… Yes, cleaning area.

4. Lots of groping!

Even though there is a huge lake next to the ‘volcano’, you can’t just jump in and wash the mud off – it is too shallow, and so the business-savvy Colombians who live around here set up a few giant jars near the lake which some guys keep filling with bucket loads of green water that they get out of the lake.

When you arrive there, a lady will grab you and start washing the mud off you with the help of a little bowl, in which she puts the green lake water from the big jar. These ladies are also not afraid to touch your private parts, and I’m sure the lady who washed me enjoyed my boobs, that’s how intensely she was rubbing them. They’re also not afraid to just take your swimsuit off if they feel there’s a lot of mud in there – my friend found herself without her bikini top within a couple of minutes of getting to the cleaning area, while another lady tried to get into her pants pull down her pants. That’s the moment when you get really close with all of your new mud friends – you’ll see much more of them than you expected.totumo mud volcano cleaning area

5. You’ll hand out tips right and left

Once you’re released, you go back to your belongings which are stored in a little storage room while you frolic in the mud, and suddenly, everyone who has helped you with something, appears and wants to be tipped. The guy who held your camera? $1. The lady who washed you? $1. The kid who watched your shoes? $1. The guy who massaged you? $1 (amazingly cheap massage, btw!). It was incredible how everyone who did something for you finds you again afterwards and makes sure he or she gets paid. In all the tipping mania I even tipped a kid who didn’t do anything other than holding his hand open! ‘But he didn’t do anything for us‘, my friend pointed out. ‘Oh.. Well he just made 50 cents by simply holding his hand open.totumo volcano dani

6. Mmmmh that smell…

When you’re finally back in the van, you’ll be able to enjoy the sulfur smell for another hour (at least, depending on traffic in Cartagena) because you think they cleaned you, but as a matter of fact you’ll still find mud in the most random body parts for days (if you’re one of the lucky ones whose accommodation in Cartagena has hot water: this is when you’ll truly appreciate it!)

In total, you’ll spend more time in the van than in the mud, by the way. Our van showed up half an hour late and then picked up other mud-hungry tourists around town for another hour (!) before we were finally on the way. The ride takes about an hour once you leave the city and an hour back. You’ll spend about an hour at the volcano, including cleaning, changing and a quick beer to get rid of the taste of mud in your mouth. There are two tours to the volcano every day; one leaves in the morning, and one leaves in the afternoon.totumo mud volcano colombia

Cost:

  • Tour to the volcano: COP45,000 (US$13.82)
  • Tip for guy who takes your pictures: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for woman who washes you: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for the guy who massages you: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for the kid who cleans your shoes: COP1,000-2,000 (US$0.37-0.64)
  • Beer (optional): COP3,000 (US$0.92)
  • Uniqueness of the experience: priceless.

*Exchange rate 2016
totumo volcano dani

Other practical information

Is there another way to get to the volcano?

Yes, you can take a cab to the volcano if you don’t like crowds. If you time it right (early afternoon would be best, I think, before the arrival of the afternoon group), you’ll most likely have the volcano all to yourself. It’s worth it if you are a group of four people; expect to pay at least COP200,000 for the cab, including return to Cartagena and the driver waiting for you while you splash around in the mud.

Are there different tour companies offering this tour?

At the moment, there’s only one tour company who runs this tour: Ruta ecologica. You can book the trip from most hotels and hostels and your offices around town. Pickup is usually where you book it. The price (COP45,000/ around US$14) includes transportation and a snack of fresh watermelon after the mud bath. The company has a little area with changing rooms, toilets and showers (don’t expect more than a trickle) right next to the volcano, complete with lockers where you can lock up your valuables.

Can you trust a random guide with your camera / phone?

This was my biggest concern, but their system works. Our group’s camera guy had thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment around his neck and in his fanny pack – all our phones, goPros, dSLRs and regular cameras. He’s going to snap 10 – 15 pictures of you. I took a few extra ones on my camera before we left. You have no chance but handing over your camera, by the way, if you want to eternalize the picture of your mud-covered self.totumo mud volcano colombia

What to bring / what not to bring

totumo mud volcanoOld bikini
Bring an old bikini – unless you have the chance to wash it the same day. The mud turned out to be pretty persistent and I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my best swimsuit.

Water & Sunscreen
The volcano itself doesn’t offer any shade, so make sure you bring sunscreen and water to stay hydrated. There are some kiosks and small roadside restaurants around the volcano where you can buy snacks and soft drinks or beers after the experience.

Money
Bring enough cash (and small change) to cover all your tips, but I wouldn’t bring too much cash or any valuables that you don’t need (credit cards, jewelry, etc).

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Where to stay in Bogota: The Hilton

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Confession: There are times when I feel a little bit intimated when visiting a new place. It doesn’t happen often, mainly in massive cities I’ve never been to, like Hong Kong or Mexico City. And I’ve found the best way to make myself feel more at ease and comfortable in a case like this is by staying in a nice place.

Bogota was one such place. When I planned my trip to Bogotá and pulled up a map of the city, I felt intimidated immediately. 7 million people – Bogotá is gigantic! And it doesn’t have the best reputation.hilton bogota glass decorationsSo staying in a nicer neighborhood for the first few days was important for me, and I was told that the Chapinero area would be perfect for me. It’s one of Bogotá’s nicer neighborhoods, with a lot of big international companies having their offices here, and plenty of fancy coffee shops, restaurants and bars.

When I found out that the Hilton had a hotel in this neighborhood, my decision was made. I often prefer small independent boutique hotels, but sometimes I opt for the familiarity of a brand I know and appreciate, and in this case I wanted to go with a brand I knew, I trusted and I liked.Hilton Hotel BogotaI knew that I made the right decision as soon as my taxi pulled up at the hotel and the concierge got my luggage out of the car quicker than I could pay my driver. Throughout my entire stay, I was amazed by the level of outstanding customer service at the hotel. And even though I arrived before 2pm, I could check into my room without any problems and take a refreshing shower after my flight.

