Cheap, Wanderer

How Much Does 5 Months in South America Cost?

During the 2018-2019 year, I spent roughly five months backpacking through two South American countries.  Three weeks prior to leaving the States I quit my full-time, well-paying, and benefits-providing job.  Knowing I would be income-less before my trip and unsure as to the state of my finances afterward, my goal was to spend no more than $1,000 a month, a modest spending considering the monthly cost of living in the Washington DC metro area.

Overall, how much did I spend?  I was fairly meticulous the first two to three months, recording almost every transaction (minus the 25-cent city bus rides).  I started to break down these numbers into Excel for your data-viewing pleasure, imagining beautifully colored pie charts as the maraschino cherry on top of this sundae of a blog post.  Unfortunately for me, my cost recording system didn’t quite make for easy categorization.  For example, several of the hostels in which I stayed  included breakfast and/or dinner in the price of the accommodation.  How should I best separate the food and accommodation costs of  a $10 a night hostel?  Would food come to a $3 or $4 portion of the $10 total?  It became too cumbersome, and, honestly, I was too lazy.  (If you would like to see the beautiful type of cost breakdown I was imagining, check out my outline of how much money I spent at the Galápagos Islands).

So here I have the less visually appealing, raw data for you – what was the total amount spent in South America?

By my calculations I spent 146 days travelling, which means I spent  $38.63 per day, for a total of $5,639.69.

(You’ll have to allow for plus or minus $50 error in my calculations, due to the fact that I’m not a mathematician and I didn’t account for every last cent.  I simply subtracted my ending bank balance from my starting bank balance, but I did earn a small amount of interest from this checking account during the time my money was present in the account.  We could really get into nuances here, such as whether I should count the day I left for Ecuador since my flight left after 12pm, but forget that.)

Overall, I’m very happy with the amount I spent.  While my actual numbers ran a bit higher than my original goal (for a 30-day month, I spent $1158.84), my goals changed slightly during my five-month trip.  When planning my trip, I budgeted to spend a month taking Spanish classes and living with a local family in Quito, Ecuador, after which I would travel for pleasure and volunteer for accommodation the rest of the trip.  However, after a month of classes I realized that while my Spanish had certainly improved, it wasn’t quite at the level at which I wanted it to be.  I therefore amended plans and attended a second month of classes while living with a local family in Cusco, Perú; this significantly impacted my budget while also allowing my Spanish abilities to flourish.  Looking back on this decision, it was absolutely the right move.  After the second month of daily Spanish classes I was able to cultivate my language fluency to a level where, seven months after returning from South America, I completed two bilingual interviews and was offered a full-time job where I now converse in Spanish daily with individuals who speak little to no English.

In the vain of 100% transparency, this is the amount of money I spent in South America.  Knowing I could not afford to travel while simultaneously paying bills at home, I eliminated all U.S. costs except for health insurance, which I purchased through the DC marketplace.  This medical and dental insurance was the only U.S. bill I maintained during my travels, although due to recent health policy legislation it was not a requirement.  However, working in the health care field and knowing my own personal health history, I didn’t feel comfortable with anything other than the highest tier of health insurance, which did cost a significant chunk of money each month.

All this being said, I hope my story helps eliminate the myth that travelling is expensive.  Even now, many people assume I spent frivolous amounts of money to quit my job and travel for five months.  However, even if I were to factor in the monthly payments for high-cost health insurance, my monthly costs while travelling were still below what I paid in Washington, DC prior to leaving my full-time job in 2018.

Matt Kepnes became famous for positing we can travel the world for $50 a day, and I always like to keep this metric in mind while travelling.  Where would you go for $50 a day?

During the 2018-2019 year, I spent roughly five months backpacking through two South American countries. Knowing I would be income-less before my trip and unsure as to the state of my finances afterward, my goal was to spend no more than $1,000 a month.

Wanderer

I Was Pickpocketed… And Why That Shouldn’t Stop You From Traveling

It’s taken quite some time for me to write this post.  Ten months ago, I was pickpocketed on a busy bus in Quito, Ecuador.  At first I refrained from writing about the situation because I was still processing what had happened.  In my experience, there was a certain amount of self-inflicted shame involved in being a victim of a theft.  I also didn’t want to write about the experience because I feared it would serve as a printed confirmation for all of the nay-sayers of my solo South America trip – the ones who told me travelling alone to South America as a gringa would be dangerous.  That it would be stupid to do so…. “We told you so.”

But here’s the thing – I wasn’t alone when this happened.  I was with a man, who, per the nay-sayers, was arguably supposed to protect me from all the dangers of the world.  But I digress; let’s go back to the beginning…

My partner, B, and I decided it would be lovely for him to visit me in Ecuador about two months into my backpacking trip.  It was easiest and cheapest for him to fly into Quito, so although I had had enough of the city Quito (too much concrete and diesel fumes) we spent a few days there before taking a trip to Otavalo, Ecuador.  Rather than paying a few bucks for a taxi to the northern Quito bus station, I insisted we take the hour-long ($0.25) bus to the Carcelén bus station, where we would then catch another bus to Otavalo.  Yes, you read that correctly – a taxi would have costs us less than $10, but after living in Ecuador for several months on top of being the stingy person I already was, I voted for us to take the 25 cent per person bus.  By this time I had been living in Quito for several weeks, had taken the city buses multiple times, and, in fact, had taken the exact route to the Carcelén bus station previously.  I felt safe on the buses, but also knew of the high risk of pickpocketing on this particular form of public transit.  Usually I can identify tourists in DC as those wearing their backpacks front-facing, but in Quito even the locals kept their backpacks on their front.

Before leaving the states I had purchased Travelon’s Anti-Theft Signature Quilted Messenger Bag secondhand, which gave me a bit more piece of mind as to my risk of being pickpocketed.  I had used it for several weeks while riding the Quito buses, as well as remaining vigilant of my surroundings and those near me.  Before B visited, I recommended he purchase a round-the-neck safety pouch for valuables, as he usually keeps his credit cards in his back pocket in the US.  Predictably, He didn’t.  That day I was all atwitter that he should give his wallet to me so I could place it in my purse, insisting it would be much safer there.  Luckily he didn’t listen to me and kept his wallet in his pants pocket.

After spending a few days in Quito we boarded the Trole bus to Carcelén station.  Prior to boarding we debated leaving the non-essentials at our hostel in Quito, as we would be returning to Quito from Otavalo before B’s flight back to the US.  Ultimately we decided the hassle wasn’t worth the effort of unpacking everything and deciding what to take and what to leave, so I boarded the bus with my 40L backpack and crossbody purse, and B did the same with his smaller backpack and a hand firmly clamped on his back pants pocket to protect his wallet.  Right before leaving the hostel I had placed my camera in my purse, concerned it would get crushed in my backpack.

While I had, on separate occasions, taken my backpack on the bus and rode to Carcelén station, I had never taken my backpack during rush hour on such a long trip.  Unfortunately, B and I boarded the Trole bus around 3:30pm.  When we first boarded it wasn’t too crowded, but slowly the bus filled to capacity.  Eventually, the bus became so crowded that if you were pushed on one side you were forced to move in the opposite direction, as you didn’t have the footing to stop yourself from moving.  People were pressed on top of one another with barely enough space to breathe.  During the hour-long ride I had one hand desperately grabbing for one of the overhead bus straps and the other on my backpack, trying to find some comfort in lugging along this 15+ pound giant.

When we finally arrived at Carcelén station I heaved a sigh of relief – the uncomfortable part of our journey was over.  As people started unloading from the bus, I reached my hand into my purse to find my wallet, as I would need to pay for the next bus to Otavalo.  I immediately noticed my purse wasn’t zipped closed, which was the first signal something was wrong.  I frantically shoved my hand around in my purse, searching for my wallet.  Nada.

“B!” I screeched, “I think someone took my wallet.

In an anxious frenzy, I began to pull everything out of my purse as we exited the bus.  A local woman and her daughter tsk tsked and informed me that I needed to keep my hand on my purse at all times otherwise this would happen.  This is all very helpful advice now, isn’t it? I thought as my heart raced.

While becoming more and more distressed we flagged down a police officer at the station.  I explained to him what happened in jumbled Spanish and he pulled us out of the passenger area and into the police office.  My head was spinning – did this really just happen?  I had heard similar stories about it happening to others, but I had lived in Quito for a month and a half.  I had purchased an anti-theft purse.  I learned Spanish.  I had done everything right – this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.

I wanted to end my trip right then and there – South America was a bad, bad place and this would never happen in the United States.  I wanted to cry.

Spoiler alert: I did cry.  A lot.  But I didn’t end my trip.

It turned out that the police officers who pulled us into their office at the bus station were transit police and were there only to serve citizens of Ecuador.  Since I was a tourist, I would have to go to the tourist police station, which was located in La Mariscal, the tourist district of Quito… exactly where we had come from an hour previously (the organizational system of the law enforcement of Ecuador still makes zero sense to me).  The thought of a 45-minute car ride to La Mariscal, filling out a police report, and then catching the same hour-long bus to Carcelén station again made me sick.

On the ride in the police car to La Mariscal, I had a sinking realization – my camera wasn’t in my purse, either.  B tried to help by reminding me that I came to South America to challenge myself.  He offered that this was a great opportunity to put that theory to the test.  Through my sniffles I shot him a look that I hope conveyed the inappropriate timing of his comments.

Looking back almost a year later, the whole process wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  The transit police officers kept tabs on us for the 45 – 60 minutes we waited in their office for the tourist police to arrive and told me not to cry (easier said than done), and assured me that everything would be okay.  The tourist police officers took pity on us kindly offered to drive us back to Carcelén station after the report was finished, meaning we avoided the repeat hour-long bus ride now stained with negative connotations.

We made it to Otavalo just fine that night, and while I lost about $80 worth of cash, my travel insurance covered the cost of buying a replacement camera and replacing my drivers license, which I did once I returned to the states.  Most of the credit and debit card companies were extremely helpful and express-shipped replacement cards to Ecuador, and I was fortunate enough that I had been given the advice to have a backup credit and debit card in a separate location, so I was able to survive until the replacement cards arrived.

So would I recommend you stay away from Quito, Ecuador?  Yes…. but only for the plethora of diesel fumes and concrete structures.  I was pickpocketed, but it could have been much worse.  My French friend, John*, who works as a social worker back home, laid out the situation in plain language to me.

“Emily,” he said, “You are lucky there was no violence involved.  When there is violence, it leaves emotional scars.”*

While still living in Washington, DC I had signed up for police text alerts and had forgotten to turn off the alerts prior to leaving for South America.  In the two months between leaving DC and being pickpocketed, I received roughly five alerts of robberies on the streets of DC.  While I don’t have the police report for each incident, I can make an educated guess about the nature of the crime based on what I know about robberies in US cities.  The incidents in DC most likely involved violence, whether physical or whether a show of a weapon.  Pickpocketing isn’t as common in the US as it is in cities in South America, especially in the locations reported.

Further, I do not believe solo travel is innately dangerous.  I do believe that my guard was a bit lowered since B and I were traveling together.  To clarify, no one is to blame except the thieves.  But I have read a number of accounts of women travellers, many who say that they are on higher alert when alone and things like pickpocketing generally have happened to them when travelling in groups.

