How My Boyfriend Planned the Ultimate Surprise of Our Trip!

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Early Morning Delusion

I had just flown back to Santiago, Chile after spending Thanksgiving with my family and healing from a gnarly parasite that had affected both Ryan and I while we were traveling through Bolivia. Ryan had booked our flights to Patagonia months ago, so the one thing I knew before flying back to the States was that I had to be back in Santiago by December 7th so we could fly down to Patagonia. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know many of the specifics. One of the many things Ryan is good at is planning - so, I usually leave the logistics up to him. Tell me when and where I need to be and I’m your girl. Everything else, I like to leave to the pro. 

As we stood waiting in line at the Santiago airport at 6am, I realized we were not standing in the international check-in line. Because I knew we were flying internationally (even this, I would later find out I was misinformed about), I decided to state the obvious and let Ryan know that we should go ahead and move in to the other line. For some reason, he kept laughing at me while I was trying to explain this to him. At this point, I was getting frustrated as he continued to laugh at me when I was trying to be serious. I didn’t want to miss this flight! 

Before I became more exasperated, Ryan gently put his hands on my shoulders. “Corinne, we’re not going to Patagonia. We are on our way to Easter Island! Merry Christmas!” My mouth dropped completely open. I was in utter shock. It had been a dream of mine to make it Easter Island ever since I first became captivated by one of the most isolated islands in the world after watching 180° South in college. I had told Ryan how much I wanted to go to Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) at the beginning of the trip. We actually looked at the possibility of going, but then saw how expensive tickets were. Since the tickets were just too costly for our backpacking travel budget, I convinced myself that we could always come back when we had more money to spend for a trip. I steered clear of mentioning it anymore knowing it would be asking too much to try and get there. 

So, when I realized Ryan had booked these tickets (on his own without me knowing), it took everything I could not to breakdown and cry in his arms in that line in front of all the people surrounding us. I didn't cry, but I remained in utter shock and disbelief until we got to our gate. We boarded the plane on time and flew happily across the ocean watching two movies on our six hour flight from mainland Chile. 

Taking Time to Slow Down

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As we took our first steps on the island, I remember feeling at ease right away. You know that feeling when you are relieved after a stressful day at work and finally have the time to take a deep, long breath. I had that exact moment (without the work part) when arriving to this island. It finally felt - after weeks of traveling through busy cities and being so sick - like I was in a place that I could finally regain my connection to nature, God, and myself again. There is just something about Polynesian island culture that instantly brings me a sense of tranquility. 

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We were welcomed with leis (another reminder of our time spent in Hawaii) and took a two minute drive to our cute guest house accommodation (another surprise Ryan had planned out). Similar to Moloka’i (another Hawaiian island Ryan and I were able to visit while living in Hawaii), one of the first things I noticed was that there weren’t even any stop lights on the island. And truthfully, I couldn’t be happier. Slowing down was just the medicine the doctor ordered. After we settled in, we immediately headed straight for the ocean, which was a ten minute walk from our accommodation. While Ryan jumped in the chilling (he says, “refreshingly cold”) water, I laid down and took a nap while the warm sun beat down on me. 

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Afterward, we stopped into one of the small markets and shopped for our groceries for the week. Another simple joy that I totally miss while traveling is having the ability to have our own kitchen. While I love trying new foods that are made by locals, I also absolutely love cooking healthy meals with Ryan and soaking up that time spent together in the kitchen. The fact that Ryan knew how much joy this would bring me is another example of how thoughtful and intentional this whole trip was turning out to be. We enjoyed watching the surfers at sunset before we called it a night. 

A Typical ‘Ryan and Corinne’ Kind of Day

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Easter Island

We started our morning the next day munching on granola with almond milk, bananas, and sipping our newly obtained mate (a traditional drink in Chile - an infusion of dried leaves of yerba mate). After a filling breakfast, we were ready for our day’s adventure. Since it was such a beautiful day out, we decided we’d go for a walk and try to find a hike for a couple of hours. We walked along the coast’s edge admiring the landscape and crystal clear water below and found the most perfect lunch spot. After enjoying our walk, we decided to find where the trailhead started which would eventually lead up to a volcanic crater lake, Rano Kau. It took us about two hours to get to the actual crater. Even though it was so windy up there, we absolutely loved the view! It was definitely one of our favorite hikes on the island. We walked along the crater until we came upon another site that we wanted to check out - the ceremonial village of Orongo. 

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While we waited for other tours to flow in and out, I read my book and Ryan snapped as many photos of the beautiful scenery all around us. Finally, we made our way around to Orongo, which is composed of ancient stone houses that offer a perfect view of the three motus that are in front of the Rano Kau.

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When we had spent enough time along the crater, we decided to eat our packed lunches and head back into town. We decided to cruise home, grab some wine, and head back out to the cliff’s edge for sunset. As we were sitting and watching the surfers as a stunning sunset graced our evening, Ryan was attempting to film us at the same time. I didn’t think too much of this since Ryan had been trying to film more of our experiences lately in addition to taking pictures. After he attempted and failed a few times to film, he decided to just turn the camera off. 

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We were both admiring the sunset and saying what we were thankful that day - something we always do after our days spent together. Ryan kept shifting his position on the rocks and I could tell something was on his mind. While I mentioned how thankful I was for such an amazing day - a day that was so typical for ‘us’ as we enjoyed our slow morning, reading the Bible, adventuring around a new place, and ending the day soaking up the sunset enjoying each other’s company with wine in hand. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Until it actually was. 

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Ryan then shifted onto his knees and proposed that we spend the rest of our lives together. I sat there in disbelief for the first few seconds before tears started streaming down my face.  I nodded my head up and down, softly mumbling the word, “yes” over and over again in between muffled sobs. As I leaned into this strong and yet gentle embrace, I truly couldn’t think of the last time I had been this genuinely happy!

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The rest of our time on Easter Island felt like a euphoric blur. It was filled with visiting pristine beaches, seeking out new places to explore, scootering around the island, visiting all of the maoai, the massive carved human figures with oversize heads, fixing homemade dinners, and trying to wrap our minds around the idea of planning a wedding celebration. We are SO excited to share all of our favorite experiences soaking up the magic on this enchanting island. Stay tuned!

One Tour in Bolivia that You DON'T Want to Miss!

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Not many Americans would ever dream of visiting Bolivia on vacation, but honestly, it's a traveler’s heaven! The prices throughout the country are the most affordable in South America. Accommodation for a private room ranges from $15 - $25 per night, lunch options can be found at $3 - $5, and transportation averages about $1 an hour on the bus. Also, the geography is so different, ranging from snow capped Andes peaks to the Amazon jungle to the vast desert landscapes. 

The Most Popular Tour in Bolivia: Uyuni Salt Flats

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I had the incredible opportunity to ramble the Bolivian desert for four days and experience the largest salt flats on the planet! While most people start their three day/two night tour in Uyuni, I would highly suggest starting in quant desert town called Tupiza. Why? First, because Tupiza is such a picturesque little town! Imagine your favorite Wild Wild West classic with stunning scenes highlighting massive red desert mountains, galloping horses, and massive cactus sprawled throughout the landscape. Also, there's hardly any tourism there and you’ll be wandering the streets among only locals. 

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Second, there are only six tour companies in town compared to 100+ companies in Uyuni. Because of this, the prices are slightly higher with little competition, but every company is 100% top notch and they don't cut any corners on safety or overall experience. The number one reason why you should start from Tupiza is because you'll see all of the main landscapes without 20+ jeeps surrounding you! You'll be arriving to all of the locations at completely different times than all the jeeps starting from Uyuni. This is so important if you’re not a fan of crowds snapping photos around you.

Which Tour Company is Best?

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My company was called El Torre Tours, which was the cheapest in town, but also surprisingly the number one rated on TripAdvisor. Our jeep had three other backpackers from New Zealand, Scotland, and the UK. The other jeep in our same tour was a group of five from France. All of us had a blast with each other acting like elementary school kids telling jokes and playing card games every night.

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Something important to keep in mind before going on your tour. You will be in a jeep for nearly ten hours a day, and I didn’t actually realize this when I was reading about the tour. So keep this in mind before booking the tour. Also, there's limited hiking throughout the entire four day tour. The landscape is so vast that there’s not enough time to see everything, so you’ll only have the opportunity to walk around and take a few photos at each location.

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Day 1

The first day was actually one of my favorites on the tour. (People who start in Uyuni do not even get to see any these locations on this day). The mountains and rock formations throughout the drive are out of this world. It was incredible to eat lunch beside these jagged, sandy mountains!

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After our lunch break, we continued driving up the mountains until we reached an old, Spanish city that was in complete ruins. In the 1500s, this city was a wealthy mining town that was extremely rich in minerals. Currently, there are only only collapsed walls and an abandoned stone church. We spent about an hour exploring these ruins, and then hopped in the car to get to our small accommodation before sunset.

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Day Two

The following day, we started our adventure early cruising across the desolate desert to view some of the most incredible lagoons that I had seen in my life. We first stopped at a bright green lagoon at the base of a massive volcano. It was absolutely stunning! We were able to spend a good amount of time here soaking up the peaceful surroundings and walk along the water's edge. Once we captured photos of this beautiful landscape, we jumped in the jeep and headed for the hot springs!

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I’ll admit, it was a bit touristy. Tour groups from Uyuni were also there enjoying the springs, but it was still a surreal experience to be lounging in natural hot tubs at 13,000 feet elevation surrounded by massive mountains. It was the perfect amount of time to relax before filling our bellies for lunch. This experience is definitely a must if you’re tour visits this location!

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After eating a delicious lunch, we were onto the next destination to check out the volcanic geysers tucked away in the mountainside. I thought it was pretty neat to see the silver, bubbling liquid splattering up from the depths of the earth, but others in the group weren’t too impressed. I guess they had already seen something similar on their travels. I was pretty stoked at the huge steam vent pummeling smoke from below.

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The final destination and one of my favorite locations of our entire tour was a massive red lagoon filled with thousands of giant flamingos. Due to certain minerals in the water, it created a bright red color that was unlike anything that I had ever seen. We were able to spend a long time there exploring by ourselves and truly experience this breathtaking scenery. I enjoyed walking along the path to the other side of the lagoon and have my time for quiet reflection. Having my alone time is much needed while traveling with other all day. It was the perfect end to an incredible second day on the tour.

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Day Three

This third day we nicknamed "Day of 1,000 lagoons". Not really, but it seemed as if we pulled over about every fifteen minutes to see another lagoon. We made jokes because many of the lagoons were very similar, and after a while, no one wanted to get out of the car anymore. Don’t get me wrong, the landscapes were amazing, but it got so repetitive to constantly hop out of the car just to snap a few photos. Unfortunately, I had a stomach bug in my system during most of the day and was just trying to not feel nauseous. Most of the day, I laid down on the ground beside the lagoon and took in the fresh mountain air.

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The best part of the day was staying in an actually salt hotel! Everything from the tables, to the bed frames, to the seats to the walls were all made out of actual salt. I also scored my own room which was a huge blessing! I don't think that I'll ever stay in a hotel like this again, but it was definitely a neat experience.

Day Four

The whole crew woke up at 4am to book it across the salt flat desert for sunrise! This was the grand finale and highlight of the entire trip. Another reason why starting the tour from Tupiza is so important because you'll save the best sight for last! 

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We drove for an hour to the center of the largest salt flats in the world and arrived at a rock island. Thousands of huge, white cactus were growing from the rocks and there was a small path leading up to the summit of the island. While the group headed to the mirador to see the sunrise beside all of the other groups, I found my own private nook to capture photos and pleasantly take it all in. Gazing out across the purl white ocean was truly a sight that I will never forget.

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After spending a decent two hours on the island, we drove to a deserted location in the middle of the flats. Here is where the classic salt flat photos are all captured. This is the highlight for many of the tourists that travel across the world to see this surreal destination. Everyone brings their own props to capture creative photos of themselves. We used the Hulk action figure, boots, and selfie stick. What do you think!? 

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Overall, I really enjoyed this four day tour and would highly recommend it to everyone that visits Bolivia. Another bit of advice is to try and find other people that speak your language so that you can actually communicate with the group and not sit in silence for four days. My crew really bonded well with each other the entire time and had such a blast!

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Our 3 Favorite Activities Around La Paz

1. BIKING THE INFAMOUS 'DEATH ROAD'

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One of the most popular experiences in Bolivia is cycling the Yungas Road, nicknamed “Death Road”. Sadly, it’s been estimated around 200-300 people have been killed while traveling on this road due to the poor road conditions, hundreds of curves along steep cliffs, and sudden inclement weather creating dangerous rocks slides. The Bolivian government has constructed a new mountain road for vehicles, so now tourists are using the old road to get their adrenaline rush. The forty mile road starts at over 15,000 feet elevation in the Altiplano terrain and descends down into the rainforest at 4,000 feet elevation near the town of Coroico.

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After already experiencing a similar tour in Peru, we were a little hesitant in participating in yet another similar tour, but SO happy that we followed through. Corinne's brother, Paul, flew to La Paz for a week of epic adventures, so we had to show him the time of his life!

We had about fifteen people in our group and several guides that spoke very little English. They did their best with safety instructions, gave us our mountain bikes and all of our equipment and gear. Once we strapped on our gear, it was time to take off! The first section was on a new, nicely paved road. We were able to fly down this section without worrying too much about losing control because the road was in such great condition. Surrounded by extreme, jagged cliff faces and snow capped peaks, this was some of the most beautiful landscapes that I have seen in my entire life.

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Once the entire group reached the first checkpoint and ended 'Section One', we grabbed snacks along the side of the road to refuel our bodies. Luckily, we then jumped in the van and drove the uphill segment to save time and energy. 'Section Two' is where the more dangerous type of fun really began!

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Thankfully, due to the newer paved road in a nearby location, we were able to enjoy this ride without worrying about other cars driving beside us. I really had a blast on the unpaved, gravel road because it added an off-roading and technical element to the experience. Paul and I (Corinne thought we were a bit crazy) figured out a way to stay at the back of the group and then blaze down the mountain going as fast as possible! Looking back, it wasn’t the smartest idea to do this on “Death Road”, but it was Paul’s idea and I had to keep up!

This entire section of the road was actually in dense, jungle with stunning green trees surrounding us and waterfalls pouring off beside the side of the road. Because of the elevation change, we were getting closer to the humid tropical climate. Once we finished the forty miles of biking for a few hours, we reached the lower elevation town with a “resort” for us to relax, eat lunch, and swim in the pool.