The spacious, glass-walled shower with a powerful rain showerhead might have been my favorite thing about my room, but then there were also the splendid views from the oversized windows that I couldn’t get enough of, and my uber-comfortable king size bed. It was hard not to feel at ease here!Hilton Hotel Bogota RoomSince I was a little hungry, I decided to go out and find something to eat and to check out the neighborhood at the same time. I could’ve just ordered something from the extensive in-room menu which I found very reasonably priced and which had several options for vegetarians, but I wanted to get a feel for the neighborhood before going out at night. To my delight, there were several restaurants, coffee shops and convenience stores within a couple of blocks of the hotel, and after picking up a salad at a health food store, I couldn’t help but popping into Devotion, the coffee shop on the ground floor of the Hilton. One of my favorite coffee shops in Brooklyn is named Devotion, and I was ecstatic when I found out that it was actually the New York branch of this very coffee shop! The coffee was amazing, but I didn’t have any doubt that it wouldn’t be anything less than terrific, and I loved the contemporary stylish design of the coffee shop so much that I ended up bringing my laptop here to do some work. For coffee lovers, Devotion is a must-visit – 17 different types of grains are offered here, and coffee aficionados can choose between pour overs, espresso drinks, sifón or French press coffee, and there is a Kyoto Cold Slow Dripper for tasty cold brews.Hilton hotel Bogota DevocionSpeaking of contemporary and stylish – that’s how I felt about the Hilton in general, I loved the modern look of the lobby and the artsy design features throughout the building. One evening when I left for a night out, there was even a red carpet event in the hotel’s Levels bar, which was still going strong when I returned – the Hilton Bogotá seemed to be a happening place at weekends, but of course you wouldn’t notice any of this in the quiet rooms above. Even though the hotel sits right on the busy Carrera 7, I never heard any street noise through the double glass windows – in fact I had some of the best nights’ sleep here that I had in all of Colombia!Hilton Hotel BogotaAfter checking out the amazing breakfast buffet the next morning, which was one of the best and varied breakfasts I’ve seen in all of Latin America (not exaggerating here!), I felt compelled to visit the gym, which turned out to be much bigger than expected. A pet peeve of mine is a hotel advertising a gym and then only offering a tiny room crammed with machines – but the Hilton knows how to do it right. A spacious, bright gym equipped with top-notch workout machines and equipment. Especially in a city like Bogotá that isn’t great for running because of congestion (and its altitude! Let’s not forget that Bogotá sits at an altitude of 8,612 feet.) I really appreciate a gym to work out in.hilton hotel Bogota breakfastThe gym opens up right to a large outdoor pool, by the way, and since Bogotá never gets cruelly hot, you’ll be delighted to hear that the water is heated. And during my stay it was actually hot enough to make me want to lounge by the pool for a couple of hours.Hilton Hotel Bogota Gym and poolThe highlight of my weekend at the Hilton was without a doubt the scrumptious Sunday brunch at La Ventana Restaurant. This is not your ordinary hotel brunch – instead, you have world class chefs (under Executive Chef Nicolas Piatti) cooking up delicious dishes that range from fresh fish to homemade pasta, prepared right in front of you by a chef who knows what it takes to make pasta that tastes as if it came straight out of an Italian mama’s kitchen.Bogota Hilton HotelThe generous brunch buffet, which follows the farm-to-table concept and focuses on using fresh local produce, was filled with more food than I could possibly try: exotic Colombian fruit, freshly baked bread, a cheese selection and salads, made-to-order egg dishes and waffles, to name just a few, and my favorite section: the desert buffet, which was out of this world! The dessert chef is one of the most acclaimed chefs in his field, so I made sure to leave room for a sweet treat to finish my meal and i am so glad I did. It was divine – but everything I had during brunch was worth every single calorie. An extra bonus during brunch? The coffee served comes straight from Devocion!hilton bogota brunchSince brunch isn’t only open for hotel guests, I recommend checking out the Sunday brunch at the Ventana Restaurant if you’re looking to treat yourself to a special meal in Bogotá (even if you’re not staying at the Hilton) – be it brunch or a fancy dinner.

As I mentioned before, the location in the Chapinero neighborhood is fantastic – there are a ton of excellent restaurants nearby or just a short can ride away in Zona G. The helpful and attentive concierge and reception staff can give you recommendations for pretty much anything, and arrange dinner reservations for you.Hilton hotel Bogota ColombiaTwo shopping malls, El Castillo and Avenida Chile Shopping Center, are both a short walk away, and if you want to visit Bogotá’s historic center, it doesn’t take longer than 20 minutes to get there by cab. Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Bogotá, so you’re not really far from anywhere, and my ride from the airport to the hotel only took about 25 minutes.

No matter if you find yourself in Bogotá for business (the Hilton sits right in the heart of the financial district) or for pleasure – the Hilton Bogotá is a solid choice for both. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to start my time in Bogotá in – from my comfortable room to the food I’ve enjoyed to the coffee at Devotion and to the fabulous pool, plus the fabulous attentive staff – my time at the Hilton was perfect.Hilton Hotel Bogota Room

Details

  • Location: No. 72-41, Avenida Carrera 7, Bogotá
  • Price: King rooms start at $190, suites start at $300 (+ city tax)
  • LGBT Friendly: Yes
  • Digital Nomad Friendly: Yes
  • Amenities: Heated outdoor pool, gym, bar and restaurant, breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, parking, meeting facilities
  • Website: Hilton Bogota
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Colombia Highlights: My 13 favorite travel moments in Colombia

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I spent 9 weeks in Colombia, longer than I’ve spent anywhere else in the past couple of years (except for New York), and I would have even stayed longer, had Mexico not called my name. Looking back, I can’t believe I almost canceled my trip – I would have missed so many amazing experiences. In short, I loved my time in Colombia. It was one of the best trips I’ve taken, and while I was concerned about safety as a solo female traveler in Colombia prior to my trip, I never felt unsafe or in danger. I’ve been to places where I traveled feeling somewhat uneasy, but Colombia was not one of them. Instead, I found beautiful beaches here, gorgeous Spanish-colonial towns, a vibrant nightlife in Bogota and Medellin, some of the best fruit I’ve ever eaten, a spiritual awakening in the Amazon, the ruins of an ancient city in the Sierra Nevada mountains, great new friends and memories that will stay with me forever.Colombia HighlightsI will tell you about most places I visited in more detail over the coming weeks, but I thought I’d start by sharing my favorite travel moments in Colombia with you:

