The ABCs of Summer in Portland

Summer is indisputably the loveliest time of year to experience Portland.  In three days, I was able to make it through the As, Bs, and Cs of sights, sounds and smells in this charming city.  And because I couldn’t resist sharing some of said loveliness, here are a few of my favorite things about Portland, in photos.

A is for…

Architecture…IMG_0113 IMG_0080


IMG_0153 Lush_soaps

and Alcohol.

IMG_0216 IMG_0217

B is for…




…Beauty and Brunch.IMG_0262 IMG_0343

C is for…



and Culture.IMG_0291mural_portland Portland_taco_truck

Help me finish the alphabet…what are your favorite parts of Portland?

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Friday Snapshot: Sunset at Angkor Wat

Friday Snapshots: A new series bringing you travel inspiration just in time for the weekend.  Have you bought your ticket yet? 

Angkor_Wat_sunsetSunset at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Posted in Friday Snapshots, Southeast Asia, Travel | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

6 Great Places to Brunch Your Face Off in Portland, Oregon

Ah, brunch!  Is there a sweeter portmanteau in existence?  A better way to spend a tipsy summer afternoon?  A classier way stuff your face for hours-on-end?  Hint: These are rhetorical questions.

Despite the fact that I didn’t fall head-over-heels for Portland, there’s one aspect of Portlandic life I definitely jive with: brunch culture.

Portlanders have really taken it upon themselves to do brunch properly, much to my inner fat kid’s delight.

After talking to some in-the-know residents and trying out a handful of places myself, I got the lowdown on some of Portland’s best brunches.

Clyde Common
This place only serves brunch on the weekend, and unfortunately for me, we wandered in on a Friday; but their lunch was spectacular, which I can only assume means their weekend brunch is even better.  I liked that the menu wasn’t overwhelming, and the reasonable portion sizes matched the reasonable prices.  The traditional brunchy cocktails we ordered (a mimosa for me and a bloody mary for Daicia) were ace as well.

IMG_0093Fried rockfish sandwich and chevre-stuffed pansotti with summer squash at Clyde Common.

Tasty n Sons
The Tasty n Tasty chain of restaurants includes east Portland’s Tasty n Sons and downtown’s Tasty n Alder.  We’d originally planned to go to the downtown location for their Friday brunch, but the waiting list was so long they weren’t even taking more names (hence how we ended up at Clyde Common).  The next day we managed to pull ourselves together a bit earlier to head out to Tasty n Sons, and it was worth the wait.  Like most things in Portland the brunches don’t like to conform to societal norms, and Tasty n Sons definitely doesn’t play by the rules.  While we waited, we ordered some non-traditional bloodies (mine was made with tequila) and once seated at the bar, proceeded to drool over the very unbrunch-like brunch menu.  We settled on sharing a Malaysian curry noodle soup and a Burmese pork stew with eggs two ways, though it was a struggle to pass up the Shakshuka, or anything else on the menu for that matter.

IMG_0139View from the Tasty n Sons bar at Saturday brunch. 

Jam on Hawthorne
Because there are only so many days in a weekend and so many dollars in my wallet, I didn’t get to try Jam myself; but this southeast Portland restaurant touts some of the best breakfast in the whole city and is one of Daicia’s favorites.  One glance at their menu and there’s no question why; the dishes are decadent and their ingredients are as Portland as they come–locally sourced, organic, free-range, hormone-free, house-made. They don’t call it “brunch” but their breakfasts are served until 3pm.

Mother’s Bistro and Bar
Another of Daicia’s favorites.  “At Mother’s, we take traditional homemade favorites and refine them with classical cooking techniques.”  Traditional is definitely the name of the game here, but always with a gourmet twist; a breakfast scramble with prosciutto, basil, and provolone cheese, hash with wild salmon and leeks, challah french toast…I think you get the idea.  Again, not a true “brunch” place, but at 2:30pm the breakfast items are replaced with a whole new slew of drool-worthy lunch plates.

Portland brunch selfieWith my partner-in-brunch, Daicia (pronounced: day-sha).

Grass-fed beef isn’t always easy to come by in the US, but Besaw’s has got you covered. So order that burger without guilt, or go a little wild with the ground buffalo burger complete with Sriracha aioli on a sourdough bun.  They’ve got the vegetarians taken care of too, of course–black bean patties are available as a substitution.  Most of the other items are pretty traditional, but any pretense of “boring” this may lend Besaw’s is erased by their delightful list of specialty cocktails.

