Thursday, December 26, 2013

How to Take Better Travel Photographs

Do you have to have a top of the line DSLR camera in order to take great photos? It helps, but it definitely isn't necessary to spend a fortune on brand new camera equipment. If you are in the market for a new camera, but you are on a budget, I recommend buying a camera body and lens used off of eBay. I was surprised to learn that even if a lens has a significant crack, there will not be any noticeable difference in the photo. A pretty versatile lens for traveling is the 18-55mm, though I love shooting with a 50mm lens. Unless you are a pro, plan to take only one or two lenses with you because they can become cumbersome and heavy. Not to mention, everything you bring with you traveling could end up lost, broken, or stolen.

It's important to know your camera before your trip. Before my trip to South America, I took a photography class at The Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, CT. I highly recommend taking a class if you are looking to improve your technical skills. I met a few people along the way who planned to figure out how to use their DSLR while traveling, and found themselves relying on the automatic mode, which won't give you as much control as manual. If you can't afford a class, at least read up on shutter speed, ISO, aperture and exposure - and how they interrelate. It will make it easier for you to concentrate on the creative rather than technical side of photography. Here's a quick online tutorial that I love: Understanding Your DSLR

The Golden Hour
The best time to snap photos is when the lighting is softer and warmer in hue. This happens right around sunset. Sunrise is also a great time to take photos because the light is cooler and more diffuse. It can be hard to take photos in the middle of the day when the sun is harsher and you are dealing with shadows.

Get Closer
As Robert Capa famously said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." This is why I love shooting with a 50mm lens. Your feet make a great zoom. Zooming in with a telephoto lens can be a great strategy for landscapes, but when it comes to people, it's best just to stand a bit closer than you would normally think. This improves the quality and clarity of the photo. When you are closer, the photo can focus in on details that would otherwise be missed.

Get Farther Away
A go to travel picture for me is always the rooftop view of a city. When taking this type of photo, try to think about what the sun is doing. Is it nearing sunset? Am I shooting into direct sunlight and creating a strange sun flare? No matter what, the key to this type of photo is to be far enough away to capture the most interesting features of the city.

Know Where the Sun Is
Photos of people are almost always most flattering when the sun is shining on the subject's face. The same is true when photographing buildings. If you want to catch the glistening of light on the ocean, take the photo when the sun is low enough to reflect off the waves. Here is a trick for taking a great photo when the sun is behind your subject: Use your flash!

Take the Road Less Traveled
Walking through the main square will give you the same picture everyone else has. Avoiding obvious routes and taking the back roads might lead you to some more interesting subjects or perspectives. 

Watch the Edges and Corners
Be mindful that your photo might come out more interesting if you capture not only your intended subject, but also something interesting in the background.

Remember to Photograph the People You are Traveling With
It can be easy to get caught up in photographing landscapes and buildings, but it is important to capture the people you are traveling with as well. Include them in photos of scenery so that you remember not only where you went, but who went with you. It doesn't always have to be the traditional front-facing photograph, either. Spice it up with some nontraditional candids.

Create a Story with Sequential Photos
Taking a bunch of photos in a row can help capture the "bigger picture."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Take a Mid-Life Gap Year?

Many people take a gap year between college and their first job. I took mine after 5 years. Here's why I took a mid-life gap year.

What have I done with my gap year? 

I visited 3 countries, traveled the East Coast by sleeper train, visited 6 states (FL, CT, MA, CA, HI, NJ, NY), started a travel blog, volunteered at an after school program in Peru, worked at a hostel bar and restaurant in Cusco, rode horses in Ecuador, started selling earrings at a local salon, made new friends and connections across the globe, took cooking classes, photography classes, yoga classes, Spanish classes, and became conversationally fluent in Spanish.

It might seem like my super productive gap year wasn't really a break at all, but for me it was. The flexible schedule allowed me to explore my interests and to build stronger connections with those around me. I saw the time off as a chance to regroup and to make sure that I was on the track I wanted to be on.

Why did I take a gap year?

I worked constantly throughout college. I worked long hours not only in class, but in numerous work-study jobs to begin paying off huge college loans. I had a lot of opportunities to develop professionally, but fewer opportunities to explore my interests and develop personally. After college, I went to work (3 jobs simultaneously including one full-time position, a part-time sales job, and a small consulting and advertising company that I started) and had very little spare time. This cycle of working multiple jobs and having very little work-life balance continued for years until I stumbled into the opportunity to travel abroad to volunteer and learn Spanish.

How did it go?

For the first couple of days, I found the blank schedule to be daunting and was unsure of how to spend my time. I watched an entire season of Orange is the New Black in less than a couple of days. But I soon realized that this is not how I wanted to spend my time. I  took the same approach to my schedule as I always had. Fill it up with the things that interest me and the people I value. Soon, I found myself enrolled in numerous classes and planning various trips.

