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
Let’s start with where I am right now: in Mexico! I started the month in Ecuador, assuming that’s where I would also end it, but as so often, my plans changed completely (throwback to March of last year when I started the month in Colombia and ended in Mexico, too – also completely unexpectedly.)
Three countries, and twelve different beds. I thought this would be a slow travel month with a week in each place, but once I made the decision to leave Ecuador early, I sped up my travels to still see all the places I wanted to visit.
So how did I end up in Mexico?
After my trip to the Galápagos Islands, I spent a few days in Guayaquil followed by a week on Ecuador’s coast. I noticed that while I didn’t have a terrible time, I also didn’t love anywhere I’d been so far in Ecuador – with the exception of the Galápagos Islands. Quito was meh, Guayaquil was nothing special, and the beaches were only okay (I know, I am spoiled!). I had planned to spend all of March in Ecuador before flying to Central America in early April to meet up with one of my favorite people in the world for another epic road trip together. But did I really need to spend all of March in Ecuador? I started to look into alternatives while starting to plan our Costa Rica road trip. And nothing came together the way I had hoped.
Flights to Costa Rica were outrageously expensive – both from the States and from South America. I was unsure if I should head south to Peru or north to Colombia. I wondered if we should even travel to Costa Rica given the challenging travel planning, also considering it’d be during Semana Santa, Easter Week, which happens to be one of the busiest travel weeks in Latin America.
I was frustrated and started to look into other destinations. Maybe a quick tour of the southern Yucatán in Mexico combined with island hopping in Belize and the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala? Maybe Nicaragua? Or island hopping in the Caribbean? No matter what I looked into, nothing worked out with the dates for our vacation. And then, when I was ready to give up, my eyes fell on a little island that has been on my radar for years: Cuba.
Twice on my travels when I was in Cancun, I was ready to fly over there, in 2010 and then again in 2012, but something always held us back (Americans weren’t allowed to travel to Cuba back then, making it a bit more risky for my partner at the time). I checked flights and found a great deal, now all I needed was Miss G’s okay. “How about Cuba?”, I texted her. “Are you kidding me?”, she replied, “Cuba would be amazing!”. I booked her flights the same day, and from South America, flights to Cuba usually go through Cancun. Once I knew I was going to have to fly to Cancun, there was no way I wasn’t going to add on some time in Mexico. After all, the Yucatan Peninsula is one of my favorite places in the world!
A friend of mine, who is currently living in Mexico City, was also in need of a change of scenery and decided to join me in the Yucatan. I assumed we’d rent a place in Tulum or Akumal and just enjoy the beaches and cenotes in the area, but somehow our plans evolved into a road trip. Yes, another Yucatan road trip! This time, I’ll get to explore the places I haven’t made it to yet, and I couldn’t be more excited!
I happened to find a great deal to Mexico from Colombia, which gave me the perfect excuse to head north from Ecuador and to visit a few places in Southern Colombia which I missed last year, when I only made it as far south as Bogota. After spending the first three weeks of the month in Ecuador, I crossed the border into Colombia for a whirlwind tour of Ipiales, Pasto, Popayan and Cali. I’ll tell you more about this trip shortly, but it felt so good to be back in Colombia – exactly one year after leaving this gorgeous country.
For a detailed recap of this month, I let you check out the Polaroids Of The Week of the past four weeks:
- Polaroid of the week: Taking in the views over Guayaquil
- Polaroid of the week: Beach sunset in Montañita
- Polaroid of the week: Beautiful Cuenca
- Polaroid of the week: The Swing At The End Of The World
What went right
Surviving risky adventures in Baños
The thing about adventure activities in South America? They may be ridiculously cheap, but they’re often not subject to safety regulations of the same standard we are used to in Europe or the US. And sure enough, I heard of a tourist drowning during a rafting trip, several tourists getting severely injured when a cable car dropped into the river, and too many accidents to count on the popular bike route visiting the waterfalls in the area (which also happens to be a main road into Ecuador’s jungle region – with lots of trucks and buses!). Dangling from a thin rope over a raging waterfall? Or dangling over the edge of a cliff on a swing, without any safety precautions? Jumping off of a bridge for $20? Ziplining over canyons? Paragliding? Baños is the dream place of every adrenaline junkie, with enough adventure activities to keep you busy for weeks.
