One thing I hardly get is why people bother reading articles on the latest diet followed by a seemingly well known celebrity; or about the new fitness routine that is used by another even more famous one; and articles which suggest easy work-outs to follow when time is limited, for example when traveling. I even less get those who spend big money to go to all inclusive resorts to then do the exact same things they do at home, like diet, follow a strict schedule of yoga, pilates, massages, manicures (I actually bite my nails, and although I know it is gross, there is hardly anything that I can do to stop myself).
I am also quite weary of blog posts that target the other end of the traveling chain – the budget backpackers traveling on a shoestring and hippies wanna-be – that state what, to me, is the obvious: carrying a heavy backpack is a good workout. Perhaps, the issue I have with that is that to me it is not a workout at all, something done with a clear purpose in mind, but rather a hellish task best followed when trying to score the cheapest room in Panama City, possibly under the blistering sun, when the heat and humidity make it all the more strenuous.
Backpackers jump to stay fit – or so they say
In fact, for as careful to what I eat and drink and how much I exercise when I am at home, a variety of reasons lead me to be the opposite when I travel. When home, I am the one person to follow as a model of a moderate life. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, avoid carbonated drinks and only have the odd glass of red wine or small bottle of icy cold beer (great after a hike, to refill my body with all the salts and minerals I lost through sweat); I walk around, train in the swimming pool, hike, bike and generally stay active. The only one thing I do not do, and will never do, is jogging. I really can’t see the point of running, unless I am in a rush! But, to be extra clear: I am almost a health freak, so much so that my family thinks I have a slight obsession.
Biking is a GREAT way to keep fit. I confess even I biked the Death Road in Bolivia!
But, as soon as I get on a plane that takes me away from home, I indulge. So much so than whenever I get back home I have to start again on my kind-of strict routine to shed the few kilos that happily sit on my belly post-trip. And if, after my first long term trip, I could actually find a benefit for the pain I felt after the surgery to remove my tonsils (I cried from the pain, and was unable to eat solid food for 2 over two weeks) in shedding the extra weight that I carried back from South America, the second time around I have had to actually find a more traditional way of getting back in shape.
I used the word “indulge” with reason. Because I can pin point all the things I do wrong when I travel, that lead me to gain weight and lose shape. Yet, I keep doing them – because they are fun, they are relaxing, and they are part of the experience of traveling. And the best is that, even though I have figured out what I do wrong, I have no intention to change it. In fact, not only I will keep having fun when I travel, but I have also put together a list of excuses to justify the weight I gain when I travel (and no, I do not mean the souvenirs which I buy). Feel free to mix and match them to justify your belly in front of surprised stares.
Seven ways to justify weight gain when traveling
Eating local food is part of the cultural experience of travel (it is, isn’t it?)
I insist that a great deal of the culture of a country is found in its food, in the local produce and national dishes. So obviously if I spend 3 weeks in Mexico I will do my best to learn about the culture of the country by trying all the local specialties – quesadillas, pozole, Oaxacan cheese, enchiladas, tacos, tlayudas… name it. And while I’m at it, let me add a margarita to that. You know, after all tequila and mezcal are typically Mexican, right?
Eating a good asado at Mercado del Puerto of Montevideo IS a cultural experience
I am poor (or “I could not be bothered to eat healthy food”)
I like backpacking, and I generally try to stretch my budget and I like street food and local eateries. It’s not even so much for the food (which actually tastes better and fresher, because constantly prepared rather than being preserved for who knows how long), or the prices which are way more convenient. I just like the scene, the atmosphere. I enjoy the mixture of locals who look a bit puzzled when seeing me, and of other travelers who feel like I have just broken into their best kept secret. But street food, aside from being tasty, is also oily and packed in carbs. Mind you, there are some nice street food and market stalls that do sell healthier options – corn on the cob, fresh fruit, smoothies etc. But then I see the plantains chips or the rice and beans and I opt for that. Just because.
Is there anything better than street food in Mexico?
I can’t find the right om tune (or, I don’t do yoga)
In a world where people support their wanderlust by teaching English and yoga, or practice their yoga wherever they are – either independently or by signing up for yoga classes, which are so very common all over Central America – I can’t be bothered to wake up at dawn to hear someone say that I should breathe out my inner stress. I can’t take new age music. Give me some gypsy punk and I will dance to it. Take me on a hike, take me biking, rafting, kayaking, snorkeling, whatever – and give me a beer when we arrive.