Time off isn't for everyone. I think it's great for people who are productive and find it easy to stay busy without a 8-6 work schedule. I don't think the gap year always has to be a year long, either. For me, 6 months was plenty of time. You also have to be ready to take on the costs and risks. I was lucky to have saved enough to take off 6 months of work and still be able to afford health insurance and to have a cushion if I am not hired for a full-time position immediately after the 6 months. But I think with planning, foresight, determination, and effort, these costs and risks can be mitigated and a gap period can be an incredibly valuable experience. Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

What would you do with a gap year?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Amtrak's East Coast Car Train Adventure

My brother AJ decided to move from Florida back to Massachusetts, so I flew out to Florida to keep him company on the trip.

I had really great luck booking a last minute one-way ticket from Connecticut to Florida. I assume that since most people travel for the holidays between December 20 and January 3,  tickets early in December are really inexpensive. People don't want to fly multiple times in one month.

AJ picked me up at the airport, and since he already moved out of his house we headed to the Clarion hotel in Kissimmee, which is right outside of Orlando. The hotel was less than 2 miles from Disneyworld, and yet, it only cost us $50 a night to stay in a two bed suite with kitchenette and a free buffet breakfast. My favorite area of the hotel was the enormous free form pool. I spent the majority of my time in the pool, as the area surrounding the hotel was strip mall hell. It's amazing how many Carrabba's restaurants one city needs.

We spent about 24 hours in Kissimmee, then drove an hour to Stanford, where we caught the auto train. The entire process of boarding the train was a breeze. We dropped off the car in front of the station just before 2 P.M., then walked over to the check-in desk to get our tickets. At the check-in, we asked about gluten free meal options, and the attendant was so helpful that she called over the chef to talk to us directly.

We waited a few minutes at the station and then boarded the train at 2:30. When we saw our accommodations in the sleeper car, we were a bit surprised. The car was in daytime mode, so there were two seats facing each other. While it was comfortable, the room was tight. Feeling a little claustrophobic, we headed to the lounge car, where there was a free wine tasting and snacks. The lounge car was terrific and it was great talking to the staff about their experiences on the train. Apparently Shaq's dad is a frequent customer!

The time was flying by, and at 7:00 P.M., we headed from the lounge into the dining car, where we took our seats across from some very opinionated travelers. I spent the dinner in a heated debate about educational inequality. You can imagine which side of the discussion I was on. I am surprised the Teach For America water bottle I was carrying didn't give me away.

While the discussion was heated, the dinner was enjoyable. AJ had steak tips, and I ate roasted chicken. I made sure to tell the staff that the 14th is AJ's birthday, so they brought out a bowl of jello and ice cream and the entire dining car sang happy birthday at an embarrassing volume while I video taped.

After all of this excitement, I headed back to our sleeper car. The staff had already transitioned the car from day to night, and this time, I found two bunk beds made up with pillows and blankets. The sleep on the train was very comfortable. I woke up a few times, mainly because AJ was unknowingly dropping things (a bag of M&M's, a glow stick, and his wallet) onto my head from the top bunk, but overall had a great night's rest. 

In the morning, we woke up to beautiful views of the sunrise and to continental breakfast that was being served in the dining car. We also found out that we would be arriving an hour ahead of schedule. The morning went by in a flash, and we were already off the train and in Lorton, Virginia by 8:15 A.M. From there, we drove the remaining miles back home.

I still think flying is my favorite mode of transportation when it comes to long distances, but this is a great option for being able to transport your car.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why Get Travel Insurance

I have traveled abroad a number of times, but this past trip to South America was the first time that I purchased an insurance policy. While there are a lot of great options out there, I went with the company that Lonely Planet suggested - World Nomads. More information about the company can be found at

The decision to invest in insurance was made primarily because I was concerned about having a health issue abroad. Little did I know that what I would be using it for would be to cover the cost of a new phone after my iPhone 5 was stolen in Cusco. 

After my phone was stolen, I worried that the insurance would only cover the initial price of the phone ($200) and wouldn't cover the cost of a new phone without contract (more than $400). I also worried that I never saved my receipt and wouldn't be able to provide proof of purchase. Neither of these concerns turned out to be actual problems.

World nomads allows you 90 days after the termination date of your policy to write a claim, so once I got back to the States, I immediately went to the Apple store and asked if they could reprint my receipt. Within minutes, that issue was resolved. Plus, I was able to purchase a new iPhone while I waited. Next, I photographed my police report from Cusco, and both the old receipt and the new one right from my phone and uploaded them to my claims page on World Nomad. It was a very simple and straightforward process. I waited a couple of days and found out that they would be sending a check for the cost of the new phone ($400) to my house, and that I should receive it within 30 days. I waited 5, and the check was already in the mail!

