In my original “Packing for World Travel” post, I listed the Pacsafe roller bag LS21, both for its airline carryon size, as well as its security features such as knife deflecting wire mesh cloth, lockable pull tabs, and solid zippers that resist being pried open.
I made a last minute decision on the roller vs backpack – the roller won, and for 4 months this has served me well. I didn’t do any camping in Chile, and not in my 3-4 months in Peru.
But the 5th month was the change.
In August, I did 2 treks: the Inca Jungle Trek, and the true trek: a self-supported trek of the Lares Trek – one of the major Inca trails to Machu Picchu, but this time we figured out our own transport logistics, trail finding, camping and food hauling/cooking.
And it was a revelation.
Unlike many of the popular 14ers in Colorado, we had the trek mostly to ourselves, only occasionally meeting trekkers going the opposite way, and camping alone in stone formations, and drinking water from streams.
And hauling a rented, oversized backpack I realized I would do better with something a tad more custom.
A couple weeks prior to leaving for Chile, I met a dental Hygienist who had done a fair bit of world travel herself who convinced me of taking a roller bag. ‘There’s never been a place where I couldn’t roll my roller – even dirt roads.” And, after months of watching travellers struggling with bags nearly as big as themselves I smugly thought I had made the correct decision.
And mostly, that was true.
Rolling my way through sidewalks, asphalt, cement, and yes, dirt roads, this seemed infinitely easier than carrying something on my back. And the security features gave me piece of mind as I threw this into the holding storage of busses and hostels.
The roller also gave me a tad more anonymity and freedom from the touts as they looked for the big backpacks that signalled the extranjeros here with their perceived big bucks naivete, whereas I rolled past them – another possible local on his way home.
And, if I restricted myself to just the cities and streets this would suit me well.
But that didn’t last.
From the first time I saw the towering peaks of Lares, and breathed the thin air above 15,000 feet I was hooked.
In Colorado I rarely backpacked. It was simply too convenient to do car camping. But, travel breaks you out of routines, and sipping hot chocolate in a stone cabin sans roof with the mountains, sky and stars as my companions – made me go, “Hot damn, why didn’t I do this more when I was in Colorado!”
And so I bought some new hiking boots, and a brand spanking new backpack and set sail for my new passion. It pairs well with my other passion of rock climbing, and I could see myself doing more alpine style assaults, with a possible try at a 6,000 meter active volcano near Arequipa, treks in Huaraz and simply camping in El Potrero.
I’ve been in Cusco too long – time to get out. This weekend we go to Vilcabamba!
I’m not going to make outrageous statements, like “Learn Spanish in a Month!” But I do think you can get to the level of having simple conversations with a local in 5 months, feel completely comfortable in particular travel situations, such as hotel checkins, renting a car and ordering a meal, and even having some in-depth conversations regarding subjects such as politics, film reviews and other conversational topics.
I caught myself having a conversation with a local in line for Machu Picchu, talking about where we were both from, what was the best thing to do early in Machu Picchu, and what we were going to travel to next. I kind of had this Satori moment where I realized as I was talking that I was able to understand, and was able to be understood while speaking in Spanish. It blew me away, frankly! This type of conversation would have been impossible for me 5 months ago, and I realized that maybe I had a method that worked for me that could work for others.
I am not a natural language learner, in fact I started learning Spanish in my 40’s. I tried Spanish classes – getting lost in tenses and vocabulary, even hired a tutor at one point, but I had a turning point when I got serious about language learning, and figured out a process.
I think this video has a point, and that in order to make changes in your life – like learning a language, takes more than motivation. It comes down to making a decision, even in the moments of hesitation. That being said, I think having a motivation is the spark that makes you continue towards success – and for me that motivation is connected to running away from pain.
I was volunteering in Chile, and if you haven’t already heard, Chilean Spanish is known to be one of the most difficult to understand versions of Spanish that is out there. Much of it is because of the way they speak Spanish. A Chilean friend explained how Chileans “inhale” the “s” sounds, so “Gracias” becomes “Graia”. Chilean Spanish is also full of slang, and the words are also spoken faster with fewer changes in intonation.
For me it sounded as if the person speaking was gargling with marbles.
But working as a volunteer, I had to understand what was being said – especially in the midst of a breakfast rush when the words became commands, and you only had a half-second to understand what was being said, and take action – to fill breakfast bowls, to refill napkins, make coffee, take orders.
The cook in charge, a short stout Chilean woman, grabbed me by the shirt, pulling me down eye to eye saying, “Escuchame! Escuchame!…” then said some other things I didn’t understand.
In that moment, the pain of not understanding, and the pain of not being understood was the singular motivation that pushed me to become more fluent in Spanish.
If you don’t have this sort of motivation, motivation that came for me from actually living and working in a foreign country – it becomes difficult to create the spark that drives the machinery towards fluency.
Find your motivation.
I had previously casually used an audio program I liked called the Pimsleur Method – I just needed to programatize it in a way that would lead to fluency.
The Pimsleur Spanish Program takes advantage of a method called “Spaced Repetition” or “Graduated-Interval Recall.” Basically, introducing new words, then reintroducing them later in gradually increasing spaced out intervals. It’s a method of memorizing massive amounts of information, and given that complete fluency involves 3,000 words, this type of method is perfect for learning Spanish.
The entire CD series is in 5 parts, with 30 lessons each. 1-5 CD sets can be purchased as CDs, with #5 can also be downloaded using Amazon’s Audible audio program.