1 Chilling in the giant hammock in Minca

I think reading about ‘the giant hammock’ was one of the things that convinced me to visit Minca, a small village in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Colombia. A huge hammock with amazing mountain views? What’s not to love?! The hammock, which you find a steep 3-hour walk up the mountain from Minca, belongs to the Casa Elemento hostel and was well worth the long walk for a relaxing afternoon. But everything else I did in Minca was memorable, as well: we toured a coffee finca, visited and swam in the waterfalls around town and sampled local artisan beers.minca giant hammock

2 Trekking to the Lost City

I’d been fascinated by this trek to the ruins of a pre-Columbian ancient city high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains ever since I had first heard about it, but wasn’t sure if I was able to finish a 4-day trek through mountains and jungle in 90F heat. It turned out I was able to finish it, and the four days of trekking turned out to be some of my best days in Colombia. The walk through the beautiful mountain scenery, through the jungle, across rivers, passing indigenous villages, and finally climbing over 1,200 stairs, was worth every painful step, and the ruins of the Lost City itself were more remarkable than I thought they’d be. I was lucky enough to have a great group of fellow trekkers whose company made me get through the hard parts of the hike – lots of steep mountain trails, which nearly killed me.Colombia Lost City Trek

3 Tubing in Palomino

I went to Palomino for the beach, but ended up enjoying the river that runs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which hug the coastline here, much more than the ocean! In Palomino, the waves are so high that it is nearly impossible to go for a swim, but luckily the little beach town has a river that is slowly flowing from the mountains into the ocean, and the conditions are perfect for river tubing. My friend and I went for a late afternoon tubing tour and I loved floating on the river, surrounded by lush green jungle, listening to the birds and watching the Golden Hour covering everything in a beautiful golden light.palomino tubing

4 A street art tour in Bogota

I mentioned before that I was surprised by Bogota – in a good way! I expected to dislike the city, because many travelers rush through here, not impressed by Colombia’s capital. I, however, ended up spending more time here than expected, and got to know the city better than most travelers who only spend a couple of nights here. My favorite thing about Bogota? The sprawling street art scene! No matter where in Bogota you are, there is street art everywhere. I spent most of my time in the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, which is probably the neighborhood with the most street art in the city. Obviously, I was in street art heaven and couldn’t put my camera down. But what was even better than just snapping away whenever I walked by an awesome graffiti was learning about Bogota’s graffiti and street art scene during a free street art walk through La Candelaria. If you love street art and find yourself in Bogota, I highly recommend taking this tour.Bogota Street Art

5 The sunsets in Cartagena

Cartagena definitely wins the prize for the best sunsets I saw in Colombia! No matter if from the thick stone walls that surround the Old City or from the sandy beaches of Bocagrande, the new part of town, every sunset was spectacular. But not only the sunsets were lovely – Cartagena itself was a picture-perfect town, easily the prettiest town I visited in Colombia, and I took nearly 1,000 photos of its brightly colored Spanish-colonial houses, flower-filled wooden balconies and eye-catching door knockers. I extended my stay in Cartagena twice because I couldn’t pull myself away from this gorgeous city!cartagena walls sunset

6 Kayaking in the Amazon

I spent eight days in the Amazon – a last-minute addition to my itinerary, and I am glad I spent the extra cash for the plane ticket into the Amazonas region (the only way to get there is to fly in). While I found the lack of wildlife encounters a bit disappointing, I found the Amazon River and life along the Amazon fascinating – and a kayaking trip that brought me up close with the giant trees of the Amazon was an experience I won’t forget anytime soon.Colombian Amazon Kayaking

7 Feasting on fresh fruit everywhere

Colombia’s wide range of exotic fruit is incredible – there are so many fruits in this country that I had never even heard of. My mission was to try them all! And I did a good job, with daily fruit salads from a street vendor, or a thick slice of pineapple to start my day with in Santa Marta (for about $0.30!). In the Amazon, I got to taste the local fruit Cupuacu, and so many more, like anona, aguaje, granadilla, uvilla or tumbo. But even fruit I already knew, like mango, zapote, pineapple, papaya, guava, or guyabana tasted juicier and sweeter than in other places. The fruits were one of my favorite things about Colombia.Colombian fruit

8 Hiking through the Valle de Cocora

The Valle de Cocora near Salento, right in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to: green mountainsides filled with these tall, up to 60 meter high wax palm trees which tower high above cattle farms. The hike I did was beautiful, and being a 4-hour round trip, it was a good workout at the same time.valle de cocora

9 Visiting coffee plantations in Quindio and Magdalena

Coffee is probably my biggest vice, and so it was a given that I’d visit Colombia’s coffee region to see where some of the world’s best coffee is from. I had toured a coffee finca a few years ago in Guatemala, and even though I knew the process would be pretty much the same, I was happy to see again how the bean makes its way from the farm into my cup – even twice, because I ended up not only visiting a coffee plantation in the zona cafeteria, but also in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a lesser known and considerably smaller coffee producing region in Colombia. The old-fashioned family-run coffee plantation I visited there, Finca La Victoria, including a tasting of a freshly brewed cup, was a highlight of the trip for this coffee lover.Coffee in Colombia

10 Stepping back in time in Villa De Leyva

It took me about a minute to fall in love with Villa De Leyva, which is often called the most beautiful colonial village in Colombia, and I am nodding my head in approval – I don’t think there’s a place prettier than Villa de Leyva with its whitewashed houses, cobble stone streets and its vast town square, flanked by bright white houses on all sides, and with a Spanish-colonial church that dates back to 1608. Wandering the streets of the village I couldn’t help but think: this place hasn’t changed at all since it was founded in 1572! Okay, there might be cars in Villa De Leyva these days, but other than that, I really don’t think it has changed much over the past 500 years.Villa De Leyva

11 Beach day in Playa Blanca

I love going to the beach, and I went to quite a few beaches in Colombia, all along the Caribbean Coast. My favorite beach day? Playa Blanca near Cartagena! Cartagena is hot and humid year round, but luckily there are a few places where you can take a break from the heat for a while. Playa Blanca on Baru Island is one such place, an easy 45-minute bus ride away. Playa Blanca means White Beach, and that’s exactly what it is: a white sand beach with clear turquoise waters which is so pretty that I ended up spending most of the day staring out at the ocean instead of reading my book.playa blanca