I couldn't be more grateful that I purchased an insurance plan. I would recommend one for any long-term trip abroad. I don't think it's necessary for traveling in the US or while traveling for short trips, but it definitely came in handy for me! I do recommend keeping photos of your receipts for big ticket items in dropbox or in the cloud. They would have been handy to have had while I was traveling. I also want to caution that their policy does not cover any cash that is stolen. That's just something you'll have to be extra careful about.

You never know!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Last Day in South America

While waiting for the taxi to Lima airport this morning, I saw Peter and he told me about how he was robbed at gunpoint yesterday in broad daylight and lost his camera.

I was constantly aware of the risks of traveling here, particularly of traveling alone... And I was cautious (probably overly cautious at points, which Ali can attest to)... But I was also lucky. I am fortunate that my experience was a positive one. My phone was robbed, but it was the most tranquil robbery possible. I was lucky. I heard crazy horror stories. Stories I didn't write about because I didn't want to think about them and because they would have painted a very incomplete and incorrect picture of my experience here. I didn't really run into trouble. I escaped the devil's dust that Sing Sing encountered, the knife stuck into Laura's wrist in the park, and the gun Peter escaped just yesterday. I was lucky.

As I leave, I am grateful that what I will remember will not be these isolated terrors, the events that happen infrequently but are most talked about. Instead, I will look back on my teachers who took me in as though I were family, the kids who let me teach them, even though I couldn't even speak their language, the new traveler friends who I feel like I have known for far longer than a couple weeks, the strangers who helped me find a restaurant, the people on planes or buses who patiently talked to me, waiting for me to find the words in Spanish, and all of the other locals who were kind, generous and helpful. I also can't leave out the memories of terrific food, strong pisco sours, getting way too many massages, seeing spectacular views, the long, but beautiful bus rides through the Andes, and the vibrant colors of the markets. Most importantly, I learned that the only way to be rich is to want little.

All in all, my departure day was standard. I woke up early and shared a cab to the airport with Stephanie and Miriam who both continued on to Cusco. That was the last of the teary goodbyes. I bought some Pisco in duty free, already nostalgic for Cusco. I got my Pisco taken away in San Salvador when I switched planes and had to subject myself to a second bag search. And as I sat on the plane, I reflected on my experience in South America, realizing I took far more than I could have ever given.

And then it was over.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Going to the Movies

There isn't a ton to see in Lima, and this is my third time in the city, so I spent the day doing random things like watching a bad movie (in English!) at the movie theater, getting my nails done for $3, and stocking up on airport food at the grocery store. Lima is an anti-climactic ending to an amazing trip. The best part of the day was when Jessica, Miriam and I met up for a very nice dinner at a touristy restaurant on “Pizza Street.” I can't wait to be in a place where you don't get inundated by the restaurant hosts as your walk down the street. That tactic doesn't really work on me; in fact, it has the opposite effect. but the dinner we had was great, and it reminded me that throughout this trip, I have met the kindest people. I think the people have had as big of an impact on me as anything else.

I also spent the entire day trying to coordinate with Sebas to retrieve my suitcase. He is on Peruvian time, so I had a lot of trouble getting him to commit to a time that he would be available. Around midnight, and after a fair amount of frustration, he finally gave me his address and I headed by taxi to get my things. Miriam was super nice and came with me to keep me company. Even though it was a bit frustrating at the end, it was so nice of Sebas to hold onto my bag. It was so much easier traveling through Ecuador without it.

Finished reading When I Was Puerto Rican, started reading Cutting for Stone.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Last Nights in Lima

For the five minutes that I was awake on the bus, I dreamed about a sandwich from La Lucheria. So despite it only being 8am, I headed directly there for a lunch sandwich. It was exactly how I remembered it. Then, I walked around Lima for a while, only to realize nothing is open until 11 on Mondays. I retreated back to my hostel, and discovered Peter is staying there, too! It is crazy to think that I have run into some people in more than one country!

In the afternoon, I met up with Jessica, my manager from Cusco. She was in Lima to get her residency visa for the next two years. It was so nice getting a chance to see her! We waited for Miriam to arrive from the bus station, then headed to dinner at an Arabic restaurant.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Almost a Disaster

My worst fear about getting to Lima with almost a couple days to spare almost came true. When we asked our hostel to book us a bus for later tonight, she said "Well, that will be difficult," and shook her head. After looking up 4 companies, we found they were all booked and nearly ran to the travel agent down the road. Again, we were greeted with, "Hmmm.... That's not really possible." Luckily, we ended up scoring one seat for tonight and one for tomorrow morning. I jumped on the night bus, unable to suffer through another day of nothingness on the day bus.