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[TIP 1]: We went with a cheaper company called No Fear for US$70, but honestly we weren’t very impressed with the company. During our tour, they stopped the group to take individual photos of everyone at so many lookout points so often that we felt we didn't have as much time to simply enjoy the ride in the present moment and truly take it all in. The more expensive competitor, Barracuda Tours, had a smaller group and we didn’t see them taking as many pictures during their tour.

[TIP 2]: Instead of taking the long bus ride back to La Paz after the tour, we actually spent the night in the nearby town called Coroico. We stayed in a rundown, cheap hostel, but we were blessed with an incredible view of the valley. Our next day adventure consisted of hiking the steep Uchumachi Trail and having a 360 degrees lookout of stunning mountains surrounding us!

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2. HIKING THE AUSTRIA SUMMIT: 17,388 FEET

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Once we finished our epic bike tour, we all decided to experience an adventure without a tour guide and luckily, we found a tour company that would shuttle us to a trailhead to hike for the entire day. We hired a 4X4 SUV driver from Climbing South America Tours for about US $90 in total ($30 per person). The agreement was for him to pick us up at 7am from our hostel, drive us three hours to the trailhead, and take us back to La Paz once we finished the entire day hiking. We were able to take our time and truly explore the terrain without having a guide to keep us on a schedule. It was perfect!

We began our hike around 10am without seeing another soul on the trail. The first glacier lagoon that we reached was our ideal spot to stop for 'breakky' (Aussie spelling). Hardboiled egg and avo sammies (other Australian lingo) filled our bellies as we took in the beautiful peaks surrounding us. It was so incredible to share each other’s company while relaxing under the late morning sun.

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After we finished eating, we strapped on our backpacks and continued up the trial. About another 30 minutes had passed before we reached the second glacier lagoon nestled right at the base of the snow capped peaks. The water was so blue. It was incredible! We took another rest and photo-op here before making the extremely difficult ascent up the mountain. 

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We were able to see other hikers making their way up the switchbacks, but within no time, we were already passing them up the mountain. It took about an hour of climbing until we reached the “false summit”. Normally, hikers expect to be at the top of the mountain, but there was still another 45 minutes of climbing until we reached the actual summit. This was a spectacular area because of the massive glacier tucked away in the mountain’s crevice.

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At this point, all of our heads were pounding from the high elevation, but nothing was going to stop us from reaching the top! After a quick team cheer and several motivational fist bumps, we began to tackle the final ascent to the summit. While staying together, we climbed higher and higher until finally collapsing at the summit. Without a doubt, this was one of the most amazing views that each of us have seen in our entire lives.

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Hiking and trekking in the mountains is by far one of my most enjoying activities in life. There’s something so incredible about having a goal to reach the top of a mountain while giving all of your energy and overcoming all adversity to achieve what you put your mind to. Even though we could hardly breathe and our muscles were absolutely burning and soon to give out, we were able to overcome this together and enjoy the thirteen snowcapped peaks surrounding us, five iceberg blue lagoons below, and the warm sun overhead. This experience has been one of the highlights of our entire trip across South America.

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3. EXPLORING VALLE DE LA LUNA

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I was honestly blown away by these rock formations only slightly outside of the center of La Paz. Imagine a destination where Bryce Canyon National Park meets Badlands National Park meets Sedona stunning terrain. Combining these three breathtaking sceneries would give you a glimpse of Valle de la Luna. We took the Teleferico Green Line (cable care) across the entire city to the very end of the line. For paying around 50 US cents, this is an epic adventure in itself! The city of La Paz is so massive and this cable car ride gives you an incredible perspective from above. The funniest part of this entire experience was that we went on this adventure during Halloween night and nearly every person that we saw along the way was dressed in Halloween costumes. 

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After exiting the cable car, we walked several blocks and then decided to take a short taxi ride for US$1 each. Once we entered the park, all of us split up and took different trails throughout the stunning rock formations. It's honesty a pretty small park, but there's a nice loop that takes about an hour to reach the mirador. Here, you'll be able to see the bright red and orange mountains (completely different terrain than Valle de la Luna) surrounding you while standing within the moonlike terrain. This was such a cool contrast and really fun day adventure if you don’t want to be far from La Paz!

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What to Expect When Volunteering Abroad

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On our way traveling down through Peru to meet my sister in Cusco, Ryan and I decided we wanted to volunteer for some time before my brother and sister visited. We decided to volunteer at an isolated indigenous eco-village two hours from Huancayo in the middle of the Andes mountains. Little did we know, it would take us numerous overnight bus rides and a final three hours on a dirt road to 13,000 feet elevation just to get there. After our volunteer experiences, Ryan and I like to reflect on the lessons we gained from our time there. In this blog post, we’d like to share four important lessons that we’ve learned from our experience volunteering at the “farm.” 

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1. Don’t have expectations.

A problem that Ryan and I have been really tackling is letting go of expectations that we have of others, experiences, hostels, bus rides, countries, etc. We’ve realized when we let those expectations go, we can release our attachment to outcomes and be continuously grateful for every experience that we encounter. However, when we have too high of expectations of one another, other people, of a place or experience, we tend to be let down more easily and let that negativity take ahold of us. For this volunteer experience, we literally had no idea what we were getting into. 

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We thought we’d be working on a farm in the middle of a large village, specifically planting, harvesting, and learning about Peruvian medicinal plants, as well as interacting with the indigenous people who lived in the village. However, when we arrived, we learned that this would not be the case. Since it was winter, the plants weren’t able to grow at all. So, for the next week and a half, we collected horse and cow manure throughout the surrounding fields, broke down the manure by hand, grinder the hard clay to powder, mixed this all together and finally, patched up the house with this earthly combination. We also helped pick up the house, cooked simple veggie meals, washed the dishes, made bread each morning for breakfast, created new stone walkways, cleaned up after the chickens and their droppings, and disanfected the compost toilet (most definitely the worst of all the tasks if you ask me). 

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To say the least, Ryan and I went with totally different expectations of what this experience was going to be like. Initially, we were disappointed in this experience not meeting those expectations. However, two days into the experience, Ryan and I discussed our disappointments and ended up laughing about how wrong we had been! We laughed simply because it was easier than being disappointed the entire time. We decided we would make the most of our time there and let God show us how we could grow and learn from this unique experience. 

2. You will be uncomfortable at some point.

Trust me. This lesson is inevitable. Another reason we love volunteering during our travels is because we are always challenged in some way. We are put in situations where we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with new processes, people, and surroundings. Ryan and I love the challenge and always want to find ways where we are getting out of our comfort zones. 

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When we first arrived to this eco-village, we instantly knew we would be stepping out our comfort zones. Firstly, there wasn’t much in terms of electricity, staying warm, nor was there any running water aside from what we wash dishes and our hands with outside. We had to use a bucket compost "toilet" for all of our “business.” To make things even more uncomfortable, we were only allotted a few pieces of toilet paper a day. When we saw the inside of the house, we realized it was much smaller than we expected with only a tiny kitchen, living room space with benches covered in sheep fur to keep the seats warm, and a small bedroom with just enough room to squeeze three bunkbeds for all eight of us to sleep. Ryan and I shared a bunk bed with a mattress as thick as a small camping pad and five blankets to stay warm at night. If we didn’t have each other to lay next to for warmth, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have slept at all during my time there. 

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Because there was no running water, if we wanted to shower, we had to jump in the freezing cold river a few miles away from the house. On days that we finished early and the sun was still shining, we all decided to make the trek to the river after working with manure all day. We all quickly jumped in and washed down to get as clean as we could. To say the least, I’ve never taken a shower for granted since this experience. Whenever we decide to do something new or volunteer in an unfamiliar place, we're uncomfortable, but all things we go through in life are temporary. We've learned to truly embrace the unknown, accept the feeling of discomfort, and soak up the unique experience for what it is and how we can fully learn from it.

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3. You’re bound to learn something new.

Another reason I love traveling and volunteering is because we are always learning something new - a skill, language, other's life views or simply more about each other. While we were on the farm, one of my favorite skills I acquired was how to make bread. I love to bake, but for some reason, I never tested out my skills to make bread. Each morning, all the volunteers would wake up and get right to our different tasks in order to prepare for breakfast. Some would wash the dishes from the night before. Others would cut up fruit for a salad. My favorite chore in the morning was making bread and banana crepes. It was so easy to make the bread in the morning.

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We would get about five cups of flour and mix it with water. After mixing this concoction into small balls, we would then flatten it into round circles. Next, we would make about thirty to fifty pieces of bread for everyone. Then, it was off the frying pan. Using no oil, we simply fried the bread until it was crispy and golden on the outside. Once all of the pieces were ready, we would enjoy our breakfast of fresh bread, mixed fruit, and cantaloupe marmalade. I don’t even like cantaloupe that much, but breakfast was definitely something I looked forward to each morning. 

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I also had never patched up a house with horse manure + water + rocky earth. This was definitely a new skill that I might get to show my kids some day. They will probably run away and scream, but hey, sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty to learn the real lessons of life! 

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4. You will form community. 

Truth is, you form really quick relationships with people that you are spending all of your time and sharing close space with. When we arrived to the farm, we learned that it would be communal style living. At this particular place, we’d be performing all of our daily tasks together, sleeping in the same tiny room, sharing similar common space, and cooking all of our meals together.

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We would work from about nine in the morning until two or three in the afternoon. When our assignments were completed, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. However, most of the time, we would all hang out together. We would either venture down to the river together for a swim/rinse or we would play music, read, and write in our journals. One of my favorite days from our time there started with our normal breakfast tasks. During breakfast, conversing in both Spanish and English (so that everyone could understand), we had long talks about the indigenous people in Peru, life, what makes us happy, and how we can each play a part to make a difference in the world. The entire breakfast lasted about two hours.

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After a long, but enriching conversation, Joles and Laura (who ran this volunteer opportunity), decided that instead of working all day that we would go on a long hike to a small village and meet some other indigenous people in the nearby community. It was an amazing day filled with adventure, fresh mountain air, and wonderful conversations with these individual from across the world that we had really formed great friendships with. 

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The Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

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DAY ONE: CUSCO - SANTA MARIA

Our morning started with a quick egg and toast breakfast at Cuscopackers Hostel (One of our favorites in South America!) before jumping into the minivan headed for the snowcapped peaks. We were with a group of about 15 others who were eager to start their 34 mile bike ride starting in the dry, crisp snow capped mountains to the tropical jungle below. After nearly 3 hours of driving the windy roads, we finally reached Malaga Pass (14,160FT above sea level). 

INCA DEATH ROAD

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After a quick safety briefing and our guides gave us the go-ahead, we took off! The road zigzagged down extremely steep terrain alongside massive cliffs lining the edge of the road. The longer I cruised down, the more I felt comfortable flying around the sharp curves without touching my breaks. Not before long, I was at the front of the pack blazing down the mountain with a massive smirk beaming across my face. When we arrived at the first and only checkpoint halfway down the mountain, we were able to take photos of the incredible valley glistening in the sunlight below. 

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Shortly after we began peddling down the mountain, a storm instantly appeared. High winds and rain soaked us with each switchback, so we all had to take our time on the sharp curves. After another hour and a half of cruising down the mountain, we reached Santa Maria, a quaint town next to the Urubama River. Luckily, during the final thirty minutes of the ride, we were all able to naturally dry our clothes making our way down from the warm sunshine. The entire group crammed in a small, local restaurant for soup, chicken, and rice before gathering our belongings for the next adventure!

WHITE WATER MADNESS

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We changed into our swimming suits, hopped in another minivan, and charged for the riverbank. An Australian-English couple joined the four of us (Corinne, Jacqueline, Mark, and I), and we all jumped into a large raft with our super goofy guide. We were ready to conquer this raging river! I had went white water rafting a month prior for my friend’s bachelor party, and this river was definitely more powerful than back in the States. With every large rapid that we pummeled through, we all screamed and hollered with shocking laugher. It was mostly the freezing water that drenched us with every turn! Our guide was hilarious and made sure we had a blast. Every time that we safely made it through a set of rapids, we all gave high-fives with our paddles and screamed our team cheer. As the sun set behind the towering mountains surrounding us, we were able to soak up the remaining twenty minutes of our rafting experience under a neon orange sky. This tour was way above my expectations and looking back on it now, it was one of my favorite experiences of the trip!

DAY TWO: SANTA MARIA - SANTA TERESA

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The next morning we all woke bright and early to devour a quick breakfast and prepare our minds for an epic and long day ahead. We started the first hours of the fourteen mile journey hiking on a dirt road beside the river. After about an hour, we reached the trailhead and followed a winding path up the mountain. The higher we climbed, the more expansive and incredible the views of Huancarccasa Canyon revealed below. We stopped to rest at an indigenous family’s home and our guides shared Incan history, personal stories growing up, and their beautiful insight on life. There was also a show-and-tell presentation with traditional drinks, plants, and fruits that we were able to sample. It was the perfect rest break before conquering the famous Inca Trail.

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THE FAMOUS INCA TRAIL

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Our group continued on making our way up the switchbacks until we finally reached an ancient Inca Trail that historically connected Machu Picchu with the city of Vilcabamba. This section was my favorite part of the day. The narrow trail hugged the cliffs with impressive views hundreds of feet above the valley's floor. We continued following this path for a few hours and eventually made our way down to the riverbed for lunch. Relaxing at another indigenous family's home, we were able to fill our tummies and take naps in hammocks while listening to the surrounding jungle sounds.

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When the hour lunch break ended, we continued following the trail along the river towards Cocalmayo. Our guide stayed behind and let us hike for a bit alone, instructing us to meet at the large bridge. Halfway into the hike, we stumbled upon the most massive snake that I have ever seen in the wild! As we approached, the tail of the snake started vibrating rapidly and slithered by us into a dark hole. We showed this photo to our guide later that day and he said that this snake is definitely poisonous. Phew - no one was injured!

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HEAVENLY HOT SPRINGS

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After we crossed the large bridge over the river, we hiked another hour until we reached the local cable car crossing. Here, we had to pay about $3 before jumping into a small cart. We instantly took off zipping high above the raging river below. After about fifteen more minutes of following the path, we reached Cocalmayo Hot Springs surrounded by towering green mountains. The entrance fee was another $3. With three large crystal clear pools, it never felt too crowded or uninviting. I couldn’t dream of a better way to end a fourteen mile day of hike. Living the dream!