12 Seeing Botero’s art in Medellin and Bogota

Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists and I love his ‘fat people’ paintings and sculptures. I’ve seen his sculptures of voluminous women, men and animals in London, Jerusalem, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Mexico and Singapore, and now I was finally in his home country – excited to see more of his art here, and find out more about the artist. I can’t help but smile when I look at his ‘fat people’ sculptures and paintings – his signature style – and seeing more of his art around Colombia was wonderful. I loved the Botero Museum in Bogota, but Medellin’s Museum of Antioquia and the Parque de Las Esculturas, right outside the museum, were my absolute favorite places to learn more about Botero and more of his art.Botero Sculptures Colombia

13 Salsa nights in Bogota

I didn’t make it to Cali, where most female travelers end up to learn how to salsa, but I would have loved to learn salsa steps. However, I ran out of time. I did, however, visit a few excellent salsa bars, and danced several nights away (without exactly knowing how to salsa, but I had fun nonetheless!). I was surprised that it was in Bogota of all places that I found such great salsa bars, but I had a super guide who introduced me to Bogota’s nightlife and made the city much more fun for me than I thought it’d be, as I mentioned above. One salsa highlight was the salsa bar inside El Theatron, which the biggest gay & lesbian night club in all of South America.salsa dancing colombiaFor more Colombia photos, check out my Facebook photo album here.

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Life Lately & Upcoming Travels: March 2016 Edition

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In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, and what’s next for me. 

Where I’ve been

March was probably the most interesting month of 2016 so far – simply because on 1 March, when I was still in the Colombian Amazon, I had no idea where I’d be now, at the end of the month. So where I am? I am in Mexico City! Yes, this was a completely unexpected turn of events, or change of travel plans. But let’s start at the beginning… A short overview of the places I visited this month: From Leticia in the Amazon I flew to Pereira in the zona cafeteria. From there I moved on to Salento, the heart of the coffee region, hiked in the striking Valle de Cocora, and finally traveled further north to Medellin – which would be my last stop in Colombia… at least for now. I flew to Mexico City, from where I traveled to Poza Rica to visit the El Tajin ruins and from there to Cuetzalan, one of Mexico’s ‘magical villages’. Now I am back in Mexico City for a few days to catch up on work before I go on vacation (well, at least sort of) next week.March colombia mexico

What I’ve been up to

It seems like ages ago that I was leaving the hospital and finished up my time in Colombia’s Amazon region! The beginning of the month was quite tough, to be honest. I flew out of the Amazon into Colombia’s zona cafetera, which saw me travel alone again, quite a change after being surrounded by people for all of February and January. Being sick didn’t really help to get me back into a ‘solo travel mood’, and the cold and rainy days in the coffee region were a huge change from the hot and sticky days in the Amazon where I had to change my shirt twice a day because I was soaked in sweat.March Mexico ColombiaAnd so I found myself booking a flight to Mexico, where I would meet up with several friends. This is not the potential ‘change of plans’ that I briefly mentioned in my last round-up, by the way – that would have been a trip to the Canadian Rockies for a Winter Pride event, and I would’ve returned to New York from there. But I had to cancel the event due to my sickness and kept hearing stories about cold and rainy weather in NYC (even snow had been reported to me!) and I had no desire to return yet. So here I am, spending a month in Mexico.el tajin dancerI sacrificed some of my time in Medellin for this trip, which I had been looking forward to the entire time I was in Colombia, but I made the most of my few days there, and as soon as I took a bite out of my first flor de calabaza quesadilla in Mexico, I had no regrets about leaving Colombia a bit earlier than planned. To be honest, I was getting a bit tired of the food in Colombia and was ready for something new.

Now Mexico is not necessarily new considering that this is my fourth time here, but of course I’m not only revisiting old favorites but also new places. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Mexico City though – there’s just always something new to discover here, and with a city of the size of Mexico DF (22 million people!) you can never see it all. I’ve spent over a week here again, and found it fascinating to see how the city has changed since my last visit in 2012.Mexico CityMy plans to visit new plans didn’t go as smooth as I would’ve wished for – see below in What went wrong – but I guess it can’t always be just awesome, right? Read on to find out what went well and what went wrong this month, and where I am off to in April… I am stoked for the next month!

March Highlights

A kayak trip on my last day in the Amazon

I was still sick as a dog when I left the Amazon, but after staying in that horrible hospital I wanted to do something awesome before leaving. And so we went for a kayaking trip which was the perfect way to end my time in this incredible region of the world. The massive trees we saw while paddling through mangrove forests, a swim in a lake, monkey spottings and these beautiful surroundings – with nobody but us out on the water – was a memorable experience.kayak trip amazon

Returning to Mexico

I think I’ve already made it clear that I’ve been having a blast since I got back to Mexico! I love that I have the freedom to purchase a plane ticket on a whim, like I did, deciding to come here a mere week before my plane departed. While I spent most of my time in Mexico City, I also got to visit some new places – two UNESCO World Heritage sites, to be precise. In the quaint little town of Cuetzalan I went on an awesome caving tour and got to have a small ancient site with pyramids almost to myself, and in El Tajin I visited the famous Pyramid Of The Niches. Some people find Mexico City overwhelming, but I feel right at home here, and I love the street food, the people, the markets, the weather, and seeing the Jacaranda trees in bloom (the first time I get to see them in bloom here in Mexico!) – plus, I’ve been getting my culture fix this month… see below:
March 2016 Mexico
A month filled with culture

One reason why I’m drawn to big cities? Culture. Sure, I love the beach, and I love being outdoors, hiking in the mountains or through the jungle, but at heart I’m a city girl. Not only do I enjoy all the amenities of a big city (hundreds of food options, movie theaters, events, concerts…) but I need me some culture! Museums, art galleries, or simply urban art in the form of graffiti murals or sculptures – as a creative, I feed off the creativity of talented artists. And this is why March was awesome – I got so much culture in the past four weeks… In Medellin, I got my culture fix with all the Botero sculptures that can be found throughout the city and in the Museo Antioquia (along with his art and other art), visited a fabulous Modern Art Museum, and here in Mexico, it’s been culture non-stop: the amazing museums of Mexico City including yesterday’s Night of the Museums, and my visit to two pre-Columbian ruin sites, El Tajin and Yohualichan. And there’s more to come next month – see Upcoming Travels.Artsy March