After the stress of booking a bus, we had an easy morning eating brunch and staring at the waves. Later, we headed to Chan Chan, the ruins of an early civilization. The ruins were kind of... ruined by the backdrop of buildings and modern city life. After Cusco, it is hard to see ruins and not expect to be fully transported back to ancient times. Anyhow, we had fun taking pictures on top of mounds of sand, in front of mounds of sand, and next to mounds of sand. Lots of pictures of sand.

Dinner ran a little late, and after quickly saying goodbye to my friends, I rushed to the hostel to call a cab and to finish packing. I guess today was the day of poor planning. Even though it was 8:30, and my bus wasn't until 10, the receptionist said it would take over a half hour to get a cab here and I had better run down the street with all of my luggage and try to catch one at the intersection a quarter mile away. A little worried, I followed his advice, and after 20 minutes, finally caught a cab. I ended up arriving just in time to hop onto the most luxurious bus ever.

You know those photos in travel magazines of airplanes in Japan... The ones where instead of seats, there are beds complete with blankets and pillows? Well it is real, and it is called SuperVIP, pronounced suuuupervip (short i, not an acronym). Suuuuupervip is the best. I cuddled up to the nice lady and 7 month old baby 2 inches from my face, relishing the fact that I could eat a second dinner just because it is available all the while resting my feet horizontally, watching my personal TV, even if it is in Spanish and I am too tired to understand.

I slept like a baby. Mostly because there was a baby next to me and I woke up every time the baby did, but also because the completely horizontal seat was amazing. The lady next to me explained that I was basically the luckiest person ever because her husband found out he had to work and cancelled his ticket right before I purchased it. She said since it is a holiday (who knew?), she had booked the tickets two weeks ago! So I guess booking a day earlier wouldn't have really helped that much... In any case, lucky me, because otherwise I would be missing my flight to the US.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Beaches of Trujillo

We started off the morning on yet another bus, finally making our way all the way to Trujillo, staying just outside the city in a hostel called Naylamp in Huanchaco. I was so happy to see the beach and to be off the bus that I could have danced.

We headed straight to lunch after a second morning of being trapped on a bus without anything to eat. I need to go prepared with snacks from now on. Lunch was wonderful, and Kristie, the girl I worked with in Cusco also walked into the restaurant. We spent a couple hours catching up and talking about how she has been volunteering here. She found an incredibly sick dog here, and raised money to take him to the vet via Facebook. When she was at the vet's, she learned a lot about the stray dog situation here, and got connected to a woman who was building a dog shelter in town. Krystie's boyfriend, Sam actually worked in construction back in Australia, so they spent two weeks here, building the shelter from the ground up.

After lunch, Miriam and I went for a walk along the beach, taking lots of photos of the surfers and the sunset. The beach here is beautiful, and since the town isn't overly developed, there actually aren't that many tourists.

In the evening, we met back up with Nikky and split a piece of apple pie before heading back to our hostel for a proper dinner of vegetarian pizza.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Quick Stops in Puira and Chiclayo

The bus from Loja to Puira takes Forrrrevvvvver. I am totally caught up on the new seasons of Scandal and Parenthood. 7am - 6pm on the bus to Puira.

The route must be new because it is completely unpaved for much of the way, and straddles a craggy cliff you constantly worry about falling off. So many people were crossing themselves and praying that I thought maybe I should be doing it, too. Luckily, or unluckily, depending how you look at it, the bus only drove 17 miles an hour.

The border crossing itself was a breeze, once we actually reached it. The only real problem was that we had limited access to food and drinks until supper. The only food I was able to get was a bunch of bananas that I acquired by hanging my head out the window and begging a lady on the street to sell me some as we were slowly passing by. Again, no one came onto the bus to sell things, save one guy who was selling ginko pills, which Nikky bought!

Nikky is a new friend who was staying at Izhcayluma and was also traveling to Huanchaco the same day as us. She is super friendly.

In Puira, we were starving, so I told the taxi driver to take us to the reliable Rocky's for dinner. We almost got conned into taking a taxi to Chiclayo for "30 soles," but by now I have learned to get multiple second opinions before making a big travel decision like taking a taxi instead of a bus. When we asked advice at Rocky's, they said that sounded like a scam, and a better option would be to take the 9:00pm Transportes Chiclayo bus. We followed their advice, and I quickly remembered how drastically different buses are in Peru as compared to Ecuador. We upgraded to cama (bed) seats for an extra dollar, and were living in luxury. While Peru has double decker buses with plush seats and footrests, Ecuador only has go-cart buses with scratchy seats that barely have any space.