DAY THREE: SANTA TERESA - AGUAS CALIENTES

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Luckily, we were all allowed to sleep in a bit after the prior night’s shinanegins salsa dancing to the latin beats in the small town of Santa Theresa. After another breakfast of eggs, toast, and jam, the four of us hopped in another van heading for our final adventure tour: Vertikal Zipline. While the rest of the group went to experience a zip line in another valley, our original travel agency hooked us up with the best zip line in the area! There were five zip line cables + the scariest suspension bridge of my life. At times, the planks on the bridge were no less than four feet between each other. I don’t know how Corinne or Jacq was able to get across! I had such a blast purposefully shaking the bridge while walking and gazing back at the rest of the group trembling with fear with every single step. The zip lines were also way above my expectations. We were allowed to fly upside down, backwards, and do the Superman! 

STROLLING THE TRAIN TRACKS

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Once we finished zipping across the valley for a few hours, we hopped in the next minivan and headed to Hydroelectrica for lunch. This was the end of the road for vehicles. There are two options: hike two to three hours along the train tracks or take an $18 train ride. We chose to hike. After eating the standard menu of the day (quinoa soup, chicken, rice, and salad), we were free to walk at our own pace to the final town of our journey: Aquas Calientes. This simple walk along the train tracks completely blew my mind! I couldn’t believe the dramatic lush mountains surrounding us while hiking beside a stunning river.

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It was truly amazing to look up at the mountain peaks and see glimpses of Machu Picchu ruins carved into the cliffs above. After about two hours of walking the tracks, we made it to Agua Calientes, which is the closest town to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It truly is a beautiful little paradise with lots of smalls shops, cute restaurants, and a wide range of hotels tucked away in the mountains resting beside the river.

DAY FOUR: MACHU PICCHU GRAND FINALE

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At 3:20am, my alarm started blaring and we both jumped out of bed ready for this epic day ahead! After taking a freezing shower (my natural caffeine), we bolted out the door to be the first in line at the bridge crossing. (All tour companies leave at 4am, so to be one of the first in line, you’ll have to be one step ahead the groups.) We only walked for about twenty minutes and sat 3rd in line to cross the bridge. From 4am to 5am is when all of the hikers start lining up (it could be several hundreds of people demanding on the season). Once the clock strikes 5am, the security guard opens up the walkway across the bridge to the famous 1,500 stone steps straight up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. 

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It was truly amazing to be one of the first in line because we were able to hike the steps without anyone else crowding around or passing us. Only the sounds of the jungle, the breeze through the trees, and the dark fog filled our senses as we rapidly hiked our way up. Twenty-nine minutes later, we reached the top and out of 5,000 daily visitors to Machu Picchu, we were the first two people to enter the park that morning. It was such an amazing feeling to be standing above the eerie fog, gazing down at Machu Picchu below, and not have a single person around us. Of course, the crowds began to pile in about ten minutes later, but we truly soaked up every minute while we had Machu Picchu solely to ourselves!

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Once our entire tour group eventually made it to the meeting point, we followed our guides and explored Machu Picchu. Usually, Corinne and I aren’t keen on taking guided tours, but it was really informative to learn all of the history about this fascinating ancient city. I couldn’t believe how every stone was cut and perfectly placed together forming an incredibly strong foundation. The Incans even built all of the walls on a slight angle to prevent any collapses during earthquakes. This place is going to be here for A LONG TIME!

THE BIG SURPRISE!

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After about an hour and a half tour, our guides said farewell and it was our chance to explore by ourselves. The four of us decided to climb Montaña (must book in advance because there is a daily limit), which is a mountain peak that overlooks the mountain range and majestic ruins below. We hiked up about halfway to an incredible lookout and Jaqueline had no idea what was coming. While Corinne and I knew the BIG secret, I told Mark and Jacq that this would be a perfect spot to take a photo together. They posed for the photo and within seconds, Mark got down on one knee and proposed to her! It was such a beautiful moment to share with them and truly made our visit to Machu Picchu so much more meaningful.

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The newly engaged lovebirds decided to hike back down and spend the rest of the day together in Aquas Calientes, while Corinne and I powered through to the summit of the mountain. We were completely surrounded by dense clouds and every once in a while, there was a cloud-break and where we could faintly see the valleys below. After about an hour of waiting and enjoying the mountain breeze, everything completely cleared up and we were able to see Machu Picchu resting on the cliff down below!

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MACHU PICCHU

I’m going to be honest. My expectations for visiting Machu Picchu weren’t very high. I was expecting another extremely touristy attraction that we had to cross off our bucket list. But after experiencing these four days, it was SO much more than that! The mountains surrounding these ancient ruins were way more amazing than I could have ever possibly imagined. Towering, jagged peaks and rugged rock faces surrounded us in all directions was the view of a lifetime.. Sitting up there didn't even feel like real life!

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I am so incredibly thankful for Jaqueline and Mark deciding to visit us because they were the true reason we decided to visit Machu Picchu. We had such a blast during their entire visit and really bonded together through of the challenges and achievements on the tour. During our final dinner together discussing each our favorite parts of the trip, it was awesome that we all shared different memories that really stuck out and impacted us. From biking down the Andes to white water rafting at sunset to zip lining across a stunning valley to hiking the famous Inca Trail to exploring the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to Mark’s wedding proposal, this has definitely been one of the highlights in our entire journey across South America!

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Top Three Cheap + Fun Activities in Baños, Ecuador

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We had such a blast adventuring through Baños while traveling through Ecuador. After trekking the Quilotoa Loop, we were amped to continue adventuring and discovering more about the amazing places Ecuador has to offer! We had heard about Baños from many of our traveling friends, and knew it was a place we wanted to visit before moving further south. There are SO many different activities to do while exploring this city including white water rafting, zip lining, hiking, biking, repelling down waterfalls - just to name a couple. This stunning small town is where the Andes meet the Amazon with towering waterfalls, jagged mountain peaks, and lush tropical vegetation. 

Ryan and I didn’t really have any plans, but we knew we wanted to continue hiking and discovering more of the surrounding mountains. It just happened to be that our Baños trip ended up being on a tight budget at the same time! We chose a variety of activities that were inexpensive, but gave us the freedom to create a schedule on our own time, rather than signing up for scheduled tours. Here’s a quick look at what we choose to do and how much it cost us in total! 

1. VISIT CASA DE ARBOL (THE FAMOUS TREEHOUSE SWING)

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Ok, so if you’ve heard of Baños, you’ve probably heard of the famous “Casa de Arbol” or better known as “The Swing to the End of the World.” Here, you have the chance to take the iconic swing picture that makes it look like you’re literally swinging off into the distance at the edge of a cliff surrounded by lush jungle trees all around you. You can also find some epic views of Mt. Tungurahua, the snowcapped active volcano, beside the valley. Even though when we went, the crowds were in full force and lines were at least 20 minutes to take your picture, I thought it was totally worth it. And I’ll tell you why. ↴

Instead of taking the bus to Casa de Arbol with the majority of the other tourists from town (which only costs you about $1 to get up), we decided to hike up the mountain trails. I was really in the mood to get some exercise after sitting around most of the day, and like always, Ryan was totally up for the challenge! Needless to say, we didn’t have any map or directions. All we knew is that we’d have to go UP. We asked some locals where we needed to start and they advised us to take the road up to Bellavista.

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We continued walking up the windy paved road, as well as finding various trails with a more direct route to the top. It took us a total of three hours from town. We left a little later than 2pm, but I wish we would’ve started earlier so that we could’ve beat the crowds from the buses (who arrived around 4:45pm - the exact time we finally reached the top!) It only cost us $1 to enter into the Casa de Arbol and try the massive swing. We also enjoyed a beer ($2) and platano ($1 total) at the top while waiting for the bus back down the mountain. By 6pm, the bus was ready to leave and it only cost us $1 for the thirty minutes ride back to town.

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TOTAL COST = $2 (entrance and bus) + $3 (beer + food) = $5 

2. BIKE THE ROUTE OF THE WATERFALLS (La Ruta de Las Cascadas)

After our hiking adventure straight up the mountain, we were ready for a more cruise day of biking. We had heard about La Ruta de Las Cascadas (The Route of the Waterfalls) and thought this would be a perfect day activity to explore the region on bicycles. We reserved bikes the day before and picked them up around 9am for the start to our day. It only cost us $5/bike for the entire day. 

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[Tip:] I would suggest starting even earlier if you can, so you can beat some of the crowds at the different waterfalls. 

This biking route will take you to four bigger waterfalls, which includes Agoyan, Manto de la Novia, Pailon del Diablo and Machay (we actually didn’t make it to see this one). Just a fair warning, know that you will be riding on a major highway for the first several kilometers. I imagined it would be a mellow ride towards the waterfalls, but I was definitely clutching my handlebars as if they were lifesavers due to the whizzing traffic beside me. 

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When we reached Agoyan, we saw some zip liners enjoying views of the tallest waterfall in Ecuador’s Andes. We would totally recommend this if you’re looking for a change of pace and want to get off your bike for a bit. It also looked like it was the BEST out of all the zip lines we saw. Eventually, the busy traffic eased up as we were able to ride on a more pronounced bike path for the majority of the ride finding little restaurants along the way.

When we reached Pailon del Diablo, it cost us $1 to enter and we had a beautiful fifteen minute walk toward the waterfall through a beautiful natural oasis filled with lush jungle. We spent some time hanging out there before heading back towards the main entrance. We waited for a few other riders who wanted to head back and took a $2 ride to Baños with our bikes beside us in the huge truck. 

TOTAL COST = $5 (bike rental) + $1 (entrance to Pailon del Diablo) + $2 (ride back to town)= $8

3. HIKE TO RADIO TOWER FOR BEST VIEW OF THE CITY

Disclaimer: This was by far Ryan’s favorite hike during our visit in Baños! I will do my best to describe in the way he saw it. His expressions and excitement throughout this entire hike made me so happy and less miserable in my own mental state as I grappled my way up the steep mountain. #thestruggleisreal

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We found out about this hike by reading it within a brochure in a restaurant deeming it to be the hike with the BEST view of the city! Again without any information on how to get there, and (yet again) starting way later than we anticipated (around 3pm), we set off up the mountain. We asked a local where we should start and he gave us the direction, “Follow the trail up towards the trees.” Not so helpful, but we have become adapt to finding our way without much direction. 

Apart from starting at the wrong point, we still found a way around the obstacles through a variety of camp sites and someone’s farmland to a trailhead. 

[Tip:] Our advice is to walk a little further up the road where you will find a sign that says, “Alpinar: Centro Turistico” in which you will be at the official start for the trail. 

Banos sign hike Ecuador South America

We continued hiking up a well marked path along the spiny ridge for the rest of the way up. Unlike the hike up to the swing, we pretty much took a trail in the middle of the forest the entire time. We also didn’t see anyone else on this trail (expect for on our way down), which made it pretty magical. By the time we were almost to the top, I was dying. Well, not really dying, but I was completely out of breath and telling Ryan I was ready to just throw in the towel. (I’m notorious for threatening to quit, but it’s more like a defensive cry for help, usually to no avail.)

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On the other hand, Ryan usually happily prances up the mountain. We got to the top, and we were both so stoked with a beautiful view of the town below with the snow-capped volcano to our right. We enjoyed our time at the top, but didn’t last more than 20 minutes as it was freezing and we were dressed for summertime, rather than fierce wind at the top. We made it down the mountain in about an hour and were just in time to see two bungee jumpers go off the main bridge into town. After cheering them on, we grabbed dinner at Casa Hood, our favorite place to eat during our time in Banos. 

Total cost = $0 (however, I would totally recommend buying $2 worth of snacks to enjoy at the top!)

[Tip:] It took us a total of 3 hours (2 hours up & 1 hour down). I would also advice doing it earlier in the day so you’re not racing down to beat the sunset at dark.

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Quilotoa Loop: Chugchilan → Quilotoa (Day 3)

TACTICAL TIPS FOR BEGINNING OF DAY 3

Ryan and I were up and eating breakfast by 7:30am with our fellow hikers: the two Americans (I forget their names! Ah, I’m awful!). As we stopped to stock up on snacks for the longest stretch of the hike, we saw the two Canadians and the two British girls stroll by a little further down the road. We waved a polite hello and then decided to take a trail down to the left towards the river instead of the main road that said, “QUILOTOA” with an arrow pointing towards the road. Ryan always believes that trails are WAY better and that they are always faster than taking the road. When asking a local woman about the trail, she affirmed our decision in saying that it would be much quicker taking the trail because it was a direct route down the mountain. So, down the sandy path we went with all the locals as the other hikers walked safely down the zigzagging paved road. 

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BEWARE OF THE SLIPPERY SANDY SLOPE! 

Once we crossed a small bridge, we made our way up to a viewpoint where we could now see the peak we were about to summit. First, though, we had to cross another steep sandy pit that looked as if you could fall straight down the cliff with one misstep. Ryan, of course, made it seamlessly across this death trap. As soon as I gathered up the courage to make it across, rocks began falling rapidly within seconds. Now, even more scared than I was before, I had to wait for what felt like ages (but was more like two minutes) for the rocks to stop falling before I could cross. When I finally made it across, I slipped on the slick path just before crossing another bridge. 

Hiking across bridge Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

As I was sitting on the ground, sand covering my body, I almost called it quits right then and there. I think I even told Ryan, “I’m thinking of just turning back.” Ryan, the sweet gentle man that he is, put his steady hand upon me and said he would turn back around if that’s what I wanted to do. But knowing me well enough, he knew that the last thing I really wanted to do was quit and turn around. It’s just not in my nature. I can thank my soccer coaches and endless hours of conditioning for that. 

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SWITCHBACKS THAT WILL HAVE YOU DOUBTING YOUR REASONING FROM COMPLETING THIS HIKE

We took our time making our way up the steep switchbacks. I am so thankful that Ryan is so patient with me. We would make our way up one leg of switchbacks and he would be ahead of me patiently waiting at the top every single time. He wouldn’t be complaining about how long I took, nor was he exasperated that he had to stand around at every single switchback. He would simply wait with a huge smile on his face as I approached the top. I was able to catch my breath and enjoy the view so much more when we stared out into the abyss while climbing to the top. When we finally reached the summit, we stopped at a mirador overlooking the valley below. After a quick break and some pictures, we continued along a rocky road for another thirty minutes before spotting a sign for Quilotoa that led us on a steep trail straight up the mountain. 

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BREAKS + MORE BREAKS (TOTALLY NECESSARY ON DAY 3)

We took another break on a bench and then shortly continued on up the windy mountain road. We took a few shortcuts up the mountain along small, steep trails. Thinking Quilotoa was still a few peaks away (which was what Ryan had told me when we started our day), I was totally surprised when we saw the crater at the top. We enjoyed a cold Coke-Cola and took tons of pictures before the rest of the backpackers joined us. I finished my mixture of peanut butter and stale bread for lunch, but heck, we made it (and in one piece!). After more fellowship with our new friends, we decided to do the ‘supposedly’ hour long hike along the ridge of the crater to finally reach the town of Quilotoa.