What went wrong

Plane to Pereira had to turn around because of a storm

The worst thing that happened this month was my flight from Bogota to Pererira, the second leg of my flight that would bring me from the Amazon to the coffee region. My flight left Bogota at 5pm and was supposed to land in Pereira at 6pm, but while in the air, around 5.45pm, the pilot announced that we might have to return to Bogota due to a massive thunderstorm in Pereira. After circling above the storm for 30 minutes, we indeed turned around and went back to Bogota. While I was still wondering if the airline would put me up in a hotel in Bogota for the night, as soon as we reached the gate, the pilot announced he had been notified the storm had passed and we’d give it another try. So nobody was allowed to leave the plane, they counted all our luggage for security reasons, and about 7.30pm we were supposed to leave. Then there was another inexplicable delay, and in the end it took us until 9pm until we departed again. By then, I was ravenous – I had only had breakfast. The flight attendants only handed out nuts, and that was 4.5 hours after we’d boarded the plane. I finally got to Pereira at around 10pm, and by the time I got to my hostel, it was 10.45pm – no restaurants were open anymore, and I went to bed starving. Considering that I had only left the hospital two days prior to my flight, I wasn’t in the best condition to begin with and sure didn’t need this flight from hell.

colombia plane
Usually I love being on a plane! Window seat, always!

Being sick suuuuucks

When I woke up in Pereira, the first time in weeks that I was completely by myself, still feeling sick as hell, I had only one thought: being sick on the road sucks. Especially if you’re traveling alone and have nobody to go to the pharmacy for you, to get you water or food. Luckily I had someone to look after me in the Amazon.Leticia Hospital

Traveling during Semana Santa

Ah, Latin America’s holiest of all weeks, the week before Easter.. I should have thought about traveling during this time, which is prime travel time, but somehow I forgot about it (again!) and ended up wasting an entire day trying to plan a week of travel during that period. Buses and hostels were completely booked, and if I was lucky enough to find a ticket online, by the time I had gone through the booking process, somebody else had snatched it. It was frustrating, to say the least. Instead of going south, I ended up going to Veracruz for a festival of indigenous culture and dance music, held in an ancient ruin site. See below how that went down…

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Public transportation in Mexico

Rained out festival
El Cumbre, the festival we went to, and paid a considerable amount of money to attend, was completely rained out the day we got there. We were bummed, decided to wait it out for a day and to attend the festival the next day. It still rained on and off, and it was terribly cold. I had stupidly not taken my rain jacket with me, because it had been sunny in Mexico City and I had only used it once on the entire trip. Lesson learned! We tried to make the best of it despite the crappy weather, but it still put a damper on our mood. A good reminder though how lucky I am to be traveling in great weather 95% of the time!

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Braving rain and mud at El Cumbre

Losing (more) stuff

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Only my big $300 headphones left. They’re great for working & blocking out noise, but not for working out..

Somehow I keep losing stuff on this trip.. after my Kindle charger and Canon battery charger (including battery!), and a few other things, this month I lost my favorite (and only!) pajama shorts and top, which I had bought in Bangkok last year. I must have left it in a hotel room, and it really upsets me because they were fitting great and I need to wear something at night when I travel with someone, which I mostly do. And then I lost my beloved Sennheiser in-ear headphones. I’d finally invested in pricey headphones a few months ago, and it didn’t take long for me to lose them – that’s why I usually use cheapie headphones while I travel. Oh well. I replaced them with inexpensive headphones in Colombia which broke after only a couple of weeks, and then replaced those with headphones here in Mexico. And guess what? I’ve already lost them. What the hell is wrong with me?!

Other noteworthy happenings

My first Temazcal

As if one indigenous ceremony wasn’t enough (I’m referring to last month’s ..um… interesting… ayahuasca experience), I experienced my first Temazcal this month, which is an indigenous Mexican steam bath that has been part of the Mesoamerican culture for hundreds of years and involves religious, ritualistic and healing motives. A Temazcal, similar to a sauna done at a very high temperature and prepared with medicinal and aromatic herbs in a small round stone building  usually lasts for about 2 hours and is supposed to help you connect with yourself but also with the fundamental elements of nature. Usually you are guided through the ceremony with songs and prayers, allowing for the purification, inner renewal and healing of the body on an emotional and spiritual level, but my experience was a bit different from what I had read about Temazcales before trying it.

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The beautiful town of Cuetzalan, where I had my first Temazcal experience
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After the Temazcal

The lady who was guiding us through our Temazcal experience seemed to suffer from the extreme heat much more than we did and was on all four down on the floor for most of the time, and asked us to beat each other with branches of herbs, for an inner cleaning. Afterwards I read that this is called ‘leafing’ and is part of some temazcal experiences (the ceremonies vary), and supposedly means that ‘the bather is gently beaten with the herbal branches’, but trust me, this was no light beating, this felt more like a full-on whipping, and she kept yelling at us to hit each other harder. I had a hard time not laughing out loud during the experience, and I don’t think we were in there for more than thirty minutes (instead of 2 hours) before being massaged by her daughter, whose massage skills were questionable.

I think I might give the Temazcal another try because I usually do enjoy sauna experiences and would like to see how I feel after a properly executed temazcal.

What’s next for me

April is shaping up to be another awesome month – I will fly to Cancun this weekend to meet up with my favorite travel buddy for a road trip in the Yucatan peninsula, which is probably my favorite region in Mexico. We’ll be checking out Mayan ruins, cenotes (underwater sinkholes), Caribbean beaches, snorkel with turtles, visit one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been to and finish our trip with a couple of beach days on a gorgeous Caribbean island (can’t tell you yet where because it’s a surprise for her and she might read it, which would spoil the surprise 😉 )MexicoAfter that, I will return to Southern Arizona for my ‘annual desert retreat’, which my trips to Tucson have evolved into, sort of. I am stoked to see my friends there and I will be housesitting there again – but this time, in a different house! But more on that in my next round-up, which will come to you from Arizona.

If you want to follow my travels in real time, add me on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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Polaroid of the week: Botero makes me happy | Medellin, Colombia

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polaroid of the week colombia medellinAfter my visit to the coffee region, I finally made it to Medellin, a highly anticipated stop on my tour of Colombia, and I was lucky enough to know some locals who introduced me to the city’s nightlife (and kindly hosted me!).