We had planned to go to Trujillo, and had booked a hostel there, but after a much longer travel day than anticipated, we opted for a 3 hour bus to Chiclayo as opposed to another 7 hours of travel. So, unprepared and without having researched a nice place to stay, we were stuck in another bizarre Lonely Planet suggestion (Hotel Sican) for the second night in a row. The beds were a bit nicer, but the three beds were crammed into the room. My bed was actually touching the other two beds. It wasn't ideal, but since we were so exhausted, we all slept well enough.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gringo Retirement Mansions in Vilcabamba

On my hike into town today, I realized the terracotta farmhouses I was describing weren't farmhouses, but enormous gringo retirement mansions. Vilcabamba is the Boca Raton of Ecuador. As I ate a delicious kale salad from Cafe Juice, I noticed I was surrounded only by white people over 60. This is partly because Vilcabamba is rumored to be one of the healthiest places on the planet and partly because property is incomprehensibly inexpensive here. I have seen postings for amazing properties that rest on the mountainside for less than 25,000. And the cost of living is near nothing as well. A large goji berry and acai smoothie, a huge bowl of vegetarian brown rice soup, an overflowing plate of salad, and a homemade nutella filled croissant cost all of $7. And that was at the expensive restaurant. Most provide a three course lunch for $2.50, but I was in the mood for fruits and vegetables.

We meant to get on a night bus to Peru, but when we arrived at the bus station in Loja, both buses for the night were already sold out. The downside is that this will take off a day in Trujillo. The upside is that we don't have to sleep on a bus and will go through border control at 4am.

We quickly consulted the Lonely Planet at the bus station and decided that Hotel Metropolitan sounded like the best option. I suppose it was probably the best, but that really doesn't say much. We had a room with four cots clad in ruffly pink comforters from the 70s that aren't exactly comforters because they are barely thicker than a sheet. There are retro plastic cubes for windows, the ones you might see in retro basement bars. Not to mention the beds were boards. It was the second worst hostel I have stayed in on this trip, second only to Desert Nights. At least it was safe, especially after we pulled the card table in front of the door for good measure.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


In the morning, I walked to breakfast and found the hostel has the most amazing view of Vilcabamba. The restaurant patio looks out into the mountains and over the small village below. The terracotta roofs of farmhouses dot the landscape. Mist hung just above the trees, burning off in patches where the sun broke through. Before even finishing breakfast, I decided to stay an extra day here, even if it meant having to skip Mancora. Really I only had enough time for a day in Mancora, and it is 5 hours out of the way, so despite all of the great things I have heard about Mancora, I just don't think it would be worth it.

Instead of Mancora, Miriam, Stephanie and I will cross the border to Piura, and then Miriam and I will continue on to a town just outside of Trujillo called Huanchaco. We found a great hostel called Casa Amelia, but it was booked, so we will stay at Nylamp Hostel on the beach for a couple nights before finally reaching Lima.

We spent the entire day on the hostel grounds, swimming in the pool, going to the spa for a facial and massage packet (because it only cost $16!!) and eating enormous salads at the restaurant. I can understand why so many people live to be over 100 years old here. I feel absolutely no stress.

Finished reading The Lowlands and started When I Was Puerto Rican.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ready to Leave?

This trip is winding down, and I am still deciding if it is coming too quick or if I am ready to be back in the US. The trip has been wonderful. It was an eye opening experience, and I have seen and experienced more than I could have imagined. Still, there's a lot about this trip that seems very self-indulgent. Spending my days shopping, eating and getting massages isn't so much making a positive impact on the world. I am glad, though, that there is the very tangible takeaway of being able to hold my own (most of the time) in basic Spanish conversations. I look forward to taking classes when back in the US.

Today was pretty much a travel day. The only real accomplishment was going back to the panama hat museum and buying a hat. Other than that, Miriam and I had a delicious salad at Bananas and met a van to take us to Vilcabamba, which was surprisingly far, but as always, it was a beautiful ride... when there was visibility that is. At one point I looked up from my iPad and realized I could see nothing but gray out of any of the windows. I was very grateful to be in a van as opposed to a bus this time around.

By the time we reached Vilcabamba, it was already dark, but our hostel (really I should say resort, but it costs as much as a hostel) is amazing with an enormous pool, restaurant, and on-site spa. The name of the hostel is Izhcayluma. For tourists, Ecuador is certainly a country for outdoor adventures and relaxation.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Getting a Haircut in Cuenca

I started off the day with a beautiful walk down by the river. I meant to go to a museum nearby, but it was shut down for renovations. Without the museum on my agenda, I decided, finally, to get a haircut. I decided to go to the $10 vs. the $7 place just because I thought maybe it would be better since it cost $3 more... I explained in Spanglish that I wanted it "al mismo de ahora, pero menos un poco porque mi cabello esta muy seco" (which I think more or less means "the same as now, but a little bit shorter because my hair is really dry"). I think I said "un poco" about twenty times. I held my breath as she took the first snip, well, really the whole time, but it turned out fine. She even spent twenty minutes drying and straightening it. It is the first time my hair has seen a blow dryer since Bolivia...