Why should I yoga it, when I can raft it?
I can swim (and need a pool for that)
In Europe, every city, village, resort has a pool. A good size pool. A paradise for swimmers. I can subscribe for a month, or a year. Or just pay a daily fee and enjoy a great workout. Now, try to find a pool in a developing country. Try to explain to the receptionist of a hostel in Copan Ruinas that has gladly found out that there is a pool in town which you can use that a 12 meters one is really tiny to you, that all a swimmer can do there is flip. I have a 25 meters minimum rule, and I won’t break it. Ever.
You run. You yoga. I swim.
I can’t run without running shoes (or better, I can’t run. At all)
In an ideal world, people should wear the appropriate shoes to match the kind of training they intend to do. My sister, who is as much of a fitness fanatics as I am, is into running. She owns some 5 pairs of different shoes, each for a different kind of performance. She has even explained how they are different from one another. You see, all I need to swim is a swimming suit, a pair of good goggles and a swimming cup.
Yes, I am on the picky side when it comes to choosing the right pair of goggles. But if I really really want to swim (which I do all the time), I use whatever I can find. I really really do not want to run. Running isn’t my thing when I am home, so why on earth would I do that when I am meant to be having fun? So, the excuse of not having the right pair of shoes is really handy. One would not expect anybody to jog wearing their hiking shoes, right? And someone who travels light isn’t expected to carry around 3 or 4 different pairs of shoes, surely?
Nobody would be expected to run in this shoes, right?
I have finally learned to pack light
Except, who am I kidding? I manage to cram 18 kg of weight in a 65 liters backpack, which becomes so bulky and heavy that I bend under its weight, to the point that other backpackers have nicknamed me Turtle Tavani, because if, for whatever reason, I fall flat on my back, I may never be able to stand up again. One may think that all that weight is good exercise. Except when my backpack is so heavy (possibly because filled with bottles of mezcal and wine which I bought at a local mezcal factory in Mexico or at a winery in Argentina – get back to my point on the cultural experience of food when traveling), I refuse to walk and rely on buses and taxis to get wherever I have to go.
You may call me Turtle Tavani
I suddenly became sociable
I am a bit of a hermit. I travel alone, I can spend days at end without communicating to anybody aside for the strict necessities. But then there are times when I like hanging out with other people, and that usually involves eating and/or drinking. So, when I get to a new hostel and find out a bunch of other backpackers are going out for drinks or for a meal, I don’t question. I forget about my latest resolution to never drink alcohol again while traveling (or ever) and just go, promising myself to only have one beer and knowing I am likely to have more than that (hangover attached). Besides, I am from Sardinia and in my culture it is rude to refuse a drink.
This is not drinking. This is being sociable. Really.
There are some travelers who manage to actually shed a pound or two when traveling. I actually lost a whopping two kilos my first time in Peru out of not eating for being too busy exploring the amazing place; and eating rotten tacos in Mexico has also proved to be an efficient way of not gaining any weight – but I do recommend to make sure that you have a private room with a private bathroom for at least two days after that.
My overall policy is to relax and enjoy my trip: I travel to have a good time, so I can see no reason to be as tough on myself as I would be on a daily basis.
A lot of travel bloggers enjoy bragging. They are all about the number of countries they have visited (hint: often times, they have just gone through a country during a bus ride on their way to a different once, but since they got a stamp on their passport they still think it’s ok to tick it off their list). They talk about the epic trips they have taken. They show off their ability to pack light and to travel on an extreme shoestring, to go local, to get off the beaten path and what not. If this is what it takes to become a good travel blogger, then I may well be in the wrong place and will soon have start working on a different project, because I don’t think I can fit in with any of that.
Get that passport stamped! – courtesy of roadjunky.com
Am I a lousy backpacker?
I may well be the lamest traveller in the blogging community because I can’t nearly top the 70+ countries that many others claim to have visited. I have “only” visited 40. Although granted, I have been to most of those 40 two or three times. I have lived in 4 of them for longer than 3 months. And I can actually give directions to a taxi driver to take me to my hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, from Managua international airport.