Not all of my plans to explore the city work out, however: the walking tour I was keen on taking was fully booked and the alternative I’d found didn’t happen (or I was at the wrong meeting point?), and every attempt to take Medellin’s famous cable car up into the mountains was rained out by afternoon downpours.

What I did succeed to do though was visiting most of Fernando Botero‘s bronze sculptures which are scattered around the city, with over 20 of them on Parque de Las Esculturas, right in front of the excellent Museum of Antioquia (which also features a lot of Botero’s art). The sculptures and the museum were both huge highlights in Medellin for me, because I adore the art of Colombia’s most popular painter and sculptor and had been looking forward to seeing his art in Medellin for years (really, years!).

I created my own city walking tour after the one I wanted to go on didn’t work out, and enjoyed my wanderings through Medellin – still the best way to get a feel for a city, instead of just ticking off tourist sights. A highlight was going out in Poblado, a more upscale neighborhood with a lot of nightlife and bars, where we randomly ended up at a salsa dance-off – an amazing spectacle to watch! Another great evening was hanging out in Parque Periodista, a tiny park in the heart of the city which is usually filled with youngsters and hipsters who buy drinks (for as little as 50 cents for a beer!) in the little convenience stores that are surrounding the park, drinking outside them while chatting with friends. I know I’ll miss being able to drink in public like this when I get back to the U.S.!

I finished my time in Medellin with a visit to the Modern Art Museum, because instead of spending a couple of weeks here, like I thought I would, I left Medellin after a few short days – and not only Medellin, but Colombia! After two months, it was time for a change of scenery, and I found myself heading to a country I didn’t expect to visit any time soon, but as son often, I left it to fate? serendipity? chance? to decide over my next destination (which isn’t the one I mentioned in my February round-up, btw!). To find out where I am now, you’ll have to wait until next week’s Polaroid though..

P.S. Or add me on Snapchat if you can’t wait until next week – my ID is mariposa2711.

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Polaroid of the week: Colombia’s stunning Valle De Cocora

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polaroid of the week colombia valle de cocoraThis week, I finally visited Colombia’s coffee region, which I had been anticipating since arriving in Colombia a couple of months ago. However, I must admit that I couldn’t enjoy the zona cafeteria as much as I had hoped for… which was partly because I was still battling my sickness (to which a stomach parasite was added) and partly because the weather didn’t fully collaborate.

I spent most of my time in the little town of Salento, known to be the heart of Colombia’s coffee region. The town itself, where almost all houses have colorful balconies or brightly painted wooden doors, was a fabulous place to base myself, with a number of cozy coffee shops to while away during the daily downpours, delicious restaurants to eat my way through, and enough artisan shops to make sure my backpack is now fuller than before!

For most people, the main attraction is not Salento itself though, but its surrounding: the lush green mountains, and the dozens of coffee plantations that make this region famous. And then there’s the region’s showstopper: the Valle De Cocora, a valley filled with giant wax palms which are unique to this area. These wax palms are the tallest palm trees in the world and can grow up to nearly 200 feet (60 meters) tall – it’s quite a sight to see these giants towering high above you while walking through the valley.

After a couple of rainy days and me still feeling a bit weak, I finally set off on the 4-hour hike into the valley, which is just outside Salento. The mountainous scenery was gorgeous, despite the clouds rolling in soon after I started my hike, which had me walk by cow farms, led through a cloud forest, and finally finished at a café on top of a mountains where I watched dozens of hummingbirds while enjoying a cup of hot chocolate.

The other thing I was excited about in Salento? The coffee, of course! This coffee lover couldn’t wait to tour a couple of the coffee plantations outside of town an I thought that coffee would be this week’s Polaroid. However, the combination of rainy days and me suffering from a stomach bug had me less excited about coffee once I got there, and I ended up only touring one coffee finca. It was my second coffee plantation here in Colombia after visiting Finca La Victoria near Minca in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in January, and even though by now I know a coffee bean’s way from the plant into my cup by now, I still enjoyed the visit of Don Eduardo’s Coffee Plantation, and my cup of freshly roasted coffee. I would’ve wanted to visit a couple of other plantations and the nearby town of Filandia that I’ve heard other people rave about, but I guess that has to happen next time I find myself in Colombia’s coffee country.

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Polaroid of the week: Kayaking in the Amazon

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polaroid of the week colombia amazonWhen I planned my travels through Colombia, the Amazon was not part of my plan. But as it happens so often when you travel, you meet people who’ve been to places you haven’t heard about, their stories about said places sound magical, and you decide that you have to go there! That’s how the small town of Jardin made it onto my itinerary, where I’ll be heading next week, and that’s how Colombia’s Amazonas region ended up on my itinerary, where I just got back from.

It’s not the easiest place to get to, in fact there’s only one way: by plane from Bogota. Leticia, Colombia’s biggest town in the Amazon (population 35,000) sits right on the border to Brazil and Peru, and you can actually move freely between the three of them. While Leticia itself is nothing special, it’s the surrounding rain forest and the Amazon river with its many tributaries that draw people here. And rightly so: the natural beauty here is outstanding, and I was already stunned by the endless green carpet of trees when I watched it come closer and closer as our plane descended slowly.

From Leticia, we took a boat 50 miles (75km) up the Amazon to the small village of Puerto Nariño, where swam in the Amazon, and where we took a boat out to Lake Tarapoto, a massive jungle lake with pink and grey river dolphins.

Another highlight for me was a kayak trip we took when we got back to Leticia. We kayaked through mangroves with giant trees, marveled at curious little squirrel monkeys and finally reached Lake Yahuarcaca, a peaceful lake that we had entirely to ourselves. The tranquil atmosphere here was what I enjoyed the most – it seems like you’re the only one out there, surrounded by this massive body of water, and the only soundtrack is that of the jungle.

Even though my trip ended with a visit to the hospital, my week in the Amazon is one that I won’t forget anytime soon.

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Life lately & upcoming travels: February 2016 Edition

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February was an interesting month.. The road led me down some unexpected paths, and held several incredible highlights in Colombia for me, but unfortunately there were some lows as well, like the fact that I’m only posting this now thanks to a visit to the hospital…

Where I’ve been

I started the month in Santa Marta, which I used as a base for my 4-day jungle trek to Colombia’s Lost City, and flew down to Bogotá from there. In Bogota, I met up with a travel buddy I met in Santa Marta, and later with my friend Rease, who I went to Iceland with last year. With her, I visited Villa de Leyva, a beautiful little town in the mountains. After that, we returned to Bogota, and I ended up extending my stay there after enjoying it much more than expected. And because I decided on a whim to meet a friend in the Amazonas region, which wasn’t part of my original itinerary… I think, it might have been Ayahuasca that was calling me down here, but more on that later.