After the successful haircut, I bought myself a celebratory smoothie and headed back to the hostel to download a lot of TV episodes of Scandal and Parenthood so I have something to do during the 30 hours of bus rides and 12 hours on a plane that I face in the next week.

Speaking of planes, I went to the Taca Airlines office today to see how much it would cost to push my flight to November 8th instead of the 6th. It would mean getting to spend a couple extra days on the beach in Mancora... But the woman told me it would be $200, plus taxes. Oh well! Looks like I will be going to the beach in California instead!

Miriam (jungle roommate) arrived tonight from her Galapagos trip. I am so glad the timing worked out for us to meet up again because she is one of the happiest people I have ever met. After she got here, we headed to the Colombian restaurant nearby for dinner.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Where Lonely Planet Went Wrong

According to Lonely Planet, there are three huge markets just an hour outside of Cuenca (one for textiles, one for jewelry, and one for hats). Stephanie and I headed by bus to the textile market, which we found (after an hour of searching) was actually just a small co-op store with barely any goods. We left and set off for the jewelry market, but that was a failed attempt as well. It was actually just a section of stores that all sold plastic looking gold and silver jewelry, including very bad Tory Burch and Channel knock-offs. At this point, we gave up on the third market and headed back to the city for lunch.

Since it is Sunday, and Cuenca is a very religious city, absolutely nothing was open all day. For dinner, my roommate and I tried to find an open restaurant, and we searched for thirty minutes in the pouring rain, sprinting from doorway to doorway, but only found (surprise, again) Taj Majal to be open. At this point even I am a bit sick of Indian food. I am ready to leave Cuenca, but Stephanie has Spanish classes until Tuesday.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cajas National Park

Today was spent at Cajas National Park. In the morning, I met up with Stephanie, a girl from France, and our new Ecuadorian friend. The Ecuadorian guy, whose name is too difficult to spell, has a car here, and drove us to the park and took us on a hikes at a couple of the many lakes. This is just one example of just how incredibly welcoming and friendly the people are here. So many people here go out of their way to show you their city because they have so much pride in their country. The guy kept saying that he wanted to show us everything because he wanted us to remember the beauty of Ecuador. And man is Ecuador beautiful. It rivals Switzerland. The mountains are every conceivable shade of green. Everywhere you look, you see cows or horses, or sometimes llamas grazing in the grass. Everything looks like a postcard. The other amazing thing about Ecuador is that since the country is so small, you can drive 4 hours in one direction and be at the beach, 4 hours in another direction and be in the rainforest, or a couple hours in another direction and you are in the mountains or by a volcano.

After the park, we took our kind friend out to dinner at (surprise) Taj Majal. We tried to go to somewhere different, but nearly everything was closed because of a 10k race happening in the evening. After dinner, we watched a bit of the race (we were the only people cheering) before heading back to the hostel.

Day 2 in Cuenca

First things first, I changed hostels. Now I am at Yakumama, which has a lot more going on than the last hostel, plus I am a lot closer to the city center. My roommates are nice, too. One guy is headed to Lima on the same schedule, so I am going to include him in my border crossing.

In my morning walk around the city, I contemplated getting a $10 haircut (people in Cuenca have nicer hair than anywhere I have been in South America so far), got the most delicious fruit drink of my life at Live Organico, and stopped to get pizza and have a long, Spanglish conversation with the pizza guy who spent 10 years in NJ of all places, and wanted to practice his English.

In the afternoon, I visited the Panama Hat Museum, where they show you how hats are made. I tried on lots of beautiful hats that grandpa would love. Later, I walked around the local fruit, meat, and vegetable market, where I bought tons of fruit for two dollars. At the market, there was a section of woman sitting with herbs and branches. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but I saw the woman were literally beating small children with the herbs... In the face, across the back. I can only guess it has some medical or spiritual significance. It was crazy.

After a delicious dinner at Taj Mahal, I bumped into Stephanie and her friend, and we all went to a cafe to practice Spanish for a couple hours.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cuenca, Ecuador

Anticipating the usual food vendors on the 7am bus to Cuenca, I hadn't bothered to stop at a store and pick up breakfast for the ride. Unfortunately, and this is the only context with which I would say this is unfortunate, my bus was direct, and didn't pick up random people carrying bags of oranges or baskets of unidentifiable meat off the side of the highway. So instead, when we stopped in Riobamba (at least I think we were in Riobamba) to change buses, I bought the only familiar food I could find - a package of ritz crackers and a single serving portion of nutella. This doesn't sound like a terribly nutritious breakfast, but it cost 50 cents and the other options were egg soup with a side of unidentifiable yellow drink (the yellow was sort of a yellow green hue, yum) or giant hanging pig.