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FOLLOW SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHERE THEY'RE GOING...(I.E., NOT US!)

We saw some Germans take the trail down the mountain earlier when we had just started lunch, so we followed suit. Big mistake. When we were about thirty minutes into our hike, we were approached by a local farmer who informed us that we couldn’t go any further. Then, he swiftly offered to show us the “right” way. I was wary of this because I saw the path continue across the lower part of the ridge and figured we could keep walking and still make it to the town. But alas, this local was pretty insistent on us going with him. 

The two Australians and ‘Positive Pete’ had followed us down the same trail. When they saw us stop, they figured they were going the wrong as well. So, the five of us followed the local all the way back up the mountain. When we finally made it up (exhausted, but happy we were back on track), the local demanded five dollars for showing us the correct way. We didn’t even have that much money among all of us, but scrounged up a few dollars to pay him. 

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SOAKING UP ALL THE GLORIOUS VIEWS

Ryan and I took our time finishing the hike across this ridge knowing this was the last time we’d see this crater. At this point, we decided we would simply leave the next day and not walk around the entire crater (which takes around 3-4 hours). When we finally made it to Quilotoa, we were stoked! It was freezing, so we quickly decided to stay in a hostel right off the trail.. We enjoyed dinner (which was included) but nothing compared to the meals in the other hostels along the trail. The two Australians joined us for dinner and it was a perfect way to end such an amazing trek.

[Side note: If we would’ve walked a little further, there was hostel called Alpaka Hostel that is supposed to be pretty nice for the amount you pay.]

Hiking Couple Quilotoa Loop Ecuador South America

WHY YOU TOTALLY HAVE TO DO THIS HIKE! 

To say the least, this is one of our favorite hikes we’ve done so far in our entire trip. Firstly, we loved that we could hike without a guide. This is somewhat of a rarity for well known hikes in South America, and Ryan and I were so stoked to be able to challenge ourselves in so many ways - including reading directions, getting lost, finding our way again, getting lost a second time, and finally reaching a destination. We LOVED the fellowship we had with all the hikers we met along the way. Not having wifi totally allows you to bond so much quicker with people you’re surrounded with. This hike also totally kicked our butts physically, and we loved that this trek really tested our endurance (and patience). Lastly, this was some of the most stunning scenery we’ve seen and we were so amazed that we didn’t see many tourists along the entire trail. This helped us reconnect with nature in a way that we may not have been able to had we been surrounded with so many other people. In the end, DO THIS HIKE, whether you’re in the best shape of your life or not. You can take as long as you want to complete it and will totally be worth the challenge!

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Quilotoa Loop: Insinlivi → Chugchilan (Day 2)

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INSINLIVI CHUGCHILAN: AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN (6 hrs. if you find a German/Dutch power duo to hike with!

After a very filling breakfast of fresh bread, endless cups of coffee, a variety fruits, scrambled eggs, homemade granola with coconut, and mora (grape) juice, we set off on the trail by 8:45am. [Side note: Did I mention that dinner from the previous night + breakfast was included in the price of our stay? → Lulu Llama] With full tummies, we walked out of our hostel and down the road to the left of the entrance and into the valley. We were stoked to start off the day early and be the first ones out the door in the entire hostel! Yes, I’m still very competitive and can’t help it - competition is built in my nature. Thanks, Dad! :D 

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GETTING LOST WITHIN THIRTY MINUTES

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As we descended into the valley, we came across some construction that seemed to block our way down to the river. Sure enough, construction had to literally stop as we made our way across and down a steep sand pit further into the valley. Ignoring the concrete bridge down below, our next clue was to look for a log bridge once we made it down further. We found it shortly after walking down a small trail lining the river. After we walked across it, immediately the confusion, frustration, and realization that we were lost set in. We hiked up a bit of this small trail to a pasture (that we were told to go through). As we came upon the pasture, we stumbled upon some aggressive dogs. The first one was barking incessantly at us making it very well known that we were not to step a foot closer to his owner’s property. But, wait. The directions said we were supposed to hike through the pasture. Despite the obnoxious dog barking at us, we continued on through this property. Then, we came upon another barking dog. Now, it was the combination of the two dogs that were driving us completely nuts. We couldn’t find a path anywhere. While I became more frustrated and anxious with all the commotion, we decided that we would continue walking right and follow the river. We assumed we would eventually come across a path, and sure enough, about five minutes later, we found the correct trail.

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THE DUTCH/GERMAN DUO TO THE RESCUE

We took some time after this debacle to slow our heart rates down by taking pictures of the stunning landscape surrounding us. After the 100th photo that Ryan captured, Bernhard and Anne (two adventurers from Germany and Netherlands) had caught up to us. We gladly welcomed their companionship, and in the back of my mind, I was hoping they’d help guide us in the right direction. We had a blast with these two. Bernhard, a 25-year-old German, was studying abroad in Quito and had a fiery and adventurous spirit that was contagious. Ryan and him were like two peas in a pod! Anne, a 21-year-old Dutch studying abroad in Quito, had a determined spirit to become a well seasoned hiker after stating, “There aren’t mountains like this in the Netherlands!” We loved their energy and really enjoyed the entire day with them.

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friends hiking quilotoa loop south america ecuadorWhite Tip Shark.jpg

CHILL OUT TIME BEFORE CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN OF DEATH

When we came upon a river, we decided we would take a rest and enjoy some time in the sun and munch on some snacks. As Bernhard and Ryan cooled off in the river, Anne and I chatted about our favorite adventures. Some of the crew that we had met the night prior in the hostel decided to join us beside the river. Jake (an Australian) played music through his speakers, ‘Positive Pete’ from Sudan (as he was shortly named after the hike) jumped into the river with the boys, and Abby (another solo Aussie traveler) joined Anne and I soaking up the sun.

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After we had cooled off for about thirty minutes, the four of us (Anne, Bernhard, Ryan + I) decided to continue on as we wanted to conquer the upcoming ascent before the afternoon heat. As we started zigzagging up the steep mountain, I realized how seriously out of shape I was. I mean, I’m not kidding. I was red-faced, hands on my hips, barely able to catch my breath as the rest of the crew hiked up with what seemed like relative ease. I checked my Fitbit and my heart rate was 181 at one point! Although it was difficult, we pushed through quickly so that we could reach the top and cool off once we reached the top. I said to myself in that moment, that I was not going to let the fact that I was traveling deter me from my physical fitness goals. Once we reached the top, we walked up a few more meters and relaxed in the scenic lookout gazebo on the top of the mountain. We ate some lunch (Ryan and I ate PB + coconut sandwiches for the fifth time since we started) and shared our sugary treats with the little local boys who had come up for their village to stare into our souls until we gave them some sort of ‘caramelo’ or ‘chocolate.’ 

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THE END IN SIGHT (BUT NOT REALLY) 

A fifteen minute rest break and we were off again. We walked along a mostly flat dirt road (thank God) for another twenty minutes before reaching a paved road leading straight to Chugchilan. We reached this road in hopes that we would be approaching the town of Chugchilan shortly. Well, we were wrong. It felt like we walked on this long black road another 45 minutes (in reality, it was probably another 25 minutes) to the actual town. Ryan and I had made a reservation at the hostel, Mama Hilda since it was a mid-range price and I had done some light research before our trip. Anne + Bernhard decided on Black Sheep Inn as it was known to be the BEST in town. 

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CHOOSING THE BEST SUITED HOSTEL FOR US

Being conscious about the money we were spending, Ryan and I decided to part with them early and try out the cheaper options (either Mama Hilda or Hostel Cloud Forest). We arrived to Mama Hilda and immediately knew we made the right choice when we were guided to a beautiful cabin-like room that had two stories. When we saw how cozy it was and that we had a beautiful view on the top floor, we decided this was the best fit for us. We only ended up spending $20 for this cozy private room with a shared bathroom, dinner, and breakfast included. We had a nice dinner with an American couple we had met at Llulu Llama and two study abroad students who had hiked the reverse route (Quilotoa → Chugchilan). After our stomachs were satiated from another incredible meal, we finally called it a night. I was slightly dreading the next morning because we heard multiple times from different sources it was the MOST difficult day of the entire trek and I was already slightly dying from the past two days. Ryan closed his eyes and kissed my forehead as he comforted me in saying that we could go as slow as I wanted up the steep terrain to Quilotoa. With my mind now at ease, I drifted off dreaming of the adventures that lay ahead on our final day.

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Quilotoa Loop: Sigchos → Insinlivi (Day 1)

Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador, South America

INTRODUCTION: WHY HIKE THE QUILOTOA LOOP?

After Ryan and I got back from our trip to the States, we landed in Quito ready to go full throttle and head straight to the mountains. After doing a bit of research of various activities while making our way down through Ecuador, we decided on the Quilotoa Loop, 240 km (124 miles) of remote, steep, and mountainous trails linking several high villages and towns in the middle of the Andes. You can spend multiple days trekking throughout this region or choose the day hikes if you are short on time. Since we had the time, we decided to trek the most popular route starting in the small town of Sigchos and ending in Quilotoa. Athough this hike is known to be more difficult because of the steep terrian, we decided to go for it anyway. We totally got our butts kicked, but it was everything we had hoped for, more than we expected, and challenged us in ways we totally needed. 

Mountains Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

HOW TO GET THERE [Quito → Latacunga Sigchos] 

We left Quito early in the morning, took a bus straight to Latacunga (which cost us a mere $2.30) and took a little over an hour to get there. Once we got to Latacunga, we stopped by Hostel Tiana to drop off the main bulk of our backpacks. [Side note: You can leave your belongings at this hostel and they will store it for you while you’re on the trek for $2/day. If you stay there a night, they will give you one day of storage for free. However, we found out afterward that there are other hotels in Latacunga such as Hotel Central that will store your luggage for free if you stay with them one night]. After dropping off our belongings, we headed back to the bus station and booked our tickets to Sigchos (another $2.30), which took us about two and a half hours to get there. Some people will start their hike from Sigchos right after departing the bus and hike straight to Insinlivi (another 3-5 hours of hiking) that same day. However, I tend to get carsick really easily and after our ride from Quito to Sigchos, I definitely wasn’t feeling up for hiking another 3-4 hours that same day. Ryan and I decided to find a cheap hostel for the night and start early in the morning for our hike to Insinlivi. [Side note: You can also take a bus from Latacunga straight to Insinlivi, but we would totally recommend the hike from Sigchos to Insinlivi! The entire hike was such gorgeous views and we barely saw any other hikers the entire day!] We stayed in a cheap place ($10/night) right in town. It wasn’t too memorable, but we were well rested for our adventures the next day. 

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Sighchos Insinlivi: The Nitty Gritty Details (4-5 hours if you don’t get lost

Ryan and I had walked to the edge of town trying to find the trailhead the night before to make sure we knew exactly where we were going the next morning. When we asked the locals around, they told us to take the road to Insinlivi instead of the sign that directed us toward the Quilotoa Loop. Unsure that we really understood what they were saying, we did some quick research and came upon a site that gave us directions all the way to Quilotoa (a rough description anyway). However, looking now, I’d recommend Global Squatters' set of directions. I’d suggest printing out these before starting your trek because you will undoubtedly get lost at some point. Don’t worry - you just have to remember that it’s all part of the journey! 

City below Traveling Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador, South America

After our simple $1.50 breakfast of instant coffee, fried eggs, dry bread and a sip of juice at one the restaurants on the outskirts of town, we headed towards Insinlivi. Once we reached the main signs for “Insinlivi” and “Quilotoa Loop”, we decided to take the road left towards Insinlivi as the locals had first mentioned to us. When we came to another fork in the road just a couple minutes later, we had to make another major decision whether to go left towards Insinlivi or right down into the valley. We chose to follow the hostel signs to the right that pointed us toward Llulu Llama and down in the valley (half of the reason we chose this was because we didn’t want to walk on a road and would rather hike the trail). As we made our way down into the valley, I think I said, “This is amazing! This is unreal! This is incredible!” at least fifty times. We continued soaking up our beautiful view until we randomly came across a local walking through the trail and decided to ask him if we were on the right track. He mentioned, “Tome el camino chiquito hacia abajo.” (rough translation: Take the small path ahead) and pointed for us to go straight. We’re not sure if this is what the directions stated, but we decided to take the smallest trail we could find down into the valley instead of taking the road to the right (which the directions told us to do). We like to think of ourselves as rebels and also saving time, but we really have no idea. 

Quilotoa Loop, Male Hiking, Ecuador, South America

We continued on this trail down into the valley and came out on a road walking on the right hand side. After a short distance past the church, we took a right at some point (maybe it was the second?). Ugh, these directions were confusing. Eventually, we came upon our next “sign” from our directions, which was a house with a large brick wall and an empty pool. We continued to the right and took this road until we came across another trail leading off the right. So many trails and barely anything was marked. This was reminding me a lot of our Mauna Loa hike on our last day - pretty much a free for all to get to our final destination, making our best decisions by what we felt in our gut. As we made our way down this small trail, we came upon yet another road. Our next directions simply stated, “Go right. Ignore the large stone bridge on the left.” So, that’s what we did. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves at this point. We had come across some epic views and hadn’t got too lost yet. However, maybe we shouldn’t have spoken so soon. 

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THE HOURS IN BETWEEN GETTING LOST

The next step in our directions mentioned that we should pass two houses before coming across a driveway that would lead us down to the river and onto another smaller bridge where we would start making our way up the mountain. However, we passed two houses and didn’t come across any driveway. At this point, we were really confused and unsure if we had passed our landmark or if we still had to hike more to find this hidden driveway.

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Ryan decided one of the driveways was IT. We walked down through someone’s property to the river. Ryan went down a bit further to see if he could find the bridge, but no luck. We hiked back up the hill and continued along the road. We decided to ask a passing car how to get to “Insinlivi” and they told us to “go a bit further.” After walking another ten minutes, Ryan was starting to get really frustrated that the directions had led us astray. We figured if we went down to the river, we’d eventually find the bridge. He was RIGHT! We went down to the river, walked about five more minutes along the river, climbed up the hill out of sharp + tall grass, and eventually hiked back down where there was more of a clearing towards the bridge, but hey, we found it! We were stoked! Ryan jumped in the river while I soaked my feet in the cool water. 

