Anybody who might walk out of the Bali airport anticipating steamy green terraced rice fields shaded by elegant palms, or crinkley-eyed Balinese grandparents that offer wisdom in flowery temples, should keep walking. Eat Pray Love brazenly ignored Kuta.

Yes, if you follow the road out of the Bali airport for two kilometers, you will find yourself in Kuta. You will lumber down the narrow grey sidewalks amongst sunburnt Australians nursing their hangovers, politely (at first) decline massages and taxis, dodge motorbikes, and perhaps use the free wifi at Starbucks to figure out where the hell you are.

The streets lined with identical shops selling elephant pants, bumper stickers reading “[Insert name here] IS GAY”, and large phallic ornaments carved into cheaply stained wood will leave you disheartened. You adamantly refuse to partake in the one activity that everyone else is here for… the nightlife. No, you came to Bali to save your soul, not to lose it in cheap thrills.

When you finally leave, you begin to realize that Kuta is but an ugly yet non-cancerous mole on the otherwise unflawed face of beautiful Bali; it is not dangerous unless it’s ideologies metastasize. The rest of the island remains wholesome and unscathed from the toxic tourist bait of immoral Kuta.

But if you find yourself in Kuta for longer than planned, perhaps as a victim of alcohol-induced “Kuta vortex”, then let thy food be thy medicine. Indonesia has some of the healthiest, most flavorful cooking in the world, and even this debauched little town offers plenty of the fare.

I found myself off the busy main road at a small, local restaurant called Warung Nikmat every day for every meal. On my first visit, I got rice, tempeh (the very best meat alternative) and vegetables for $1 from the big, aromatic buffet. The next day I was more adventurous and ordered three different types of tempeh with peanut sauce and vegetables. It still cost $1.

Besides tempeh, they have wide assortment of fish, chicken, and tofu. They have soup, noodles, more rice, vegetables on vegetables, and at least four giant pots of sauce. They have dragon fruit, mango juice, and avocado smoothies. Each bite sends you on a flavor adventure, and it’s all served by same smiling, patient women that cooked it.


Food is one of the best ways to understand a culture. If Kuta has to be your first impression of Indonesia, eat. While tourists and locals divide into their roles as the consumers and the hawkers, each hungry to take from the other, food is the one thing that everyone genuinely wants to share.

Lima felt like my South American home-base, just as Delhi was my Indian home-base and DC is my North American home-base. And they don’t earn this title because I like them. They earn this title because they lure me back time and time again like little black holes, smugly manipulating their way into my plans by having the things I need in the places that I don’t necessarily want to be.

Some people might like these places… they might even find them charming. But they just don’t suit my personal interests. Anyway, I passed through Lima twice; the first time in September during its foggy winter season as I was on my way to Chile; and the second time in February during its hot, dry summer when I hung around the city for a week waiting for a flight.

Albeit a sprawling capital city of which I am not typically a fan, Lima proved itself to be diverse and vibrant, and in the end I thought that I might actually come back someday by choice.

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  1. Witch’s Market– The only authentic witches market that I visited in South America. The very famous market in In La Paz, among others, was a disappointment, because the only real witch-y items on display were some dried llama fetuses and bottled herbs floating in alcohol. The Witch’s Market in Lima some real “wow” factors besides fetus. A sidewalk vendor haggled with an enthusiastic crowd over the price-per-organ of the snake that he was slicing open. A row of stalls displayed the curious combination of frog tanks and blenders. Upon further investigation, I learned that the blenders were for the frogs, and frog smoothie is good for the liver. I love my liver but I’m vegetarian, so I passed and moved along to ponder the uses for shrunken monkey heads, animal blood, and eyeballs of various sizes. You could do some serious voodoo with this stuff. The Witch’s Market is located near the Gamarra Metro Station. Nobody outside of a 1 block radius of the market knows where or what it is, so you’ll just have to wander around until you come upon some dried alligator corpses.