Other than the food situation, the bus far exceeded my expectations. We arrived an hour early to Riobamba. Then, the guy who worked for the first bus personally led me to the next bus, without even being asked, probably sure I would struggle to figure it out on my own by looking at my confused expression when he rapidly reeled off a set of 50 instructions for how to who knows what. And the bus was super empty! 9 hours and $10 later, I happily arrived in Cuenca.

Cuenca is a beautiful, historic city teeming with churches, museums, cheap jewelry stores, and hair salons. I only walked around briefly, mostly to find dinner, because it started to downpour only minutes after I left the hostel. Atleast it is pretty warm here, so the rain isn't miserable! I am spending the night at Alternative hostel, which is very clean and very pretty, but the street it is on is super loud. I think I will change hostels in the morning.

Finished Gone Girl, started The Lowland.

Ohhhh, I forgot to mention a hilarious mistake I made the other day when expressing my frustration that many streets had the same name, but didn't seem to connect. Una Via street. I later found out what una via means (one way) and was utterly embarrassed. Turns out the streets aren't so tricky after all.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


It turns out my travel tip from yesterday was merely a stroke of luck. When I went back to Luna Runtun this morning to retrieve my shoes, have a swim, and get a pedicure, they told me I would have to buy a package for $100 in order to use the pools. Nah.

So, instead of swimming, I decided to hike down the mountain and take in the views of the volcano and surrounding mountains. It was a 6km hike, but it was beautiful. After, I headed to El Refugio to go on the walk I didn't have time for the other day. The walk wasn't just a walk through the garden, it was meant to be a reflective walk (sin zapatos - without shoes) with many signs along the way featuring meaningful quotes in Spanish that I tried my best to decipher. Even without being able to fully understand the signs, I found the walk to be very relaxing.

For lunch, I headed back to the trusty Casa Hood. I was happy to recognize two other couples that were also there for lunch yesterday. It reassured me that I am not actually that bad at traveling, and it is a totally normal thing to eat all of your meals at the same restuarant. Also, it was delicious.

After lunch, I meant to go swimming at the hot springs, but I got distracted shopping for gifts for people, and didn't make it to the pools until 2:30, and by that time they were filthy. I am not a fan of dirty swimming water, so I took a photo, and instead climbed up to the nearby waterfall.

By the time I got back to the hostel, I was exhausted and needed some downtime. After writing a couple postcards, I made plans with my roommate to head to Stray Dog for draft beer. The draft part is important. I have only found draft beer twice, both times in bars owned by people who were clearly not from Ecuador.

At Stray Dog, I made friends with another girl who is traveling alone (never did find out her name...), and with the bartender from North Carolina (Glen). We decided that after the bar closed at midnight, we would go see the volcano erupt. The taxi driver suggested a lookout that I hadn't been to, but once we got there, we realized we wouldn't be able to see because of the clouds. Determined, we headed to a different lookout. Again, no luck. By this point, however, we really, really wanted to see lava, so the driver took us up the side of the actual volcano, almost off roading, at 2am, and we parked only hundreds of feet from the top of the volcano. We sat on the hood of the taxi, staring at the dark outline of the volcano and waited. Ten minutes later, the donkeys began howling (I kid you not), the ground shook, and out came the lava. I felt like a ten year old at a science fair. After all of that hard work, red filled the sky.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Spa at Luna Runtun

I thought today was going to be a wash when I woke up to rain and cloudy skies, but by noon, the weather cleared up and I headed to lunch at Casa Hood (different from Cafe Hood yesterday). Casa Hood has an assortment of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Thai dishes, so it was perfect for me. I ordered a chai latte (meh), an appetizer of hummus and pita (incredible), and vegetable curry for my main dish (even more incredible). The food was so delicious (and unbelievably inexpensive) that I sat there thinking about how I should stay in Baños another night just so I can eat there again.

That sentiment was confirmed when I reached Luna Runtun, a five star luxury hotel that is perched in the middle of the mountains, overlooking the city of Baños on one side and an erupting volcano on the other. The main highlight of the hotel is the system of four infinity pools that create the illusion that you can swim off into the mountains. A cool traveler trick I learned from Ovi was that if I buy one of the cheaper spa treatments, I would have free access to the pools and facilities for the day. I got a softening treatment done on my hair (avocado, olive oil, and eggs mix) for $20 and spent the rest of the day in the water, amazed that this is real life. I couldn't believe there wasn't anyone else in the pool... I had the whole place to myself. I have seen some extraordinarily beautiful places on this trip, and Luna Runtun is definitely in the top 5.

Watching the volcano erupt was amazing. There weren't clouds, so every fifteen minutes or so, you would see gray smoke billowing from the volcano. It was either too difficult to see in daylight or I was too far away, but I couldn't actually see any lava.