Screen Door
More than one Portlander I spoke to (all of them, methinks) sang the praises of Screen Door, a restaurant that has brought traditional southern cooking to the Pacific Northwest.  The reception has been a warm one to say the least.  The fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, po-boy sandwiches, cajun scrambles, benedicts, and waffles keep people coming back, if not a little heavier each time. Saturday and Sunday brunch is served until 2:30pm. Don’t forget your extra napkins.

Even if brunch isn’t your ideal way to spend an afternoon, Portland’s restaurant scene is sure to have something to suit your fancy.  The famous Stumptown Coffee isn’t half bad either if you’re in need an after-brunch energy boost.


Lastly, I have to give an honorable mention to the 500+ food carts the city has, organized into “pods” that sometimes take up an entire city block.  The food isn’t necessarily cheap like one might expect from street fare, but the options are endless and it’s a great way to grab a delicious meal on the go.

Portland_food_cartAlder pod, downtown Portland.

What’s your favorite Portland brunchery?

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Emails from Abroad #16: Holidays in the Southern Hemisphere

The final travel email before finally starting The Mochilera Diaries.  Maybe meeting the lovely Alex from Alex in Wanderland was the final push I needed!  Written from Cusco, Peru, December 15th, 2013.

“I knew you were all dying to know what I’ve been up to between Halloween and my arrival back in Cusco so here’s the follow-up email I promised.

“After Halloween, the group I’d been traveling with on and off since we met in Quito (a guy from England traveling solo, a pair of sisters also from England, a Dutch girl and an Israeli girl) parted ways.  I still had things to explore in Peru, and they were heading for greener pastures (quite figuratively) in Bolivia.  Well, my friend Matt stayed with me through one more city–my next stop, Puno.

“Puno sits on the northern shore of Lake Titicaca, “The World’s Highest Navigable Lake” (weird title) at 3,830 meters (12,556 ft).  Lake Titicaca is the cultural gem of this region of Peru with several indigenous groups populating the islands (and building some!) on the lake.  Puno itself is nothing to write home about, but having taken the advice of another friend, we planned our arrival to coincide with Puno’s anniversary celebrations, a 3-day festival jam-packed with parades, religious ceremonies, music and dancing in the streets at all hours of the day and night.  This time around, Matt was the one with a limited schedule; he had a huge list of things to see in Bolivia and about 3 weeks to do it, so Puno didn’t merit more than a few days in his mind (or mine for that matter–probably less had we not been there during the festival).

“We booked a day tour to a few of the islands, the first being one of the many floating islands of the Uros people.  This was one of the more fascinating things I’ve seen in Latin America.  The Uros are a pre-Incan people who build islands using the roots and stems of totora, a reed that grows abundantly in the lake (which is also edible and less-than-delicious).  They have to add fresh layers of reeds every week and their islands can last for nearly two decades.  After some traditional songs, a demonstration of how the islands are built and a ride in a huge reed boat (for a gringo fee of 10 soles per person), we headed to the island of Taquile.  This is a much larger island with a population of just over 2000; here, the men and women wear garments that indicate their marital status.  The details of the women’s attire is escaping me at the moment, something to do with the size of the fluffy balls that dangled from their hoods.  The men wore knitted hats, either of one single color (married) or two colors (single).  The men exclusively do the knitting, and a poorly knitted hat could mean a man will never be considered eligible for marriage.  They also employed an interesting system of finding a compatible mate…a man and woman will co-habitate for a trial period of 3 years…if they come out of this period and are still happy, they marry.  If not, they separate and look for a better match (pretty logical, eh?).  Oh, and of course they are obligated to marry if a child results from this trial period, as is many times the case.  Ha.

“After Puno, I was left on my own to head to my next destination, the colonial city of Arequipa.  A bit south of Puno and further west toward the coastal desert, Arequipa is blessed with gorgeous sunny weather most of the year.  This was a very welcome change from the high altitude cold of all my previous locations and a bit of a trap for me.  I ended up spending a week and a half in this beautiful city.  I made some immediate friends in our shared cab from the bus terminal and spent much of my time with them, two lovely girls from New York, Zoe and Alex.  We celebrated Alex’s birthday at an up-scale Peruvian restaurant called Zig Zag where I tried the most delicious alpaca steak and drank a cocktail from an ostrich egg.  I don’t splurge often so it was fun to indulge for a special occasion.

“One of the main draws for tourists to Arequipa is its proximity to the Colca Canyon, a truly breathtaking place.  Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and home to a large population of condors, it’s a popular hiking destination.  Alex happens to be a travel blogger and she has very wittily and eloquently chronicled our hilarious and haphazard trip into this unassumingly harsh environment, so if you’re NOT sick of reading yet, follow these links for more details about our adventure or even just to look at her lovely photography (I’m featured in a few).