The lessons are meant to be listened to one per day, with the next lesson in the series to be listened to the following day. The lessons are only around 30 minutes long, which means you learn and memorize small chunks of the language per day, which is also known as a better method than cramming a bunch of learning in a single go.
In conjunction with Pimsleur, I also knew that fluency is a numbers game, and that casual conversation, or semi-fluency required at least 1,000 words. Apps seemed to be a decent way to learn additional vocabulary in a way that would be fun and interesting. After using apps like Babbel and Lingo Arcade, I winnowed the list down to DuoLingo and Memrise. Those 2 seemed to be the best of the bunch in terms of an app that could help me learn Spanish.
Once you have your motivation, or the spark that will drive you to do the things to learn Spanish, and gathered the material you will use to learn the language, the next step is to define a process, or schedule which will automatically give you success.
For me, I was trying to figure out something I could do to help me learn Spanish on a daily basis for 1-2 hours a day.
Allow myself to stop and start, rewind and replay the first time around.
I would take a break – walk around, order breakfast – whatever.
I would listen to the lesson a second time – this time at regular speed, with no pauses, rewinds or replays.
Follow up with doing the daily Duolingo and Memrise lesson.
All-in-all this took me around 2 hrs/day.
Why This Worked for Me
The initial motivation was enough to drive me to study 2 hours/day for 6 months. Without a solid reason you may not have enough of a push to make the effort to learn a language. For me it was the pain of not being understood.
Having proven learning materials at hand gave me a blueprint towards fluency.
And setting up a schedule (and working the plan) automates the process that leads to fluency (or semi-fluency).
I think it also works because using an audio program is similar to the experience of actually having a conversation – looking at the other person, and conjuring the words in your head – in real time!
Frankly, I hated Rosetta Stone. Sitting in front of a computer while trying to learn Spanish was just maddening to me. Maybe because my profession involves computers, adding another task on top just seemed like work for me. I also felt they stressed rote repetition, which I didn’t like. That being said, Rosetta also has a track record of success, and it might work for you – I just knew it wouldn’t work for me.
Language classes also were not very good for me. I think mainly because of the breaks between classes where I would subsequently lose most of what I had learned from the previous class. Also, teachers methods and abilities changed – some I responded to, while others I found just horrible. I knew I needed a consistent method that I responded to applied consistently over time. Pimsleur, plus a couple of language apps were the ticket for me!
Other Ways to Improve Language Learning
The above method of studying 2 hrs a day using the Pimsleur CDs, and the two apps Memrise and Duolingo is the main things I did consistently to improve my Spanish. Some other things I did also helped:
Listening and trying to understand Spanish lyrics in popular songs (Despocito, Bailando, Deja Vu, etc)
Watching Popular Movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles turned on (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Pt II, etc)
Watching 5 minutes of Spanish language television/day. This was a tip given to me by a Spanish teacher. You get to hear different pronunciations of words in conversations at real speeds. Just 5 minutes – be it news, or telenovellas – or whatever is on!
Being in a country that speaks Spanish.
This last was a great boon to my learning, and admittedly not one available to everyone. But actually having to use the language everyday in everyday situations really cements the usage in a way nothing else can compare with. Traveling through Chile, and then Peru expanded my vocabulary, and made me more comfortable in using the language daily.
But, if you can’t get to a foreign country, you can create your own immersive environment by always listening to Spanish music, only watching Spanish language movies, and trying to interact with native speakers in restaurants, Meetups and other situations where you get to practice with a native.
This is the exact way I learned to be semi-fluent: using the Pimsleur CDs, and mobile apps of DuoLingo and Memrise, then working my plan of studying 2 hours a day. Of course this leads to semi-fluency, why wouldn’t it!
I also had the advantage of traveling through South America, but that is kind of beside the point. I met several folks who didn’t know a lick of Spanish while traveling through South America, and exited with only the barest understanding of a few words of tourist Spanish. Travel by itself is not the key to learning another language.
Programatized effort over time is the way to learn to be semi-fluent.
If you are interested in becoming at least semi-fluent, know that it takes time and dedication – and a plan of action. If you decide to give my method a try, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Okay, so it’s not the cheapest. I think that record goes to this guy at 37 soles. It also doesn’t cost $2,000 USD as a Brit told me it cost him, over a game of cards and cervezas at a restaurant at the bottom Colca Canyon.
No major hikes, such as the Inca Trail is involved. I also include the train, which if you aren’t shelling out for the Inca Trail is a must – just a classy way to travel. The big windows on the Peru Rail help you see the dramatic mountains on either side.
How I did it is also a more leisurely way of doing things, spending a night here and a night there to break up the travel and rest and relax a tad. I’ll also include the price of the train, busses with some options you could consider that would adjust the cost and be either more or less comfortable. I won’t include price of meals, as they can range from $3-100+.
DESCRIPTION of TRAVEL
I started my travels, as many who go to Machu Picchu, in Cusco. Cusco is where I bought my entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. After spending a night there I went by Collectivo to Ollantaytambo where I spent another night in a dorm of a cheap hostel there. At Ollantaytambo I purchased my roundtrip tickets to Machu Picchu and back.
The next day I took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. I spent another night in a hostel dorm room with 2 bunk beds before departing at 3am to stand in line for the busses that go through the narrow winding steep road to Machu Picchu
I happened to stay in cheap dorm rooms, so different accommodations can change the cost dramatically. I would go to Booking.com, and sort on price from low to high, then select based on Rating and Reviews.
Also, additional nights in either Aguas or Ollantaytambo would drive up the cost. I kind of wished I stayed overnight in Aguas, rather than take the train back to Ollantaytambo, but it worked out okay.
