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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.
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’!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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!
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.