In short, this experience did not make or break my five month trip to South America.  It momentarily felt like it had; I like to liken it to what one may feel after a car accident – you may feel violated and upset and that driving is the most dangerous activity ever (it’s actually #3), but would you let that accident stop you from driving a car in the future?  A few days after the theft I realized it was just a blip in the journey, and I would never think of trading in the rest of the five months to avoid a pickpocketing in Quito.

*Names have been changed and conversations paraphrased from memory.


While certain things in life are outside of your control, it’s important and empowering to remember there are other things you can control.  Here are some tips and tricks that helped make the post-theft process a little bit easier for me:

  • Have at least two (2) credit cards AND debit cards.  Keep at least one (1) credit card and one (1) debit card in a separate location than your other cards in case of a theft.
  • Write down the toll-free international phone numbers of your credit card companies and keep that separately from those credit cards.
  • While we’re at it, have a photocopy of your passport separate from your passport.  Email it to a trusted individual back home.  I was lucky my passport was not stolen, but a photocopy would have helped if it had been.
  • Keep a bit of extra currency (local or U.S., as U.S. dollars are sometimes accepted in other countries) separately from your credit and debit cards.
  • Get a police report.  No matter how small the incident, regardless of whether you think you’ll actually need it, get one.  It will be infinitely easier to be reimbursed or to prove your innocence if you need to do so down the line – I have a blog post coming with a story of how skipping out on a police report almost cost me €200 for something someone else did.
  • Back up your photos frequently.  I was fortunate that although the thief got away with one of my camera’s memory cards, I had recently backed up my photos in an internet cafe.  Otherwise, I would have lost a huge chunk of my Galápagos pictures.  If you are taking photos on your phone, Google photos, Apple’s cloud, or a similar program works well.  If you’re using a camera, going to an internet cafe to upload your photos to the cloud or email every so often is also a good option and fairly cheap.
  • Buy travel insurance.  Not sure if it’s worth it?  Read this article.  Then go buy travel insurance.
  • You are irreplaceable.  Your phone, your keys, your wallet, your passport, your camera – all replaceable.  It will be a hassle to replace these things, yes, but it’s possible.  Never put yourself at risk to save an inanimate object.

 

 

It's taken quite some time for me to write this post.  Ten months ago, I was pickpocketed on a busy bus in Quito, Ecuador.  At first I refrained from writing about the situation because I was still processing what had happened.  In my experience, there was a certain amount of self-inflicted shame involved in being a victim of a theft. 

Wanderer

How Hiking In The Andes Changed Me

It was my second week of living with my host family in Quito, Ecuador and we were all gathered around the dining table discussing Rucu Pichincha.  At the table were the two middle-aged Ecuadorian sisters who acted as my host moms, my two host sisters who were also learning Spanish (one from Switzerland, the other from Germany), myself, and two previous host students who had stayed with my host moms and whose mastery of Spanish was impressive. The two previous students, who hailed from two countries in Europe I can’t quite remember, were talking about their prior time in Quito and the adventures on which they embarked, such as hiking up Rucu Pichincha.  The two recounted that they had hiked with a large international group, and the only person who hadn’t made it to the top was an American.  Everyone looked pointedly at me, as I was the only one from the U.S. at the table.  Well, that’s not going to be me, I thought to myself.  I know how to hike.  Little did I know how wrong I was.

To start, Mount Pichincha buffers the city of Quito to the west.  Technically an active volcano, Pichincha towers above Quito at 4,696m (15,400 ft).  My host sister and I had already decided we were going to hike the route with a friend of ours that upcoming weekend, at which time she pointed out the route was scored by a hiking/climbing difficulty system with which I was not familiar, placing it at a moderate difficulty with some scrambling required.  Not a problem, I thought.  I considered myself to be decently in shape, having lived in Washington, DC for three years and therefore accustomed to walking everywhere.  I hiked semi-regularly during the year, walked every day, and even rode my bike a handful of times a month.  Plus, I had been attending fitness classes on a regular schedule for the past few years.  While I may not have been exactly surpassing all of the American Heart Association’s recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, compared to the average person in the U.S. I was doing pretty darn good.  Unfortunately I forgot to factor in the fact that U.S. culture is propelled by 8-hour-a-day desk jobs and 2-hour-a-day car commutes, leaving us little to no time to try and make up the deficiency in physical activity by spending half an hour at the gym twice a week.

I had heard about difficulties others had experienced in hiking at high altitudes, but had just completed a 4-hour hike the weekend before, albeit at a much lower altitude, that had gone fairly seamlessly.  So my host sister and I set off one Saturday morning in October of 2018 with our backpacks filled with essential supplies and ready to get our fitness on.

We started with a taxi ride to the base of the mountain, where one can ride a cable car to 3,945m (12,900 ft).  Most visitors to Quito ride the TelefériQo, as the cable car is named, to the lookout point, take some pictures, grab some food and return down to an already highly elevated city (Quito sits at 2,850m, or 9,350 feet).  Those who are a bit more ambitious, such as myself, my host sister, Jam*, and our friend John* (who met us at the base of the mountain), can choose to start the hike at around Cruz Loma, climbing an elevation of 751m (2,500 ft) to the volcano’s peak.  In our cable car we met a gentleman who I later learned was a full 40 years my senior.  Hailing from Italy, he had lived and worked in Germany for quite some time and was fluent in German, so Jam and he chatted away in German ahead of John and I as we started the hike.  This gentleman, while in his 70s, had previously run multiple marathons and loved to hike.  He had only planned to ride the cable car up to see the view of Quito, but upon meeting us decided to join for part of the hike – in jeans and dress shoes.  In spite of his age and improper dress, he and Jam effortlessly chatted away at a good clip, walking a decent amount in front of me.  It was I, not he, who had to ask for a few breaks to catch my breath as we began the hike.  They willingly obliged, but it was obvious no one else was having the same difficulty.

About an hour into our hike our older gentleman friend decided it would be best to turn around and bid us farewell, so we three in our 20s continued on.  The hike continued to increase in difficulty from there, with no sign of abatement in sight.  While the hike wasn’t a downhill walk for Jam and John, I was the only one requesting breathing breaks every 20-30 minutes to forcefully gasp for air, bent over with my hands planted firmly at my hips because I soon discovered that was the easiest and quickest way to get the needed oxygen into my lungs. In between these vigorous air sucking sessions breathers we walked on paths, scrambled (on hands and knees and bums) over boulders, and hit what quickly became my least favorite part of the hike – the backwards sand slide.  Imagine taking three steps forward on a greatly inclined sand-covered terrain, then sliding two steps back due to the make-up of the terrain.  Rinse and repeat for the next, oh, 30 minutes.  It was incredibly frustrating to put in so much effort to move my body forward only to know I’d have to repeat that effort again and again because gravity and the ground make-up were working against me.

At some point John proclaimed he couldn’t keep stopping each time I pleaded for a few minutes, please, as it was killing his momentum and he had to keep walking if he were to hope to finish.  Jam, ever the experienced hiker (those Swiss sure do know their outdoor activities!) and a loyal sister, refused to leave me to continue ahead with John.  While it was clear she could have hiked faster without me she continued to lead me on, stopping whenever I requested and assuring me that it was okay if I didn’t want to continue to the top.  Over and over again I assured her that no, I could do this.  Maybe a bit more slowly than the rest, but I would finish this hike.  For 99% of the hike this remained my mindset – not just to prove a point about U.S. hikers but because I knew my body, I knew my determination level, and I knew I could finish the hike.  I kept this mindset even as my requests for breaks became more frequent – every 30 minutes changed to every 20 to every 10 to every 5 minutes.

At this point we were at least 14,000 feet above sea level, and a combination of the climate, elevation, and other factors meant that a fog started rolling in.  Jam, once again the experienced hiker, observed the fog and communicated the urgency of us continuing on.  She knew what I would later learn – the fog, which could get so thick you couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you, could obscure the path, the other hikers, and could strand us on the mountain for hours, if not days.  At that elevation the temperature was cold and dropping further and further as we ascended.  If we stopped hiking our bodies would no longer generate as much heat, and we could easily put ourselves in danger.  Plus, our backpacks held mostly day-hike items – enough food and water for a few hours hike, not an overnight stay on the mountain.

“Come on, Emily, we NEED to keep moving” she urged as I pleaded for another break.  At this point, Jam and I, especially I, had abandoned all attempts at communicating in Spanish during the hike hours ago, as I could barely speak English with enough force for her to hear me since I was so tired.  Trying to communicate in a language I struggled with daily was absolutely out of the question.

It was then, and only then, that I doubted myself and my ability to finish this hike.  At this point I was asking for self-righteously claiming breaks every 2-3 minutes.  My legs physically could not move from the spot they were in.

“I can’t,”  I moaned, simultaneously gasping for air.  “Go on without me,” I managed to gaspBut she wouldn’t hear anything of it.  “Let’s go! We have to continue NOW.”

I believe it’s a combination of the fact that I’m writing this story several months after the hike, as well as the fact that I’ve blocked this painful part of the journey out of my mind so I could have the physical capability to put one foot in front of the other, but I honestly can’t remember how I found the energy to continue on.  All I know is that I did.

The next part of the hike that comes into clearer focus for me is us climbing among other hikers a roughly 40 degree inclined expanse of the mountain covered in rocks.  I still felt like I was about to collapse, but I knew the top of Rucu Pichincha was only about 30 minutes away (unlike all the other times Jam promised me we were so close to the top and we both pretended like I believed her).  My mind had one goal and one goal only, which was to get to the top of the mountain so I could sit. the. f&*k. down.  My brain was so single-tracked that when I kicked a decent sized rock from under my feet and it went bouncing down the mountain I didn’t really care what would happen to it.

“Emily!!” Jam hissed.  “You have to yell ‘rock’ when you do that.  You could seriously injure someone climbing behind you!” In complete honesty I had no idea about this rule, and luckily other hikers around me saw what happened and yelled “rock” after the fact.  I managed to yelp out a half-hearted “Piedra!  I mean, roca… Whatever.  How do you say rock in German?”

As we continued to climb the rocks slowly got larger and larger, so we were now climbing on top and standing on  the rocks themselves.  At this point we somehow had once again joined up with John.  I distinctly remember at several points heaving my body up onto the next rock and feeling myself swaying a bit.  I think Jam noticed, too, because she kept asking if I was all right and if I really wanted to keep going (at this point the fog had mostly dissipated).

Then, at some point we rounded a corner.  And we were there.  WE WERE AT THE TOP. We yelped and cheered and then I immediately sat down because I literally could not trust my legs to support my body weight; based on most of the places I was standing it would not have had a pretty fall.

Most of what I remember about being at the top of Rucu Pichincha was the valley view to the rest of the mountain that was in front of where I plopped myself down.  Jam and John took turns exploring around the top of the mountain to see all sides.

“You can see Quito from over there,” one of them reported back to me after a trip to the other side of the summit.  “That’s nice,” I replied, not moving an inch.  We opened our backpacks and snacked on our food, watching the sun and fog play hide and seek with each other over the valley.  Eventually, without the heat our bodies had generated during our hike up, we became increasingly cold.  (Once again, looking back at this we were woefully unprepared for this hike.  Except for Jam, who had an emergency blanket, high-pitch whistle and medical kit included in her pack.  The Swiss, I tell you.)