You may call me Turtle
Besides, despite my best efforts I haven’t mastered the art of packing light and during my last trip across South America my big backpack weighted a full 16 kg (that’s when I actually wore all the heaviest clothes) and my small one was around 10. Fine, I got carried away in Argentina and bought 3 bottles of wine that I carried around for months (no, I didn’t want to drink them because they were presents, and yes, I broke the rule of all budget backpackers – I did buy presents!) and I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am really, truly, tremendously afraid of being sick on the road and not having any medication, just in case I can’t get in touch with my health insurance company (ok, I am sounding lamer by the minute – did I just admit that I travel with an insurance?).
But hey, at least I can prove that despite being small I am tough and strong, right? Besides, what would you say if I told you that it was a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals? I got many bemused stares, a few of them congratulated me on being so strong, others offered their help (which started a conversation!) and some simply laughed (and helped me) when they saw that I could not pick up the pack of tissues I accidentally dropped on the floor, because I could not really bend under the weight and if I did I risked falling on my back and looking much like an upside down turtle. Not too bad, huh?
Blogger girl who quit her job to travel, actually travelled and spent all her money on it
Ok, I am mocking some of the most sensationalist media title here… But, check this out! Instead of travelling with no money at all, I have managed to spend all my savings on travel. Yup. Quite shameful considering that there apparently are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, to get free accommodation and to even make money while travelling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience.
Did you say “patience”?
But, did I mention I am the most inpatient person you may meet? Seriously. Even the hyperactive globetrotter Diana – master of shoestring travel, incredible travel writer (she actually gets promoted from being a “just a blogger” because she’s won prizes with her short stories, plus she is a journalist) and amazing friend – who’s not really a champion at patience, managed to score a free ride that took her from Panama to Colombia. She may have spent 2 full weeks in Portobelo, she may have become the subject of a few jokes at the hostel, but who cares, when she managed to save the $550 USD that the ride normally costs?
Why ride a car, if you can go by horse? – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
All of this, when I was the good student to begin with. I did all the homework: researching the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Colombia, enquiring on dates, routes, and discounts, reading all the online reviews, checking the recommendations to get a decent boat and stocking up on motion sickness pills “just in case” I may unexpectedly get seasick. I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams, I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat that was a whopping $110 USD cheaper than the rest. “Blimey”, you may say, “that is actually quite good saving!”
Doing my homework looking for good deals online
Ha, I say. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. Because you see, on top of being over 1/5 cheaper, the boat was also smaller and more crowded – understandable, considering that there were 10 passengers, including the 3 backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride (how did I miss on that?). The crowd, combined with the worst case of seasickness ever (you can read about it here) led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering (even back then I knew I was lame, and proudly so!), having to wave farewells at my $440 USD, to arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.
So, just to give you a rough overview of my expenses: something that normally costs around $500 USD, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free ended up costing me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.
A sunrise worth $800 USD
Call me lazy
Yay me, I am the champion of going over the budget! Now, don’t come to me and say: “Oh Claudia, that’s ok – you didn’t really know that you could travel on a budget, and get freebies in exchange for a little bit of work!” Errrrr… actually? I knew. All those beautiful programmes that allow backpackers to get in touch with farms, hostels and to do homestays, housesitting, and “volunteer” were known to me. I even subscribed to one – and paid my subscription.
But really, is it not my fault that all those gorgeous farms were infested with cockroaches and I really really have a phobia for them so when I got to the third one in a month and the (very green, tree hugging) owner told me I should just tell them to go away I thought I’d had it. It is not my fault if I like to eat real food and all those very green and very environmentally friendly farmers think they can save the world by eating (and feeding others) just mango and papaya. And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or at an hostel (aka actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in actual legal terms it should be considered slavery. Never mind the lawyer in me! Call me a lazy ass, but quite frankly I could not be bothered to work while travelling after having spent years and years working hard and saving to be able to backpack across Latin America. Not my idea of fun! Besides, I may be picky but I really am not interested in the oh-so-cultural experience of dealing with a bunch of 20-something western drunk and often stinky backpackers; and I have already done my good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing which is enough for 3 lifetimes (and, shame on me!, I did not even do that to support my travel addiction but to actually pay my tuition fees while at university). Read more about my opinion on voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”
I voluntarily spent all my money on travel
It’s not that I have anything against 20-something western backpackers (I have also been 20, you know), but although a good portion of the travel media industry tries to perpetuate the idea that age doesn’t matter, to me it does – I am 40, for Christ’s sake! (thank you, thank you, I do get told that I look younger!) I do get tired, I do get back pains, I can’t be bothered to binge drink and party all night (been there, done that), I need a good meal at least once a day, I value my beauty sleep and my idea of getting to know a local culture has evolved into a more sophisticated, quieter and introspective one that sometimes required taking part in a guided tour (and paying for that). Mind you, I am not against the concept of working while travelling, when one doesn’t otherwise have money. But yaaaaawn – been there, done that, end of story. Read more about my opinion on guided tours on this post.
