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Polaroid of the Week

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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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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Polaroid Of the Week: Cruising Around The Galapagos Islands

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador galapagos

This week I went on a trip of a lifetime: a 4-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago  of 20 islands, 42 islets, and over 250 rocks in the ocean, a 2-hour flight of the coast off mainland Ecuador, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise! For four days, we cruised around some of the islands, with frequent snorkeling stops and island explorations. The boat would anchor in the ocean, and our dinghies would bring us to the shore. With the exception of one island, Santa Cruz, we never encountered any other people, it always felt like we were the only ones out there. Even when the boat was cruising in between islands, we often didn’t see another boat for hours.

The snorkeling stops were my favorite part – we swam with penguins, sharks, rays, seals and turtles. Something I never tire of! On land, we watched Giant Tortoises mating, eating and just being, we watched sea lions take over the ports of the two towns we stopped in, and we watched hundreds of colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling around the rocks near the shore. I photographed iguanas, blue-footed boobies and other birds, I got up for a sunrise snorkeling session near a rock in the middle of the ocean which was a popular spot with hammerhead sharks, and I sunbathed on a dreamy, secluded, tropical beach.

It truly was a dream trip for all the experiences I had – but then there was also the boat I was on, which was a big part of it, considering that’s where we spent the majority of our time. Aptly named ‘Majestic’, it was a gorgeous 16-passenger yacht with a beautiful sun deck and a Jacuzzi. Our crew spoiled us with tasty buffet meals and snacks every time we came back from an excursion, definitely exceeding my expectations in terms of food and service. I couldn’t have been happier about doing this trip with Galapagos Luxury Charters, who put together personalized, all-inclusive cruises around the islands.

I can’t wait to share all the photos (well, maybe not all of them, considering I took well over 800) and stories of my Galapagos trip with you – I have yet to look at all the footage I took with my underwater camera but I will start sharing it shortly on my social media channels, so make sure to follow me on Instagram and Facebook for a first peek.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Quito’s Stunning Basílica del Voto Nacional

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador quito

I’m back in South America! And it strangely feels like I’ve never left, even though it’s been nearly eleven months since I said goodbye to Colombia. But considering I was in Mexico until mid-April and then again a whole month in November, it shouldn’t be too surprising that everything feels strangely familiar.

The Latin America traffic craze, the bustling markets and town squares, the noise (horns, speakers, megaphones), the street food vendors everywhere.

There were a few things though that made Quito, my first stop in Ecuador, feel different: 1) there are many women in traditional native dress, with long skirts and braids, hats and colorful shawls, which remind me a lot of the native dress in Bolivia.

And 2) The altitude! Quito is the second highest city in the world (only La Paz sits higher), and with an altitude of just over 9,200 feet I definitely felt the affects of it. I don’t think I’ve been to a place that high since traveling around Bolivia three years ago.

I’ll leave my thoughts on Quito for a separate article, but let’s just say I didn’t really connect with the city. That doesn’t mean I had a bad time here, but I didn’t see anything truly amazing and didn’t feel like I needed to spend more time here than the 4 days I had in Quito. I wandered the streets of the historic Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), I visited several of Quito’s stunning churches including the Basilica of the National Vow, pictured, which is he largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. I went to the new part of town (where I had an amazing Ecuadorian hot cocoa!), I went to the city’s biggest park and roamed the central market, and while all of that was nice, it just didn’t feel very special. Maybe it was the chilly weather (temperatures in Quito are in the 60s year-round) and the fact that it rained every day (thankfully not all day), Quito just didn’t wow me. I will be back in Quito at some point to use it as a base while taking a couple of excursions (I am planning to take a mountain bike tour of Cotopaxi and to visit the famous Otavalo market) – maybe I’ll warm up to Ecuador’s capital then.

Next stop: The Galápagos Islands!

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Polaroid Of The Week: Snowy New York City

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week USA New York City Brooklyn Bridge Park WinterAfter returning from Israel, I only had a few short days in Germany before I boarded a flight back to New York – just enough time to pack up my clothes and a few other belongings I wanted to bring to New York with me and hug my friends and family goodbye.