Before heading back down one of them had the bright idea we should take a photo at the top to commemorate the moment.  It was a fantastic idea, because to this day I look back at the photo with such pride, knowing that day made me a stronger person.  After that weekend I would embark on a number of hikes through the Andes, hiking almost every weekend I was in Ecuador and Perú.  Some hikes were longer, others were higher – my max altitude hitting 5,200m (17,060 ft).  But the Rucu Pichinica hike stands out above the rest as the one where I experienced a mental shift in my understanding of my own capabilities.  I went to South America to climb mountains, both physically and metaphorically.  And that’s exactly what I did.

Five Months Later…

After returning from South America I completed my yearly physical, which included standard blood work such as a blood count.  A few days after my physical I received a call from my healthcare provider’s office alerting me that some of my blood values were out of range.  Concerned, I logged onto my patient portal to see my red blood cell count, hemoglobin, and hematocrit were all slightly elevated from the normal value range.  Perplexed, I Googled reasons as to why this would be the case, as my blood values had always been within range in previous years.  And when I saw it a light bulb went off.

“Lifestyle factors that can cause a high red blood cell count include living at a high altitude.”

After living and being physically active in the Andes Mountains for four of the five months I spent in South America, my body had changed.

Not only had my understanding of my mental and physical capabilities been altered, but my body’s chemical make-up had also been changed.  In other words,

I climbed mountains.
Which proved to me I could climb higher mountains.
And each subsequent mountain became easier to climb.

*Names have been changed

The travellers were talking about their prior time in Quito and the adventures on which they embarked, such as hiking up Rucu Pichincha.  They recounted that they had hiked with a large international group, and the only person who hadn't made it to the top was an American.  Everyone looked pointedly at me, as I was the only one from the U.S. at the table.  Well, that's not going to be me, I thought to myself, I know how to hike.  Little did I know how wrong I was.

Wanderer

Hiking to Machu Picchu

Updated 3 August 2019

This past February I hiked 72+ kilometers over a period of 5 days to reach the infamous Machu Picchu, a modern wonder of the world.  I chose the Salkantay Trek, which cost $155 + S/40 sleeping bag rental + S/20 walking stick rental + S/10 entrance into the park for Humantay Lake, and was booked through Perú Travel Machu Picchu (Pro tip: Book your tours upon arrival in Cusco, rather than online from your country of origin; you’ll save boatloads of money booking in-country).

I completed the 5 day, 4 night tour with a group of 16 other hikers, as well as two guides who accompanied us until the end of the journey.  Four breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, plus daily snack-time, were included in the price, and the cooks easily catered to myself and the other vegetarian in the group.  We slept in wooden huts the first night, covered tents the second and third night, and a hostel the fourth night.  Each sleeping location had running water 24/7 and electricity for at least part of the day, although heated showers were not always an option.

Hiking to Machu Picchu was easily one of my favorite moments of my five-month trip through South America.  While you can also take a bus or train to the ancient ruins, I highly recommend hiking if you have the time.

I happened to arrive in Cusco in late January and decided it would be best for my schedule to hike to Machu Picchu in early February.  February is smack dab in the middle of the rainy season in the Sacred Valley, meaning it rains almost every day – a lot.  Besides being wet, this also means the chances of landslides are fairly high, so that’s something to consider when planning a trip.  While we certainly did see landslide aftermaths, it didn’t alter the course of our trip too badly and I never felt unsafe.  However, it’s important to note that safety is not something that should be taken for granted – during my time hiking a landslide killed several tourists in a van on the way back from Machu Picchu.

Day 1

The 5 day/4 night trek through Perú Travel Machu Picchu was fairly standard for the Salkantay.  We left Cusco early in the morning (around 5am) in a large tour bus.  We disembarked in the town of Mollepata for breakfast (the only breakfast not included in the trip cost).  At the restaurant we each weighed our bags to ensure we were giving no more than 5kg (including our roughly 1kg sleeping bags) to the horsemen and horses to carry from town to town.  While it wasn’t much of an issue if our bags were a bit more than 5kg, one fellow hiker had more than 10kg in his bag – he had to do some last minute creative maneuvering!  From Mollepata we loaded ourselves back onto the bus (this time, carrying day bags only, as the horses were carrying our larger bags) to drive to Marco Casa.  Here we disembarked and began our Salkantay hike.  After three hours of hiking we arrived at our first camp, Soraypampa, where we found our bags and a tasty lunch waiting.  Post-lunch there was an optional three hour round-trip hike to Laguna Huamantay, with breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains and small snow avalanches you could both hear and see down the mountain’s face.  After our hike there was dinner and fun to be had until the camp’s generators were turned off at 10pm, when it was then it was time to hit the hay and rest up for the second day of hiking, arguably the hardest day.

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Laguna Humantay, Photo credit: Wessel van Eeghen

Day 2

We were awoken around 5am on the second day of our journey by a knock on our door – the cooks had arrived at each of our huts with warm coca tea.  Having slept in the frigid and windy Soraypampa in insulation-less huts, it was a pleasant way to awaken.

The second day’s hike was the longest, with a six-hour hike to complete before we reached our lunch stop.  It was also the day we hiked to the Salkantay pass, a sacred snow-capped mountain location from the Inca times located at 4,600m (15,091 ft).  Here our guides led us through a beautiful coca leaf ceremony to the Pacha Mama, or Mother Nature.  After the ceremony we began our descent toward our lunch location.  It was here that the day took a bit of a negative turn.  As it was el tiempo de la lluvia, we had been rained on a bit the prior day, but nothing like the persistent rain we experienced the second day.  The day’s rain was practically constant, slowly morphing our dirt trails into small rivers in which we had no choice but to walk.  By lunchtime we were all soaked to the bone with three more hours to hike until our second day’s camp.  The hike was also especially difficult for me, as I had begun experiencing intense knee pain in my left knee once we started to descend down the mountain.  Even with the help of my walking sticks I was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group.  Luckily a few other less-experienced hikers hung back with me and one of our guides, who brought up the rear.  Slow hiking allowed me the opportunity to have deep and personal introspective moments – moments where I could be alone and come around the corner of a deep gully in which I had been hiking to face a green landscape full of fog and yell “I’m here!  I’m hiking Machu Picchu!”  Taking our time also allowed us to see wild chinchillas and admire the sun, which slowly began showing its face in between rain spells.  All in all it was an exhausting nine hour hike day, with all 16 of us rejoicing when we reached our camp in Chaullay by stripping off our wet clothes and taking cold showers.  Luckily we had begun to descend into la selva, so the ambient temperature was much warmer.

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Photo credit: Fabrice Gabert

Day 3

Our hiking group awoke on day 3 to find all of our wet hiking gear from the previous day to be…. well, still wet.  We begrudgingly put on the damp and smelly clothes and set out for our third day of hiking, where we encountered the first signs of the toll the intense rains had on the land.  A road bridge had been washed away, so we were asked to carry both our day packs and larger bags over a pedestrian bridge traversing a rushing river.  Luckily the distance was short, and we were soon able to drop off our larger bags to our horsemen.  We continued on our third day’s hike, which luckily for my knee was only about three hours.  However, before we reached our lunch spot we found one of our paths had been destroyed by a derrumbe from the rains.  Instead, we were transported across a several-hundred-foot river gorge two-at-a-time in a small wooden basket, for lack of a better description.  The transportation contraption worked on a series of rope pulleys attached to a steel cable anchored on either side of the gorge, and looked like it had been designed by a group of high-school seniors for their shop class final project.  Nevertheless, we all arrived safe and sound to the other side of the gorge.  After a short break, we were able to hop in a van (with four of us on the roof – only in South America) which crossed a waterfall created from another landslide, driving precariously close to the siderail-less edge.  I swore that if we all leaned to our left the van would have tipped over and tumbled down the gorge.

Fortunately we survived that ordeal!  Instead of careening to our untimely deaths we ate a hearty lunch, followed by a split of the group into those who had signed up for the four day/3 night option.  They would continue on in an abridged version, visiting Machu Picchu the next day.  The 12 of us who remained (fortunately we all now fit into the van) were treated to a van ride to Santa Teresa.  Here we enjoyed a visit to the local thermal baths and had the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate.  That night we had an amazing fireside dance party until the early hours of the morning.

The gorge we were forced to cross in a wooden basket; Photo credit: Fabrice Gabert

Day 4

Day four found us trekking from Santa Teresa through Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes, the entrypoint into Machu Picchu.  It was in Aguas Calientes that we stayed in a low-budget hotel.  However, we were all too tired to do anything but delight at the fact that we were all sleeping on a real bed instead of a sleeping bag.  After walking a bit around town, we had our final group dinner where we each received our tickets for entry into Machu Picchu.  The next day we would be meeting our guide at the site entrance, atop a winding mountain of thousands of stairs.  Yes, there was a bus one could pay to ride, but we had all come so far that we couldn’t imagine not starting the day on foot.

Day 5

On our last and final day we awoke around 3:30am.  We were to all meet at 4:00am in the hotel lobby, and from there hike the 45 minutes to the base of Machu Picchu.  The general site entrance opens at 5:00am, at which point we then began the grueling one-hour vertical hike up thousands and thousands of stairs.  By the time we reached the top we were all out of breath and soaked in sweat, but exhilarated to be at our final destination.  Our tour guide, José, met us at the entrance to the historic site at 6:00am and skillfully guided us for the next hour around the old administrative location of the Incas.  To be honest, the actual Machu Picchu was much smaller than I imagined it, but still breathtaking to stand in front of a modern world wonder.  We had all day to explore once inside the site, but after José left it was a bit harder to interpret what we were seeing.  Additionally, we were all exhausted and looking forward to getting back to Cusco, which was still a three-hour hike and several-hour bus ride away (plus a surprise bus switch involving carrying all of our bags across a makeshift pedestrian bridge thrown up to compensate for a downed road bridge from landslides).

In regard to my choice of route, I chose the Salkantay Trek over the better-known Inca Trail for a number of reasons:

1) The Inca Trail needs to be booked several (at least 3-6) months in advance

2) The Inca Trail closes for the entire month of February for maintenance

3) The Inca Trail usually costs $400+ to hike

Photo credit: Sumukh Anand

Ever the fan of packing lists, I am more excited to share what I brought on my five-day, four-night hiking trip to Machu Picchu than about the experience generally.  Most people first arrive in Cusco, Perú, where they drop their luggage in order to hike to Machu Picchu.  I was living with a family in Cusco at the time and was able to leave my things at their apartment, but many hostels/hotels will also have a storage room for you leave your items.

Here’s what I brought with me on my Salkantay hike, keeping in mind that a February packing list will differ from a June or October packing list due to seasonal weather differences.  Items in purple are items I picked up after arriving in South America.  The majority of these items were placed into a 5 kg duffel bag, which was carted from town to town by horse and given back to us each afternoon after our hike; I only brought the items I would need during the day with me in my day bag.