The Colca Canyon: A Comedy of Hangovers

A Comedy of Hangovers: The Colca Canyon Part II

“I parted once again with my new friends–Zoe flew back to her new job in New York (designing book covers for Penguin books…why didn’t I go to art school??) and Alex bussed back through the mountains to meet her Danish giant of a boyfriend in Cusco–but we promised to meet again a few weeks down the road.  So far, Arequipa has been the southernmost point I’ve reached on this continent.  I was actually only 6 hours from the border of Chile, which is NOTHING in South America time.  But, I headed back north to the REAL desert of Peru to have a go at sandboarding.  The hostel I stayed in is located on a tiny little oasis called Huacachina.  It’s a literal oasis…surrounded by palm trees and towering sand dunes…a very surreal experience.  The day I was supposed to hop in the dune buggy and zip down the dunes face-first on a slab of wood, I woke up feeling miserably ill for pretty much the first time since I’ve been traveling.  Determined not to miss out, I guzzled water all day and lounged (fell asleep) by the pool (= sick + sunburnt) and managed to drag myself along with the group.  I’m so glad I did- this was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done.  I laughed, I cried, I ate sand, I weed myself a little.  Amazing experience.

“Still feeling a little ragged, I was excited to have some quality time to recuperate in my next destination where I would volunteer at a hostel for a little more than two weeks.  Paracas (or more accurately, El Chaco…Paracas is the name of the region) is on the Pacific coast, 4 hours south of Lima.  I had contacted the hostel beforehand through a workaway site I joined before my trip and agreed to stay on staff for the minimum time of 2 weeks, with flexibility to stay longer.  The hostel itself was gorgeous…covered in colorful and sometimes provocative artwork and right on the beach.  In exchange for working 5 shifts per week in the bar, I got free accomodation 7 nights a week, a 40% discount on food and drinks and some free drinks on my shift days.  It was fun learning some new things, including how to make two of Peru’s most famous cocktails (pisco sour and chilcano) and nice to save a bit of cash for a change.  I made some amazing friends in my 2+ weeks in Paracas, learned how to slackline, and got a tan.  I even got to see Alex again when she passed through with her man and some of his friends…it is ALWAYS nice to see a familiar face.

“Leaving Paracas was bittersweet as the hostel had come to feel like a home and a family, but El Chaco is absolutely miniscule and city girl here started craving the excitement and energy of something a bit larger.  Cue: my return to Lima.  This time I actually had the opportunity to get a feel for the enormous city, and as a cherry on top, my friend Katie from my travels in Colombia had FINALLY broken free of the amorous grip of the Colombian salsa instructor “boyfriend” she’d acquired in Quito, Ecuador, and had made it to Peru.  We explored the city together and at times had the extra assistance of her couchsurfing host and felt accomplished at the end of the weekend.

“One horrendously long, sleepless bus ride and a couple B-grade movies later (couldn’t justify springing for a flight this time) and I’m back in Cusco.  I’m currently taking 10 hours of one-on-one Spanish classes per week and patiently awaiting the arrival of some friends to ring in the new year, and loving being rooted in one spot for awhile.

“Ok I really think I’ve covered it all now.  The tentative “plan” for after the new year is to head through Bolivia and northern Argentina to arrive in Buenos Aires around the end of February.  That will probably change, but for now it’s my best guess.  ¡Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo a todos!”

DSC04142 Halloween in Cusco with my travel crew! 
IMG_6385 Puno Day celebrations.
DSC04175The floating islands of the Uros on Lake Titicaca.
DSC04212 With Alex and Zoe in Arequipa!
DSC04237Beautiful Arequipa.
DSC04248Hiking the Colca Canyon without a guide.
IMG_6721The Huacachina oasis.
IMG_6744Dune buggying and sandboarding in Huacachina!
IMG_6862Hostel Kokopelli in Paracas. 
IMG_6848_3“Working” in Paracas.
DSC04328Reunited with Alex for a spin around the Paracas National Reserve.
DSC04380Reunited with Katie in Lima!
IMG_6968Aaand finally back to Cusco for Christmas and New Year’s Eve!
Posted in Emails from Abroad, South America | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Portland At A Glance

Greetings from Portland, Oregon!

I’m loving my time here so far–the weather is absolutely perfect and my friend Daicia is the most gracious hostess I could ask for.

Here are some fun things I’ve learned about the city so far:

The Willamette River separates Portland into east and west, and there’s a bit of a cultural rift between the two sides.

There are 12 major bridges that span the river, which make getting where you want to go a cinch.