This way I was able to leave my Pacsafe roller bag in Ollantaytambo overnight while I went to Aguas. At Aguas, I was also able to leave my extra Pacsafe backpack of stuff at the hostel there, taking only the essentials (coats, snacks, water, etc) to Machu Picchu. I collected my bag from the hostel prior to my departure to Ollantaytambo.
This turned out great as I just took my extra Outdoor Research daypack (lightweight, waterproof, collapsible, light) while wandering around Machu Picchu.
Bare Bones Method
There are also some low cost tours in Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Look for signs for “Hydroelectrica” where they take care of the car transport, meals, entrance fee, and even a guide for less than $150. Or, you can do like this person did for $116 where she did everything herself. But, frankly, I think if you wanted to go barebones, a few extra dollars to have a tour agency take care of everything for you would be the less stress way of doing it.
Here’s the breakdown (in US Dollars):
– $11 Hostel single room in Cusco.
– $3.24 Colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
– $9 Ollantaytambo dorm room
– $61 Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
– $22.22 – RT bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back.
– $47 Entrance fee to Machu Picchu
– $65 Train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo.
– $9 Hostel in Ollantaytambo
Unbeknownst to most people, there are restrictions on what websites you are allowed to see depending on your location. This may come as a surprise, especially for the folks from the US, who are accustomed to being able to view most websites without restrictions. A simple click of the “Are you 21 years old or older” button being the most severe barriers to entry.
This changes once you go to, say, South America, and find that some YouTube Videos, some Netflix movies, and the bank website you are desperately trying to reach to transfer some cash into are all unavailable!
A solution to all of this is to get a VPN. I can only recommend, which is the one I use while I travelled through Chile and Peru: Private Internet Access.
I originally got this not for travel, but for protection while using public wifi at the cafe’s I frequent. A VPN is a first line of defense against the open protocols that reveal your laptop to the thieving public. Just for that reason alone is good enough to get a VPN.
Once you sign up for Private Internet Access, and activate the software, an icon appear above your browser on the upper right side. It looks like a greyed out robot until you activate it:
Click on the icon to select which state you want to appear to be from:
I’m in California – really!
I typically choose “California” as my state, although you can always just select “”Connect Auto”.
The icon turns black to indicate that it is now “On”:
And now, when I go to pay my mortgage, I now see the correct page:
I think you can see how useful this can be.
VPNs have a long history of helping dissidents in various countries get access to the outside world. But, they are also useful for ordinary tasks you are used to, especially for travel. Things like: accessing your bank account, transferring money….being able to watch a music video that is restricted from showing in Chile – that sort of thing.
There are many reasons for getting a VPN – security, access to the open web, etc. But for travel, a VPN becomes essential – for mundane financial tasks, access to films and videos – but also for security. Because the most access to the internet you are going to find are the wifi’s in cafe’s and restaurants. Access and security – big reasons to get a VPN!
‘They lied to us. They fucking lied to us!’ Zahi said.
I met Zahi at a hostel in Puno. He was leaving the next day, and just by happenstance our paths crossed, as many do, in the kitchen. We discussed how travel was so much cheaper (or can be) than anyone ever thinks it to be, and that governments spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about travel to other countries, when really – it was all a lie.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in my travels, which Zahi confirmed, has been very welcoming, very nice, and eager to help you have a good time. People want to show the best parts of their countries, and hospitality is a universal concept.
Zahi was from Israel, and he told me the only problems he’s had crossing borders was the U.S. Being from the U.S. I had a tinge of embarrassment, wishing that my country was more welcoming. Not sure who started it, but cross-country bickering has kept me out of Bolivia, leaving me with no desire to have a go again at a country that places such high hurdles to enter. And I fear that number of countries barring the US Citizen will only grow.
I’m currently in Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, trying to figure out the logistics of doing it on the cheap. Zahi called it, ‘…the most expensive Wonder of the World.’ Something like $125 US to enter, and that’s after paying trekking fees (if you do the Inca trail) starting at $500 and up. Rail fees to get to Aguas Caliente and back, plus tips for the guide and the folks carrying your gear can all add up. A fellow I met paid over $2,000 US for his 4 day trek.
The Great Pyramids, Zahi told me, had a $20 entrance fee.
3 months: 2 countries
I’m on my second country in 3 months of travel. I really thought I’d have more countries under my belt by now, but I didn’t account for how LARGE South American countries are, or the effect of my timeline on my psyche. Having an artificial deadline of a year has allowed me to forget about dates. Extend my stays in certain towns. Really discover places that some people sear through in a day or two – where oftentimes I’ll stay for a week, or even weeks. After a year, I am thinking stunned, I might only make a dent in South America.
Two Types of Travelers
A broad generalization is that I’ve met two types of travelers: the ones that are on vacation, or even some that are on Summer vacation, or a “gap year”, with a predetermined amount of time, that go from place to place, marking off their checkboxes on places travelled to, boxes to fill on places yet to come.
And then there is my friend Pedrito, who told me he stayed for 2 years in Argentina. I just saw in his Facebook feed that he finally made it to Bolivia, his 3rd country (after Chile), in his 3rd year.
I think I’m more in between. I don’t have any sort of urgency, other than my money running out. And so I stay longer in cheaper places, and shorter if it is too expensive.
But “too expensive” is relative.
My private room in Cusco is 60 Soles, which makes my pocketbook yelp. ‘But I was only paying 33 soles in Puno,’ I exclaim! But, if you do the calculation: 60 soles is around $20/night in the states. 33 soles was a steal at $11/night USD.