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Clothes

  • 1 long-sleeved Merino wool shirt
  • 1 long-sleeved cotton shirt
  • 1 thermal shirt
  • 1 woven fabric poncho
  • 1 cotton tee
  • 1 quick-dry tee
  • 1 light pullover sweater
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 wide-brimmed sun hat
  • 1 multi-purpose scarf
  • 1 winter hat
  • 1 towel
  • 1 pair gloves
  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair athletic shorts
  • 1 swimsuit – we visited a thermal bath on day 3 and after hiking for 9 hours the previous day it was GLORIOUS.
  • 1 pair hiking boots
  • 1 pair Chaco sandals – I almost didn’t bring these, but it was a beautiful experience to have another pair of shoes after 9 hours of hiking in the rain with wet feet (while my hiking boots were waterproof, apparently those limits were tested when I trudged through paths-turned-rivers for hours on end).
  • 1 pair regular underwear
  • 2 pair ExOfficio underwear
  • 1 pair low-cut socks
  • 1 pair high hiking socks
  • 1 pair long alpaca socks
  • 1 sports bra
  • Digital watch
  • Waterproof rain poncho – I picked up a flimsy plastic rain poncho for S/5 in Huaraz, Perú.  I was repeatedly told I would want something thicker and more sturdy (which cost about S/20), but this poncho suited me just fine.  We were often putting on and taking off rain gear several times a day, and it wasn’t too thick where I felt suffocated by wearing it in the warmer weather during the rain.  One of my hiking mates had both kinds of ponchos – a flimsy kind and a sturdier kind.  After trying both out, he wound up using his cheap plastic poncho for 95% of the trip.

*I had a hiking outfit that I would put on everyday while hiking, as well as a post-hike outfit that I would put on after showering or if I just wanted clothes that were dry and didn’t smell.  Due to extremes in weather, I layered most of the above clothing items and throughout the day would be constantly pulling items on or off of me.

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush & toothbrush holder
  • Floss
  • Ear plugs
  • Deodorant
  • Bar of soap
  • Razor
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers
  • Comb
  • Small hair brush
  • Retainers
  • Personal medicine
  • Small medical kit
  • Lip balm

Liquids

  • Coconut oil
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Bug spray
  • Sun screen
  • Toothpaste

Electronics

  • Unlocked cell phone
  • SteriPen Ultralight
  • Cell phone/SteriPen charger
  • Headlamp w/ batteries

Miscellaneous

  • Luggage lock
  • Exercise band
  • Sleep eye mask
  • Glasses
  • CamelBak Chute water bottle
  • Foldable day bag
  • Hood inflatable pillow
  • Ankle brace
  • Dry bag
  • 2 caribiners
  • Passport – an original is required for entry into Machu Picchu
  • Reusable napkin
  • Credit card, debit card, & cash
  • Pen
  • Spork
  • Handkerchief
  • Toilet paper
  • 1.6 L water bottle
  • Snacks
  • Sleeping bag

There’s no one “right” way to hike to Machu Picchu, but I look back upon my experience with immense fondness and wouldn’t change a thing.

Footnotes:

Hiking distance measurements are provided in kilometers, rather than miles, as this was standard practice throughout Perú.
S/ = Peruvian soles, which is the country’s currency.  At the time of my trip, about 3 soles equaled 1 US dollar.  For example, S/40 = $13.

This past February I hiked 72+ kilometers over a period of 5 days to reach the infamous Machu Picchu, a modern wonder of the world. I completed the 5 day, 4 night tour with a group of 16 other hikers, as well as two guides who accompanied us until the end of the journey. 

Cheap, Wanderer

Climbing To The Cotopaxi Glacier Line For $1

Before I delve into my adventure climibing Cotopaxi Mountain in Ecuador, let me acknowlege that yes, I am still in Perú.  I know that my previous post described my experience crossing the border between Ecuador and Perú and here I am writing about an experience I had in Ecuador, but no one said this blog was 100% chronologically accurate.  Moving on, then…

Cotopaxi Mountain was frequently named dropped by a number of travellers I met during my time in Ecuador; it’s famous for being an active volcano, the second-highest summit in Ecuador at 5,897m (19,347 ft), and having a perfectly conical shape.  While it’s possible to climb to the summit of the mountain, I knew this would be a no-go for me based on my previous experience hiking Mount Pichincha, where I stopped to gasp for breath every three minutes during the last hour’s ascent.  Further, climbing to the top of Cotopaxi means a six-hour ascent that starts around midnight and costs $300+ for equipment and guide (these are non-negotiable).

However, I had read that another popular climb that did not require a guide or special equipment was between the moutain’s parking lot at 4,600m (15,092 ft) and the José F. Ribas Refuge at 4,800m (15,748 ft).  Further, there was the option to continue climbing past the refuge to the glacier line at 5,000 m (16,404 ft).  Such day tours from Quito or Latacunga run around $40-70, and after reading it could all be done by yourself for a fraction of the cost I decided to go for it.

After my two-week Workaway at a hostel on the Quilotoa Loop I was already located decently close to the mountain.  By my calculations I could make it up and down the mountain with time to catch an afternoon bus to my next destination, Baños.

While this did happen, some extenuating circumstances delayed the trip a bit.  The tiny town of Chugchilán, where I was staying, only had two daily buses to Latacunga, the largest nearby city and where I could catch the bus to Cotopaxi Mountain.  I was originally planning on catching the 5:30am bus, but the hostel owner mentioned her husband was planning on driving to Latacunga that same morning and asked if I would like a ride.  While promised a departure time of 8:30am, we actually wound up leaving around 9:15am.  It’s a two hour drive to Latacunga, so we arrived at 11:15am.  I then hopped out of the car and spent the next 30 minutes packing myself a day bag and walking over to the bus station on the other side of town.  I was fortunate enough that the hostel in Chugchilán had a sister hostel in Latacunga where I could store my main backpack for the day.

I caught the bus between Latacunga and Quito and let the driver’s assistant know I wanted to get off at the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park.  The bus between Quito and Latacunga usually costs around $2, so when the bus assistant came around to collect fares I explained I was getting off before Quito, and thus wondered if I’d have to pay the full fare.  The assistant stated I would, as the entrance to the national park wasn’t an official stop (but then again, what is an official bus stop in Latin America?).  This seemed a bit strange to me, as I had witnessed buses stopping at the park entrance and had read many times over it was completely plausible to ask the bus to stop there.  I was about to pay the full fare when the young Ecuadorian sitting next to me piped up.

“The bus fare is only $0.75 to Cotopaxi, not $2” he stated to the assistant.  The two of them went back and forth for a bit, with the assistant maintaining I had to pay the full fare and my good Samaritan disagreeing.  I thanked my seatmate a number of times and also threw in a few disagreements with the assistant of my own, while simultaneously realizing we were passing the entrance to the park.

“Hey, I asked to be let off at the park entrance!” I exclaimed.  The assistant made no acknowledgement that he had heard me or of my desire to exit the bus.  I threw a dollar at him, hurriedly waved goodbye to my seatmate, and ran to the front of the bus to stop the driver.  Eventually I was let off the bus, a good 200m past the park entrance road, but the assistant hadn’t challenged my $1 fare payment.  Simultaneously frustrated and grateful for the act of kindness from my good Samaritan, I carefully walked along the side of the busy highway to the road that led to the entrance of the park.

Here I was met with a number of tour guides and cars offering to take me to the park, as I read I would be.  However, here is where my master plan faltered.  I had heard the best thing to do would be to group up with other travellers and split the cost of the transportation and guide, who were quoting me $60-70.  However, I had arrived to the road leading to the park around 12:30pm, and had likely missed the majority of the other travelers, who had started their visit earlier in the day.  I stood waiting expectantly as each bus passed on the highway, hoping a fellow hiker would disembark.  No such luck.  The guides continued to hound me, acknowledging I could wait for another traveller but reminding me that the park closed at 3:00pm and time was ticking away (I later learned that while the park entrance closes at 3:00pm, visitors who have already entered before that time are permitted to stay until 5:00pm).

With minutes flying by I finally lucked out when an Ecuadorian guy who had been on his phone off in the distance approached me.  He asked if I was going to the park and when I asked if he wanted to share a ride he said yes.  Right around that time a car pulled up and I realized he was getting picked up by someone, and was asking if I wanted to join them.  After confirming with the driver, his girlfiend, that it was okay to give me a ride, we drove on our merry way to the park check point.  Here the three of us registered with the park officials.  At this point I realized, somewhat awkwardly, that no, they did not plan to continue to take me on to the mountain-  Even though on the ride up I had been chatting away about all of us splitting a guide once inside the park to the glacier line.  They eventually stated they were not going to that section of the park (the park itself is huge and thus I could not attempt to walk it myself) and left me at the park entrance checkpoint.

Well, then.  If I could catch a ride once I could catch another, right?  I looked around at the cars pulling out of the check point parking lot and asked a few if they were headed to the refuge.  All stated no or that they couldn’t take me.  At some point I heard a group of people speaking what sounded like what might have been English.  As their car passed me, I politely inquired in Spanish as to whether they were going to the refuge, unsure if I had heard correctly.

“…. uh…. English?” the driver pleaded, giving me a deer-in-the-headlights stare.

“Oh, okay!” I replied.  “Would you happen to be driving to the refuge?” I asked.  Unfortunately for me they had just returned, but we chit-chatted for a few minutes after realizing we were all from the U.S.  They then wished me good luck and drove on their way.

At this point it was hot and late in the afternoon, but after waiting another 20 minutes or so I scored my lucky break.  An Ecuadorian family of four I approached warily agreed to take me to the parking lot below the refuge, as that was also their destination.  Acutely aware of their wariness, I chatted away in Spanish, attempting to remove any unease.  The family turned out to be very nice and opened up to me, telling me about themselves and asking me questions.  At one point I even had a conversation in English with their teenage son regarding college scholarships in the U.S.

Once we reached the carpark they promised that if we finished the descent to the parking lot at the same time we could drive out of the park together, which was a fantastic offer.  Not wanting to be more of a burden, I went on ahead to the start of the trail while they put on their winter gear.  I started up the trail, but after walking about 10 feet stopped.  The walk was hard!  I had expected the cold and the elevation, but wasn’t prepared for the strong winds to be blowing directly into my mouth, making it very difficult to breathe.  I looked around to see if anyone else was struggling the same way I was, but no one was close enough to ask.  At this point I seriously considered returning to the family who had given me a lift and asking them for help; I didn’t know how I was going to continue on.

After taking a few steps back (literally), a few deep breaths, and preparing myself mentally, I decided to try again, this time using the fabric of my rain jacket to cover my mouth and break the wind.  Step by step I moved up the hill toward the refuge that looked so close in the beginning.  Even though it was only 200m away, the elevation and weather conditions meant it took me about 45 minutes to climb to the top.

Once I reached the refuge I felt a huge sense of relief; I had made it!  I popped inside to warm up and use the bathrooms, only to find out that the plumbing had frozen and thus the bathrooms were non-functional.  Time to move on to the glacier line.

The path between the refuge and the glacier line was less traversed, less marked, and not as straightforward as the path between the parking lot and the refuge.  Luckily for me a group of Columbians were departing the refuge for the glacier line at the same time, so I felt more comfortable with the path ahead.  The group and I walked together, occasionally talking or taking pictures for each other.  We all rejoiced when we reached the glacier line, which was marked with yellow tape proclaiming “Cuidado.”  I had reached 5,000m, the highest altitude I had ever achieved up until that point!

After high-fiving each other and taking some more pictures, the Columbian group decided to press on past the section marked dangerous.  I decided this was not an idea for me and turned back toward the refuge by myself.  At some point during my walk down the fog started rolling in, obscuring parts of the landscape.  I wasn’t 100% sure of the trail and found myself internally panicking.  What if I got lost climbing down and was stranded on top of a freezing mountain for the whole night and died?!?!