What’s wrong with being a tourist, anyways?
I also confess that I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path places. Wait a second, what did you just say? “Going local, silly!” Oh, ok. “Getting to know the culture of a place, darling!” Mmmm. True. Granted. Then forgive me, but I truly must be less than intelligent. Because I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times!
Tourist x 3 – I have actually been to Machu Picchu 3 times!
The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum. Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to the them. They really must feel bad for me that they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city. Oh no, I swear they were not trying to rip me off! Unless being offered a whole bunch of eucalyptus leaves to cure my sore throat is an attempt at poisoning. Mind you, I don’t have anything against going off the beaten path. I actually end up off the beaten path – because I get lost, or stuck. Or both. Like the time I went to the insanely beautiful Marcahuasi, in Peru, and realised there was no bus going back to Chosica, where I could catch the bus to Lima. So I did the only thing to do: spend the night in the lovely, quiet (aka isolated) village of San Pedro de Casta, listening to the village donkeys bray, do like the locals, and wait around. Some bus would come. Eventually. Just in time to catch my plane from Lima to Cusco.
Getting off the beaten path in Peru: my only company was a dog!
One thing I do well when I travel, though. “Finally!”, I hear you say. “Ha, you see?!”, I answer. Yes. I do eat street food. I really do. Except when I do get a terrible stomach infection from eating tacos in Palenque and end up having to stay in bed for 2 full days (well, not really just in bed, but you get what I mean). And except the times when I really, really want to read a menu and sit at a table and eat whatever I am served in more than the 5 minutes it takes to gorge down street food.
Mmmmmm, street food! – photo courtesy of Bill Walsh (flickr)
Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I spilling the dirtiest travelling secrets I have? It is not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I am tired of reading article after article that try to give the definitive and right idea of what travel should be, and since I am at it, and I write a travel blog, I may as well give my very humble opinion. What I want you to understand is that it is ok to make budgeting mistakes (ahem, it is, isn’t it?). We are not all accountants who walk around with an in-built spread sheet to tick off expenses as we go. I am not even good at math – in fact, I am so bad at it that my sister keeps saying I am a perfect target to rip offs, although with time I managed to master the art of haggling.
I also think it is ok to be attracted by touristic destinations and major attractions. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit (and you’d be surprised, even I managed to do good there). And, more than anything else, it is ok to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some and ultimately, travel is a huge revenue and a great source of income in many countries (even the ones where it is possible to travel on a shoestring, such as Nicaragua) and we may as well show a little support for the local economy.
Do whatever makes you happy!
So no, I do not feel like a loser and I don’t feel less than amazing for having spent all my money on travel (except when I don’t have money to buy a new fancy camera, that is). The truth is that travelling already is epic enough and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand. We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want – an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town. That’s the beauty of travelling: there is something for anybody.
We’ve all spent at least one nightmare night in a hostel during our backpacking years, haven’t we? Well, I can count at least 3 that have been less than memorable in terms of getting proper rest, but which somehow managed to stick to my memory for the hilarity and absurdity of what happened.
Fighting the drunk hordes in The Terrace, Antigua (Guatemala)
I had only been in Guatemala for four days. This was meant to be the beginning of my 6 months adventure across Latin America. I was sure I had everything under control and I would be able to face any bad experience that may occur along the way. After the first three nights in Antigua, I decided to spend an extra night before making my way to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the lovely hostel where I had been sleeping was all booked up, so I decided to make online reservations for another one. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I was looking for something cheap. The Terrace, at $ 8 per night, breakfast included, in a 4 beds dorm, looked good on the pictures and it had good reviews on hostelworld. One of the most popular hostels in Antigua, indeed: there must be a reason for this, I thought!