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Another couple was walking down the same mountain that we would eventually hike up, so we asked them for any specific directions they could give us before we made our ascent. They pretty much told us we’d be walking up the steep mountain for awhile, then we would encounter many barbed wire fences, we would eventually stumble upon a small town with a small church. Ok, we thought, that doesn’t seem too complicated. Eventually, we made it to the town and took a right up another set of switchbacks. Little did I know that the ascent up the switchbacks would nearly kill me. Well, not literally, but I did have to stop at nearly every switchback to catch my breath. At this point, I realized I had packed way too much stuff. Seriously, did I need all the clothes I brought?! My pack felt like it weighed 25 pounds. [Side note: Pack as light as you can. I thought I would need the extra clothes because it would be cold, but I packed WAY too many things and totally paid for it.] 

Hiking Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador, South America

When we finally made it up the switchbacks, we had reached the main road that would take us only forty-five more minutes to town. Phew! We were done with the switchbacks. It was time to relax. As Ryan took pictures, I continued walking and came across Insinlivi in the distance. We were so close it seemed! Ha! The road “straight” was more of a huge windy loop in the other direction and then back around eventually reaching the town. The road took us another hour or so before we finally made it.

WHAT TO EXPECT ONCE YOU ARRIVE IN INSINLIVI (if you stay at Llulu Llama)

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When we finally made it to Llulu Llama, it was truly the best place we could have dreamed up after a long day of hiking! We reserved a private room with a shared bathroom for $24 p/p. This included dinner and breakfast, too! When we arrived, barely anyone was there. We enjoyed the calm atmostphere, read from our books, drank coffee, and soaked up the sun shinning through the huge windows in the common room as we admired our stunning view of the mountains. Before long, Ryan was keen on another adventure. He decided to hike up to another tall vantage point before 6pm (which was when the hostel would turn on the steam room + hot tub for guests). Yes, I did say steam room + hot tub (both which were complimentary!). [Side note: We’re not sure if this is always the case, but since there was much construction going on, we’d figured this was the case for the added complimentary spa amenities.] 

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Before our family style dinner, we met other backpackers as we mingled in the hot tub, enjoyed Pilsners for happy hour, and soaked up the beautiful sunset. For dinner, we had a delicious soup, vegetarian shepherd’s pie (for me), salad, and cake for dinner. We finished off some craft beers and wine after dinner, relished in our new friendships, and ended the night with a full tummy and a happy heart. This, my friends, was the beginning of a beautiful trek!

Llulu Llama, Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

LEARN HOW SKIP IS IMPACTING IMPOVERISHED COMMUNITIES IN PERU

SKIP is a non-profit organization helping economically-disadvantaged families in the impoverished districts of El Porvenir and Alto Trujillo on the north coast of Peru realize their right to an education.

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SKIP: HELPING ECONOMICALLY-DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN REALIZE THEIR RIGHT TO EDUCATION

Ryan and I decided to spend some time in the town of Huanchaco before moving further down Peru. While enjoying a cup of coffee at our favorite local spot, Chocolate Cafe, we came across a brochure about an organization called SKIP. Since we only had a couple days in town and wouldn't be able to volunteer a full six weeks, we decided to reach out to Liz Wilson, the director of SKIP, and interview her about the organization. Liz wasn't in Huanchaco at the time, but passed on our email to Cheyne Bull, the Manager of Volunteer Coordination. She eagerly replied to our email and agreed to meet us the following day at Chocolate Cafe (yet again) for an interview. Here is a summary of questions and answers from Cheyne about SKIP.

P2P: How long have you been involved in this organization?

C: I've been involved with SKIP for a year and a half. Before SKIP, I volunteered at several other organizations in Latin America. After working at these organizations, I decided to move on to SKIP because of their incredible reputation. They were known throughout Peru to have a stable structure and strong company culture, and I was excited to join their team. 

P2P: How would you describe SKIP's main focus and/or mission?

C: We promote quality education and foster the capacity of children and families to be the principal agents of change in their own lives. We work in partnership with families through holistic programmes focusing on the educational, economic, emotional and social development of each child and parent or carer.

SKIP volunteers in Peru

P2P: Specifically, how do you work with these families and children?

C: We work with a set amount of families - around 150. Education is free here; however, there are numerous hidden school expenses that are burdensome to families with less income. We raise money to be able to pay for the school fees such as uniforms, shoes, and school supplies. We also hold after school programs for the children. The families are an integral part of our program. Parents have to attend a certain amount of meetings each month  and can also access economic develop opportunities and skills training. The children involved have to participate in a specific amount of activities per week. It's a very interactive program ensuring that the families we work with are involved and invested. 

P2P: How do you select the families you work with?

C: The Social Work team that initiate and follow through with this entire process. They have to meet with the families, discuss everything that's involved with being a part of SKIP, complete a house visit, as well as assess the poverty level of the family. There's a several month trial period where families need to attend events and follow through with certain requirements. The families know exactly what is expected of them by the end of this process. It's a big commitment. 

P2P: What have been the biggest challenges working with this community? 

C: I would have to say the floods in March 2017. It was crazy. Some places went without water for over a month. There was so much rain for days and days. Many families lost most of their belongings. Other people couldn't work because their wasn't any transportation. SKIP went from a school and economical focus to swiftly responding to a true humanitarian crisis when the floods came through.

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P2P: Wow, that's horrible. How did your team react to this event?

C: I was so proud of our team during everything. The volunteers responded with determination and abundant energy. We focused on raising money for emergency relief with the families we work with, but also for all the Peruvians in the outskirts whose lives had been severely devastated. All the different NGOs in the area shared resources and helped each other figure out ways to source different necessary goods. We raised money from people across the entire world. Everyone just wanted to help in any way that they could. 

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P2P: How have you been able to sustain having consistent volunteers to assist with SKIP?

C: Actually, our volunteer numbers have dropped recently, especially after the flooding. Many of the volunteers were not comfortable pursuing volunteer work in a place where catastrophe had engulfed an entire area of the country. 

We're always seeking more long-term volunteers (preferably a six week minimum). People can go to our website here if they want to fill out an application form and send an inquiry to the team with any questions they have about volunteering. 

We have permanent Peruvian staff members that have been around for years, which really helps with consistency of people who are in and out of the lives of these children. We also have mothers who train to become volunteers and help as teaching assistants in the different programs we offer. Click on the 'Parents as Teaching Assistants' to learn more about this concept. 

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P2P: What country do most of your volunteers come from? How do you find volunteers?

C: I'd have say most of our volunteers come from England, America, and Peru. We post our volunteer positions on our websites such as Idealist, skipperu.org, and at the different universities throughout the world, as well as various social work placements.

P2P: What are some of the initiatives your team works on?

C: We have a regular education program where students come three days per week which focuses on English, Math, and Spanish. We also have lunch programs designed where three to four mothers are employed to cook for the kids after school. This is a huge support to make it easier for families struggling in the aftermath of the floods and a great incentive for the kids!

We have a holiday program that runs in January and February when the kids are out of school for break. The children attend four days out of the week and participate in classes focused on education. There are also programs focused on more fun activities - skating, art, photography, and music. We also have field trips to the beach. It's education focused, but definitely has an emphasis of fun in there! If you're interested in learning more about the projects we have, click here

Peruvian kids playing soccer volunteer with SKIP

P2P: What can people expect when they volunteer with SKIP?

C: Volunteers can expect to work directly with the children in teaching English, helping with various activities and classes of our program. We have a timeline of all the projects we have going on throughout the entire year such as the Education and Economic Development programs or our Rocking Holiday Club that runs from January to February during the student's holiday break. Click here for more information on what exactly your volunteer experience will look like. 

SKIP volunteers Peru

P2P: What other information would you like us to share about this organization for people looking to volunteer in Peru with SKIP? 

C: I just want people to know that volunteering at an organization like SKIP can truly change someone's life. Volunteers often gain a new perspective on life, learn about themselves, and experience a new culture. It's extremely impactful. 

If people don't have time to volunteer, there are still ways to help. You can check out different ways to donate to this organization. If you're curious on how to fundraise to cover the costs of your time with SKIP, send an email to fundraising@skipperuvian.org. We have a breakdown of our financial report if people are wondering exactly where our money goes on a yearly basis. If you simply have questions about volunteering or how to become involved, send an email to finance@skipperu.org.

flood relief Peru volunteer with SKIP

EVERYTHING TO KNOW ABOUT ISABELA ISLAND (THE GALAPAGOS)

Galapagos Island

ARRIVING ON ISABELA ISLAND - THE GALAPAGOS

If you were to ask me what I was most excited about before boarding the plane to the Galapagos, I would have told you swimming with sharks. I had heard so many stories about this incredible experience within the islands and was so ready! To be honest, I’ve always been super afraid of sharks. Even while living in Hawai'i, I would go out for a morning standup paddle or surf session before work and the thought of sharks never left my mind. When we decided to jump over to Isabela Island after spending over two weeks on the islands, I still hadn’t swam with them!

We spent the first several days soaking up the extremely peaceful vibes of the island. This was actually my favorite of the three main islands because the streets were still unpaved, cozy restaurants were scattered throughout, and a stunning beach over a mile wide was within five minutes walking distance from the town center. Corinne and I loved this beach because we could spend hours reading, running, and playing in the waves without seeing another soul in sight.

BICYCLE CRUISE TO STUNNING VIEWS

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On our second morning, we rented bikes ($10 for a half day) and cruised the path along the ocean. It was great because there wasn’t much elevation change. We peddled along side vacant beaches, stunning vistas, and giant Galapagos tortoises soaking up sun rays beside the path. After about three miles of riding, we reached the end of the trail, locked up our bikes and hiked up to the Mirador up the nearby mountain. It was incredible to see the entire coastline under the clear blue sky.

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BEST TOUR IN THE GALAPAGOS - LOS TUNELES (THE TUNNELS)

The following day, we booked our final tour: Los Tuneles. This is the most popular tour on Isabela Island and I begged Corinne to give it one last shot to swim with sharks. We boarded a small fishing boat with eight other foreigners and cruised the coast for about an hour North.

[TIP:] Book the afternoon tour because it’s hotter in the day and more likely for the sun to peer through the clouds. Also, there’s a lot more stress in the AM tour because most often guests need to be back at a specific time to board their ferry boat back to San Cruz Island. Everyone is on cruise-mode for the PM tour and the actual tour is usually longer and more enjoyable. 

We squeezed into our wetsuits, strapped on our goggles and jumped in above the shallow reef system. Our guide, Enrique, first took us over to swim under the mangroves and within minutes he spotted a sea horse. It was so much different than I ever imagined! It was about the size of my hand, and the tail was gripping onto the mangrove plants while swaying with the current.

The group then swam with our guide to another reef system with tons of underwater arches. We spotted massive Galapagos sea turtles floating by, huge schools of fish shimmering in the sunlight, and suddenly we came across a sting ray relaxing on the ocean floor. As we circled around him, the sting ray didn’t move a centimeter. We couldn’t believe how much marine life that we had swam with in just thirty minutes of snorkeling!

EXPLORING DARK CAVES WITH ABUNDANT MARINE LIFE

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Finally, our guide took us to a dark underwater cave. Because I was the closest to Enrique, he gave me the signal to join him. We both took a deep breath, dove deep into the cave, and instantly saw FIVE white tip sharks hovering beside each other just a few feet from us! I was so stoked!! I popped my head out of the water and yelled to Corinne “Come, come, come!” Together we held hands, dove down, and peered into the cave. We were so excited to experience this incredible moment together.

I then swam around spotting other dark caves and diving down into them finding more sharks sleeping below. I felt as if I were a four-year-old riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. One of the sharks darted out of the cave right past me and I followed him for another fifty yards until he did a complete 180 and stared directly at me. I freaked out and scurried back to join the rest of the group.

LAVA ARCH PARADISE

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We finished the tour in this incredible eerie paradise of cactus, black lava rock arches, and bright blue water below. Exploring Isabela Island was a similar to adventuring around the Big Island of Hawaii. The landscapes here are remarkable and unlike anything that I’d ever seen. There’s a lot less tourism here and the tranquil energy resonates all around you. This island cannot be missed while taking a trip to the Galapagos Islands!

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How to Experience THE Galapagos Islands on a Budget

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ARRIVING ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND

After spending just over a week on San Cristobal Island, we took the two hour ferry boat back to the "Big City" on Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the most populated town in all of the Galapagos with a whopping 12,000 inhabitants. Here you will find the most developed infrastructures, many hotels and restaurants, and a beautiful malecon (boardwalk). Most of the cruises and tours leave from this location and it's the only potential "nightlife" within the islands.

What I found most shocking was actually seeing the lack of tourism during their "high season." Corinne and I both lived in Hawaii for three years, so we've definitely experienced high tourism periods. Our expectations of dealing with a huge cluster of tourists before arriving in the Galapagos was pleasantly shattered as we walked the peaceful streets around town. Of course, there were a ton of tour guide offices, hotels, and restaurants scattered throughout, but the vibes of this place were truly the perfect mix of foreigners and local island life.

VOLUNTEERING

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When we arrived on the island, we went straight back to Galapagos Native Hotel to begin our volunteer work. After sitting down with Joffre to discuss his expectations for the week ahead, we were pleasantly surprised to receive our upcoming assignments. We would be working the hotel reception, assisting with breakfast, taking photographs, updating their website, and helping at their family farm.

TIP: We recommend using Workaway for an incredible source locating volunteer options. This is where we discovered Galapagos Native!

Our hotel work was pretty simple. We checked in guests, gave out room keys, and assisted with any questions about the island. In the restaurant, we served guests their breakfast and assisted the cooks in the kitchen. We also helped with enhancing the website by re-writing all of the English descriptions, as well as updating the hotel and restaurant photos.

My favorite volunteer work was actually working on the family farm. But before I describe our incredible experience nestled in a small cabin without any electricity in the lush highlands, I'll first explain the remarkable history of this property.

FARM LIFE

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The story of Galapagos Native begins with the Villacis family arriving on Santa Cruz Island in the 1950s. After a large earthquake in the Tungurahua province destroying their home, they left mainland Ecuador for the Galapagos Islands in search of a new life. With only a dozen other families living on the island, the Villacis' claimed land in the lush highlands where the soil was fertile and created Villa Luna - their rustic family farm that is still operating today. 

When the family first arrived here, it was a completely different way of life. There were no roads, the locals traveled by foot, and a currency wasn't even established. Families living on the island shared and bartered their possessions in order to have resources they needed to survive. During this time period, the weather was extremely harsh in the dry months and the families had to cut down banana stalks to have water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. They used bamboo to build their homes and slept on animal furs for comfort. Island life wasn't easy, but it was peaceful, simple, and sustainable. 