I kept trying to calm myself, knowing panic was never the correct answer.  However, I couldn’t see the refuge and continued to panic.  Eventually pulled out my phone and opened up Maps.me to find the route back to the refuge.  Ironically enough, I only had to walk another 40m or so before I rounded a hill and saw the refuge’s roof in the distance.  Sweet Jesus, I had made it!  I practically ran to the refuge and then popped in to see if my Ecuadorian family was inside.  They weren’t, so I continued down to the parking lot where I found their car had already left.  Left with little other choice, I then approached a group of people about to enter their car and asked if I could catch a ride back to the highway between Quito and Latacunga, figuring they couldn’t very well leave me stranded in the park as it was closing.

This new group, who turned out to be a two-car caravan from Venezuela, mercifully obliged to take me out of the park.  Even better, their end destination was Latacunga, which meant I didn’t have to catch another bus driving between Quito and Latacunga!  The ride down was at times awkward, as they had to pull over a few times for their young son to vomit due to the altitude and stopped the car more than a few times to make phone calls, go to the bathroom, get gas, wait for the second car in the caravan to catch up, or try to eat dinner, each time promising me that yes, yes, we’ll be on our way soon.  Being offered a free ride meant I couldn’t very well complain, so I sat in silence, making the occasional small talk.  Around 5:30pm we mercifully reached Latacunga, which mean I could collect my backpack and be on my way to my next stop, Baños.

While my trip to Cotopaxi National Park skipped a large part of the park, it also involved a good bit of uncertainty and adventure, all for the low price of $1.  I was shown kindness several times over by various South Americans, and honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way.

 

 

 

Cotopaxi Mountain was frequently named dropped by a number of travellers I met during my time in Ecuador; it's famous for being an active volcano, the second-highest summit in Ecuador at 5,897m (19,347 ft), and having a perfectly conical shape.  

Wanderer

Ecuador To Perú: Crossing South American Borders

When I entered Ecuador in October 2018 I planned to travel through the country until my 90-day visa ran out.  You see, Ecuador does not have the same policy as some neighboring South American countries that allow a visa reset upon departure and re-entry of the country.  Unless I wanted to pay to extend my visa another 90 days I would have to wait a full year to re-enter Ecuador.  So I was granted 90 days, like most other visitors, and that was that.

The 90 days flew by at times, while at other times they seemed to stretch on for years.  As I approached day 70 or so, I realized I would need to formulate a plan.  I slowly started making my way south through Ecuador, leaving Cotopaxi province for first Baños and then Cuenca.  This involved some of my longest bus rides as of date, with the bus between Baños and Cuenca clocking in at seven hours long.

Upon arriving in Cuenca I began talking to fellow travellers and my hostel owners in earnest about how to best cross into Perú.  I had already decided I wanted to cross at the Huaquillas crossing, as I had read some not-so-great things about border crossings in general, and this seemed to be the safest bet.  I would have loved to leisurely made my way through Riobamba, Vilcabamba, and Loja, but I after spending five nights in Cuenca I was already at my 86th day.  Time to ska-doodle out of the country!

I had read that there were three companies that crossed from Cuenca to Perú: Pullman Sucre, Azuay International, and Super Semeria.  While everything I had heard pointed me toward Azuay, when I visited the office to purchase my ticket I felt like I was more of a hassle than a valued customer.  In their defense the office was quite busy, but it left a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  I then visited Pullman Sucre, where I learned that while they were the only company that ran day buses, the buses only ran the Cuenca to Perú route on Fridays and Saturdays.  With the clock ticking on my visa I didn’t have the luxury of waiting.  Super Semeria’s ticket agent was engaged enough and answered all of my questions…

  1. Yes, they did run the Cuenca to Perú route every day
  2. Only at 9:30pm
  3. Yes, all the buses have bathrooms (most important question)
  4. No, I wouldn’t have to switch buses at the border

so I decided to purchase a ticket with them. Next came the more difficult question; now that I had decided to cross into Perú, what would be my final destination for this overnight trip?  I had my pick of Máncora, Piura, or Chiclayo, all cities in northern Perú.

I didn’t know much about any of these options, and in all honesty was simply hoping to skip ahead to southern Perú.  I ultimately chose Chiclayo because I knew Máncora to be a beach town (I wasn’t really feeling the beach) and knew nothing about Piura.  Plus, Chiclayo is located the furthest south and would thus put me closest to my ultimate destination.

The Cuenca to Chiclayo trip was forecasted to last 12 hours and cost me $23, and it held pretty true to that schedule.  I arrived for my 9:30pm bus around 8:45pm to be safer than sorry.  While waiting for the bus to arrive, I tried to make friendly conversation with the other travelers, as I was traveling alone and feared the bus would accidentally leave me at the border and no one would notice (I swear this was a rational fear).  When the bus arrived I was instructed that I needed to place my 40L backpack under the seating compartment, which I had never been told I had to do in all of my other Ecuadorian bus trips.  Once again fearful of my backpack, which only contained my whole backpacker life, getting lost or stolen thanks to internet blogs, I asked the gentlemen working for Super Semeria whether it would be safe and whether it would be better in the passenger compartment up with me.  They sighed in an exasperated manner and explained that the upper compartment was for passengers, not backpacks.  Well, then.

I was also a bit concerned (can you tell I was super relaxed about this trip?) since it sounded to me as if all the other non-native South Americans were headed to Máncora or Piura.  Did they know something I didn’t about Chiclayo?

Once we got settled on the bus I felt better.  The bus was clean, new, and the seats reclined further than most typical bus seats – these were semi-camas.

The bus attendant was quite attentive, handing out Oreos and juices to everyone and reciting the wifi (Wifi!! Hallelujah!!) password several times, in both Spanish and English.  The bus hung around the station until about 9:45 while I said silent prayers that the seat next to me would remain empty.  At 9:45pm we pushed off with one empty seat – the one next to me!  Perfect, because now I could curl up into a little ball on the two seats and fall asleep.

The bus attendant asked if we wanted to watch a movie, but as most people voted no the lights were turned out and I set about trying to snooze.

I later awoke to see light streaming in behind my eye mask.  Was it daytime already?  The whole 12 hours couldn’t have passed already, could it?

I took off my eye mask and realized my mistake.  It was about 1:00 am and I had forgotten about the whole, you know, border crossing thing.  The light I noticed was actually the bus’s interior light as it sat parked waiting to be called through the border.

All of us disembarked from the bus to wait to get our passports stamped.  The border crossing process took about an hour and a half for a bus of about 40 people.  I was luckily one of the first ones off the bus and thus one of the first to complete the process.  It involved waiting in a line to be called to the Ecuadorian side of things where we received an exit stamp, and then getting in an adjacent line to wait to be called to the Peruvian side of things to get an entry stamp.  The Ecuadorian and Peruvian desks were in the same building and, in fact, all mixed together, so it was a very convenient, albeit a tad bit confusing, process.

When I was called to the Peruvian desk I was given 90 days in Perú (I asked nicely for more but was politely turned down.)  After receiving my Peruvian stamp I was free to leave the building and walk about 50m to Perú, where the bus was waiting for us.

While I expected a line on the ground or some sort of fence (*ahem*), there didn’t seem to be any sort of official border between Ecuador and Perú.  On the walk over I saw people laying on mattresses and relief-company tents set up to offer services for the Venezuelans waiting to cross into Perú.

After all of the bus passengers completed the border crossing process, we all reboarded the bus.  After ensuring we had everyone on board we then set off again.

I awoke a few times and when we as we stopped at Máncora around 5:00am to let others off, but since my disembarkment would be at the bus trip’s terminus I always fell back asleep.  Around 7:00am I woke up for the day, suprisingly rested as we were driving through the Peruvian desert.  Later that morning we received a breakfast of juice and a warm roll with cheese, which was a nice treat.  We eventually arrived at my stop of Chiclayo (which didn’t have much going for it, sorry Chiclayo) around 10:00am incident-free.  All in all not a bad first night bus & border crossing experience!

 

 

Upon arriving in Cuenca I began talking to fellow travellers and my hostel owners in earnest about how to best cross into Perú.  I had already decided I wanted to cross at the Huaquillas crossing, as I had read some not-so-great things about border crossings in general, and this seemed to be the safest bet.  I would have loved to leisurely made my way through Riobamba, Vilcabamba, and Loja, but I after spending five nights in Cuenca I was already at my 86th day.  Time to ska-doodle out of the country!

Cheap, Wanderer

Galápagos Islands On A Budget: How I Spent Half The Money And Double The Time

The Galápagos Islands are known for being one of the more expensive places to visit, especially when compared to the price of traveling through mainland Ecuador.  However, since I had studied biology in college I knew I couldn’t pass up a trip to the islands made famous by Charles Darwin.  I visited the islands on a budget that ultimately equalled $79 a day.  Here are some of my money-saving tips, in addition to the breakdown of the amount of money I spent during my 15-day stay.

Strap yourselves in kids, this is gonna be a long blog post.

Cruise vs. Independent Travel

Booking a Galápagos cruise from your home country is more expensive than booking a cruise from Quito, which is more expensive than booking from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island.  Since I had the flexibility of spending 15 days in the Galápagos my plan was to arrive in Puerto Ayora and check out cruise prices.  However, after talking to a number of people and seeing the prices for day-trips, I ultimately decided to island hop independently.  My reasons for such were:

  • Four of the 19 Galápagos islands are available for independent travel.  A number of the other islands are accessible by day tours.
  • The first and last day of a cruise shouldn’t really be counted toward the cruise day total, as not many activities occur during those days.  For example, on a six-day cruise the first day is spent with some travel and getting settled onto the cruise ship.  The last day might include half a day of activity or so, but will also involve the disembark and travel to the trip end point.  So a six-day cruise will not actually be packed with activities for all six days.
  • Traveling independently allowed me to travel at my own pace and see the things I wanted to see.  If I wanted to lay on a beach and read all day, I could so.  If I wanted to snorkel in the morning and spend the afternoon exploring one of the many turtle centers, I could so.  My schedule was my own to make rather than being rushed from one activity to another by a guide.
  • There are tons of free activities and opportunities to see animals on each island.  I highly recommend Thrifty Nomads’ 23 Ways to Explore Galapagos on a Budget.

After making my decision to travel independently, I later spoke to a group I met in the Galápagos who said the cheapest tour they found in Puerto Ayora essentially followed the same activities they completed independently or with guided day tours – but they were able to do it sans cruise for much cheaper.  This, coupled with the fact that the average tour price my hostel-mates purchased in Quito was $2,000+ for 7 days of cruising or less, ultimately led me to choose independent travel.  Was I pampered on a luxury cruise?  No – but I wasn’t living in squalor, either.  Overall I was very happy with my decision to island hop independently.

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So while I didn’t drop $2K on a luxury cruise, here are some places I did spend money…

Galápagos Entry Fee

A non-negotiable.  You must pay the $100 at your starting airport (Quito or Guayaquil).  The money goes toward conservation of the islands.

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Galápagos Transit Control Card

Another non-negotiable.  I don’t quite understand the difference between this $20 card and the above mentioned entry fee, but both are required for entry.  You must hold onto this card until you leave the islands, as it will be required at departure to prove you have not overstayed your maximum allotable days.

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Airfare

In order to fly to the Galápagos Islands you must first start in either Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador; it is not possible to fly into the islands from another country.  Avianca, TAME, and LATAM are the three airlines that fly to the archipelago; you have the option of flying into Baltra Airport (you’ll then transfer by ferry to Santa Cruz island) or San Cristóbal airport.