 

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  1. Barranco District– Every single book, website, and magazine says that tourists should stay in Miraflores. Miraflores is full expensive condos, overpriced restaurants, and its main attraction is Parque Kennedy, which is chock-full of flea-ridden cats that spray every vertical surface imaginable. Barranco, on the other hand, has ocean breezes, nightlife, and beautiful old mansions. Its moderate bohemian culture entails evening musical performances in the main plaza and a fantastic AYCE vegetarian buffet in an old railroad car named La Virgen de Guadalupe. Barranco has easy access to surfing via a well-landscaped pedestrian street, and easy access to the rest of Lima via microbuses.

 

  1. Punta Hermosa– This small, but uppity town 45 minutes to the south of Lima gave birth to one of the best surfers to come out of South America, Sofia Mulanovich. If you want refuge from the big city for a day or two, you can lounge on one of the many beaches with the flocks of other escapees. However, too long of a lounge is not advisable, because from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the sun is strong enough to cook bacon. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a shady patch of trees, because the entire Peruvian coast is a desert. And lest you forget that the entire Peruvian coast is a desert, don’t bother trying to find a shady patch of trees. Bedbugs near ate me alive at two separate hostels, so beware! Despite the burns and the bugs, I’d go back for the waves and the spectacular sunsets.

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On an overcast day in the dusty northernmost Chilean border town of Arica, I cringed when the ticket salesman quoted $100 for a 24 bus hour ride to Santiago (this was, of course, before I’d experienced Argentinian bus prices).  Never having paid more than $15 for the same length on even the classiest busses in Peru -only miles away- I couldn’t stomach the price. Instead, Ben and I rode a minibus to the outskirts, and walked until only a trickle of South-bound vehicles speeding towards Ruta 5 left us squinting through the tracks of airborne road dirt. We stuck out our thumbs and a cardboard sign reading “SUR”. Thus began our first- though definitely not last- hitchhiking journey.

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As a first-time hitchhiker, I kept my expectations low. Ben thought we’d wait 30 minutes max, but I calculated three hours based on speed and apparent indifference of all the cars by whom we’d already been rejected.  The real wait ended somewhere between our two estimates, just as I was beginning to panic with impatience. A beautiful red 18-wheeler, with a magic akin to the Polar Express, flashed its break lights as it slowed past us onto the gravel side road. We ran towards the towering truck as fast as our heavy backpacks would allow and scrambled up the gleaming aluminum ladder as the passenger door swung open wide.

The driver was on the phone, and shushed us as he beckoned us inside with a sweeping hand motion. Ben sat in the passenger seat and I crawled into the bed space as we drove into the desert. The driver hung up and introduced himself as Mario. Because of Chile’s stringy shape, we didn’t need to ask where he was going, only how far. If wasn’t going North, he was going South.

At 40 years of age, Mario had been trucking half his life and was due to retire within the next decade. He didn’t love his wife but claimed not to cheat, though he had five kids from four different relationships.  As we drove deeper into the monotonous rolling desert with the crooning female vocals of his favorite band “Esscorpion,” Mario demonstrated the prowess of his driving by maneuvering the truck to one edge of the road and then swerving back to the other side. As he’d already crashed and rolled the truck three times in his life, he was a veteran.

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Mario dropped us in the middle of nothingness, where the road forked to the coastal city of Iquique. The sun hung red and low over the vastness of the Altiplano, but no more than ten apprehensive minutes passed until a rotund businessman on his way home from the mines swooped us up. After an hour of listening to his rambling on about the properties of Atacaman minerals, the desert came to an abrupt end and we descended hundreds of meters down the magnificent golden dunes dunes to the city that appeared like a mirage between sea of sand and the sea of water.

We hit the road the next morning after a night in a dirty hostel, again taking a minibus to the southernmost outskirts of town. The narrow coastal road didn’t leave much space for a speeding vehicle to pull over, and we had competition with a fellow hitcher just a few feet away. To our good fortune, another 18-wheeler rolled out of an empty lot and pulled up to where we stood on the median between the highway and a side road. The window lowered, revealing the silent face of the aged trucker who eyed us suspiciously through a cloud of cigarette smoke. I smiled my friendliest, bubbliest smile, hoping to hide my desperation. It must have worked. Silent and frowning, he waved us in.