Another church in Antigua – as many others, it has been destroyed by an earthquake
I made my way there in the morning, wanting to drop my backpack and have time to browse around town more. I missed the front door a couple of times before actually finding the place – it was hardly visible. When I finally found the place, I walked in to be welcomed by a 20-something American receptionist (and her lovely dog). She seemed nice enough. The hostel seemed a bit old and in need of refurbishment but I did not think too much of it. I would only be staying here for one night after all. When I was shown to my dorm, I realised it would be worse than what I had expected. A dressed guy was sleeping in his bunk – considering it was around 12 pm, it was a bit odd to me. The dorm was tiny, to say the least. The only window faced an internal covered patio and hardly any natural light or fresh air would come in. You can imagine the stench. The toilet and bathroom in front of the dorm had the mouldiest rug and shower curtain I have ever seen. The wooden door was so rotten that I thought it would fall apart if I pulled it too hard. The electric shower had wires coming out – I thought I might get electrocuted if I did not pay attention (or even if I did).
After a day of walking around and a lovely dinner, still a bit jet legged, I wanted to have an early night and went back to the hotel. I then realised I had accidentally booked at a party hostel, were all the other backpackers except me were in their early twenties. Noise travelled easily in the badly organised place: young boys and girls were all getting ready to spend a night out and party. I thought that, as soon as they would leave, I could finally fall asleep. Wanting to be extra safe I even put my earplugs on. I jumped on the bed to find out that I could feel the wires – this was by far one of the least comfortable beds I had ever slept on. I thought of sleeping on the floor, but there was not enough room to do that. The synthetic sheets on my bed were so old that they would come off the matress, revealing stains. I kept my clothes on, in an attempt not to catch bed bugs (luckly, it worked).
Worried but exhausted I fell asleep but my rest only lasted two hours: that’s when the other guests started making their way back to the hostel. Completely drunk, they kept laughing loudly, screaming, opening doors (which I kept on closing). To top this off, despite my earplugs I could hear them gagging and vomiting (and then laughing about it). The entire affair must have lasted about one hour, without anybody from the reception intervening to stop the noise. When the drunken crew finally collapsed, I sighted and thought I could finally rest a bit more. Or not. One hour later, somebody entered the room, pointing a flashlight at my face, calling for a girl named Myra. I told him off, and said there was no Myra in that room: I was the only girl there and I definitely wasn’t Myra. He then asked if I knew where she was, as he had to wake her up for her bus. I told him to go away, I did not know who this Myra was and I had no idea where she may be.
That was the end of my attempts to rest – I decided to get up, shower, and wait for my ride to Lake Atitlan – where I found a super cool hostel and finally rested my sore bones. However, the cherry on the cake was finding out that The Terrace was actually meant to be the hostel where I was supposed to volunteer in Antigua – I had talked to the owner several times over skype, but I had forgotten the name and despite being offered the position I decided I did not want to work on my first week of travelling.
The lesson I have learned? Always always always check Tripadvisor for reviews, and also check the age of the reviewer. Always read the bad comments – they are usually honest comments. Try not to book online, as you may end up having to pay for a terrible room and thus get stuck. It is better to walk around a bit, check the rooms, the bathrooms, and the overall vibe of the place. And, more than anything else, stay away from The Terrace, in Antigua.
I was happy to find Mama Waldy when checking for places to stay in Cartagena, Colombia. Conveniently located in the heart of Getsemani, a cool area undergoing constant restoration, popular among backpackers and with a lovely relaxed feel to it. I soon discovered that the location was just about the only positive thing about this hostel.
Tiny streets of Getsemani
Upon checking in, I knew I had made a mistake. This is possibly one of the worst hostels I found in my entire life. It used to be an old colonial house. By the look of it, this had never been restored nor properly cleaned. I arrived there at night, after a day of travelling, to find there was a party going on. My dorm was just on the main lobby, and since there were no keys to the dorms, people could walk in and out as they liked – and by people I mean people, not just guests. In fact, while I was there, somebody who was at the party just did. All the guests belongings were left around for people to grab them if they liked. The room was so dirty (paper, food, clothes, shoes and what not on the floor, under the bed, etc; no bins to place garbage), the bathroom so cramped, small and filthy, that I did not even consider using the toilet. I just locked my stuff away and ran out to eat and breathe.