Even though I was afraid I might break a limb or hurt myself in another way, I took my chances and went full-on adventure in Baños. I went canyoning ($25), overcame my fear of heights and swung on the ‘swing at the end of the world’ ($1), I cycled down a winding road next to a gaping gorge ($7 for the bike rental), went rafting ($25) and had I had more time, I’d have probably thrown myself off of a mountaintop (with a paraglide attached to me).
Back in Quito, I went on a mountain bike tour of Cotopaxi volcano (the second highest active volcano in all of South America). This didn’t go as planned though – see below under What Went Wrong.
Visiting Las Lajas
To make a long story short: I’ve wanted to visit Las Lajas since 2010 and somehow never made it there (I’ll share the long version of the story in this week’s Polaroid). Until now! This was the main reason I added the whirlwind tour of southern Colombia to my itinerary. I knew I wanted to visit Otavalo in the north of Ecuador, about three hours from the border.. and Las Lajas is just across the border in Colombia. Would I ever make it there, if not now? I doubt it. I was over the moon when I finally stood in front of the stunning church that is built inside the canyon of the Guáitara River.
The church was built in Gothic Revival style between 1916 and 1949, and of course there’s a reason why it was built in this rather remote and unusual setting, but I am sharing those details in this week’s Polaroid: The Stunning Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia.
While some destinations I’ve dreamed of visiting for years have not lived up to my expectations, this was definitely one of the times where my expectations were not just met, but exceeded. I spent about an hour exploring the church and the surrounding canyon, which is worth a visit in itself. Seeing Las Lajas already made the Colombia detour worth it for me!
What went wrong
A cyber-attack and going way over my budget
Of course this month couldn’t go by without some business-related stress. First, my hosting company shut down my website for 48 hours. Only after spending $1,200 (typing this number still makes me tear up) I was able to get it back up. These two days caused me so much mental stress, ideally I’d like to block them out of my memory. The site is back up now, and I am broke.
As if this wasn’t enough stress this month, I arrived in Valladolid with a deadline and when I wanted to edit the article and send it to the editor, my laptop charger cord broke. One of the cables simply broke. It was after 6pm, and all the shops around town had already closed. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to replace the cord in this small Mexican town – luckily I was able to send the document with the article to my friend and finish the assignment on her laptop. The next day, we began a frantic search for a new cord all over town. In the third shop, I got lucky! They were selling universal laptop charger cords. In that moment, I was so relieved that I have a PC and not a Mac, because Mac charger cords can be hard to come by in countries without an official Apple presence.
Not loving Ecuador as much as I thought I would
After my amazing Galápagos cruise it took me a while to find a place in Ecuador again that I truly loved. To be honest, I expected to love Ecuador much more than I actually did. I already touched on it above in ‘What I’ve been up to’ and consequently decided to leave Ecuador earlier than I thought I would. Luckily I ended up really liking the places I visited before I headed to Colombia: Baños, Cuenca and Otavalo. But overall I was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t loved it as much as I loved other South American countries.
A rained out volcano bike ride
I had already wanted to climb Cotopaxi when I arrived in Quito in February, but I found out that you can only go up to a refugio at 15,953 feet / 4,864 meters at the moment, because the volcano has been active since October 2015 and it is too dangerous to climb any higher. But there is a tour that offers a hike up to the refugio followed by cycling down the volcano. Well, that sounded even better! I enjoyed my bike ride down the death road a few years back, so why not cycle down a volcano? Sadly the tours were only offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and during my first visit I arrived on a Sunday and left Quito the following Friday. I planned my second visit to Quito precisely around this cycling tour.
We arrived in decent weather, and even though the volcano was covered in clouds, the volcanic altiplano scenery around it looked beautiful. But then as soon as we started ascending from the parking lot to the refugio, it started snowing. And by the time we reached 15,953 feet, it was snowing heavily. I was freezing! On the way down, the snow turned into rain – a real downpour. We couldn’t even start the bike ride at the supposed starting point because it was raining so hard. We took the car down for a while before we started cycling.. in the pouring rain. I could enjoy neither the scenery nor the bike ride itself because I was putting my entire focus on not falling on the slippery road. I guess under other circumstances I would have just filed this away under ‘not so great travel days’ but because I had been looking forward to doing it for an entire month, my expectations had been built up pretty high. Plus: at $50, this was the most expensive tour I did this month.