When I arrived in New York, I learned that I’d been lucky – had I flown a day later, I wouldn’t have made it to New York, because a massive blizzard hit the city, causing over 1,700 flights across all three airports to get canceled. That blizzard was the first real snowstorm I’ve ever witnessed! Yes, of course we get snow in Germany, but not like this. Seeing the city get covered in 10 inches (30 centimeters) of snow in the span of a few short hours was an incredible experience for me – I was amazed to see how quickly New York transformed into a winter wonderland. I watched the spectacle from the inside of a warm coffee shop while I was working and couldn’t resist taking a couple of walks through the snow, even though I decided NOT to bring my winter jacket with me to New York (I brought a vest because I figured it’d be enough for my last few days of winter). The novelty of the experience made me forget how cold it was and I adored the quietness of Manhattan in the snow – I don’t think I’ve ever seen New York that silent.

Yesterday, I woke up to bright blue skies and lots of sun, which made the winter storm the day before almost seem like a dream. Even though I am not the biggest fan of running in the snow I put my running clothes on and went for a jog along the East River. It was just too perfect of a winter day to not enjoy the views over Manhattan – another first for me, a winter run in New York.

This will be as much as I am getting of winter in New York – I am escaping the cold weather and won’t be returning until the spring! My next Polaroid will be coming to you from Ecuador, my first new country of 2017.

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Best View Over Tel Aviv

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week israel tel aviv viewsI spent the bigger part of the past week in Israel before returning to Berlin, where I was greeted with snow. It couldn’t have been a greater contrast: On Thursday, I went running in a tank top on the beach, and on Friday I went running across icy & snowy Tempelhof airfield.

After a couple of days in Jerusalem we took the bus to Tel Aviv and spent my final days in Israel in what is one of my favorite cities in the world. It was the perfect way to end my trip – after a few chilly days, the weather was sunny and warm, and we splurged on fancy hotel right by the beach, using a discount code for Hotels.com. We did all the things I love doing in Tel Aviv: morning runs along the beach promenade, strolls through Carmel market and Jaffa flea market, eating lots of sabich sandwiches (I fit in two visits to the legendary sabich sandwich place on the corner of Frishman and Dizengoff Str). Luckily we took advantage of Tel Aviv’s bike sharing system, which I discovered during my last visit, and cycled off some of the calories. We wandered the streets of Old Jaffa, the oldest port town in the world, and went to the hipster neighborhood Florentin to hunt down new street art. We also checked out a brand new indoor food market where I had the only drink of my trip – an Israeli microbrew. I couldn’t leave Israel without trying at least one new craft beer, and we’d gotten to Tel Aviv just in time to break my ‘Dryanuary’ alcohol detox.

I took the Polaroid from a viewpoint I go to every time I am in Tel Aviv: right when you enter Jaffa, which sits on the far southern end of the city, there is a viewpoint halfway up the hill that offers fantastic vistas over the coastline and Tel Aviv. And every time I visit, there are new cranes, building new skyscrapers, adding to the constantly changing skyline. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when I return to Israel.

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Polaroid Of The Week: A Spa Day At The Dead Sea

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week israel dead sea 2017This past week has been an absolute roller coaster of emotions: I got my passport back from the US consulate, with only two days to spare before my flight to Israel, and returned to Israel where I was reunited with one of my favorite people in the world. Sadly, it went downhill from there: first, the half-marathon I was supposed to run yesterday was canceled due to bad weather (heavy rain in the desert means flash floods), and I had trained so hard for this race in Germany’s arctic temperatures this month. And then there was Trump’s first anti-immigration action which caused this brand new immigrant to feel more anxiety than ever before. I’ll leave my full thoughts on that topic for my monthly round-up next week, but this and his other political actions definitely put a damper on my mood.

The plan for the rest of the day yesterday – post-race – was to spend the day at the Dead Sea, in which I floated during my first visit to Israel, and which was one of my favorite experiences in Israel, and to treat myself to a spa in one of the hotels on its shores, but since to get there, we’d have to take the same road that my race would’ve taken place on and which was closed because of flash floods, we had to change our plans.

Today, however, we woke up to beautiful blue skies and the sun was shining – the storm had finally moved on. So we decided to still have our spa day and headed to the desert and to the Dead Sea. It was just as stunning as I remembered it – in fact, driving down Highway 90 again made me think that it felt like yesterday that I’d last been here – and I even ended up braving the chilly 70°F (21°C) temperatures and jumped into the Dead Sea to float in the water again.

Our spa day at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and the road trip to the Dead Sea helped brighten my mood, even though the recent political happenings caused me sleepless nights and a tense feeling in my chest the entire week. I hope that my second week in Israel, which includes time in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, a city I love, will give my strength and my optimism back before I board a plane to New York in early February – the first time officially as an immigrant.

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