As I got back past midnight, it was finally quiet. But the dorm was so hot and suffocating (there were no windows in any of the room, just a door to the lobby) that I soon realised I would be unable to sleep there. I walked out and I must have looked so disheartened that one of the owners saw me and asked what was wrong, and I plainly said that my dorm was filthy, hot, and I could not sleep there. He eagerly explained that they cleaned the rooms regularly but there was little they could do against messy backpackers. Possibly, what would help would be putting less beds in a dorm and maybe a hanger and a basket to throw away stuff? Anyways, he thankfully offered to put me in a private room, which was only slightly better – yet, no shower curtain, tiny bathroom, and covered in an inch of dust.
Breakfast was supposedly included, and surely paid for, but consisted of 2 slices of toasted bread (with, I guess, cream cheese or butter), and coffee. Not even served on plates. After all, the kitchen hardly seemed equipped. There was a laundry service. That’s if you fancy your clothes being hung to dry on the roof of the hostel. By which I do not mean hanging lines in the roof, but actual tiles.
What really bothered me the most about Mama Waldy was the music and noise. It only stopped past midnight and was really so loud that, if one is up for an early night and feel tired, one won’t be able to sleep. It felt like being in a disco, really. And since noise travelled really easily and by 6 am people would start waking up, my sleep would be cut short every day.
Running water in Suchitoto (El Salvador)
I arrived in Suchitoto after a very long day of travelling from Leon, Nicaragua, during which I took a bus to the village of Potosi, where I did my immigration formalities; waited on the beach for 3 hours without having the possibility to go back to the village in search of shade, water or food (by then I was legally already out of Nicaragua!), as the Nicaraguan marina would not allow the boat to leave due to the rough sea conditions; eventually, 2 hours on the speed boat along the challenging Gulf of Fonseca during which I got completely soaked due to the bumping and the waves, and various more hours on a bus from La Union to Suchitoto.
By the time I reached my final destination, I was grateful that my hostel room at El Gringo had not been given away, since it was so late. The owner drove me to the hostel, on the other side of town from where he lives. His wife showed me to my room and explained how the keys worked. They immediately left and there was no staff on site.
The reality of the hostel was not hard to spot. My room was below a restaurant, the only window was on a living room which faced an internal living rooom (mind you, that is a big word). The bathroom, which was shared with another room, was no more than a sink in the patio, a wall to separate a toilet and the cold water only shower. And for as hot as it is in Suchitoto, I was not ready to have a cold shower that late at night, and went to bed with my hair full of salt from the Gulf. The room was so humid that it was covered in mould stains and paint was coming off the walls. The sheets so small and so acrylic that they would slide off the bed, so that despite all my efforts to arrange them, I ended up sleeping on the matress. The floor below the bed was so dirty and full of dust, hair, and garbage, that I wondered if it had ever been cleaned. I was so tired anyhow, that I could hardly be bothered with any of this.
This 97 year old lady keeps on rolling her cigars on a daily basis. What’s her youth secret?
A refreshing shower the morning after and a lovely day in Suchitoto almost made me forget about the terrible hostel. That was, until the new Canadian guest came in. Hard to avoid him since my window gave into the living room where he was relaxing on a rocking chair. So, we chatted along for a few moments, until eventually he decided it was bed time and he’d brush his teeth, and I laid on my bed to do some emailing. That’t when I heard a crushing noise, like that of porcelain plates being broken, and the poor Canadian kid screaming “what the heck!”. I ran out to check what had happened. Water was splashing all over and he was completely wet. The remains of the sink were scattered on the floor: apparently, the guy decided he’d lean on the sink with his hand while brushing his teeth, but despite being a fit guy the sink did not hold his weight and collapsed! You can imagine the hilarity of such a scene. We took pictures, we laughed and eventually we decided that if we did not want to flood the entire place, we had to close all the pipes. It worked, but it meant that we were not even able to flush the toilet.