Finding airfare to the Galápagos Islands can be tricky, as low prices advertised online are sometimes reserved for Ecuadorian nationals.  I would recommend calling the airline companies themselves to clarify which tickets are available to you as a non-Ecuadorian citizen, as you could accidentally purchase the lower Ecuadorian-only fare and then get hit with a large fee once you get to the airport.

Since I had recently opened an American Airlines credit card to take advantage of the 50,000 mile sign-up bonus, I happened to have a large number of American Airline miles.  American Airlines is a member of the OneWorld alliance, as is LATAM Airlines.  This means I was able to use my American Airlines miles to pay for my LATAM flight to the Galápagos.

I first tried searching for flights to the Galápagos on American Airlines’ website.  Since no such flights existed I called their 1-800 phone number and booked directly through an agent; there was no extra charge for doing so as the flight was not available to book online.  The round-trip flight cost me 10,000 miles and $49.44.

For reference, Avianca is a member of the Star Alliance (as is United Airlines), so you could do the same thing with United miles.

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Accommodation

As a solo traveler, I was actually at a disadvantage when it came to accommodation, as most lodgings in the Galápagos do not have dorms, and thus I paid the full price of each private room.

On Santa Cruz island I booked a few nights in a shared room at the Galápagos Best Homestay, although I later found Hostel Galápagos Dreams online to be cheaper.  I also received free accommodation for six nights on Santa Cruz through my Workaway position.

On Isabela island I stayed in a hospedaje of a friend of my Workaway’s matriarch.  It wasn’t anything special, but I got a discounted rate, free breakfast, and it was located about 20 steps from the beach.

On San Cristóbal island I finally took the advice I had read on the internet and of a girl I had met on one of my guided day tours – don’t book ahead, just show up and ask for a room.  Traveling at the end of November, which is a bit on shoulder season, I was too fearful that all the rooms would be taken when I showed up.  Booking.com and Hostelworld telling me the hostel had sold out for the night didn’t help, either.  When I finally took a chance on San Cristóbal I was so glad I did.  I picked a night a few weeks ahead of my actual desired date and researched prices on Hostelworld.  I then found the first, second, and third cheapest hostels on the island and started by visiting the cheapest.  Even though I was informed by both Booking.com and Hostelworld that Hostal Gosén was fully booked, when I showed up I was told there was a single room with a double bed and private bathroom available for the dates I desired.  I was told the price was $22 a night for a private room with a private bath and double bed, but after I murmured “Hmm, no hay desayuno…?” the price was bumped down to $20 a night.  Sold!

Important note: Be aware that as of June 2017 it is a requirement that you show proof of accommodation for every night of your stay (cruise lodging suffices) upon entry to the Galápagos.  As I didn’t have a solid plan in place, I circumvented this requirement by using Hostelworld to book the three nights I knew I wanted to stay in Galápagos Best Homestay, then made a separate reservation at the same hostel for the rest of my time in the Galápagos.  Per Hostelworld’s rules, as long as I made my reservation more than 7 days in advance and cancelled three days in advance, I would not get charged and would receive my deposit back… which is exactly what happened.  After arrival I simply cancelled the second reservation. As of my November 2018 trip this was still a somewhat new rule and I didn’t find it to be enforced whatsoever, but better to be safe than sorry.  See other Galápagos Islands entry requirements here.

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Food

I made sure that in all of my lodgings I had a kitchen available, so I cooked myself a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit every morning, save for when a breakfast was included with my lodging.  Most nights I cooked myself a simple dinner of quinoa, veggies, lentils, and bread from a local panadería.  

Note that Santa Cruz island is the only island with a proper grocery store, so be sure to stock up on groceries before leaving for the other islands.

I usually ate lunch at a restaurant or packed some snacks to take to the beach.  Lunch ranged from $2 for two tortillas verdes to a delicious vegetarian $5 almuerzo del día at Andrea & Valerio on Santa Cruz.

Don’t make my mistake of showing up at the Quito airport without any food and having to spend $13 (a fortune for food in Ecuador) for a crummy soup and snacks at the airport.  You can bring food into the Quito and Guayaquil airports, but you cannot take most food onto the islands themselves.   So it’s completely fine, and cheaper, to bring a lunch to the airport with you.

If you take guided day tours lunch with a snack is usually included in the price of the tour.  Most tour companies have vegetarian options, just be sure to tell them ahead of time.  (And remind them.  Again and again.  Even after doing all of this and specifying in Spanish that I did not eat chicken or seafood, a fish somehow wound up in my rice for one of my snorkel tours.)

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Day tours

I booked four day tours on the three islands I visited (I didn’t make it to Floreana).  Prices ranged from $150  + tip for the 360° snorkel tour on San Cristóbal to $40 + tip for the Sierra Negra volcano hike on Isabela.  Generally scuba tours cost more than snorkel tours, which cost more than land tours.  I booked each tour in person the evening before  to try and obtain a “last minute” price.  It’s quite easy to find the tour companies, as each island has a strip where tour offices are lined up next to each other.  If you book multiple tours with one company you can sometimes receive a small discount.

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Travel

Inter-island ferries are not to be taken lightly in regard to your budget.  Each ferry departs from Santa Cruz, so if you would like to travel from Isabela to San Cristóbal you must first take a ferry from Isabela to Santa Cruz and then another from Santa Cruz to San Cristóbal.  Each ferry only runs about twice a day, so trips must be planned accordingly.  Most ferry operators will quote you $30 for each ride, but I found that if you ask where to find the $25 tickets or walk out after saying you can find them for $25 elsewhere, you’ll quickly be offered a $25 ticket price.

Be aware that the price of the ferry does NOT cover the price of the dingy to take you to the ferry boat.  How else you’re expected to get to the ferry parked in the water 30m off the dock I’ve yet to determine, but the dingy boat to and from the ferry costs anywhere from 50 cents to $1 each way.

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Miscellaneous

I generally found Santa Cruz island to be the cheapest of the three, with Isabela island being the most expensive (once you land you must pay a $20 to enter, and that’s after the $120 of fees you pay at the airport).

I had read a few blogs recommending buying snorkel gear prior to coming to the islands to save money on rentals.  Ever the frugalista, I combed Quito’s stores for too many three afternoons in search of the cheapest snorkel gear.  After visiting a random appliance store that happened to sell a snorkel and fin set twice, I finally decided to buy the set for $24 (yes, the sales associate recognized me each time I came in and said something along the lines of “You’re finally buying it, eh?”).  I was so proud of my cost savings until I used the snorkel set once in Las Grietas… and then promptly lost it.  Lesson learned: don’t spend too much time fretting over saving a dollar here or there.  In retrospect a wetshirt would have been more useful for me, as I wasn’t super big on snorkeling independently, snorkels and fins were provided during each snorkeling day tour, and I found the November water to be quite cold, even with a 3mm full body wetsuit.  You live and you learn.

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So how much money did I spend in total?  Here’s a cost breakdown:

Cost (USD)
Galápagos Entry Fee 100
Galápagos Transit Control Card
20
Airfare 49.44
Accommodation 203
Food (including groceries) 126.75
Day tours (including tips) 447
Travel (ferries, buses, etc.) 150
Miscellaneous (independent activities, souvenirs, laundry, etc.) 82.7
Total 1178.89

Thus, my daily budget equaled about $79 a day.  Not half bad, if I do say so myself.  The Galápagos Islands were certainly a more expensive part of my extended trip through South America, but I feel as if it was worth the time and money spent.  Upon reflection, I don’t feel like I missed out or skimped on anything I wanted to do in order to cut back on costs.  And while I won’t knock anyone who wants to take a cruise, this is what I found worked for me.

The Galápagos Islands are known for being one of the more expensive places to visit, especially when compared to the price of traveling through mainland Ecuador.  I knew I couldn't pass up a trip to the islands made famous by Charles Darwin.  I visited the islands on a budget that ultimately equalled $79 a day.

Cheap, Wanderer

Free Lodging In the Galápagos: Volunteering on an Island Farm

When I was planning my visit to the Galápagos Islands I knew it would not be an economically-friendly trip; that’s when I decided to put my Workaway membership to the test.  I wrote a bit about Workaway in my South America prep blog post, but it’s basically a website that allows an exchange of free accomodation and volunteer work around the world.

After emailing six individuals I received a response – there was a family farm on Santa Cruz island that was willing to take me!  I would be helping to take care of the animals and in exchange would receive five nights free accomodation.

So how was my first Workaway experience?  Well, it commenced with a somewhat rocky start.  After arriving at the entrance road to the farm I finally figured out that everyone on the farm was intently talking about something in Spanish.  It turned out one of the power lines was down, which meant no electricity at the farm. Now, this was not my first experience with South American power outages.  However, in the past when the power had gone out I had been living with an Ecuadorian family in a busy residential neighborhood in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.  There were lots of people, buses, and food around, and the power usually came back within a day or so.  Here I was a 20-minute bus ride from anything resembling civilization, with buses running only every 45 minutes.  I also faced the prospect of spending the night by myself, as I had just learned the family often returned to their apartment in town during the night, as I was supposed to be the main animal caretaker.

I fully expected to be told I would have to return to Puero Ayora, Santa Cruz’s main town, since the power was out.  Maybe we could try again tomorrow.

¨Well, what do you think?¨ asked Janet, the matriarch of the family.  ¨Would you like to stay here?¨*

My mind raced in an attempt to answer her question.  ¨Sure.  I mean, the power will probably come back on tomorrow, right?¨ I inquired.

¨Yes, it may,¨she responded.  I internally sighed with relief.  One night.  I could do this.  ¨Or it may not,¨ she added.  She then went on to explain that the damaged power line was a private line, unlike most power lines on the island, which were public.  This meant that in order to have it repaired, the owner of the line would have to pay the utility company to fix the damage.  The owner was her husband, who was at the time working on a boat in the middle of the ocean set to return on Tuesday…. six days from then.

You can do this, I reassured myself.  This is the exact reason why you’re taking this trip – to challenge yourself and step outside of your comfort zone.  People lived for centuries without power.

I took a deep breath and agreed to stay.  As the sun sets year-round in Ecuador at 6:00pm, we then commenced a tour of the house and farm essentially in the pitch dark, aided only by my cell phone flashlight and an LED headlamp.  Unfortunately, it seemed every aspect of the farm was in some way related to the electricity.

¨In this building lives a gentleman who helps us out on the farm,¨I was told, ¨but he probably won’t be coming back for awhile because the power is out.¨  Sigh.  When I inquired about running water I was told it would still function without the power…. but there would be no hot water for a shower, which I badly needed.  And the washer and dryer I saw and internally rejoiced about since I was out of clean underwear?  Yes, that needed electricity, too.  However, all this paled in comparison to my biggest issue.  While the kitchen stove ran on gas and thus would still work without electricity, I would have to light it myself with a cigarette lighter – a tool I had steadfastly avoided ever using in my 29 years of life due to my pyrophobia.  And now they wanted me to not only put my fingers near the lighter flame, but also put that flame near a bunch of flammable gas?  Learning experience, I reassured myself.  This will all work out.

¨I’m headed back into town,¨ Janet explained.  ¨I may be back later tonight.¨  As I waved goodbye, I resolved to put on my big girl pants.