On my walk back to the B&B from the taxi I realized I forgot my hiking boots at the spa. I guess I will just have to go back tomorrow

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dancing in the Mud

La Casa Molino Blanco is in theory a great B&B, especially considering it only costs less than $10 for a private double and it comes with a buffet breakfast and super soft beds. The downside is that the receptionist has a severe personality, and when I asked to switch to a dorm since Liza left tonight, she sent me on a guilt trip that I made the wrong reservation. Luckily she came around and moved my room. She also helped us book private spa services at El Refugio, a spa within walking distance. 

When we got to the spa, we headed into the mud bath room where we covered ourselves with volcanic mud that supposedly has special healing properties. Little did we know, in order to dry the mud, the spa therapists forced us to dance around the room in our bathing suits to zumba, Ice Ice Baby, salsa, and even Gangham Style. It was one of the most ridiculous experiences ever.

After rinsing off layers and layers of mud, we went to the herbal steam boxes. You sit in a wooden box that seems too much like a coffin, with your head sticking out the top. We sat there sweating for 5 minute intervals while the women who worked there fed us digestive tea through straws. After 5 minutes, the women would dump freezing cold water over our heads or we would be forced to sit in small tubs of ice water. We did this 3 times. It was surprisingly relaxing.

We followed up the weird cultural treatments with very normal 90 minute massages (and an exfoliation treatment for Liza). We were meant to have a 30 minute walk around the grounds to finish up the day, but I had bumped into Maxamillion, a guy from Germany who stayed at Community, on the way to the spa and we had made plans to all meet for lunch at 2, but it was already 2:45 by the time we finished our treatments. They said I could go back for the walk tomorrow if I have time.

We met Max for lunch at Cafe Hood, an eclectic restaurant with an even more eclectic menu. I split nachos and had pad thai followed by piña juice.

After lunch, we did a little shopping, then met up with our rainforest group (Brett, Caitlin, and Cameron) to taxi up to the currently erupting volcano. As we pulled up to the lookout, we could see it briefly spewing lava, but soon after, the clouds rolled in and we lost our view. I plan to head back there before leaving Baños.

Tonight was Liza's last night, so I will be traveling alone for a couple days until I meet up with Stephanie and Miriam in Cuenca on Friday. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Off to Banos, Ecuador

This morning we woke up to a fierce rainstorm, and I momentarily weighed the costs and benefits of checking to see if my hiking boots were safe from the storm out on our porch. I decided against it, and when I finally got out of bed, I learned it was the right decision; they were safe.

At 6am, we went fishing for piranhas, and though two people caught them, I was unsuccessful. A little while later, we headed out on the boat in search of monkeys and dolphins. The monkeys were hard to spot at first, but once we found them, we saw tons of them, hundreds of them, actually, jumping through the dense trees. This particular type of monkey travels in large packs. Even though the monkeys were amazing, I was really sad that we didn't spot any river dolphins.

After breakfast, we headed, via canoe and three different buses, to Baños. In total, we traveled about 14 hours, and arrived an hour ahead of schedule. The first bus dropped us off on the side of the highway, saying the Coca bus station was too far away and that buses to Coca would just drive by, which they did. We jumped into a packed bus from Lago Agrio (or somewhere close) to Coca for three dollars. I started irrationally panicking that at one of the many side of the highway bus stops, someone would steal my backpack from underneath the bus, so I got off the bus at one of the stops to bring it back to my seat. In the process, my flip flop lost its strength and I was forced to grab my bag and get back on the bus with only one shoe, the other laying on the side of the road, irreparable. I only noticed, much later in the day, that this not only caused a small scene, but also I had a pretty bloody cut on my foot. I stuck it in the bus station sink for a while, then used my tool kit of medical supplies, including, thankfully, my antibiotic cream, which I slathered on heavily. I am feeling grateful for the tentaneous shot I got right before leaving the US.

The upside to traveling today was that Liza and I were not alone. Three others were also heading to Baños, so we all made the trek together. It is nice to have a bigger group on travel days because you always have someone to watch your luggage when you try to find the right window to approach for bus tickets, or when you have to go to the bathroom, or even when you need to run to the chocolate store to buy Nutella and Twix for the ride.

Miriam, our jungle cabana roommate, is also heading to Mancora, and then on to Chiclayo and Lima around the same time that I am making that trip. This means I will be able to travel with two friends across the border, and that I will have someone to travel with through Northern Peru since Mancora will be Stephanie's last stop. Traveling alone has really never involved traveling by myself.

Random bus observation: people sell the weirdest things on buses. Pinchos de pollo (skewers of chicken), salad, homemade popsicles, peeled oranges in a bucket and coconut juice in plastic bags all made an appearance on the buses today.