Los Tercios waterfalls look a bit like the Giant Causeway
The morning after I was glad to have an early start and having to leave at 6:00 am, leaving the other guest alone to explain to the owner what had happened, and that perhaps restoration and refurbishing was much needed in the hostel!
Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, second only to Brazil. The quality of the coffee beans is excellent – after all, the climate and altitude are perfect for growing coffee. I thus expected coffee boutiques everywhere, millions of ways to prepare coffee, coffee shops and tastings. But this was not necessarily the case: more often than not, I had to make do with Juan Valdez, which is pretty much like the Starbucks of Colombia, or with the “taza sucia” (literally, dirty cup) that I could have at the many stands in the street.
The best coffee beans are exported and what is left to the locals is a lower quality coffee, which incredibly is imported from Ecuador. Thus, interestingly, when I travelled to Colombia I wasn’t be able to really have anything more than just decent coffee and often had to make do with tinto (a small cup of weak black coffee) or other coffee based drinks. I am a coffee puritan, I like my coffee with no milk and most importantly with no sugar, so to me the most horrifying coffee I tried was the one made with agua de panela, unrefined sugar melted in hot water – which gives coffee a tremendously sweet taste. One may like it if having a seriously sweet tooth though.
Things to do in Colombia
Having this in mind, one of the things to do in Colombia is visiting the Eje Cafetero. This is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia and will allow visitors to see at least one of the many coffee fincas in the country, where they will be able to experience the full process of coffee production, from picking to toasting and sipping.
Places to visit in Colombia: Eje Cafetero, or else the Colombian version of Switzerland
The best starting point for a visit of the Eje Cafetero is Salento, located at 1800 meters above sea level and one of Colombia tourist attractions in itself. This is a picturesque village, where colonial architecture meets the paisà style. It is a lovely, small and colourful colonial town surrounded by hills and forest, with a main street full of artesania shops, many relaxing bars, a chilled atmosphere, making it one of the places to visit in Colombia. From here, it is possible to visit a number of fincas.
Salento is also very close to the gorgeous Valle de Cocora, perhaps the very best of Colombia attractions. One of the top things to do in Colombia is hiking the Valle de Cocora. This is a lush, tropical valley surrounded by high peaks and cloud forest. Jeeps leave several times a day from the main square of Salento to take intrepid travelers to the valley. Arriving well early before departure, may ensure getting a seat. I leave things last minute so my I had to stand: getting to the valley thus turned into yet another adventure.
Things to do in Colombia: ride on the back of a jeep
Once in Cocora, most people rent wellies. I surely did and I highly recommend it, along with carrying a good rain jacket as it does rain a lot there! Visitors then embark on a difficult, muddy hike that offers gorgeous views of the spectacular palma de cera (wax palms), some of which are as tall as 70 meters.
Things to do in Colombia: renting wellies to go on a hike in Valle de Cocora
What I loved the most about it was that it really looked like a tropical kind of Switzerland – weird and amazing at the same time. Everything is green – many different shades of green. There are cows happily chewing grass everywhere. And there is a thick fog that covers the palm trees and the mountains, giving it a mysterious aura. It just is magical. A tiring hike (imagine getting deep in the mud!), but definitely one of the most amazing things to do in Colombia.
Valle de Cocora is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia
There is one main path that takes hikers to the beautiful hummingbird reserve (there is an admission fee of about 2 dollars which includes a drink), where it is possible to spot thousands of hummingbirds zipping by. On the way back, it is possible to also take an alternative path that takes visitors closer to the palm trees and to the Finca de la Montaña, where Don Luis Alberto and his family will give them a warm welcome and a good cup of coffee and from where the entire valley can be admired.
How to get to Salento
From Bogota, it is possible to take a bus to Pereira or Armenia. It takes about 9 hours to drive the 350 km, as the road cuts through the mountains and thus it is curvy; there is also lot of traffic. However the views are spectacular. It is best to carry some motion sickness tablets. I definitely needed them. Once in Armenia or Pereira, a local bus will take about an hour to reach Salento.
Where to sleep, eat and drink
There are many hostels in town, some better than others. I enjoyed my stay at Hotel Las Palmas, a family run guesthouse whose owner is a lovely, caring lady. Breakfast is included in the price and all rooms have a private bathroom with good hot showers. There are also two lovely cats in the house, which to me is always a bonus.