Try to find that low of a rate anywhere in the US.
Like I told Zahi: I had to leave the states in order to out-survive my money.
It’s too expensive to live in the US. It’s actually cheaper for me to rent my house out, which pays my mortgage, and buys my Obamacare, and then travel through South America on my savings, than it would be if I had tried to stay in the US.
Of course, I could always work – but that’s another story…;-)
A quote on a sign I saw in Mexico: “We were meant for more than to work and paying bills!”
After fighting a lawsuit against a multimillion dollar corporation for five years, ultimately winning some compensation, I realized that corporations can be the death of people. They don’t really care about you, they only care about their bottom line.
We used to be a nation of merchants, people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Now, all people look for is a “job”. Someone to take care of them, where hopefully they don’t have to work too hard, or think too much.
And so I look for the escape hatch.
I go from place to place, having experiences, eating things I might not normally eat, try to make myself understood in another language, and in turn understand others. And I remember the idea for a website my friend Jason had, which was Eat.See.Do. A website where he would blog and vlog about his travels – Seeing, and Eating and Doing things.
And that’s what it comes down to – seeing, eating and doing.
But, a part of me wants more than this. And yes, I know that this is a privileged position to be in, in not having the struggle to simply exist. It reminds me of the Tom Hanks response, on why, since he has so much money, does he still act: “You can only eat so well.”
And so, I make my purpose: learn Spanish. Find places to climb. And in the middle: eat.see do. I work on my affiliate business, writing reviews and video blogging, and I see the needle move. I dabble in trading, and see potential there as well. Money is a drag, but in this world you have to “…Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – and that is money.
And after money: it having a purpose.
I recently Skyped with my friend Amelia, having to reschedule after her life became busy with house-hunting and job/life conundrums. I try to sympathize, but all I have is time. I look forward to these Skype calls, but understand when life gets in the way. I gird myself for possibly having to wait another month to be able to communicate with my dear friend.
But we were able to make it work, rescheduling for 3 days hence.
‘How’s it going?’ Amelia’s smiling face said.
‘Well, it doesn’t suck,’ I joked.
But, if I look at things honestly, I’ve had some suck, and my fill of FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. But, this was mostly in the early weeks of travel, when my greatest fear was losing everything I owned, of being scammed, of being robbed or taken advantaged of in some way.
But, having systems in place, and just being savvy goes a long way to suppressing the FUD. Now, once the logistics are out of the way, I find myself enjoying myself. And yes, the world is (mostly) really nice.
And in these long stretches of enjoyment I still have moments of intense loneliness, of being on an alien planet where no one really understands me. Where I tire of relationships that survive the length of a 3 day tour, and then vanish with a ‘Ciao,’ as you exit the tourist van, never to see these people again.
But: I have also met some of the most amazing people as well, adventurers who have taken it upon themselves to go exploring, to see what this world has to offer, and I have to say, even the brief moments of despair – it doesn’t suck at all. Even the sucky parts are great. Because how great is it to feel lonely in a foreign country. YOU’RE IN A Fucking FOREIGN COUNTRY, YO!
Some keys to thrive:
• Have low expectations. Some people would balk at a toilet with no seat. Or having to throw used toilet paper into a basket. If you can take those in stride then you may be able to thrive traveling. Because the rest is marvelous!
• Try to speak the language. It just smooths things over – and is fun.
• Take challenges as part of the fun. I used to be sort of afraid of learning the new currency. But an Army friend of mine gave me a new perspective: ‘I just think that’s part of the fun.’
• Have a positive take – on everything. If you are the type to compare everything against your home country you’ll miss out on the great stuff, and be sorely disappointed.
• Don’t be so demanding. I saw this guy from England pushing our guide around like a servant, telling him to go tell the waiter to bring more chicken out to the buffet. Our guide was a certified mountain guide, not a servant to be pushed around. And just because you pay money doesn’t excuse you from acting like an ass.
• And if you travel alone – make friends. Or make friends with being by yourself.
This last is key, for me anyway. I find myself more cordial, more funny, more public when on a tour, where I am forced to make friends, and be in groups. Normally a very private person, I become more jovial and vocal while traveling. And then, I can go back to enjoying learning my spanish with my headphones in place, enjoying the sunshine at a cafe table in Cusco – alone.
And, when I see public arguments from a couple having perhaps first discovering that they are NOT as compatible as they had formerly had thought – well, being alone seems just grand. That there are worse things than being alone.
I remember leaving a tour van with barely a wave goodbye. Because, while everyone was nice enough, there was a little that irritated me about every one – be it the berating of our guide, or a snide remark, or the slagging of the hike – which I had found incredible – that I just wanted to escape.
And traveling alone – I could. With enough money to get a nice private room where I could explode my bags without a word of disparagement, stretch out – be a slob. Take myself out for a “pricey” $20 meal, order dessert, get drunk – whatever. Because the only person I have to account to – is myself.
3 month in, I’ve had my share of struggles, but if the worst is a few sharp jabs of loneliness, then all-in-all it’s been great. I’m glad I’ve made videos of my experiences as I’ve travelled – it’s nice to look back and see what I’ve done, what places I’ve seen and the experiences I’ve had. Time can fly by so fast, and it’s good to have markers of your journey to look back on and experience. I’ve only been to 2 countries – but they are huge. Peru is twice the size of Texas, and if you laid Chile on its side it would span across the continental US – if that gives you some perspective!