And guess what?  It all eventually worked out.

Janet did come back that night to spend the night with me at the farm and show me my morning animal care tasks.  The next morning, while waiting to catch the bus into town to drop off my clothes at a lavandería, Janet’s neighbors picked me up and drove me into town, offered to let me charge my cell phone at their office, and told me they would take care of the power issue since they, too, were affected.  Low and behold, when I arrived at the farm later that evening power had been restored!  I’m still not 100% sure the exact turn of events, but I did never questioned how the electricity sweet electricity running through the walls returned.

Things rapidly improved after that first night.  Each day I would wake up around 7:00am to feed the group of 50 chickens and ducks and unchain the three adorable and friendly dogs from the night before.  I had the day to explore the island as I pleased, and then returned to the farm via a $1 bus at 4:00pm to open the coop door to let the fowl roam free, start cooking for the dogs, and eventually feed the dogs.  The hardest part of my day was chasing after seven adorable baby chicks, or pollitos, who had to be captured and placed into an elevated box each night to ensure they would not be eaten by mice.

The work totaled about 3 hours per day in a serene, quiet, wi-fi free and vividly green environment.  There were always people coming and going, which provided the perfect opportunity to practice my Spanish, as none spoke English.

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Upon waking at the farm the morning after I arrived I was awarded with this gorgeous view.

Further, when I told Janet of my plans to travel to Isabela and San Cristóbal islands she set me up with a discounted room in a hotel her friend’s daughter owned, and offered me lodging on the night before my flight, as I would have to return to Santa Cruz to fly back to Quito.

We had long talks about life and relationships, and by the end of my short time there I really did feel like part of the family.  I was sad to say goodbye, but was assured that if I ever came back I would have a place to stay.  All in all it was a perfect way to spend a week in Santa Cruz island.

*All conversations occurred in Spanish, but for ease of story-telling I have taken the liberty to paraphrase and translate into English.  Names have been changed.

So how was my first Workaway experience?  Well, it commenced with a somewhat rocky start.  After arriving at the entrance road to the farm I finally figured out that everyone on the farm was intently talking about something in Spanish.  It turned out one of the power lines was down, which meant no electricity at the farm.

Wanderer

Everything I Packed For South America

In October 2018 I set out for a multi-month trip to South America of undetermined length.  With me I brought only a 40 liter backpack, the clothes on my back, a purse, and a desire to learn Spanish.  Luckily the desire to learn Spanish didn’t take up much room (unlike my ridiculously bulky towel), but here’s a breakdown of everything else I packed.

I’ve made post-trip update notes in purple below: What was useful, and what wasn’t? 

Clothes

  • 1 long-sleeved Merino wool shirt
  • 1 long-sleeved cotton shirt
  • 1 3/4-length synthetic fiber shirt – can be dressed up if needed.
  • 1 camisole
  • 1 thermal shirt
  • 2 cotton tees
  • 1 quick-dry tee
  • 1 light pullover sweater
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 wide-brimmed sun hat
  • 1 multi-purpose scarf
  • 1 cold weather earband
  • 1 pair gloves
  • 1 towel/yoga mat – brought this to use at hostels that don’t provide towels, but is actually made by Gaiam and can also be used as a (very thin) yoga mat because of its size.
  • 1 pair jeans
  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair athletic shorts
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 pair hiking boots  I waivered on these, but was so glad I brought them in the end.  I wound up hiking almost every weekend for five months. 
  • 1 pair Chaco sandals
  • 4 pair regular underwear
  • 2 pair ExOfficio underwear
  • 3 pair low-cut socks
  • 1 pair high hiking socks
  • 2 regular bras
  • 1 sports bra
  • 1 necklace & 1 ring
  • Digital watch

I packed almost all of this in four packing cubes.  One packing cube held my sneakers and sandals (I wore my hiking boots in transit since they were the bulkiest footwear), the second held undergarments, the third held my shirts, and the fourth held my lower-body wear.

I read dozens of too many packing list blogs prior to taking my own trip, and while all of them were slightly different, a common theme among them was an unabashed reverence of packing cubes – because these things really are lifesavers.  Imagine trying to find a pair of socks at the bottom of your backpack.  You would have to pull out every. last. item. in your bag to find them.  With packing cubes, you pull out a couple of cubes and whamo! – there you have your sock & underwear cube!  If you don’t believe me, try them for yourself.

Overall I was very happy with my clothing selections – they were able to take me from the beaches of Santa Cruz, Ecuador to La Montaña de Siete Colores in Perú.  I did tire of wearing the same clothes over and over again, but I didn’t have room for many more clothing items.  Plus, the monotony of clothing is a common feeling among long-term travellers – when I came home I didn’t touch my South America clothes for months!

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush & toothbrush holder
  • Floss
  • Ear plugs x 2 – because I’m a light sleeper and plan to sleep in hostel dorm rooms.
  • Solid deodorant
  • Bar of soap
  • Shampoo bar – this thing is amazing and easily lasts me 3 months, plus cuts down on liquids (important when flying without checked bags).
  • Razor
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers  These doubled as scissors on the road.
  • Comb
  • Small hair brush
  • Retainers – gotta keep those pearly whites in place!
  • Medicine – this will differ by person, but I brought any prescription medications I needed plus multi-vitamins.
  • Small medical kit – includes the basics: bandages, gauze, alcohol wipes, antibacterial ointment, etc.

Liquids

  • Coconut oil – multi-purpose moisturizer.
  • Dr. Bronner’s castile soap – for washing clothes in hostel sinks as needed.  I barely used the concentrated soap and at the end of the trip the bottle exploded in my backpack and made everything very, very, soapy.
  • Contacts and contact case
  • Contact lense solution
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Bug spray  I mostly stayed in the Andes mountains and therefore didn’t use much of this spray.
  • Anti-itch cream – because even with copious amounts of bug spray insects love to bite me.  See above; I could have done without.
  • Toothpaste
  • Eye drops for dry eyes
  • Sun screen – everything I read explained that sun screen is hella expensive in Latin America, and I can confirm it may be cheaper to buy the newest Tesla model than to purchase a bottle of sun screen in Ecuador.  This was completely true.  I begged B to bring me sunscreen from the U.S. when he visited, and he showed up with seven (7!) bottles of travel-sized sunscreen.  Talk about a pale-skinned princess being rescued by her knight-in-UV-ray-protected armor!

Since I flew with carry-on luggage only, all liquids were placed in containers of less than 3.2 fluid ounces.

Electronics

  • Power outlet adapter – I wasn’t sure which countries I would be visiting and some in South America don’t use the same types of outlets as the U.S. (I’m looking at you, Chile and Argentina!)  Both of the countries I visited did not require adapters, so I sent it home.
  • Camera
  • Camera battery x 2
  • Camera battery charger
  • Camera memory cards x 3 – in case I lose one.  Or two.
  • Unlocked cell phone
  • SteriPen Ultralight  This was AWESOME and saved me from buying plastic water bottles all the time. 
  • Kindle 5th Generation – because it’s lighter than schleping around 5 books and I can download e-books from my library account(s) back home via wi-fi as I travel.
  • Headlamp w/ batteries
  • Charger – since my phone, Steripen, and Kindle are all charged with micro USB cords, it didn’t make sense to bring a charger for each.  Thus, one cord to charge them all!

Miscellaneous

  • Luggage locks x 2
  • Exercise band – yes, I do have physical therapy exercises I have to do multiple times a week.  Yes, I have actually done them while in Ecuador.
  • Spanish phrase book I barely touched this and sent it home.
  • Sleep eye mask
  • Glasses
  • CamelBak Chute water bottle – I typically use a stainless steel water bottle in the U.S., but this bottle has a wide enough neck for using my SteriPen and weighed a bit less than my stainless steel bottle.
  • Foldable day bag
  • Journal
  • Trtl neck pillow I wound up switching this out for an inflatable hood pillow that I could use in my sleeping bag during my trek to Machu Picchu
  • Ankle wrap – I have a weak ankle and use this wrap when I know I’ll be hiking.
  • Laundry bag
  • Dry bag
  • 2 caribiners

In My Purse

  • Reusable napkin
  • Wallet
  • Fake wallet – you know, in case I get mugged.  I was much more likely to get pickpocketed than mugged, so this was not at all helpful. 
  • Passport & passport copy – to be kept separately from each other in case I lose the original.
  • Pens x 3
  • Spork
  • Earphones
  • Personal safety alarm
  • ChicoBag
  • Handkerchief

In October 2018 I set out for a multi-month trip to South America of undetermined length.  With me I brought only a 40 liter backpack, the clothes on my back, a purse, and a desire to learn Spanish.

Cheap, Wanderer

South America Prep: Cost Breakdown

In just a week I leave on a one-way ticket to Quito, Ecuador.  While this trip is one I have been planning for quite some time, I don’t believe the magnitude has yet hit me.  Instead, I have busied myself with all of the preparation required for temporarily moving to another continent.

I thought some of you might be interested in the costs I’ve incurred prior to leaving the U.S. to prepare for my trip.  CAVEAT: you do NOT need to spend this much money.  I did a cost-benefit analysis for a number of items and/or services for which I paid, and ultimately determined that the cost was worth it.  There are certainly things I’ve paid for that are not necessary for every traveller; it’s all dependent on what your trip looks like, what you’d like to get out of it, and how comfortable you are in certain situations.

Here’s what my preparatory cost breakdown looks like:

Plane ticket – $0

Most people assume that my plane ticket was the most costly item of my preparation.  In complete contradiction, my ticket was one of the cheapest items.  As I mentioned earlier, I had been planning this trip for quite some time, and on a friends’ recommendation, signed up for the free version of Scott’s Cheap Flights email alerts.  Something that will continue to pop up through this post is the recommendation to start early.  I received a notification that tickets to Ecuador were on sale and purchased a one-way ticket from the DC area to Quito in January 2018 – 10 months prior to my trip.  I bought a ticket in a time frame that I knew worked (my only criteria was “a bit after August 2018”) and literally purchased the lowest price ticket I could find. Yet another tip – be flexible.  My schedule’s flexibility allowed me to save at least $30.

The one-way ticket for October 2018 only cost $137.90, and with my travel credit card points I simply “erased” that cost from my monthly bill (a blog post on travel credit cards is pending), effectively adjusting the cost of my plane ticket to nothing.

Travel insurance – $723.97

I’ve met too many travellers whose eyes glaze over when I bring up the topic of travel insurance.  Travel insurance is one of those topics that isn’t fun or glamorous to talk about, but that doesn’t negate its importance.  I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to file any claims (although I once came close), but knowing I had the ability to do so gave me piece of mind throughout my trip.

Before leaving, as in as soon as you book your plane ticket, take stock of your current insurance situation.  I have a friend whose employer health insurance works internationally, but the vast majority of the time this will not be the case.  Consequently, if you were to injure yourself abroad, the health insurance you have at home would not cover the bills.

Travel insurance also has a number of other perks.  Depending on what kind you elect, travel insurance will also cover situations such as trip cancellation/interruption, non-medical/medical emergency evacuation, personal items in case they are lost or damaged, and baggage delay.  Always read the fine print to understand exactly what is covered.  Still not convinced?  Nomadic Matt does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of travel insurance and why it’s worth the cost.