Colombia February 2016
Clockwise: The Amazon rain forest, Santa Marta, Bogota, the Lost City, and Villa de Leyva

What I’ve been up to

I thought I’d be traveling alone for most of the month, but I was wrong! I ended up spending most of February with a friend I made while traveling, trekked through the Sierra Nevada with a great group of people for four days (and met up with one of them later in Bogota), and traveled with Rease for a few days. I am ready for some ‘me-time’!Colombia Friends

I’ve also enjoyed quite a bit of offline time – some planned, some unplanned… and both times, I found it refreshing to do a digital detox, and to realize that the world doesn’t end if I don’t check my Facebook / Instagram / Snapchat / insertothersocialmediahere / email every day. While my first digital detox, during my 4-day trek, was planned and something I prepared for, my second one, on a spontaneous trip to Puerto Nariño on the Amazon, was a bit of a shock, because I didn’t expect to be completely offline for a few days – I thought I’d have at least a 3G connection on my phone, but no.. nothing. I definitely prefer going offline when I can prepare for it (I also worried quite a few people when I simply disappeared to the Amazon with a stranger and went offline without a warning) but overall I came to the conclusion that I need spend more time offline.

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Offline on the Amazon River… bliss!

Overall, my travels this month went without a glitch… From the trek, which turned out to be a highlight of all of my travels (see below), to a few slow days in Santa Marta where I caught up on work projects, to my time in Bogota, which I was a bit afraid of, but which turned out to be fantastic – everything went according to plan! Note to self: Don’t let other people scare you off places. I had heard so many horror stories about Bogota, but I had a fantastic time there. I treated myself to a lovely weekend at the Hilton Bogota, including a taste of their extraordinary Sunday brunch, while exploring the Chapinero neighborhood, I danced the night away in South America’s largest gay club, El Theatron (I wish New York had a giant club like this… including the free-drinks-until-2am policy for $13.50!), I went to the Botero Museum which I adored, enjoyed the views over Bogota from Monserrate Mountain, took a street art tour and a city tour, escaped the city for a few days to quaint little Villa De Leyva, and finally flew down to the Amazon which I adored, despite getting horribly sick here. But altogether, I couldn’t have asked for a better month in Colombia (minus getting sick).Colombia 2016

Highlights

Ciudad Perdida: Colombia’s Lost City

This 4-day trek (actually supposed to be a 5-day trek but I ended up walking it in 4 days) was definitely a highlight of all my travels so far, not just in Colombia. It was extremely hard, I’m not gonna lie, but arriving at the top of the mountain on which the ruins of the city sit after climbing up 1,200 on the morning of the third day was incredibly rewarding. The trek itself led through some beautiful mountain and jungle scenery and I’m glad that I got out of my comfort zone to do it.ciudad perdida

Swimming in the Amazon River

…and seeing pink river dolphins! Experiencing life in the Amazon was something so unique and memorable that I was happy I followed my gut instinct to fly down into this remote region of Colombia and spend time here. It’s a different pace of life down here, and being so isolated and surrounded by water and rain forest on all sides, with no roads leading here, makes it such a special time to visit.amazon sunset

The people I’ve met

This month I’ve met some incredible people – I’d even go as far as saying that this month alone I met more interesting people than during my entire Asia trip last year, and it reconfirmed something I’d been thinking for a while now… The kind of traveler that goes to South America is a completely different kind of traveler that goes to South East Asia. I find the kind of people who come to South America not only much mature, but also much more invested in the local culture, meaningful experiences and encounters than the people I met on my trips to South East Asia. Sure, I can’t generalize this, and of course not everyone who goes to South East Asia just wants to party and island hop, but the majority of people who go to Asia seem more interested in cheap booze, beaches and cheap parties than in truly getting to know the countries they visit, whereas here, people are in for an educational experience, questioning things… willing to learn. Hence, the people I’ve met, and the conversations I’ve been having with people, have been thought provoking and eye opening.hikers

Holding a 2-hour business meeting entirely in Spanish
This is something I’m very proud of – I didn’t know how I’d manage on this trip with my rusty Spanish, but luckily my Spanish came back to me fairly quickly once I got to Colombia. But still – sitting through a 2-hour meeting entirely in Spanish was a whole different story. The more proud and achieved when I left it, knowing I’m still able to speak Spanish fluent enough to have a professional meeting in my 3rd language. It surely helped that I hung out with someone prior to that who I only conversed with in Spanish – and I should do more of that while I’m still here.

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Feeling accomplished in Bogota!

Lowlights

Being hospitalized

It started all of a sudden – we went out for dinner, and from one minute to the next, I felt horribly sick. I couldn’t get anything down, and I sat at the table shivering – in the 90 F heat that is common in the Amazonas region at night. Then my legs started to become heavy, hurting like hell. I barely made it back to our guesthouse. I laid down, still shivering, but at the same time sweating, my skin burning hot, with a high fever. The next morning, the entire bed was soaking wet, that’s how much I had sweated. My head felt like it was going to explode, my eyes hurt and felt as if someone was pushing on them constantly. My whole body felt so weak… what was going on?? The next day, I barely managed to get out of bed. I felt horrible. And I was 50 miles up to the Amazon River from the next hospital, and the only way to get there was by boat. Getting into a boat was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do. I waited until we got back in Leticia to go see a doctor and find out what I had. The symptoms led me to believe the worst: Zika. In the hospital, I was told my symptoms matched more Malaria or Dengue than Zika, and after I had my blood taken, I was asked to stay in the hospital until the results were in. It was a terrible experience staying in one of the worst hospitals I’ve ever come across, but luckily all my tests for mosquito-borne diseases came back negative. I had just gotten a really bad flu.dani hospital

Wi-fi struggles
Ah, what is it with me and bad wi-fi? I feel like I’m whining about bad wifi every other month! Seriously though, in the Philippines last year I nearly had a nervous breakdown because of the slow wifi, in Thailand I had a bad signal more often than not, even in Europe I sometimes had a hard time finding a reliable connection. And now Colombia. Bad wifi is following me around the world, it seems! It makes it super frustrating and difficult to run a business online sometimes, and had me on the verge of tears more than once. This month I was happy to have someone to share the pain with: when I traveled with my friend Rease, who also works online, and we had terrible wifi in both Bogota and Villa De Leyva, we both nearly lost our minds. With a slow connection, it takes me an hour to do what usually takes me 20 minutes. And I am still trying to send a large file with photos to a client that she was supposed to receive last Friday. I knew that internet in the Amazonas region would be slow, but I didn’t expect it to be nearly non-functional.