We took off down the rocky coast and for hours watched the deep blue, seaweed-laden ocean churn angrily along the deserted beaches and watched it wash under the few clusters of boxy wooden houses propped up on rotting wooden stilts that served as summer homes for rich Chileans and permanent homes for seaweed harvesters and fishermen. Jorge’s destination was Santiago, but only confirmed that we could ride the entire way with him once he decided he could put up with us for the next day. When we turned off the coast and rolled back on to the jaded desert that evening, where the only distractions were thousands of little crosses demarcating automobile deaths, I realized that one could easily go insane in the wrong company.

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An anomaly of a truck driver that picks up hitch hikers, Jorge was more of a thinker than a talker and more smoke left his mouth than words. But Chileans are romantics, and Jorge boasted of his having not one, but two, mistresses and his success in keeping them a secret from his irksome wife, who had tried to call him the night before while he was with the Iquique woman.

Jorje’s bladder seemed well acclimated to the inconvenience of stopping a truck to pee. While Ben and I squirmed after eight hours of avoiding liquids, Jorge chugged two liters of Coke Zero and didn’t stop until midnight, when we came to a glowing truckers stop selling churrasco and fried fish sandwiches. We ate, and then rode on into the blackness for another two hours, watching the truck eat up the crescent illumination of headlights.

When our trucker finally got sleepy at about two in the morning, we hung our hammocks in the back of the trailer while he napped, but the icy night passing under me felt more like cold marble and made sleep impossible. I curled up on a pile of cardboard boxes in a corner of the trailer and shivered until the engine roared to life just three hours later. We moved back to the warmth of the cabin, but my stomach wasn’t feeling so great thanks to that shifty fish sandwich. I passed out in the cabin bed while Jorge plowed on through the desert.

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Two more meals of fried fish sandwiches sustained us until the next day at 6 p.m. when Jorge left us at a bus stop outside of Santiago. Our parting came abruptly and with a slight pang of separation anxiety. The city loomed grey and smoggy and -according to Jorge- delinquent-ridden in the distance. But Jorge exited the truck with us, and as we slung our bags over our shoulders, he looked us in the eye and offered each of us a firm, approving closing handshake. 34 hours together and he didn’t hate us… It was reassuring to know that we hadn’t suddenly become noxious, indecent hippies.

In fact, we’d done good. Our stereotypes towards truckers had been broken down (although maybe a few confirmed) and we’d saved $100. Our 2,000 kilometer taste of Chilean hitchhiking culture was a roaring success, and we’d be soon to do it again.

 

We arrived on Easter Island at 2 a.m., our flight having been delayed for two hours. It was cool and rainy as we walked across the tarmac into the small airport, and the floor surrounding the baggage claim was slippery with mud and impatient passengers looking for their bags like vultures scouting roadkill.  Our backpacks were among the first out, but the two 23Kg bags of food that we’d brought to avoid exorbitant island prices emerged last. It didn’t matter; we were unsure that our farm host, Marco, who we planned to volunteer for would even show up. We had no phone number, no WiFi, and no information as to the location of the farm except “the middle” of the island.

As hotel representatives greeted the other passengers with name cards and flower garlands, Ben and I hid under an awning from the rain with our heavy bags and hoped that our host might recognize us, as we had no way of recognizing him. When the parking lot and taxis were almost clear, Marco did turn up with his farm hand. He led us out of the airport gate to where is pickup waited. There was only room for one passenger in the cab, so Ben and I would have to ride in the back.

“The adventure begins here,” exclaimed Marco. I forced a smile that might have been genuine if it wasn’t raining and if I hadn’t been up for 24 hours. Back on the continent, it was already 4 a.m.