I’ve been to so many cities, if they are at all similar they start to blur. Was that Iquique or Arica where I went paragliding? Or was that surfing? All in all though traveling, and traveling the way I do, with barely an agenda, and time to spare – has been glorious!
I do what every other backpacker who stays at a hostel does: I go to either Booking.com, or Hostelworld.com (or TripAdvisor, etc) and filter on 8.5 stars and above, and then sort on price.
The problem is that everyone does that, and suddenly you’re faced with a completely full dorm room, and companions the like of which you may neither approve nor deny.
The last 8.8 hostel I stayed at had all 4 beds full, one of which had a very loud snorer. The second was next to a busy street with honking taxis cruising by till 2 in the morning.
So, despite their many amenities: “free” breakfast, luggage storage, pool table, foosball, laundry service, etc, all I really want is a clean, quiet, secure place with nice front desk people – all at an affordable price.
Sites such as Tripadvisor, and Yelp attempt to fulfill the Dream of Social Media, (no more crappy products) – the truth of the matter is that once a person exits a reviewable locale, the burning of the bridges commences.
Here’s the thing: you kind of have to read between the lines and figure out what you can and can’t live with. Also, after a place has had a few bad reviews, many attempt to salvage whatever stars they have by fixing their place up. The gift in that is you may, like myself, have a 4 bed dorm room all to yourself.
This place is quieter than my last hostel, and except for 2 nights where I had to share the room, I’ve had the place entirely to myself. It’s like having a private room without paying the private room price (about 3 times as much as a dorm).
At the moment, I’m paying less than $7 USD/night (gotta love Peru!), and while I could afford the private room – like the proverb says: why buy the cow when I get the milk for free? So what that there’s no lock on the bathroom door – I’m the only one here! And so what there’s a drip from the shower – I just close the bathroom door, and I don’t notice it.
Because of the price I felt able to stay longer in Arequipa. I find myself exploring, and spending more at new restaurants because of the money I’m saving by staying at a cheap hostel. And hey, I only go to my hostel to sleep – only occasionally to socialize.
But what I like is a bit of quiet. Access to a kitchen to boil water for my tea. A comfortable bed – and an empty room is icing on the cake.
I did a bit of hostel-visitations, just to see what I was possibly missing out on for that extra star or two. What I found were nicely appointed rooms, cool common areas with ping pong table, shuffle board, etc – and invariably full dorm rooms. Everyone comes for the 8.8 starred cheap hostels, and I mean everyone. So, if that’s what you are looking for – be prepared.
Oftentimes a highly rated place is full, when down the street there may be a 7 star up-and-comer – that is clean, quiet, nice staff, with no pool table, nor foosball – and completely empty!
Read between the lines
Now, you do have to read the reviews carefully. One key is to see if bad reviews were in the past, and newer reviews are more positive. Look at what the people complaining are complaining about – if it has to do with either bedbugs or loud honking in the wee hours of the night – maybe you should look elsewhere. But maybe it’s because the place doesn’t have a kitchen, or church bells rang on Sunday, or no laundry service – or whatever. Consider whether those are things you actually need. If not – why not check it out and see what it’s like.
Tips and Tricks
What I like to do is only book a room for my first 2 nights in a city. In those first couple of days, I go visit a few other hostals that look interesting on Booking.com, or one of the other review sites, but I don’t limit it to just the 8.5 starred and above – I throw in a couple 7 star hostels as well. Some I find to deserve their lower stars, but once in awhile I’ll find a gem in the rough that fits my criteria with the added bonus of not breaking the bank. I’ll book it for a couple night just to see if the reality meets my expectations – and if it does then I will likely complete my stay there. The bonus is that for longer stays, you get to know the staff, and you tend to get treated a bit better – free luggage storage, cheaper laundry service – or something.
Anyway, give it a try and let me know in the comments if this worked for you.
Maps.me could have made my life easier when I found myself lost in a bad part of Santiago. Ahh well, that experience is far behind me now, like 2 months ago, if you can believe it (I hardly can). And, I have also been using maps.me to help me get around parts unknown for awhile now.
Maps.me, if you don’t already know, is a mapping app, much like Google maps, but unlike Google Maps, it has a great offline feature. Using some unexplainable magic, the app pings nearby cell towers to establish your position and provide you with maps of the area. You do have to download an area map prior to use, which requires a wifi connection, so if you are planning a future trip, then I suggest searching for the new location, such as a city, where you will be prompted to download an area map if you do not already have it.
Once downloaded, I use Maps.me in conjunction with one of my online Travel Guides to make the map more interactive.
What I do is find a site I am interested in, a museum, or restaurant, or other local attraction, and once I find that location I bookmark that location by placing a colored star on it.
I then click “Edit this bookmark” and copy relevant details from the travel book for that location. This way I don’t have to flip back and forth from the travel guide to the location, the starred location already has the detail in one place.
On those long bus rides from city to city this is what I do to prepare and preplan what I want to visit once I arrive.
Typically, the first thing I do will be to locate the bus terminal, and the hostel I will need to travel to. This helps me figure out if I can either walk there, or if it is better to take a taxi.
From there, I add museums, restaurants and other local sites.
I use Kindle versions of travel guides such as Lonely Planet, and copy and paste their descriptions onto the starred locations.
Now, what I basically have is a localized map with detailed descriptions. It’s really helpful to have in this format, and I wish there was a service that already does this. Lonely Planet, if you are listening, can you team up with Maps.me – okaygreatthxbye!
Overall Route planning
I also pre-plan my big destinations by starring the major cities I plan on traveling to by bus. If I do not have a map for that portion of the globe I get a prompt to download the location from Maps.me.