Car rental issues in Mexico
Even though I am aware of the cheap car rental schemes in Mexico, I ran into trouble this time when I turned up at Budget to pick up my rental car. I didn’t even go for one of the super cheap offers (see below – $7.54 for a two-week rental – who are you kidding? Of course you get hit with all sorts of fees on top of their ‘great deal’) but went for a rate that seemed more reasonable. I knew the rental company would try to trick me into buying their additional insurance which I didn’t need, and because I declined it, they wanted to put a $3,000 deposit on my credit card. However, my credit card company didn’t approve of such a high payment. So we had to leave without a car, standing at Cancun Airport at 9.30pm, not knowing what to do.
We decided to walk over to a couple of other rental companies and were quoted much better offers right away. So luckily, in the end we didn’t end up stranded but were able to set off on our road trip as planned.
Cuba flight debacle
I booked my flight to Cuba with Interjet the same day I booked my flight to Cancun from Colombia, also with Interjet. When I checked in for my flight to Cancun, I was asked for an onward ticket from Mexico, which I luckily had – my flight to Havana. Only that I couldn’t find the ticket confirmation anywhere in my emails! Had I not booked that flight? Maybe the payment hadn’t gone through and I had not noticed it because I booked five different flights that day? I was relieved that I noticed this before showing up at Cancun airport without a ticket, and booked a new ticket as soon as I noticed my mistake (at a higher rate, of course). When I got my bank statement at the end of the month, it showed that the payment did go through the first time I had booked it – I just never got a confirmation email or an itinerary sent to me.
So now I have two tickets to Cuba and am still fighting with Interjet about a refund, which they don’t want to give me, since it’s a non-refundable ticket. But I wouldn’t have booked the ticket had I gotten a confirmation the first time around! Not sure if I’ll ever get a refund, and I am not happy about Interjet’s customer service at all.
Let’s start with the good: The aftermath of no-coffee-February. I ended up dragging out my caffeine detox until 4 March, which is when I got to Cuenca. Being the coffee snob I am, I couldn’t find a single coffee shop in the beach town of Montañita, where I spent the first few days of March, that seemed like it offered a decent cup. After going without coffee for a month, I wanted my first cup to be amazing. It was quite ironic that I’d chosen the shortest month of the year to go without coffee, and then ended up dragging it out to 32 days. By the time I got to Cuenca, I was seriously considering giving up coffee completely. I ordered a tea with my breakfast. And then the waiter brought a coffee! Once the smell hit my nose, I told him it was fine, and that I’d drink the coffee. I took it as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to give up coffee. However, since doing the detox, I haven’t had as much coffee as I used to, so that’s a good thing.
No-Chocolate-March went pretty well until mid-month, since I wasn’t withdrawing from sugar or sweets completely, only from chocolate. There were a few tempting chocolate cakes, but other than that, I wasn’t really craving chocolate. Until PMS hit. I ended up having a hot chocolate in Otavalo, and another one in Colombia. And I may have had a chocolate bar and some chocolate wafers on a bus ride. So, this didn’t go too well, even though I’ve still not given into chocolate cake or bought a big chocolate bar. I can’t believe that it was easier for me to go a month without coffee and a month without booze than it is going for 31 days without chocolate!
Since I’ve got an extremely hard challenge coming up in May, I’m taking it easy in April. The challenge will be to read four books, or roughly one a week. This is how much I used to read before I started wasting hours on social media and WhatsApp and Snapchat, so I’m curious to see if I can drag myself away from my phone for long enough to complete four books – and I’ve already got my eyes set on the books I want to read (the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which happen to be four books, and, since I’ll be visiting Cuba, I feel like I’ll have to read a Hemingway book I haven’t read yet that he wrote in Cuba. Recommendations??) This actually adds up to five books – talk about ambitious! However: the lack of wifi in Cuba and forced social media detox should help me accomplish my April challenge.
The perfect life-work-travel balance
This month, something that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced since I started running Globetrottergirls by myself three years ago happened: I achieved the perfect life-travel-work balance. I made time for regular workouts (almost daily!), fit in a fair amount of sightseeing, got all my work done on time, had a social life and on top of that I even had time to read books and watch a couple of TV shows. I hadn’t watched anything on TV in nearly a year! It felt glorious, but I have a feeling this luxury of having plenty of time won’t last long – as soon as I get back to New York, life will be a lot busier again.
What’s next for me
April will see me travel in three countries: the Yucatán road trip with my friend Chrys, then Cuba with my BFF, and then it’s time to finally head back to New York where I haven’t spent any quality time since August – nearly eight months ago (with the exception of a couple of short visits), that’s too long. Cuba especially has me ridiculously excited – I can’t believe I’m finally going!