We sped away from the airport into a night blacker than squid ink, and only slowed when we turned down a dirt road. Shivering from the wind and damp clothing, I kept lookout for the warm glow of lightbulbs. Instead, we pulled up to a dark wood-and-plastic sheeted shack (which would come to be known lovingly as the paipai, meaning very basic accommodation in Rapa-Nui). Too tired to socialize, I hoped and prayed that nobody was home.

Inside, two boys that looked no older than 19 and two girls sat on tattered, stained couches around a single candle. “Hola,” I said. They stared wordlessly at us through a cloud of smoke. Not wanting to be social wouldn’t be a problem- they were stoned out of their minds.

Rain still fell the next day- it’s sound amplified by the paipai’s tin roof- but the volunteers gave us a warmer welcome. Between showers, we walked to the coast on a path that stretched between pastures of cows and horses, trying not to step on the thousands of ankle-twisting fist-sized rocks.

Some of the rocks seemed to have deliberate placement, forming lines and pentagonal shapes. The Chilean girl Natalia (who no longer stoned, had the poise of the Queen of England and the charm of Sophia Vergara) explained that the shapes form a picture when seen from the air. “The whole island is an archaeology site,” she said, passionately gesturing around us. Even our paipai had petroglyphs on the rock wall atop the hill in the back, and (apparently) a fallen Moai shrouded in neck-high grass by the bedrooms.

How I wanted to see the rest of the island. I ambitiously decided to visit all the known Moai, but the whole week was grey and wet, and after five hours a day of picking strawberries, my back hurt as though a Moai had crushed it.

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The sun finally made an appearance the next week, and for an island with relatively little flora, there was an exceptional explosion of color. The sky turned from Scranton Pennsylvania-grey to an eyeball-searing blue. The wet grass sparkled yellow in the heavy evening sunlight, little purple flowers drifted through the air, and the mud turned an earthy red. I’d given up trying to see all the Moai, as to get anywhere entailed a 40 minute walk to the main road and then hitchhiking, but it was too beautiful to stay in the shack.

I took up running. Easter Island has to be the best place on earth to run (minus the ankle- breaking rocks). With few cars and no people, I sang out loud at the top of my lungs, receiving strange looks only from the cows and horses that proceeded to trot away from me. Marco had said in our brief online exchange, “Easter Island no problem!” That’s how I felt when I ran- that no problems could reach me on Easter Island.

Sadly, Easter Island does have its problems. The islanders do want independence from Chile, but haven’t figured out how to make it happen logistically. The island receives three cargo boats worth of resources from the mainland country every month, and ships back a good part of the 20 tons of garbage that it produces per day. And with an economy entirely dependent on the rapidly-growing tourism, the locals must strike a balance between the exploitation and the preservation of the legacy that draws the tourists in the first place.

With Chile’s rude but somewhat necessary interference in Rapa Nui life, that balance has been tricky one to find. A Scottish sheep farm was allowed by Chile to use nearly all the land outside of Hanga Roa until 1953, when the islanders rebelled, elected their own mayor, and began to win back rights to their native land. Today, only blood descendants of Rapa Nui people can own land on Easter Island. But because Chile controls and profits from the flow of tourism to the island, the Easter Islanders don’t have control of their own economy.

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In spite of all this, the island houses a happy, wealthy bunch of people. There is virtually no homelessness because the filming of the movie Rapa Nui brought in so much money to the islanders that they could afford to buy land; many families own multiple houses and undeveloped property. Some of the richer families occasionally (and by occasionally, I mean approximately 33 times per year), build a massive earth oven that is blessed by a priest in a feather crown and everyone on the island- tourists included- are invited to a free picnic of roasted sweet potatoes and local beef and fish. Beholding the sight of a couple hundred people, all napping out their food comas in the grass, melted my heart a little.

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I didn’t end up visiting all the Moai, but I did hit up all of the most touristic spots: Rano Raraku, the Moai factory in a volcano; Tongariki, where the sun comes up behind the Moai; Orongo, the volcanic lagoon; and all the caves I could find (minus the one with a dead cow inside).