But once I land, the once empty map starts to take on colored stars as I add places I either want to visit, or have visited:
Giving certain colors to certain landmarks makes finding them so much easier. You can use Red for major landmarks, for example, green for restaurants, blue for museums – whatever makes sense to you. All of sudden, your map is customized to your travels. You can not only add travel guiedbook information – you can travel notes, memories of the place, what you’ve experienced – whatever comes to mind. All of a sudden the map becomes not just a tool for orientating – it becomes a way to memorialize your travels.
But again, some things that I thought would be useful have really not been, and so were left behind – mostly left at the last hostel I found myself in.
Things I left behind:
Super Dry Travel Towel. Super light, super absorbent…but felt like rubbing a bed sheet over my body. Sometimes you want a tad more comfort, and for me a towel is one of them.
Collapsible plate. Thought I’d use it, never did. Ironically, I am in a place that doesn’t have a kitchen I can use, and this might have been used today. But I am moving out because of the lack of a kitchen, and will only stay in hostels that have one – so no plate needed.
Travel Chess. Small, lightweight – yet never used. I like chess, but not enough to harass fellow travelers to play. Cities often have dedicated tables to play – and while I used to do that, I find myself without the desire to match myself against others in a game. Out!
Windsock for the boom microphone for my iPhone. It’s a tad bulky for it’s size – and I just never used it. Never found myself in windy enough conditions to justify it’s use. Out!
I actually did use this a couple of times, but what I’ve found is that hostels typically have a place to hang clothes, and if they don’t I also have a security cable that can double as a clothesline in a pinch. I used it in this manner a few hostels ago to both secure my luggage to a bedpost, and also to lay wet socks and underwear to dry. Since I have an item that I use for the same purpose/multiple purposes, I let this one go.
Some items, I just lost, like my beloved Outdoor Research Helium II jacket. Probably left somewhere in Arica, Chile. Still looking for a replacement. Also, my beloved Sea to Summit Ultra Sil daypack. I lost this in San Pedro de Atacama. I know exactly where I lost it, as I was sunning myself after dipping into a hot mineral spring fed river. I was actually using it as a pillow. Then, the tour van was leaving, I just got up – and left my bag. Luckily, there was nothing of value in it – except my toiletry bag. The only thing I miss is my compact sonic toothbrush.
As a replacement to my old N-Rit Super Light Towel, I got the slightly larger N-Rit Super Dry Towel in Xtra large upgrade version. Made by the same company, this one is just more like a towel – has a softer, slightly thicker cloth, but still bundles up to nearly the same size. Since getting rid of my other towel (and other items) this made room for something a little more deluxe.
Travel toothbrush that folds into itself. Not a sonic, but also doesn’t use batteries. Plusses and minuses.
Here’s the thing: If I don’t use an item, (or use it infrequently) in a period of 2 months – then I discard it. Other items that get lost is kind of the price you pay for traveling. A fellow traveler after hearing my tale of a lost coat said: ‘I’ve lost 2 coats so far. That happens, don’t worry too much about it. You can always find something suitable.’
And, he’s right.
I’m still looking for a replacement for my Helium II jacket – but I am holding off for now. Arequipa is sunny and really dry. The store here that has Camping Gear has a North Face waterproof jacket, but it’s a tad heavy for my tastes – but may work if necessary. Right now, I have all that I need – and that’s enough.
As I’ve said before, expertise is not just expressed in knowing how and when to use things, it’s also knowing how to do without.
‘You can just go to the border. I had a couple friends do that, and they were waived through. I think Bolivia is just interested in getting the $160 US dollars,’ she said. I evaluated her advice against the research I did, and while it might work in a specific instance where the border guards were lax, how much would it suck to wait 10 days at some cold border station with no accommodations, no sleeping bag, no nothin’?
I decided that I needed to go through their embassy, and they happened to have one in Antofagasta, a coastal town in Chile. I was considering cooling my heels in Calama, since Bolivia also has a consulate there, but as my friend Edu remarked in Facebook “…Calama is awful.”
Antofagasta it is!
Here’s the thing: The Bolivian Consulate is not well marked. The address they have on their own consulate page is incorrect. I know, I went there. It’s off by about a block. Google maps marks it a little closer, but is still off of the entrance by about 50’.
The closest map marker is through using maps.me, a mobile mapping app I use. You enter through a parking garage, and go up 4 flights of stairs, and take a right.
“Consolada de Bolivia” the sign said. A harried Boliviano official behind the desk was busy fiddling with some papers when I came in, so I just stood there for awhile. Once he noticed me I told him I’d like to get a visa. He responded with some rapid Spanish, something about the internet. Finally showing me some documents that I should have. I figured out I needed to apply through and online form on their website.
After a few Google searches, I was able to find their application form and their directions. These are their requirements:
To fill out the form, the applicant will be asked to have the requirements in digital format, which should not exceed 300Kb. The photograph must be uploaded in .jpg format and the others must be in .pdf format. Once completed the form must be printed and sent physically with the other requirements.
Passport valid for at least 6 months.
One (1) color photograph passport size, front without lens.
Copy of the hotel reservation, or letter of invitation of relatives and / or friends that includes the address and the time of stay.
Copy of the flight e-ticket or flight reservation.
Copy of solvency bank (Bank extract of your checking account, savings or your credit card) ..
Cost is equal to $ 160.00, payment to be made in Money order or credit / debit card.
Once I filled out the requirements, which included a scanned copy of my passport (I took a shot with my cellphone), as well as uploading a visa photo, I went back to their offices.