I personally use World Nomads because I’ve read so many wonderful reviews about them.  I find their website very easy to use and you can easily receive a cost quote without creating an account.  (post-trip update: my World Nomads travel insurance policy covered the cost to replace my camera and driver’s license when I was pickpocketed – a total of more than $300). 

Okay, so that sounds good and all, but you may be asking yourself, $700?  Isn’t that too much?  To clarify, World Nomads offers two types of plans – standard and explorer.  While more expensive, I opted for the explorer plan, mainly because I wanted to know certain activities were covered in case I decided to partake.  For U.S. residents, cliff jumping, rappelling, and certain types of SCUBA diving were only covered by the explorer plan.

I also weighed the pros and cons of opting for a shorter length coverage duration, then starting a new travel insurance plan if I decided to stay longer.  Ultimately, this would have cost more money than an elongated single plan, and possibly would have given me the mental permission to skip out on the trip early when homesickness hit, so the plan I opted for covers 203 days of travel to every Latin American country I could think to include.  Surprisingly, adding additional countries of travel didn’t increase my insurance quote.

Ultimately, my travel insurance winds up costing me $3.57 a day, which I find to be worth the cost.

Vaccinations – $1084

Protecting your health is an instrumental aspect of international travel.  My advice is to seek care at a travel clinic at least two months prior to your trip.  The health care professionals at the travel clinic can recommend which vaccinations are recommended prior to your travel.  Seeing as I am not a medical professional, I will simply list the vaccinations I received; this is in no way, shape, or form a recommendation of which vaccines are required for any situation other than my own.

I ultimately received the following vaccinations:

  • Yellow Fever – $220
  • Typhoid – $105
  • Rabies (a 3-shot series given on days 0, 7, and 21 or 28) – $315 per injection

I will note that I was previously vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B as a child, and coincidentally had my Hepatitis B titers checked for a job-related exam two years prior to my trip.  I also received my tetanus/diphtheria booster within the last year, so I was covered on that front.

While my U.S. health insurance specifically told me travel vaccines were not covered, I did receive some money back from the insurance company; it can’t hurt to submit your bills to your insurance.

I shopped around for prices at various travel clinics in the DC area and picked the one that was cheapest for the vaccines I thought I’d need.  However, I still spent a large chunk of money on vaccinations, mostly due to the rabies vaccination I asked to receive.  The vaccination costs $315 for each of three shots, for a total of $945.  While the rabies vaccination is not required for my travels, I do plan to be in South America for several months and will likely visit some remote areas.  It is also important to note that while I am now vaccinated, I will still need to seek medical care immediately if bit by a rabid animal.  The reason I received the rabies vaccine series is because I spoke with several health care professionals who agreed it would be a good idea for me to get vaccinated against rabies.

Once again, I would like to reiterate that I am NOT a medical professional.  Please run all medical questions and concerns by your health care provider.

Medications – around $35

At the travel clinic I visited I was given two prescriptions:

  • atovaquone – anti-malarial
  • azithromycin – antibiotic

In talking to my health care provider at the travel clinic I mentioned that I wanted to visit the Amazon rainforest, and she advised me that I would need anti-malarial pills due to the presence of malaria in that region.  Since I didn’t have concrete plans, in going back and forth with her, we both decided 39 pills (for 39 days total, as the medication has to be taken for several days prior to- and post-trip) seemed a safe, albeit somewhat arbitrary, number.

However, when I went to fill my prescriptions I was informed that while my insurance would cover these prescriptions with a co-pay, it would only cover 30 atovaquone pills at a time.  Once again, I was glad I had started this process early.  The pharmacist explained that she would give me 30 atovaquone pills.  She could then give me the remaining 9 in 30 days, when I would be “done” with the first 30.  Since I wasn’t leaving on my trip for a few months, I did exactly that, obviously saving all 39 pills for my trip.

My insurance covered each medication fill with a co-pay of about $10, for a total of about $30 for the prescription medication.

The travel clinic provider also recommended picking up loperamide (anti-diarrheal) over the counter, which came to about $4.  I also picked up a four-pack of acetaminophen (AKA Tylenol) in blister form, as I’ve read it’s possible you may need to show medications in its original packaging at border crossings.  This cost about $1.

Workaway year-long membership- $38

Workaway is a website that connects individuals who are looking for volunteers with those interested in volunteering throughout the world.  Volunteer positions can include anything from house-sitting, working in a hostel, working on a farm, teaching a language, baby-sitting, to so many other options.  In exchange for their work, Workawayers, as they’re called, receive a free place to sleep.  Sometimes food is also included.  Since no money is exchanged, no visas are required.

Workaway also has a review feature, allowing both hosts and Workawayers to leave feedback on the ultimate outcome of the experience.  This also adds a level of safety to the process.

There are several similar sites to Workaway, such as WWOOF, HelpX, and Hippohelp.  I ultimately decided on Workaway because one account offered me the flexibility to work in a number of different countries and I liked the site’s interface.

A year-long membership for a single person costs $38, but there is an option for a two-person account for $48 a year.

Miscellaneous Items – $171.24

In packing for this trip, I resolved to avoid purchasing items I would only use for this trip and were completely useless for my life back in urban DC.

Then anxiety hit and buying “just in case” items made me feel a bit better about uprooting my life to fly to South America with little to no plan.  So I wound up buying a few more things than I had originally planned…

  • SteriPen American Red Cross Ultralight Purifier – purchased for $25, retails at $70.  I will be encountering tap water in South America that is unsafe to drink.  I bought the SteriPen to avoid constantly boiling water (tedious and results in unpleasantly hot liquid) or constantly buying plastic bottled water (not ideal health-wise, environment-wise, or wallet-wise).  The SteriPen I purchased uses UV light to purify up to 1 liter of water in 90 seconds and charges via a USB cable.

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  • Smartwool Merino Wool Base Layer Long Sleeve – purchased for $20, retails around $80.  After hearing other bloggers sing the praises of merino wool, I caved and bought this shirt.  It’s something I’ll certainly wear in my non-travel life back in DC, and will act as one of many layers to keep me warm during my trip through the Andes Mountains.

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  • PrAna Halle Pants – purchased for $28, retails for $80.  I read so many positive reviews of these pants, and had been looking for water-resistant hiking pants to use in my non-travel life anyway.  These pants fold up into capris, are comfortable, and don’t look too tacky.  (Right?)  Note that they run large and while they come in both petite and tall lengths, I actually opted for the regular length because the tall was a bit long.  For me.  And I’m 5’10”.  Bonus: I read many reviews that people are able to pull these pants off in the work place.  Double win!

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  • Champion Women’s Snap Scarf – purchased for $0, retails at $5.  After reading this blog post about the Chrysalis Cardi, I was convinced it would solve all of my minimalist packing issues.  Then I saw the price tag – $180.  Gulp.  I couldn’t quite stomach that cost.  I soon found a similar and cheaper alternative in the Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf, but that scarf still retailed for about $60.  Determined to find the once piece of clothing that could act as a cardigan, shawl, skirt, shirt, and more, I came across this Champion brand rip-off substitute.  Retailing at a whopping $5, it seemed the perfect fit.  While it lacks the dress and skirt function of the Chrysalis Cardi, I can honestly count on two hands the number of times I wear either of those in a year.  Plus, I could technically make a very shoddy skirt out of it if needed.  I happened to have a $5 Amazon gift code for donating blood (side note: donating blood can save up to 3 lives; find your nearest blood drive here), so this scarf cost me a whopping $0.

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  • NuPouch 2L Waterproof Bag – purchased for $5.99, retails around $15.  I had been looking for a dry bag since I was introduced to the wonder of these bags by a friend back in Iceland.  I plan to use this to hold my camera and/or phone during water activities, or alternatively keeping a wet bathing suit from spreading wetness and mustiness to the rest of my bag.  A simple plastic grocery bag will work, but these bags have much tighter seals and will float if accidentally dropped in water due to the air that’s trapped inside.  It takes up little to no room in my backpack when rolled up.

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  • BV TSA-Approved Keyless Luggage Locks x 2 – purchased for $8.99, retails around $15.  I have a regular MasterLock combination lock, but it’s been acting up recently and I’ve found the circular arm portion to be too thick for some hostel lockers.  These luggage locks do double duty to lock up valuables in hostels and to lock up my backpack while traveling.  I purchased keyless because I would be that person to lock the key in the locker.  Ooops.

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  • Nikon Coolpix P80 Camera + Rechargeable Battery – purchased for $43.95, camera originally retailed around $300.  I have had a small point-and-shoot camera for several years that I don’t necessarily love and occasionally has some technical issues.  I didn’t love the quality of pictures it takes, and was hoping for something with more capabilities to shoot photos in South America, but wasn’t ready to take the (expensive) jump to DSLR cameras.  I found this Coolpix P80 on Craigslist for $35, and after reading the manual, playing around with taking pictures, and reading copious photography tips, my hope is to take slightly better pictures during my trip.  The battery the camera came with had a pretty short charge, so I purchased another (non-Nikon brand) battery for $8.95.

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  • Natrapel Bug Spray – purchased for $7.35, retails for $7.35.  I picked up this 20% Picaridin TSA travel size bug spray at REI to fight the ticks and mosquitoes in South America.

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  • Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray – purchased for $16.96.  This repellant is made for clothes-only and lasts for up to 48 days.  I picked up a 24 oz. bottle from REI and sprayed all of the clothes I knew I’d be wearing in climates with mosquitos, including pants, socks, shirts, and sweaters.
  • Passport Photos – purchased for $15.  I decided to bring these in case I wanted to purchase a visa into Bolivia when I arrived at the border, or to help with the process of getting a new passport in case I lose my original.

I also purchased a new watch and purse since both of mine bit the dust while I was prepping for the trip.  While I kept my South American journey in mind as I made my purchases, I ultimately did not include these two costs as I would have replaced these items regardless of my travels.

So what is the total of money I’ve spent before setting foot in South America?

Grand Total: $2,191.49.  Yikes.

While this number may seem quite high, I want to point out that it could have been higher.  I saved money by shopping around to different travel clinics to find the one that offered the vaccines I needed at the lowest prices.  Additionally, save for the camera battery, scarf, and bug spray, all of my pre-trip purchases were bought secondhand and bartered for on eBay or Craigslist.  Based on my expectations regarding volunteering, I foresee that the $38 Workaway account will more than pay for itself in free lodging, as will the SteriPen in free water.

Could I have reduced these costs further?  Sure.  I could have saved $186.69 by opting for the standard, rather than explorer, World Nomads travel insurance plan.  I also could have skipped the rabies vaccinations, which would have saved me $945.  However, I feel comfortable that I made educated, well thought-out and medically-supported decisions, rather than skimping on insurance coverage or my health.

Post-trip update:  I have no regrets whatsoever about my pre-trip choices.  I did go rappelling in Ecuador (so fun!) and appreciated being able to focus on enjoying the experience rather than being injured and my insurance policy not covering the injury.  In regards to the rabies vaccinatinos, I felt slightly safer being around dogs in South America with these vaccines, as I personally met two travellers who were bitten by dogs in Ecuador.  And my travel insurance allowed me to replace my $35 camera with a more expensive and more user-friendly replacement, free-of-cost. 

In just a week I leave on a one-way ticket to Quito, Ecuador.  While this trip is one I have been planning for quite some time, I don't believe the magnitude has yet hit me.  Instead, I have busied myself with all of the preparation required for temporarily moving to another continent.