It’s a small island and you really do only need a couple days to see the sites. Plus, hostels are expensive and paying upwards of $40 per night isn’t within everyone’s budget. To get a really great Easter Island experience, you must stay in a paipai with no electricity or cell service for a month. Spend long, breezy days picking strawberries and chasing cows. Scratch yourself on rusty nails poking from the walls as you grope for candles in the blackness.  For a rocky, deforested speck of land in the middle of the ocean, Rapa Nui has a lot to offer.

 

“The rain started three years ago….” breathed the owner of the vegan restaurant in Banos, “…and it hasn’t stopped since.”  I nodded empathetically. I’d experienced the same exasperation towards the relentlessly sunny weather in Los Angeles.

I don’t mind the rain… which sure is a good thing to not mind, because the rain hasn’t quit here in Banos. It rains all day. It rains all night. It even rains when the sun is shining.

The beauty of Banos is in the rain. The rolling clouds are to be thanked for the rich greenery of the mountains, and the voluptuousness of the waterfalls, the rivers, and the hot springs all depend on the unbroken pitter patter of drops on the tin rooftops.

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I spent my first day in Banos determined to get the most out of the bountiful naturaleza. In the foggy 4:30 am darkness, I walked a mile uphill to the Salado hot springs, where the steam from the muddy umber water mingled with the low-hanging clouds.

Most of the hot springs visitors at this hour were in their golden years. They sat still as frogs, chin-deep in the concrete basins, occasionally immersing their swim-capped heads beneath the bubbling surface. Despite my younger, healthier heart, I couldn’t stand the hot water as long as the old people, so I jumped between the hot and ice cold pools until my muscles felt like they’d had a deep- tissue massage.

The rain doesn’t stop business in Banos. On every block, tour companies try to sell their rafting, canyoning, rock climbing, and mountain biking packaged adventures.  I bought in to the canyoning when a 60 year old ex-pat named Richaard said that if I only do one thing in Banos, it should be canyoning.

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Richaard seemed like the kind of guy with good taste. He drove his five dogs around in a rickshaw-motorcycle contraption with the name of his favorite dog, Helga, inscribed on the side. Helga had lived with him at sea for six years.

By definition, I don’t know what canyoning is… but it turned out to be a lot of repelling down waterfalls. Although the whole tour thing felt manufactured- with peppy, overworked guides (one who looked undeniably like Steve Aoki) that patiently lower uncoordinated tourists down waterfalls twice a day- the scene of sunlit water spraying down the falls made it worth the $25.

I couchsurfed my first three nights in Banos. The host, Juank, almost always has couchsurfers. As Juank’s home is basically a free hostel, he has hosted over 1,000 travelers. Sadly he had to leave town, so I moved to Santa Cruz Hostel– its main draw being the fireplace. I spent a lot of time at this hostel doing yoga on the bedroom floor because Ben wasn’t feeling so great, and it was still raining.

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I did manage to make the pilgrimage up to the Instagram-famous Casa del Arbol, also known as The Swing at the End of the World. The pilgrimage can be done by bus, but I chose the two hour hike. When I got lost, the two hours turned into six hours. No matter… spectacular scenery mostly distracted me from my blistering feet the whole way up. And as an added bonus, the sun came out… so I got the perfect cliché Swing picture.

Banos is the perfect place to weave a fine web of connections, because the rain brings people together. Weather is usually a dead-end conversation topic. Not in Banos. Say “it’s still raining” and you’ve spoken God’s honest truth. For a satisfying week, take a few daytime escapades, fireside evenings, lots of new buddies, and talk about the rain.