Closed. Apparently, they are able to shift hours around, so I had to come back at 5:30pm instead of 3:30.
When I came back, there was some sort of argument going on – couldn’t follow a word. Now I understood why he seemed so harried, probably had to deal with consulate immigration and visa issues all day.
Finally, he saw me, I handed him my papers. He seemed nicer this time – not sure why, maybe because I finally got my shit together. He clipped all my carefully printed out documents together and told me (it was Friday now) to come back on Monday at 9am.
2 more days in Antofagasta
It’s not the horrible boring city people made it out to be. I find it up and coming, like Denver in the 90’s. A nice coastal town, nice boardwalk, central plaza, yadda yadda with some new construction going in. A poor part of town (north), but picturesque houses crowding the hills that must have a killer view.
But, it’s just a city like any other city. At least my part of town seems pretty safe.
Frankly, I was this close to skipping Bolivia. But how could I skip the country that hid Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Also, my friend Kata encouraged me: “You’ve got to go to Bolivia. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would!”
Yeah, you hear that Bolivia is very poor, like Peru, but that it’s also dirt cheap – which is great for travelers. And that the language schools are great in Sucre, where you can get 1-on-1 instruction from the slower and smoother Spanish of the Bolivianos. Not to mention the natural wonders of the Bolivian Salt Flats, et al. But, like Pedro says, “Eh, you go there, take the Instagram photo, and then you leave, missing out on all these other great towns nearby.” Pedro, a well-travelled Portuguese guy told me if I have the time, to cross the border to Argentina, and explore the northern Argentinian towns. He said they have just as much to offer in cultural experiences as Uyuni and San Pedro.
2 Days Later in Antofagasta…
I arrive Monday morning at 9am for my scheduled meeting, and it’s a full room with about 8 people waiting. Compared to the Chilean Immigracion line wrapped around the block, though, just outside the building, this is nada.
Still, I wait behind someone who is faster to the counter, finally he starts handing out numbers. I’m number 8.
Finally, I’m in front of his desk, and after looking at my printed forms and what I sent online, he tells me that I need to make a $160 USD deposit into the Consulada de Bolivia bank account. What he doesn’t tell me (or perhaps I missed it in his fast Chilean Espanol) is that the deposit has to be in US Dollars – the bank won’t accept the deposit otherwise.
I go to a nearby money changer (Cambio), and think I get out with a fairly decent exchange of $1.49 USD/1,000 Chilean peso and pay the deposit.
I run back to the Consulate, receipt in hand, thinking I that I finally hit paydirt.
He tells me to come back in a couple days. Bring both an entry and an exit ticket out of Bolivia.
MAN, they really just want you to get in, then get the f*ck out!
Well, as my friend Erin said, “It’s much harder for Bolivians to visit the US than it is for US citizens to visit Bolivia…” I think it’s in reference to the poverty in the country, so I’m actually in a privileged position in just being able to travel.
I know, #1stworldproblems, but I wasn’t feeling charitable at the time. I responded, “I’ll get Trump right on that!”
2 More Days in Antofagasta
Well, thank god I didn’t go to Calama for my Visa. From what I’ve been told, Antofagasta is a tad boring, but Calama, my friend Edu said ‘…is awful.’ Doesn’t sound appetizing. I actually like Antofagasta quite a bit, something about being the only tourist in a medium-sized coastal city has it’s appeal. And everyone seemed to be hustling, working, living – real, you know.
Not sure how lax the actual border is, but I thought…in the case of Visas…better be safe than sorry. Get the official visa from a local consulate, hopefully in a fairly safe and somewhat interesting town while you do the Visa dance.
Bolivia better be freakin’ AWESOME is all I’ll say…;-)
I head to the Consulate, entry and exit tickets in hand. I decided to enter through Calama, Chile, and exit through La Paz, Bolivia to Puno, Peru. I had to buy bus tickets through Recorrido.cl (from Calama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia) and ticketsbolivia.com for the exit from La Paz, Bolivia to Puno, Peru.
He looks at my documents and smiles a flat smile, and tells me to come back in a week. He says US Citizens need a special stamp.
Instead of cooling my heels in Antofagasta another week, I decide to head to San Pedro de Atacama, to enjoy the pleasures of the desert, mountain biking, hiking and soaking in various temperatures of water.
When I return from a 5 hour bus journey back, I enter the room, and again he hands out numbers – but not to me. I stand anxiously, and he waves me to follow him down a hallway into a nicely furnished room, with a black leather couch and matching black leather chairs. He points to one and I sit.
He explains calmly that my visa is delayed, but that it is not the Bolivian Consulate to blame, it is waiting on Washington D.C. – at least that’s what I think he said. The rest goes by in a blur. Another week? Maybe more? I ask if I can have my passport back. He says yes. I ask if I can have the $160 receipt for what I had already paid? He said to come back next week. My mind raced: is he angling for a bribe? Should I ask if there was a fee to help expedite the process?
Last thing I needed was a jail stay for trying to bribe a government official. No Bolivia, at least not this trip. But, just in case, I gather the necessary items for a run at the border, in case I change my mind.
How to cross into Bolivia at la Frontera (Border)
Fill out and print the Affidavit form from the Bolivian Consulate website.
Bring a Visa photo
US Passport valid for 6 months
Exit documents (Flight or bus)
Possibly a hotel reservation while in Bolivia.
Crisp $160 (suggested: a $100, and 3 $20 bills in pristine condition).