We had the amazing opportunity to work on this beautiful farm. Our responsibilities included watering all of the vegetable plants in the green house, pruning the banana stalks, planting thirty trees that will one day line the property with stunning red leaves, and overall upkeeping of the property. We cooked simple meals with fresh veggies from the property and snuggled in warm blankets playing cards and eating popcorn under candlelight. These are my favorite moments: The times without internet, without electricity, and where you can't here any traffic noise. Corinne and I always joke because our "night life" is usually about as crazy as your 90-year-old neighbors across the street!

BEACH VIBES

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While working at the hotel in town, we usually stayed between 4-5 hours and had the rest of the day off. We really enjoyed running to Tortuga Bay and having the entire beach to ourselves. This massive white sand beach is strictly regulated by the National Park and truly is a gem on the island. Again, I was so stunned by the lack of tourism here and soaked up all the peaceful beach vibes I could get. The black marine iguanas chilling all over the sand were pretty awesome too!

HIDDEN WONDER

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I had heard about this swimming lava tube from other travelers before arriving on the Galapagos and had to check it out. After taking a five minute water taxi ($1) from the main port to "El Otro Lado", I took the well marked path toward Finch Bay. I then continued on the path for another mile to a lava tube called Las Grietas. Once again, I got super lucky because a group of tourists left exactly as I walked up, and I had the entire swimming channel to myself! I have never in my life swam with so many MASSIVE fish in such a small area. As I snorkeled to the back of the lava tube, these vibrant 2-3 foot sparkling fish circled around me glistening in the shining sun. What's incredible is that this waterhole has been protected for so long that the fish keep grower bigger and no one is allowed to fish them. Never in my life have I experienced anything like it!

NIGHT LIFE

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One of our favorite activities was visiting the pier at night. This newly renovated boardwalk shines bright lights in the water so that you can see all of the marine creatures come to life. Just standing next to the railing for five minutes, you'll be able to see at least thirty small black tip sharks, thousands of fish, and sea lions zigzagging like Tasmanian devils just below the surface. It was AMAZING!

In our next blog post, I share our incredible experience exploring Isabella Island, which was the highlight of my entire time in the Galapagos. Stay tuned!

The Galapagos Islands: Arriving Without a Plan

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THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Before arriving to South America, if you were to ask me the number one destination that I was most excited about visiting, I would have answered: The Galapagos Islands. These islands have always been a dreamy fantasy lingering in the back of my mind ever since I first watched earth documentaries in my high school science class. I really didn’t know much about them or that they were even a part of Ecuador. I only knew that they had massive iguanas that looked like dragons, abundant marine life unlike anywhere else on earth, and numerous volcanoes. Little did I know that there was so much more!

The Galapagos are a chain of islands off the coast of South America formed very similar to the Hawaii Islands. Many years ago, massive volcanic mountains emerged under the ocean forming peaks resting above the ocean’s surface. There are 21 total islands with a population of about 25,000 people living on only a few of them. Ninety-seven percent of the island chain is considered National Park territory with strict regulations conserving this unique habitat. Charles Darwin’s voyage and documentation of the vast number of endemic species living on these islands significantly increased awareness of this enchanting paradise. What I found most fascinating was reading about the first recorded humans visiting the islands in the 1500s and that permanent settlements didn’t even occur until the 1800s.

OUR ARRIVAL ON THE ISLANDS

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When we first stepped foot on Baltra Island, we were greeted by the world’s first “green” airport with tall ceilings, massive fans, and gigantic vented windows. After grabbing our bags and taking a free five minute shuttle through the desert terrain, we hopped on a ferry boat ($1) to Santa Cruz (the most developed island in the chain). The next leg of the journey was another bus shuttle ($2) for an hour across the center of the island to Puerto Ayora (the major port town.)

Unfortunately, we hadn’t heard from our Workaway volunteer host in weeks and didn’t even know if we were still confirmed to work there. Once again, we truly had no idea what our plan was on the islands, but had complete faith that everything would work out. We strolled around the town asking people for directions to Galapagos Native Hotel and when we walked in, the hotel owner looked a bit surprised to see us. Luckily, he escorted us to the volunteer hotel room without any issues.

Several hours later, we received an email from the founder of iGalapagos (a local environmental organization) asking us to stay on San Cristobal Island and write two research articles for his website. We were stoked! The problem was that he wanted us to hop islands as soon as possible, but we were already committed with volunteering on Santa Cruz Island. I walked into the restaurant and asked Joffre (the hotel owner) if we could return in a week to volunteer at his property. I further explained our purpose for traveling across South America and he was eager to have us return in a week and help him improve the hotel website photos, the English verbiage throughout the website, and his new restaurant menu. 

THE JOURNEY TO SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND

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The following morning, we departed on the two hour speed boat ride across the trecherous ocean to San Cristobal Island. Both Corinne and I get sea sick on rough waters, so we ended up squeezing each other’s hands trying to survive the journey the entire time. Luckily, we were able to climb the ladder and sit on the top of the boat beside the captain. The views were stunning! We took in the crisp ocean breezes, listened to our music, and soaked up the entire breathtaking journey.

→ TIP: The speed boat shuttles cost $30 one way to the other islands. During the months of June to October, the ocean is extremely rough and sea sickness is very common among travelers. We recommend trying to sit up on the top of the boat with the captain or finding a seat in the lower/back of the boat facing in the direction the boat is moving. Good luck!

When we arrived on Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we were shocked by the number of sea lions sleeping on boats, chasing each other on the sand, and barking for attention. We found our accommodation for the week, Hostal Los Algarrobos, and prepared for our work assignments. For more information on both of our environmental awareness articles that we wrote for iGalapagos, click here and here.

PRISTINE BEACH NEAR TOWN

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Our favorite beach, about a thirty minute walk from town, was called La Loberia. Here you can find beautiful white sand and bright blue water. While Corinne relaxed under the golden sun listening to her podcasts, I jumped in the water for a quick snorkel. Within the protected cove is some of the clearest water that I have ever swam in my life. Bright, colorful fish scurried around in schools swarming the captivating reef below. After only a few minutes, I spotted my first Galapagos sea turtle. It was MASSIVE! It was easily double the size of any sea turtle that I swam with while living in Hawai'i. After chilling with my new buddy, I headed back into shore to snooze next to Corinne under the sun. With only a $2 snorkel rental, this is an incredible low cost experience!

OUR FAVORITE LAND ADVENTURE    

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Several days later, we decided to take a break from our work assignments and head across the island. We rented bikes ($15) and took a taxi ($5) to the highest point of the island to Laguna El Junco. This is the only fresh water crater lake in the entire Galapagos and has a beautiful thirty minute trail surrounding the circumference. After our leisurely stroll taking in the breathtaking views, we hopped on our bikes and cruised down the steep mountain to the other side of the island. Along the side of the road, we stopped at Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, which is a Galapagos Tortoise nesting area to protect these incredible creatures. We were able to see a wide range of tortoises from all different ages. These gentle giants can live up to 180 years old! After walking the loop trail, we hopped back on our bikes and headed to the end of the road. There’s a fifteen minute trail which takes you directly to a pristine, white sand beach to relax for the rest of the day. This was our favorite full day adventure on the island!

 TIP: There are numerous taxi drivers that wait at the trailhead. We recommend taking a taxi ($5) back up to the top of the mountain so that you can cruise along the bike path all the way back down to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. This is the perfect day trip for only $25, and you get to see so much of the island!

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS

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If you were to ask any tour agency in town, they’d tell you that Kicker Rock is the ultimate scuba and snorkel trip departing from the island. We completely agree! This incredible mini island is off the coast of San Cristobal with frequent marine life visiting this underwater haven. Unfortunately, due to a spontaneous lung collapse while I was younger, I wasn't able to scuba dive, but snorkeling was a blast! For the first fifteen minutes, one of the playful sea lions jumped in the water and swam beside me joining my snorkeling adventure! The reef was one of the most colorful that I had ever seen, and luckily, the sun peered through the clouds for nearly my entire experience. While I was hugging the surface, Corinne was deep below scuba diving in the eerie dark waters with several Galapagos sharks circling around her! It’s known by locals that sharks here are “human vegetarians” due to the abundant food sources throughout the islands.

→ TIP: This was our most expensive experience of the trip. The Kicker Rock snorkel costs $110 and the scuba dive is $160. We walked around to numerous travel agencies and they were all giving the same price. Try to go directly to the scuba dive shops and negotiate with them rather than choosing a tour agency office to book.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog post discovering the wonders on Santa Cruz Island, volunteering at an Eco-Hotel, helping open up a new restaurant, and working in one of the first farms on the island!

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San Cristobal Island: What No One is Talking About

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We had heard great things about a stunning, white sand beach not far from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (the main town on San Cristobal Island), so we decided to go for an afternoon adventure. La Loberia, a popular beach for tourists and locals interested in hiking, surfing, kayaking, or snorkeling, is also home to a vast amount of marine life relaxing and enjoying the afternoon sun.   

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Within a few minutes of walking along the paved road towards the beach, we reached a large hole in the ground with an immense amount of trash scattered throughout the entire area. We were so perplexed on what this massive structure was used for. When we looked closer down into the hole, we noticed old mattresses, tires, rusted tools, and tons of rubbish. We couldn’t believe that they would have this garbage dump so close to the city where tourists can easily see while passing by. What was most frightening of all, was the amount of trash that lined the road to the beach. As we walked farther and farther, we saw men chopping away with machetes making the weeds look more presentable, but it was shocking to us that all of the trash along the side of the road was left there! The winds in this region of the island seemed rather strong, so I assumed that trash was blowing from the dump onto the road, without anyone picking it up.   

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In Hawai’i, there is a public service program called ‘Adopt-A-Highway’ where various organizations across the island volunteer once a month to pickup trash in their designated portion of the road. Every month, the hotel where I worked had announcements notifying employees the exact dates that we would all get together and clean up the road. How incredible would it be if the Galapagos Islands could adopt a similar initiative to get everyone involved and volunteering together, as well as preventing pollutants from entering any drains, streams, and nearby ocean. When we had finished enjoying the incredible beach for a few hours, we headed back on the road towards town. There was a police officer walking by as we approached the large hole. When inquiring about this establishment, he told us that it wasn’t actually a dump, but a mining quarry to make cement for buildings around the island. I asked if I could take a closer look, but he told me that access was forbidden.  

Corinne then asked me, “Why would there be so much trash inside a mine?”

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The first hotel that we came across on the edge of town was Galapagos Planet Hotel. We walked in there and asked the receptionist if we could ask a few questions. Ashley, a woman from Holland, has been living on the island for three years and is married to a local gentleman from the island. I asked what her thoughts were of the large hole in the ground beside the road towards La Loberia Beach. She told me that Cerro Quemado is the location that is used for obtaining materials for people to build their homes in town. When I asked her about the trash, she said that people are supposed to dump their trash in El Progreso at the designated trash site. However, because the quarry is closer to town, many people just drive to the edge and dump their materials inside. Ashley told me that she thinks the entire area looks disgusting. She urges every single guest staying in the hotel to take a taxi because she doesn’t want her guests seeing all of the rubbish. Ashley thinks that the entire area must be cleaned and the city should add trees, plants, and flowers along the side of the road to hide the entire operation. 

The next hotel that we came across was Hotel Mar Azul, so we decided to step inside and gather more information about this site. Andrea, a female from the mainland of Ecuador, was working the reception and allowed us spend a few minutes discussing this issue. When we asked her what she thought of Cerro Quemade, Andrea also agreed that the area was horrible and should be changed for several reasons. Not only did it need to be converted because of the unappealing sight, but also to protect the animals and surrounding environment. Both people and animals that live close to this establishment are at serious risk. With such high winds, harmful toxins are spreading throughout the entire area. The Galapagos Island chain is very strictly regulated, but Cerro Quemado has no supervision. There is a bold sign beside the quarry stating that there’s a $50 fine for dumping trash in the area, but no one is there monitoring. Before we left, Andrea told us shocking details that all of the materials from the destroyed boat in Playa de Los Marinos was recently dumped in Cerro Quemado. She said that the Ministario Del Ambiente needs to find a solution to change these vital problems.

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Across the street, we walked into a third hotel called Grand Hotel Paraiso Insular. We asked the receptionist her thoughts on the mining operation. Sara was also very passionate about this issue because she has been living on the island for her entire life. When I asked her about a solution, she stated that the Municipal should organize a volunteer day for organizations such as schools, churches, hotels, and tour companies to all come together and clean up the area. This would be an incredible initiative to get the entire community involved and work as a team.  

Also, with locals from different organizations volunteering together with a common goal, this would provide an incredible opportunity to promote civic responsibility, community pride, and camaraderie for the people of San Cristobal. More importantly, those that were guilty of routinely dumping their rubbish at the site would not feel comfortable breaking this law knowing that friends and family in their community worked so hard to clean up the entire area. 

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THE SOLUTION

There are various initiatives that can help resolve this vital issue in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Most importantly, the entire area must be cleaned of all the materials - any trash, debris, or equipment. This is a MUST. If the Municipal is opposed to moving this mining operation to a different location on the island, then there needs be proper steps and regulations implemented that will ensure that this facility is used for mining instead of a toxic waste. There must be more regulation of the area with cameras, solar powered spot lights, and security personal monitoring. These measures would prohibit locals from committing this offense. 

Lava stone walls, palm trees, bushes, and flowers should be installed along the rim of the hole to make it look presentable. At Kona International Airport, tourists driving the road to the highway only see beautiful palm trees and bright, colorful flowers along the side of the road. With the beautiful scenery that they installed along the side of the road, tourists aren’t aware of the extensive machinery, old buildings, and parking lots on the other side of this barricade.

If the Municipal agrees to move the mining operation to a farther location, Cerro Quemado can be renovated into a beautiful public park for tourists and locals to enjoy exercising, reading, and relaxing in the shade. With the proper infrastructure, this park could be a perfect escape from the hot sun. Finally, this park could include a small amphitheater for tourists to enjoy live music from locals across the islands. Weekly or monthly concerts could intrigue more tourists to leave Santa Cruz island and enjoy a cultural experience on San Cristobal Island. The Galapagos Islands are one of the most beautiful regions in the entire world, and everyone should work together to conserve this natural paradise. Please visit #salvemosgalapagos on Instagram to show your support! Please visit this important petition and also support Playa de los Marinos on San Cristobal Island: CLICK HERE

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Saving Playa de Los Marinos: How to Help

Once we had rested for a bit at our hotel after our arrival, we decided to take a peaceful walk along the sea not far from our hotel. As soon as we approached the nearest beach in town, Playa de los Marinos, we noticed the abundant amount of sea lions basking in the sun and lazily floating in the water. I’ve never seen so many sea lions in one space - except for on the docks in San Francisco! 