My shifts pass quickly at Café Dios No Muere in Quito, Ecuador, thanks to the constant gossip between the two Quiteno sisters that cook the Cajun-Ecuadorian menu. The chatter fills the tiny first floor of the three story, 400 year old, barrack-turned-restaurant, built into the back corner of the Santa Catalina Monastery. The creaking wood floors, low-beam ceilings, and antique wall decorations make for a cozy place to serve cappuccinos on the grey, chilly mornings. In the evenings, I cart trays of micro-brewed beer up and down the narrow staircase. The place is about the size of a hamster cage.

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I am volunteering here for a week in exchange for room and board. My accommodation is in the haunted, dungeon-like basement of a centuries-old house. The crumbling brick walls adorned with rosaries and portraits of ancient men once served as a cool storage area for food, but now refrigerate the bodies of sleeping volunteers.

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After six pm, the other volunteers and I don’t walk anywhere alone…. Not even the two blocks from the dorm to the café. The scantily clad women loitering on the corners of this busy historic zone make it apparent that we are doubly situated in the red light district. The stories recounted by the cooks of themselves and volunteers getting violently robbed in broad daylight make it apparent that… well… this area isn’t the safest. One girl was chased by a taxi, grabbed by her hair, and beaten to the ground. Three weeks ago, a volunteer found a bloody, lacerated body on the sidewalk just outside the dorm.

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So, I haven’t really felt at ease here in Quito. Every morning, I poke my head out the door and carefully peer to my left and right before stepping outside. Yesterday, as I strode past unwanted stares on my way to Parque Itchimbia, looking ultra-tourist in my polka dot shorts, flip flops, and alpaca sweater, I was on high alert. After throwing a few suspicious glances over my shoulder, I began to ascend the hundred-or-so stairs to the park. My head spun as my unaccustomed lungs tightened in response to the altitude.

A delightful view welcomed me at the top. Kites flapped in the wind high above the city; bicycles rolled on a path past colorful frog statues; and kids, dogs, and balls cavorted through the grass.  But when I told the cooks about it, they gasped in horror that I’d gone alone. Solita es peligrosa!

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I definitely don’t feel as safe in Quito as I have in other parts of Ecuador, but between the uncomfortable stares and strange vibes, I’ve seen some of the best views, eaten the best food, and met some of my favorite people. The nerve-wracking ladder leading up to the turret of the Basilica was rewarded with an unforgettable panorama of the city. Out of everywhere I’ve been, vegetarian options in Ecuador are second only to India. And my heart holds a place for those feisty cooks.

Quito itself is a bit too rough to be a gem, but it has plenty of diamonds.

 

 

Malls drain me of energy faster than the roaming mode drains a phone’s battery. Thirty minutes in the blinding, contrived vastness of a shopping mall leaves me depleted and directionless.

Markets are different… each market has its own character. Markets have food to sample, people to haggle with, and a buzz of personable energy.

I walked through the Otavalo market in a state of perfect Zen. On that early Saturday morning, the crowds hadn’t yet turned up, and I stood in the main square munching on a 50 cent bag of purple corn as vendors set up their displays of alpaca rugs and other cozy handicrafts.

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Saturday mornings in Otavalo begin around 3 a.m. a few minutes outside of town at the animal market, one of the largest in South America. Normally, one can find guinea pigs and llamas for sale, but I arrived around 5:30 a.m. The sun hadn’t come up yet, but most of the animals had already gone home. I saw quite a few squealing baby pigs, cages of chickens, and sad looking dogs in tiny cages. As the sun came up, Otavalo families dragged their new pets/food across the Panamerican highway between speeding buses.

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The Otavalos are some of the most economically successful indigenous groups on the continent … possibly why they still wear traditional clothing. Otavalos proudly carry on their customs, and this authenticity draws hundreds of people to travel the two hours from Quito every Saturday, alongside plenty of tourist groups.

The artesian market continues in town for the rest of the day, with food vendors speckled around the central plaza. Aside from plenty of alpaca products, one can buy handmade jewelry, cotton hats, hammocks, and voodoo-looking wall decorations. I hope to die in a snuggly pile of alpaca-fur rugs.