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Villa de Leyva was so pretty… but the wifi was pretty awful.

Balancing blog & work

Yes, I make money from this website, but it isn’t my only source of income… I still rely on income from freelance projects, and this month, with my wifi struggles and more offline time than I’d factored in, I let my regular blogging schedule skip. Paid work comes first, of course, but I don’t feel good about the lack of updates. I hope I’ll be able to manage to do better again in March.

Noteworthy happenings

(I put these things extra because I feel like they are noteworthy, but am not sure if they were good or bad experiences!)

An Ayahuasca ceremony

Ayahuasca. A plant that grows only here in the Amazon, and which, brewed into a tea, has been used by shamans in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil for centuries to cure illnesses and which is said to open a door to another reality. A strong hallucinogenic, it is supposed to make you confront your biggest fears, face your inner demons, deal with all the ‘baggage’ you carry around with you without ever dealing with. Some people even go as far as saying one night of Ayahuasca equals ten years of therapy.

ayahuasca experience
This picture pretty much sums up my Ayahuasca experience: blurry, vivid, a bit messy, intriguing.

When I read about Ayahuasca for the first time, two years ago when I traveled to Peru, I wasn’t ready for it. This time, I was ready for what’s known to be a very spiritual, emotional and for some frightening, for some cathartic experience. I felt like it was the Ayahuasca that called me down to the Amazon.. I had absolutely no plans to travel here, and not much interest, to be honest, because it is so out of the way. And yet, I boarded a plane down to Leticia, the small town on the Amazon River that borders with Peru and Brazil, and the next day, I found myself wandering through the jungle for an hour, on the way to a shaman’s house for an Ayahuasca ritual.

I will write about it in more detail in a separate article, but let’s just say that I didn’t have the life changing experience that I had read other people had, I didn’t have any mind-blowing revelations, I also didn’t have crazy hallucinations or anything like that. I might even have been a bit disappointed that it didn’t have a stronger impact on me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t strong – boy was I feeling sick! The next morning the shaman told our group of four that this had been an exceptionally strong brew, and Jeremy, who had already done a ritual with him a couple of days prior, said that his other experience with him was much better than this one.

Ayahuasca Plant & Dani
Left: the plant from which the brew is made. Right: Me the morning after.

I got a haircut!

… and it was my first haircut in over two years, which is why I thought I should mention it. In January 2014, I had a traumatic haircut experience in New York, and after that, I vowed to never go to the hairdresser again. Back then, I showed the hairdresser four or five pictures of what I wanted, and the end result didn’t look anything like that. I was in tears afterwards, and horrified for weeks every time I happened to look into a mirror. But after a year, I noticed that I couldn’t go without a haircut forever. It took me a whole other year to finally take the leap and set foot into a hair salon. Am I happy with the result? I’m happier than last time, but of course my hair will never look as fabulous as it does after an hour of blow drying and straightening (I left my straightener in New York, now I wish I would’ve brought it!). On the upside, it was only about $13.50 – and that included some fancy hair products and it was in one of the nicer salons in town!Dani haircut

What’s next for me

Despite my current sickness, I’ll be continuing my travels through Colombia as planned, hoping I’ll be recovering quickly. I am looking forward to exploring the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee country, which I’ve heard great things about, and after a few smaller towns along the way, finally: Medellin! I’ve been wanting to go to Medellin for years, and it might sound corny but after watching Narcos, I’m looking forward to go on a Pablo Escobar themed tour there. Plus, I already know some people who are in Medellin, which is an added bonus.

And then… an unexpected opportunity came my way, which would see me leave Colombia a bit earlier than expected to visit a country I’ve been to twice, and which I like a lot (and for which I don’t have any appropriate clothes right now, but I’m sure I’ll manage somehow.. any guesses which place I’m talking about?)… Since I’m still discussing the details of the trip and haven’t entirely decided if I should really sacrifice some of my time here in Colombia, you’ll have to wait if I ended up going there until my March round-up.Colombia Feb 2016

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Polaroid of the week: Charmed by Villa De Leyva, Colombia

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polaroid of the week colombia villa de leyvaAh, Villa de Leyva! It was love at first sight between this charming little village with its cobble-stone streets and bright white houses and me. With the exception of Minca, I’d only been to big cities in Colombia so far, and it was a refreshing change to experience a sleepy mountain village. And it’s not just a quaint little village, but also one of the oldest ones in the country, dating back to 1572, and sometimes it felt like someone transported me right back to the 16th century – most of Villa de Leyva feels just like it must have felt then (except for the addition of cars and motorbikes).

About 4 hours north of Bogota, it is one of the most popular weekend getaways for the Bogotanos, and it’s easy to see why: the narrow streets are lined with artisan stores for some shopping, or you can simply enjoy a cup of coffee right on the plaza, which happens to be the largest town square in all of South America (!), and its vast size is remarkable.

Rease and I spent a few days doing exactly that: wandering the narrow cobble-stone streets, marveling at the beautifully arranged flowers on the balconies of most houses and the meticulously tiled terracotta roofs, sipping beers on the plaza, indulging in ice cream to cool off (Villa de Leyva gets incredibly hot during the day!), and trying to put our cameras down (nearly impossible). There are several hikes around Villa de Leyva to see waterfalls and fossils, of which many have been found around here, but we only managed to brave the heat for one hike to see the Pozos Azules, five bright blue pools which would’ve been the perfect place to escape from the scorching sun, but sadly swimming wasn’t allowed. After a couple of days in this tranquil mountain retreat, we boarded the bus back to Bogota, which is pretty much the opposite of Villa De Leyva.

If you’re traveling around Colombia, don’t miss this little gem in the mountains… It’s a special place.

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