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After staring at the sea lions for what seemed like hours, my eyes finally adjusted to see the environment in which they were living. Shipwrecked boats that looked to have been there for several years housed several sea lions - either beneath, on top of, or inside the boats. Curious, we asked several locals about the age of the boats. Franklin, a local who had grown up on the island, mentioned that he thought the boats had been there for at least five years but wasn’t entirely sure. 

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Aside from the three huge dilapidated boats covering most of the area of the beach, there were other boats that looked like they needed repair. Pedro, a local in the Navy, confirmed that currently the main purpose of the beach is for repair boats and storage of materials. A fishermen masked in long sleeve shirts and pants painted a fresh new coat of paint dripping the remnants on the sand without much attention or worry. Aside from the crumbling boats, plastic bottles floated on top of the water and unused repair supplies sat neglected near the edge of the sea wall. We were perplexed by how dilapidated and neglected this beach seemed in comparison to the strictly regulated beaches we came across on Santa Cruz island. 

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The second day, we ventured towards La Loberia, a beach you can reach in about 30 minutes by foot just outside of town. It was absolutely stunning with its crystal clear water and sea lions jumping around in the water and making their home along the white soft sand that stretched across the whole beach. After coming back from the beach, we noticed several tourists, locals, and even the Galapagos National Park employees standing around Playa de los Marinos. A giant bulldozer was destroying the large sunken boat on the edge of the water.

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One of the representatives from The Galapagos National Park told us, “They are removing this boat because it is an illegal fishing boat from the mainland of Ecuador and it was used to capture hammerhead sharks. The judge from the Municipal issued an order for the boat to be removed.” After hearing this, we asked locals and one confirmed that only people from the Galapagos are allowed to fish here. Fishermen from other places cannot fish in this area (according to Galapagos fishing regulations). Josh, a tourist from Australia, told us he’s glad they were removing the boat since it wasn’t that beautiful to look at when he first arrived on the island.

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Although both Ryan and I thought removing the boat was a good idea (since it honestly just looked ugly and was taking up so much space along the beach), we still wondered about what would happen to beach after they removed the boat. Would the rest of the beach be cleaned up or would it be left how we saw it then? To clear up our confusion, we decided to speak with a National Park representative. She informed us that the beach is regulated by the Municipal (city) instead of within the boundaries of the Galapagos National Park. She also stated that there should be stricter regulations and guidelines by the city, or the Galapagos National Park should oversea this beach.

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While the demolition process was going on, we noticed how much of the wood and trash inside the boat was going into the water. We watched the whole process with trash filing into the ocean and the sea lions trying to waddle their way around all the destruction. It was all so sad and no one was doing anything about it. Josh, the tourist from Australia, suggested that they go about the demolition process differently and more effectively by casting nets to pick up all the trash if it does flow into the water. He said there could be people out there picking up the trash before it begins to flow into the ocean. Eduardo, another elderly local, mentioned that the city should hire employees to maintain the beach regularly so that the beach is left in better condition. 

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The next morning we spoke with Sierra, the gardener responsible for watering the plants along the boundaries of the beach, and she mentioned to us that this same beach was extremely popular for local families swimming 10 years ago. Now she rarely sees tourists or locals enjoying this beach. Another elderly gentleman that grew up here stated “When I was growing up, my family used to swim here and the beach was very clean with beautiful white sand. Now, the boat workers leave their trash everywhere and it always looks dirty.” Eduardo, the elderly local who grew up swimming at Playa de los Marinos with his family as well, said his only wish is to see this beach return to stunning white sand again.

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When we asked each of these locals what their solution would be to revive Playa de los Marinos, there was one common theme: to offer an alternative location for locals to store and maintain their boats. They suggested that a designated location farther from the center of town would be best. This area would need to be regulated with trash removal processes and proper regulations on using chemicals for cleaning and painting their boats. Lastly, all of the trash and damaged boats would need to be removed from Playa de los Marinos. This would dramatically enhance the atmosphere in town and allow tourists and locals to enjoy this incredible beach.

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It's hard to feel like you can make a difference when you are so far away.  However, there's a simple way of making a difference TODAY simply from your computer. You can share this post with everyone you can — through Facebook, Instagram, email, and/or Pinterest. Secondly, you can visit the iGalapagos website dedicated to educating people about this issue and others surrounding these areas. Thirdly, and most importantly, you can sign this petition to help bring awareness and push the government to take action to preserve this beach. 

La Guajira: How We Reached the End of South America

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The eerie, tranquil, and isolated streets greeted us as we hopped out of the truck upon our arrival to Cabo de la Vela. We had been traveling for eleven hours from Cartagena by minibuses, coach buses, taxis, and finally a two hour 4x4 truck ride that finally dropped us off at one of the most remote locations in Colombia. The Guajira Peninsula is a desert region inhabited by members of the Wayuu indigenous tribe. These determined indigenous people persevered and didn’t allow foreign countries to invade and conquer their territory.

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After living in Arizona for several years, Cabo de la Vela reminded me of my similar experiences walking through traditional Native American reservations. Most of their homes were made out of clay and their roofs were either thatched or covered with tin. The town consisted of only one street that hugged the coastline with various restaurants and hospedajes (hostels) along the side. Once Corinne, Karyln (our new friend from Amsterdam), and I strapped on our backpacks, we searched for a place to spend the night.

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[TIP]: It costs around $400,000 COP for a full fledged organized tour to reach La Guajira, which is the most Northern tip of South America. One way you could reach La Guajira is by booking directly with a hostel in Cabo de la Vela. They will set you up with all the transportation links, but it definitely is a steep price. We were able to negotiate a package which cost $150,000 COP ($50 USD) total. Our package included a four hour tour around Cabo de la Vela visiting three incredible beaches, a fish dinner in Cabo, a hammock to sleep in Cabo and upon our arrivial in La Guajiraa, breakfast in La Guajira, a 4x4 transportation to the Northern tip and back to Uribe.

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We found a cozy and peaceful accommodation along the beach with traditional hammocks hanging a stone throw from the ocean’s edge. After lounging in our hammocks for an hour recovering from the extensive travels, we headed onto another adventure visiting the nearby sights. We hopped in a 4x4 vehicle owned by our hostel and the driver first took us to one of the most picturesque beaches that we’ve ever seen! Glistening sand rested within this mesmerizing cove and towering silver and golden cliffs lined the coast. After sprinting into the turquoise waves and sipping mini Venezuelan cervezas on the beach, we decided to hike up the nearby mountain for a birds-eye view. It was incredible!

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The next two places that we visited were also stunning and very unique landscapes. We arrived at a silver sand beach with dozens of pelicans flying above and diving for fish. While our other friends in the vehicle enjoyed relaxing on the beach, Corinne and I hiked to the end of the nearby peninsula to capture photos of the beautiful coastline. The final stop of our tour was a sunset lookout hundreds of feet high up on a cliff. Many of the other travelers huddled together on a nearby ledge while Corinne and I walked the opposite direction to our private mountain peak. It was the perfect sunset to end our day.

[TIP]: Many of these small tours are doing the exact same sequence of destinations. Since we very rarely take tours, we were a bit alarmed to see dozens of tourists in each location. We recommend asking the driver beforehand to change it up, so that you’ll have the beaches all to yourselves! You can also walk to the beach we visited in Cabo de La Vela without having to go on an “organized tour.”

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The next morning at 5am, we woke up bright and early to get ready for the epic adventure ahead. After eating peanut butter-banana sammys, slurping down a quick coffee (dirt mixed with ocean water), and gazing at the sunrise, we jumped in the 4x4 SUV and took off! The car was packed with several other adventurers: a French solo traveler, an Argentinian from Patagonia, our new friend from Holland, and an energetic Colombian/German travel pair. Within minutes, we quickly realized that we were about to embark on the wildest ride of our lives!

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Imagine if you were to give a 16-year-old teenage boy a large 4x4 truck for his birthday, took him to a desolate desert, and told him, “Alright son, there are no speed limits, laws, or regulations in the desert… HAVE FUN! I’ll see you tonight.” Yup, that’s the kind of ride we had for 3 hours! Don’t get me wrong, we had a blast. Corinne and I just gripped the seats in front of us with both hands, concentrated on the dirt path ahead, and prayed 1,000 times during the entire journey.

As we finally pulled up to a river bank and parked the car, I whispered to Corinne, “Thank you, God!” We boarded a small boat and crossed to the other side. I was so amazed! Bright orange and red cliffs with thousands of cacti lined the banks of this aqua-blue river. After cruising for ten minutes, the crew hopped out and walked up the winding path to the indigenous village. We stayed in one of only two accommodations in this entire desert region. The hospedejerestaurant was perched on top of a ledge that overlooked several rivers, bays, and islands in the distance. 

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We devoured a quick lunch, dropped off our backpacks in our hammocks, and jumped in the next 4x4 vehicle to get us to the ultimate destination: The Most Northern Tip of South America! Huddled in the back of the truck bed with ten other backpackers from all across the world, we took off! Nearly as crazy as our other driver, we had another speedy-ganzolas weaving throughout the numerous cacti and rock formations across this desolate desert.

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When we finally made it to the most northern point, I had mixed emotions stirring inside. At first, I thought to myself, ‘This is it?’ After three days of constant traveling with these high expectations of something so magnificent and grand that we were about to see, it definitely fell short. This is the inevitable problem while traveling. We all have these expectations on what we think we will see, emotions that we think we will feel when we arrive. However, when we actually get there, the destination or experience often doesn’t meet those expectations we originally had. This happens when we reach the top of the mountain and all that we see are clouds in front of us, when we’re scuba diving to see large sharks and all we really see are tiny fish swimming around, or hiking to a hidden waterfall and arriving with fifty other people already sitting below. 

My whole life I’ve been battling with this issue and Corinne has definitely been an incredible mentor through this process. She loves how excited and stoked I get when we discover new destinations, but also sees my disappointment when we arrive somewhere and my expectations aren’t met. I’m slowly learning from her with each of our experiences together that I have to simply release those expectations before they ruin my experience. When I realized these emotions and thoughts were eating me inside, I was able to step back and truly realize where we had just arrived. It wasn’t just an open ocean that I was gazing out at. I was standing with just ten other people at the most Northern tip of the entire continent of South America in one of the most remote regions of Colombia surrounded by miles of desolate coastline in either direction. This was a very special place that just a few years ago, no tourists had ever been.

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I held Corinne in my arms and we both gazed out in silence at the the infinite ocean in front of us. After taking it all in, we all hopped back in the truck to spend the rest of the day at a nearby beach. Towering sand dunes lined the coast with stunning blue waves crashing against the sand. While Corinne walked the coastline reflecting on our past week's traveling, I also adventured on my own snapping photos of this unique landscape. These are the experiences that both Corinne and I thrive in - the less traveled destinations that are difficult to reach, the solitude of nature surrounding us, and the challenges that we overcome throughout each step of the journey. Our relationship is strengthening every single day, and I feel so blessed to have Corinne by my side.

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Tayrona Park: The Lessons We Learned

Getting There

Since we knew we’d be arriving to the park in the early afternoon, we decided to hike the shorter route along the coast. One of the park employees suggested we leave our big backpacks in lockers near the entrance so we didn’t have to hike all the way in with them. Thinking we would just camp once we were in the park, we decided to go against the suggestion and hike all the way through with our huge packs. Little did we know, we’d be the only people with two backpacks each - one in front, one on our backs - throughout the entire hike. Guess, we should listen every once in a while ;)

Side Note: There are two entrances to hike to the beaches. You can either enter from the side entrance and then hike four hours through the dense jungle to the beach or hike along the coast for about two hours. We chose the latter because we were short on time. We only had two days. to spend there. 

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Once we had entered the park and paid 48,000 pesos each, we hopped in a small van with a handful of tourists and made our way to the start of the trail. It cost us 3,000 pesos each and was definitely worth it. Otherwise, you’re hiking on a road for about an hour before you even hit the trailhead. During the first half of the hike, the path was easy to follow as most of the walkway was constructed with wooden planks. We passed a lot of tourists + locals alike during the first part of our journey due to the three day long weekend/Colombian holiday. We also noticed most people packed pretty lightly with daypacks and jugs of water if they were staying overnight.

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Side note: The sites provide hammocks, cabins, or tents if you choose to stay overnight. We’d recommend packing and hiking as light as possible, especially if you are hiking to the further beaches like the ones we hiked to.

It was a beautiful walk through several different landscapes passing by coconut trees, traversing the muddy horse trails surrounded by lush greenery, as well as trudging in the dense golden sand along the beach. We passed three or four main beaches (Naranjas, Arrecifes, Piscine, and Cabo San Juan de Guia) before we reached the one we settled on for the night (Playa Brava). The first four beaches were really nice, but there were definitely the most amount of people on them. It seemed like an eternity until we finally decided on our perfect, isolated camping spot. It was about 3pm by the time we were all settled in with our hammocks and tarp set up, and enjoyed the rest of our day in the sunshine.

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Setting Up for the Night

While I sat on a perfectly formed log and delved into my newest Garbriel Marquez novel, Ryan immediately sprinted into the waves. Although the beach was a bit rough with large waves and a strong current, we both enjoyed the refreshing water after our sweaty hike. If you're looking for a calmer area to swim, I’d recommend the beach adjacent to ours or La Piscina (a peaceful and calm bay) about thirty minutes before reaching Playa Brava. 

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We enjoyed an incredible sunset and made our delectable dinner (PB + Jelly sandwiches with plantain chips and the remaining of our nuts). We also made time for a game of Gin Rummy 500 under the rising full moon above! I'm pretty sure I won if anyone was wondering ;) We were really worried about the rain (OK, I was way more worried than Ryan), but we credit God for holding off the rain and blessing us with a peaceful night's sleep. 

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Sour + Sweet

The next morning, Ryan woke earlier than I did and took a collection of sunrise morning shots. I woke up groggily, but well rested and continued reading until he returned. We stayed at this beach for an hour or so soaking up the peaceful morning and without another soul in sight. It was hard to leave this peaceful paradise, but we wanted to start hiking before the sun was at it’s highest point and we only had a limited amount of water. Since Ryan was set on staying longer at the beach, I thought of the perfect compromise. If we started walking earlier, we could hit one of the stunning swimming beaches along the way before it became overcrowded with tourists. He was stoked! 