A lot seems to depend on how lax the border is. My friend crossed with the $160, a visa photo and a passport. Didn’t ask either her or her boyfriend anything about exit transport, or hotel stay. But my online research seems to say if you want as effortless a border cross as possible, bring as many validation documents as you can. One person was sent back to an ATM because of wrinkled bills. Another was sent to another town to fill out and print the validation form. Best to do these at some comfortable city than in a dusty border post.
I bought the bus tickets, planning only to use the entry, and decide on the exit later. Small price to pay if I changed my mind and decided to exit later. The hotel reservation I made on Booking.com and cancelled after I printed it out.
Anyway, if I had this all to do over again, I’d take my luck at the border, rather than do the visa dance with the Consulate. What I should have done was do this while hanging out in Santiago for 3 weeks – c’est la guerre. Who knows, maybe I’ll go there next year. Maybe, like Peru, Bolivia will allow US citizens to enter without a visa, but I won’t hold my breath, at least while a certain so-called president is in office.
‘Can I have a word with you outside?’ she said, eyes hardening. By her language, I knew I was in trouble somehow. The way she used ‘…have a word, ‘ instead of ‘can I talk with you…’
I followed Alejandra, a slim Chilena woman in her 30’s, long back hair swaying and her riding boots making a hard crack-crack sound on the cement.
I sat across from her at the metal patio table. It was chilly, and I felt my body shiver.
‘We have received complaints about you,’ she said. I was thinking, ‘Whaaat?’ I thought I was very nice with the guest, social without being overly personal. I thought it must be a miscommunication, and told her so.
‘A couple arrived and said you wouldn’t let them stay. They said you told them it was full, but I checked and you still had many beds available.
I remembered them, a couple, huge backpacks, asking for a habitacion privada (private room) with it’s own bathroom. We didn’t have one, so I suggested they go to the other hostel a 15 minute walk away. I told her this.
This seemed to soften her a bit, but she stopped and started asking about what I knew about the recepcion role: am I friendly with the guests (yes), did I turn on the music? (No, no one told me to) Did I take out the trash? (Of course). She asked if I told guests about the town using the small tourist map? Before I could answer, she said, ‘I showed you this before, but perhaps you forgot,’ throwing a glare at me, before explaining all the things one could do.
‘Do you tell them about the tours?’ No, she never told me I should. ‘If you are working in reception you must enjoy being a receptionist, otherwise I will have to replace you,’ she said, giving me a hard look.
I was thinking, so what? I didn’t want to be a receptionist in the first place. ‘You have time here, so you should be looking up things to do and the attractions La Serena has to offer,’ she said. I thought, I am a volunteer working for free, and am here temporarily, if you wanted a higher level of service and knowledge perhaps you should hire someone.
I let her repeat all the things I already knew. I remember Pedro, one of the longtime volunteers saying to me at their other beach hostel prior to my leaving for the hostal downtown: ‘Oh, you are working downtown?’ he said, eyebrows raised. Pedro was a 70 year old guy from Portugal who looked a couple decades younger. He had been there a month and a half, traveling on his rented house money – like me. He said, looking down, face going dark, ‘I wish you luck, my friend. The owner is over there, and…well, I just wish you luck.’
I considered that a warning, but I really didn’t want to know. I figured so many things are due to personality conflicts, or some other individual thing that wouldn’t apply to me.
I should have asked.
I liked being a receptionist, but I had a lightning bolt of terror whenever the phone rang. That meant I had to use my meager espanol skills to communicate. I even wrote down the greeting, so I wouldn’t forget, ‘Buenas tardes, Hostal — —–!’
The other thing was that they only gave me a 30 minute training with a staff person who didn’t speak english well. So, she demonstrated the job using a combination of Spanish and English, and I responded in bad Spanish. Nothing was written down, no checklist to follow, no price list, just 30 minutes and ‘here’s the phone!’
The only thing I could think of was that it was some sort of weird miscommunication with the couple, and said as much, ‘I don’t remember exactly, but for whatever reason we couldn’t accommodate them. But instead of sending them into the night, I got on the phone and made sure there was a room for them at the other hostal.’
Part of me was wondering if this was just a way to tighten up the work. Some sick workplace S&M. But, one thing I’ve learned is to always know you have self-worth, and to stand up for yourself, use your words, and state the facts. If I have done my job, and have nothing to be ashamed about, well then: I have nothing to be ashamed about.
Well, maybe I did something unintentional. ‘I’m sorry if there was something I didn’t understand. But we were communicating in English. But that wasn’t their first language, so maybe that’s it.’ She seemed to accept this, and said, ‘I’m going to Santiago tonight, so I won’t be back for a couple days.’
The next day, I received a whatsapp text from her, ‘We received another complaint, we cannot have you working recepcion anymore. You can stay and do hard garden work for the rest of your time here, or you can leave. Please let me know.’
W The actual F? I thought back on my work time there: There was one time I asked if a guest could help me with a call in Spanish. Another time I stopped checking in a mother-daughter to deal with a couple Chilenos deciding they didn’t want to stay, making the mother-daughter folks wait. Could that be it?
I decided it didn’t matter, and that I didn’t want to stay at a place that didn’t want me there.
Also, I thought back on Pedro’s warning, and that this was probably something that happened repeatedly. Their training sucked, and the owner was a bitch. That’s what I was thinking at that moment. They expected a volunteer, who is only there 2 weeks, to know all the details about their city and all the tours, plus all the small details of opening and closing the hostal, and were pissed off when things went wrong. I didn’t want anything to do with all that.
I just had one ameliorating thought: At least I can get a blog post out of this.