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If you aren’t vegetarian, mornings are the time to feast on tender pork. Although I haven’t eaten meat in three years, the sight of an entire roasted pig -complete with a tomato stuffed in the mouth- stirred a carnivorous nostalgia. Instead, I ate more corn and drank an alfalfa-orange juice concoction.

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Saturdays are an ideal time to practice haggling skills, because prices are directly correlated with market size. On off-Saturdays, prices drop dramatically. When I haggle, I never begin by asking the price; instead, I start with an insultingly low offer. Most people begin bargaining 15-20% lower than the vendor’s initial price… but I tend to look naive, and I must assert myself.

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But I liked spending money in Otovalo. Walmart might be cheaper, and maybe I didn’t really need an alpaca sweater, but when I come back to Ecuador in ten years for home decorations, I don’t want this market to have changed a bit. I vote with my dollars, so I voted for Otavalo.

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I walked…no, I limped, out of Parque Tayrona, feeling quite smug. Yes, my back ached and hunger knotted my stomach, but I felt like I’d gotten away with something. Every traveler I’d met had warned of the park’s high prices, but apparently it would be worth the money. I’d successfully navigated around the unexpected costs that touristy places like to throw at visitors, with no damage to myself or my bank account. Here’s how you can do the same:

Bring food– You might be able to carry all the food you need depending on how long you plan to stay. Restaurants in the park will set you back at least 20,000 pesos per meal…and you’ll need more calories with all that hiking. Because you can’t cook in the park, bring foods like nuts, bread, and avocados. Or, you can do like me and cook rice and spaghetti beforehand, then bring it along in a plastic bag.

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Bring a student ID– The park entrance fee is only 8000 with an ID, but 40,000 without. Expired ID’s should work fine… mine did the trick.

Bring your own water filter– Not only is bottled water pricey (4,000 pesos for a small bottle in the park), but it’s awkward to drink from throwaway plastic waste in a place dedicated to protecting the environment. I used my LifeStraw; you can fill bottles up with tap water in the restrooms or at a restaurant. UV pens and iodine tablets are other good options.

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Don’t pay for a donkey– You can rent a donkey to carry you or your heavy bags, but it will cost about 40,000 pesos. Instead, most hostels in Santa Marta will guard your bags for free while you are in the park. Pack light and walk; donkeys are wonderful company, but just not worth the money. Plus, the hikes aren’t terribly strenuous.

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Sleep on the ground– At your own discretion. Camping and hammocks cost 20,000 pesos, and I didn’t want to shell out that much when that money could be used on a nice hostel room outside of the park. I dressed in black and slept in a grassy patch beneath a palm tree. When a light rain woke me at 4 a.m., I crept around the campground like a ninja and found a wonderful ocean-view perch where I enjoyed a lackluster sunrise in perfect solitude.

However, experiences are priceless. The money saved now can be used towards more adventures, but quality is more important than quality… so don’t forget to enjoy yourself. The highest price to pay is misery.

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I am hovering between dreams and reality. My fitful nap came to an end when I sleep- walked out of my hostel bed and into the common area. I awoke to a heavy French accent asking me something that I– in my heavy drowsiness– could not decipher. I responded with a yawn and a bleary-eyed smile, the shuffled back to bed.  I had recently watched the beginning of Fight Club (and just the beginning… I can rarely finish a movie) where the narrator says “when you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep… and you’re never really awake.”

That quote was one of the few that my exhausted brain can identify with. I have barely slept in days… circumstantial insomnia. Hostels are not kind to those who value sleep, and I’ve spent the last few days wandering Medellin in a tired stupor. Out of default, Medellin triggers a fatigue-induced psychosis, because each day is a copy of the last. I’m too tired to change the default.

OMG how did I get here?

OMG how did I get here?

I’d spent the previous night at a hostel that seemed to attract alcoholics. Although it had been a Monday, the boisterous laughter from the other side of the wall startled me from my sleep and made me bang my forehead on the low-lying rafter above my top bunk. In the morning, a shattered beer bottle and rocket-size backpacks strewn across the floor had turned the dorm into an obstacle course.