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After about 30 minutes of hiking, we realized were off track. Getting lost is something that happens from time to time when we’re hiking - no big deal. Usually, I would have my normal initial reactions when we get lost. I would be frustrated, then Ryan would give me a few kisses to get me out of my funk, and I would be able to shake it off realizing my negative emotions weren't helping the situation. However, today was different. My sister was going into surgery in the morning and I hadn’t talked her the day before to wish her good luck or tell her I love her (since we had no wifi connection in the park). To say the least, my emotions were on edge. I was anxious, feeling guilty for not talking to my sister and I was taking it all out on Ryan for leading us astray. In the midst of everything, Ryan was getting just as worked up because of my emotions and the situation worsened. He knew something was bothering me - more than just the fact that we were lost. Being the smart man that he is, he let me hike on my own for awhile. 

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After we had walked for a while and reached a beach we knew we could swim at, I finally broke down. All my emotions were heightened and I couldn’t hold it together anymore. I let him know what was really bothering me - not being able to talk to my sister when I knew how frightened she was to go into surgery, missing my family, and knowing I couldn’t be with them during this difficult time.

Letting It All Go

When I was finally able to release all that was going on in my mind, Ryan comforted me in the way he always does and just let me cry. He brought me back to reality with his selfless suggestion, “Hey, we don’t have to stay at this beach long. We can hike as quickly as we can back to town and find wifi connection so you can call your sister.” In this moment of complete selflessness, I realized how selfish I was by not being considerate of what Ryan really wanted and only focused on my own worries. Quickly, I let Ryan know, “It’s ok. Let’s enjoy our time here for an hour or so, and then we can push ourselves hiking fast so I can talk to my sister.” We enjoyed a refreshing swim at such an amazing beach, I found a coffee, and Ryan had a blast jumping off the large rock faces. After about an hour and a half in the ocean, we continued on our way - making it back in record time. We quickly found a bus back to Santa Marta and I was finally able to reach my sister.

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Hiking is an activity that Ryan and I love doing together for many reasons. Firstly, we are able to enjoy amazing treks and see unbelievable sites that you can't simply access by car. Secondly, we feel so accomplished and empowered after a physically challenging hike when we reach our final destination. Thirdly, because it forces us to get through and tackle some of our most difficult mental blocks in our relationship. No internet. No music to zone out to. No amenities to find comfort in. No other distractions. When something goes wrong, it's just us, the elements of nature and God. It forces us to react and live out the faith we are so strongly working to strengthen. It pushes us sometimes to a point we don't want to face. However, when we move through that difficulty and look up for guidance, we come out stronger and more secure in our relationship every single time. This is one of those trips that challenged us physically, mentally, and spiritually. And because of that, it is a memory and a hike I won't ever forget.

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Cartagena, Colombia: Beyond the City's Walls

A Little Background on Cartagena

Before Cartagena became a major Colombian tourist destination, it was one of the most important slave trade ports in all of the Americas. While it flourished in the trading of goods, weapons, and slaves, it also gave reason for other countries to attack and try to take hold of this booming city. Therefore, the Spanish invested large amounts of money into building one of the most protected forts in all of South America.

After the Spanish ruled and colonized, Cartagena was relatively forgotten about for over 100 years until a long-term restoration project on the city’s walls and fort began in the 1950s. This resulted in the well known charming city that can be seen restored in all its glory - or so that it may seem from inside the walls. 

To many, Cartagena is known now as one of Latin America’s top destinations. People come in from all over the world to enjoy old city charm, cobblestoned streets, horse-drawn carriages, and laid back Caribbean vibes. Not only has it become a hotspot for tourists alone, it’s also became the place to invest millions of dollars into the housing/apartment market. Truthfully though, Cartagena has a hidden reality not many people know about.

Outside of the old city, there is a part of Cartagena that is living in downright poverty. Unlike the people that are living in the wealthy city center, most of the residents of these outside neighborhoods are black. Drug trafficking still occurs, children are malnourished, and preventable diseases are common.  Over six-hundred thousand of Cartagena's million people are poor (Forero, 2009). Adil Melendez, a human rights lawyer and activist who works in the neighborhood states, "The poverty is immense. And then there is a small pocket of very rich people who maintain a life of extreme opulence." (Forero, 2009). 

Forero, Juan. “In Colombia, newfound wealth masks poverty.” Washington Post. February 2009.

Reaching Out

Knowing we would only be in Cartagena for a short while and wouldn't have time to volunteer, we still wanted to figure out ways we could connect with members of the community that are working to solve these major issues that face this city. This is where Christina Kuntz of Domino Volunteers comes gracefully into our story. I reached out to Christina via email before arriving to Cartagena to learn more about her organization and the ways she is inspiring and creating access for the community in Cartagena. She was so kind and responded right away, offered to find us a place to stay, and was willing to figure out a time and place near where we were staying to meet up as soon as we arrived. I was already impressed and we hadn't even met her yet! 

Me, Christina + Ryan after our interview at Cafe del Mural

Me, Christina + Ryan after our interview at Cafe del Mural

After exploring for most of our first day in Cartagena, we met Christina at her favorite local coffee shop, Cafe del Mural. During our hour long chat, she revealed to us that she moved to Cartagena six years ago to pursue volunteering opportunities teaching English with the Peace Corps (a two-year commitment). Within the first couple of months, Christina found herself called to projects that held a higher priority due to the pressing needs facing the community.

Samples of freshly brewed passionfruit coffee @ Cade del Mural 

Samples of freshly brewed passionfruit coffee @ Cade del Mural 

Her first project was creating a girl’s leadership program, which involved mentoring thirty girls from sixteen to eighteen-years-old on topics such as pregnancy prevention and sexual health education. In addition to working with the young girls, another project that Christina spear-headed was called “When I Grow Up." Noticing that much of the reason students weren't attending university was due to lack of study skills/test taking skills regarding entrance exams, she designed a program that would train and prepare students for standardized tests. She was able to acquire funding and pay for seventy percent of each student’s entrance exam. This was only the beginning of the work that Christina would invest in over the next couple of years. 

Domino Volunteers - Projects + More

After volunteering in Cartagena for over two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Christina met her husband and eventually formed an organization called Domino Volunteers that links interested volunteers with numerous outreach opportunities across the city. Christina and her husband have worked endlessly to create an extensive network of organizations and foundations that are working towards improving the conditions of the current state in Cartagena. Just to name a few, some of the projects they have their volunteers involved with include teaching English, taking care of the elderly, facilitating “Green” projects, designing extracurricular programs for children, and establishing ecosystem conservation projects.  

When we talked to Christina, she informed us that she would be leaving the next day with her husband to Isla Fuerte off of Cartagena. There, they would present their most recent proposal to solve some of the issues they see occurring related to ocean conservation + at the same, their project would be creating jobs for locals in the dive industry. There are some incredible reefs off the islands near Cartagena. However, due to overfishing + dynamite fishing, there is very little marine life left on the reef. Christina and her husband have proposed a project that would solve some of these problems by certifying local fishermen (the same ones that are using dynamite fishing techniques + hurting the reef system) to become dive masters and coral reef monitors. This project would provide jobs for the local community, as well as work towards preserving this beautiful reef system. Christina filled us in that the project went off without a hitch! They now have fifteen young adults that will participating in helping with the project. They are now waiting for the donors to respond and help fund this project. If you’d like to learn more about diving in the area, Domino Volunteers can also connect you to their dive operation and project. If you’d like to donate or learn more about the success of the project, make sure to stay tuned to Domino Volunteers and all of their social media outlets!

Volunteering - How to Get Involved

One thing that I absolutely love about this organization is that when you get in contact with Domino Volunteers, they have you fill out a form of your preferences (i.e., how long you plan to volunteer, your interests, past volunteer experiences). After this, Christina is able to search through her network of organizations and place you in the best possible volunteer opportunity suited to your interests and skill set. They prefer that most people stay at least a month but they can place you in particular projects if you are planning to stay less than that. Another great aspect of this program is that you are placed with a local host family where you are able to practice your Spanish, integrate with local culture, and feel secure and safe. 

If you are interested in volunteering while in Cartagena, feel free to email Christina @dominovolunteers@gmail.com. Make sure to check out their Facebook, website, and Instagram for all their latest news + updates on current project.

TOP 3 REASONS JARDIN WAS OUR FAVORITE TOWN IN COLOMBIA

“This-Is-AMAZING!” I kept repeating to Corinne over and over. It was by far our favorite accommodation of the trip. Within minutes of arriving into the small coffee town, we stumbled upon Finca Hostal Condor de los Andes guesthouse resting on the mountain slope with five shades of vibrant green surrounding us in the distance. We asked the receptionist if there was any space available, and he said that all of the rooms were taken. Moments later, he came up with the brilliant plan to remove all of his belongings from his tiny room on the side of the B&B and offered us his place to spend the night. The room was just slightly bigger than our bed with a bathroom the size of a tiny storage closet. After opening the red window and gazing out into the mountains, we both looked at each other and said, “We’ll take it!”

1.) OUR HOSTEL - FINCA HOSTAL DE CONDOR 

Our favorite part of this entire experience was sitting on our private balcony sipping fresh coffee from the region while reading, journaling, and taking in the crisp mountain air. After watching the sunset that first night, we walked five minutes to the central plaza and discovered a live acapello group from Cuba performing. Every seat was taken with interested locals sipping coffee and drinking local cerveza.

2. THE CHARACTER + BEAUTIFUL COLORS OF THIS TOWN

What’s really enticing about this plaza is that all of the restaurants have their designated seating in the cobble stone center with cute hand-made furniture decorated with images of the surrounding landscapes. When the group had finished performing, we walked across the plaza and sat in another restaurant’s section surrounded by old men with their cowboy hats, horses galloping nearby, and families humming to the loud Colombian tunes blasting from the nearby restaurants.

3. THE AMAZING HIKES + VIEWS

The next morning we decided to pack our day-packs and head for the surrounding mountains. We started our adventure following a windy dirt road along the valley’s edge until we spotted a cute guesthouse next to the river. After a quick tour, the guy told us about a nearby waterfall that we could walk to within an hour. The walk was stunning! Flowers of every shade lined the road and vibrant colored homes beamed with beauty. We crossed the bridge and took a smaller dirt road along the river and eventually came across a refreshing waterfall pouring out beside the road. 

We then continued on the road passing by small family farms and eventually dead-ended at a large plantation home. I looked on the side of the house and saw a path continuing up through the backyard and jetting out into the back of the valley. After hiking higher and higher passing several streams and various farm plots, we reached the back of the valley with a large, staircase waterfall pouring off the cliff into the river down below. For both of us, it’s not about reaching the end destination, but more about the entire journey that it takes to discover these hidden gems. We rarely take tours because most of the fun is exploring the surrounding sights without any knowledge or exceptions of what maybe unfold. 

Jardin was one of those towns you want to tell everyone about and at the same time keep it a total secret so it never changes. It was truly magical in every way for us. From exploring the vast surrounding landscapes to sipping coffee among the locals to watching the old men trotting on horses in large cowboy hats. We will never forget waking up each morning and sitting on our balcony wrapped in warm blankets viewing the stunning mountains while being able to completely turn off + slow down from the hustle and bustle of traveling. Try their local coffee, explore the surrounding landscape, kick back and live like the locals, and you'll find yourself mesmerized by the simplicity of this lifestyle and wanted to stay forever.

OUR FAVORITE CULTURAL EXPERIENCE IN COLOMBIA

COLOMBIAN QUINCEANERA: FIESTA OF A LIFETIME

The night before ending our three week stay in Medellín, we realized that it was also the same night as Valentina’s quinciñera. Valentina was a sweet fourteen-year-old from the orphanage who we had time spent getting to know. We had also watched her practice countless hours performing with her friends to prepare for her big night - her 15th birthday party. Turning fifteen for a young woman in Latin America is a HUGE deal. Friends and family all attend this special night to welcome the young girl into womanhood. 

Ryan and I again had the crazy idea of just showing up to the orphanage and surprising the kids + Valentina on this special night. Karina, a lively and always cheerful staff member, had asked us to attend the big event when we were volunteering. However, thinking about our schedule ahead and knowing we would be in Cartagena by the time of the party, we had to politely decline. Now that we knew we wouldn't be leaving until the next morning, we couldn't miss it! Plus, how amazing would it be to attend an event that would hold such prominence in the rest of her life?! 

When we arrived to the orphanage, we were welcomed with open and arms and huge smiles. Silia, another staff member of JUCUUM, invited us to sit at the very front of the room right next to Valentina’s mom. This was a huge surprise! We were simply ready to crouch in the back wherever we found room. When we saw Enithe, the main “tia”, she looked at us with the brightest eyes of all. She immediately saw Ryan with his camera and literally almost started crying. She told him, “Ryan, is there any way you can take pictures for the event? I have been praying for days for a photographer and God has answered my prayers tonight with you being here.” He, of course, jumped at the opportunity and was officially deemed the photographer of the whole event! We were so stoked that we went and knew how much it would mean to Valentina and everyone there to always have these special photos!

Once our emotions settled from such a warm introduction, we realized that this was a LEGIT party. The boys, girls + staff were all dressed in their nicest and most formal white and black attire. The whole downstairs was decked out with blue and black decorations hanging from every inch of the ceiling. A huge picture of Valentina displayed next to the massive cake and small appetizers lay on the center table just waiting to be munched on. Numerous chairs filled with all of the kids, family and friends surrounded a space where there would be dances, singing performances, and many blessings given to Valentina from the most important individuals in her life.

We watched as Valentina lit up and danced her way to the center of the room with her closest friends. She wore a brightly jeweled blue dress that took up most of the performance area. Later on in the night, Enithe explained to us that every year a girl has her quincinera (or turns fifteen), a donor gives a certain amount of money for the event (for food, the dress, decorations, etc). This whole celebration would not have been possible without this donor. 

All the young girls of the orphanage performed a fun dance for the birthday girl. The boys did a separate dance, as well. I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire night. Some of the older staff sang beautiful melodies and played various instruments for her. There was the handing down of a baby girl doll from Valentina to another young girl symbolizing leaving Valentina’s childhood behind and taking her newest steps in becoming a woman. The best of all, though, were the words + blessings that her extended family of relatives, friends, and elders shared with her throughout the evening welcoming her into a newly defined and purpose-driven stage in her life. It was inspiring and humbling to see how much love surrounded this young woman on this night. 

By the end of the night, we were able to download every video and picture from the party on Enithe’s computer, give Valentine her birthday present, and say our goodbyes to everyone for the final time. We knew God put a call on our hearts to go back to that party for a reason and we are so much more grateful for what we were able to give than what we could ever receive. Happy Quincinera, Valentina! You are so loved.