During the weekend, I ate in one of the many stalls in the main square. Otherwise, a good option is La Funda de los Arreiros. The local specialty is trout, which can be prepared in many ways and is usually served with a huge patacon (fried plantain, which here is pressed to make it thin and crispy). The local trout gave me a good break from the otherwise slightly monotonous food I ended up having while traveling.
For a drink, I went to Billar Danubio Hall. It really can’t be missed: located on the main shopping street, this is a huge bar with many pool tables, and is packed with locals playing pool, sipping beer or aguardiente and singing famous Colombian traditional songs. At some point while there I was the only woman in the entire bar. But everybody was so friendly that it never was a problem.
Vintage cars are one of the symbols of Cuba. They are anywhere. Some are so dear to their owners, who take so much pride in them that have completely renovated them, changing the engin, placing new appliances, and what not. Some others are just plain old cars, which make loads of noise and, what is worst, produce an incredible amount of smoke and pollution. Yet, riding on one of those cars is an experience and you will want to do it. Sitting on the back seat you almost feel on a huge couch. Yes, they are comfortable!
Traffic light in Havana
The other side of the coin is that… some cars are just plain old and rotten. It is apparently so expensive to buy a car in Cuba, that Cubans who do own cars learn how to fix them over and over, and you will see their old moscovite car has no belts, has wooden doors (yes!), you will have to use special tools to put the windows up and down, and the engine is a second hand peugeot – literally, bits and pieces taken here and there, until eventually the car becomes decent. No matter what, any car will have a very good and possibly brand new stereo – Cubans can hardly live without their music and there is nothing better than driving around listening to music. Do not worry if your car doesn’t have safety belts! Law in Cuba apparently says that belts are compulsory only for 1990s cars or newer. Ah well! Then you are safe, right?
Believe it or not, according to our driver the car pictured above costed him 9500 CUC. Just as it was. I have no idea how much he will pay to replace the various bits and pieces, but surely he looked and sounded very proud of it.
Interested in experiencing other means of transportation? Try the sidecar, if you manage:
Sidecars are still very common in Cuba
Or go for a bicitaxi – tourists are not supposed to use it, they are only meant for Cubans, but nobody really checks. And with a bit of luck, your suitcases will fit too.
Will it manage to fit our bags?
Need a quick ride in town? Get a horse carriage, if you can stand horses having to deal with traffic and what not:
Horse carriages in Camaguey
Want to try something new? Go for a cocotaxi – slow but nobody’s ever in a rush in Cuba:
Cocotaxi in Santiago
Want to risk your life? Camionetas might do for you. I have no idea how many people actually manage to get on board, but it looks like MANY. Apparently you can only go without really carrying much lugguage. I wonder how much smoke one breathes there? Also… well there are frequent accidents, some causing the death of passengers:
Camionetas – a cheap way to travel around
Travelling long distance? Get a Viazul bus. If you can stand the bus stopping continuously to let passengers (or better, drivers friends) on and off – literally at their door; or to allow the drivers to say hi to friends they spot on the street; or so that drivers can pick up some groceries and drop them off at home; or you are not afraid of cockroaches, don’t mind feeling freezing cold because of the air conditioning although the temperture outside is mild and pleasant, and most of all don’t mind if the bus has to stop so that the driver can change a flat tire that was so smooth, no wonder it exploded, then this is a must!
A tire exploded on the way from Santiago to Baracoa
This happened to us on the bus from Santiago to Baracoa, a 5 hours bus ride through Guantanamo, via La Farola, up and down, curvy road, yet spectacular view. I am very glad the tire exploded before getting on that road!!
Want to go for “luxury”? Get a Transtur bus. Hardly any stop – only for toilet use, for a smoke for the driver, food etc, or so that the drivers have a chat with other Transtur drivers they see driving by.
Pit stop in the middle of the highway
We took a Transtur from Cienfuegos direct to Vinales. At some point the bus stopped in the middle of the highway, we saw another Transtur stopping on the side, going the opposite direction, and the drivers all got off, crossed the street to meet in front of our bus (still in the centre of the highway) to have a smoke and a chat… and pick their noses. Oh well!
Whatever means of transportation, you surely will have an experience!!!
Care to know more about my Cuban adventures? Read here.
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated July 2019). Learn more about me here…