The night before that I’d spent on an overnight bus with a wanton driver who, to evade sleep, tested how close he could tailgate other buses on the curvaceous road without a fender bender. Needless to say, nobody slept; especially any passenger within five rows of the lady who would shriek each time she vomited into a plastic bag.

So, I moved to a quiet hostel in a quiet area of Medellin. Each dorm bed has curtains and a private reading light to give the false sense of solitude that so many hostel dwellers crave after long months of living with strangers in close quarters.  But the Englishman in the bunk below me is due for an emergency sinus surgery tomorrow. His cacophony of snores and whimpers was more of an abstract concerto than a lullaby. The poor guy is having a worse night than anyone.

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Nightmares burden my short bouts of sleep. I wake up ravenously hungry but don’t have enough brain power to cook, so my trembling arms reach for the coffee pot, or I hobble to one of the boutique coffee shops that pepper El Poblado neighborhood. The caffeine coursing through my blood brings a brief moment of clarity during which I laugh hysterically at my own madness.

I don’t know what is real. My memories of the previous days slip away like a dream. In Fight Club, the narrator asks, “If you wake up in a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” I won’t really sleep or really wake up, until I leave Medellin. But when I am pulled out of this circadian suicide spiral, I will certainly be a different person.

Hallucinations? Delusions?

Hallucinations? Delusions?

I thought that two weeks in Cartagena would have my body used to the heat, yet even on that 14th morning as I stepped into the sunbaked hostel courtyard; the hot blast of air had me instinctively scrambling back into the air conditioned dorm. No, I’d never get used to the heat. I was not brought up in an inferno, and I guess that my old, stubborn body just doesn’t want to acclimate to any new climates.

Pick a Hostel With AC

Treat yo’ self. In how many sweat puddles did I lie, mostly naked, with stray hairs plastering my moist face and a fan spreading the body odor of my roommates around a dingy dorm before realizing that this need not be for an extra $3? Too many. I’d rather skip a meal than skip a good night’s sleep. Awakening in a crisp room and knowing that you can seek refuge from the heat at any time is a great incentive to actually get out and explore. If there is one place to splurge on a hostel, it’s Cartagena.


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Wake up Early

As in, before the sun has fully risen. Because the moment that that blazing orange ball flings its searing rays upon the narrow cobbled streets, the temperature will rise five degrees Fahrenheit. This is the time to go for a run so that you don’t feel like a melting blob for the remainder of the day. Most people take pictures of the famously colorful streets in the evening, but I’d say that morning is even better. The streets drip in a golden hue and nobody is out but a couple of fruit vendors pushing their carts of pineapples and papayas. And when it comes to produce, the early bird gets the worm.

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Juan Valdez

Juan Valdez is the Colombian equivalent of Starbucks, except that its coffee deserves praise. And while drink sizes run significantly smaller, Juan is very generous with his air conditioning. Drinks are on the pricey side, but the WiFi is free and open, so if you don’t exactly have to buy a drink… although who could resist an ice coffee coming to the rescue during a midday slump?

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Go Swimming

The best beach for swimming in the city, Bocagrande, lies about 10 minutes walking distance outside of the centro. Not exactly photogenic, but the murky waters do entice with their promise of rinsing the stale sweat and street from your blistering skin. If you must have a photogenic beach for social media-worthy pictures, go to Playa Blanca— a 45 minute boat ride and 1.5 hour bus ride outside of the city. Probably named for the narrow strip of white sand lined by an endless array of tiki-huts, Playa Blanca has very bright blue water. Just watch out for jet skis.

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Embrace Nocturnalism

Everyone else does. Cartagena can seem a ghost town by day, with old buildings and heat phantasms. But just before dusk, humans line the old city wall to eagerly bid the sun a farewell as it moves on to torment some other part of the world for a few hours. Then, more street vendors come out, stores open, restaurants open, and people slowly stroll the streets, relishing the absence of sweat.

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