Simpsons creator Matt Groening, a Portland native, drew inspiration for character names from the streets of the Alphabet District (where I’m currently staying); notably Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Mayor Quimby, Milhouse Van Houten, and C. Montgomery Burns[ide].

Portland loves brunch!  And so do we.

We love nightlife!  Portland…not so much.

There’s an abundance of…uhh…very interesting sculptures around town.

Driving around here feels like an obstacle course–pedestrians, bicyclists, unexpected one-ways–and parking is damn near impossible.

It’s already very clear to me I could never live here.  Just one of those things you know, ya know?

IMG_0129 IMG_0127 IMG_0128More to come soon!  Have you been to Portland?  Would you call this city home?


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Month in Review: July 2014

Things are about to get a little more intimate around here.  Starting NOW I’ll be doing roundup-style posts at the end of each month, highlighting some of the things going on in my life aside from all the travel-related stuff.  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

In July of 2014…

  • I discovered a lot of people still don’t know what mochilera means.  Mochilera is Spanish for backpacker.  So essentially, my blog name is The Backpacker Diaries…but I prefer the Spanish flair.  The more you know.
  • My family spent our last 4th of July ever at Hood Canal, and said goodbye to an amazing house full of memories.
  • I got to spend a beautiful day with my friend Megan, the talent behind the lens at Megan Kathleen Photography.  You’ll see her work around here sooner than later…in the meantime, you can check out some of her stunning photography (and give her a “like”) on her facebook page.
  • Raging wildfires, including the largest in Washington state’s history, consumed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and completely wiped out several small orchard towns in central Washington.  Dry heat, lightning storms and strong winds caused thousands to lose pretty much everything they had (homes, businesses, entire orchards, farms, or herds of livestock) but it makes me proud to see our communities rallying to support them, and even prouder that my wildland firefighter brother has been on the front lines helping to get these fires under control.
  • My mom and I put on our first ever yard sale to lighten our material burden and make a little cash (for travel!).  There’s a lot I would do differently next time, but I still consider it a huge success.
  • I bought flights!  Lots of them!  I’ve already mentioned my plans to travel the USA, but I’m now officially leaving the country September 10th.  Stay tuned for details!
  • We said goodbye to an amazing furry friend, our awesome 15-year-old cat Barney.  I’ve never been so devastated by the loss of an animal.  Time heals all wounds…right?
  • I finally took the plunge…and bought an iPhone!  Let the app downloading insanity begin…
  • I won a set of 50 prints from Printic, an app that lets you create beautiful polaroid-style prints from your iOS photos or Dropbox files, care of the fun-loving duo Esther and Jacob of the blog by the same name.  They love travel and their site is loaded with beautiful photography–and every now and again they give away awesome stuff!  Check ’em out!
  • Finally, I’ve been planning lots of big changes for The Mochilera Diaries, and I can’t wait to share them with you!  Except I have to wait just a teensy bit longer, but it’ll all be worth it!JulyCollage

Onward and upward…bring on August!


Posted in Musings, Roundups | Tagged | 2 Comments

Cusco, Peru: A Foodie’s Paradise


Peru is well-known for having some of the best food in all of South America, and the high-altitude city of Cusco is no exception.

The city is overflowing with superb dining options, and it’s certainly not limited to traditional Peruvian cuisine.

Don’t get me wrong–Peruvian food is outstanding–but for a food-lover like myself, variety is key.

With so many of my friends and acquaintances heading to Peru in the near future I thought it was time to compile a list of my favorite Cusco eateries, so here you have it.  

¡Buen provecho!

The San Pedro Market – Wide variety of cheap street food.  Sandwiches, fried goods, fresh produce; you name it, they’ve got it.

Juanito’s – This place serves up some insane sandwiches and burgers with unique toppings, a huge selection of condiments, and affordable prices.  Great lunch spot.

Greens Organic – All organic and super-fresh.  Great vegetarian options and good coffee.  Perfect for breakfast or lunch.

Korma Sutra – For the curry lovers, this is the best Indian restaurant in Cusco.

Bodega 138 – Awesome pizza with interesting topping combinations.  Wide selection of craft beers to choose from to wash it down.

Nuna Raymi – Upscale Peruvian cuisine.  This place served up THE best lomo saltado I tasted in my three months in Peru.

UCHU Peruvian Steakhouse – Second-best dining experience of my stay in Cusco.  Incredible steaks cooked to perfection, and an intimate setting.

Marcelo Batata – If you take only one recommendation from my list, make it Marcelo Batata.  Their specialty is char-broiled alpaca steaks in a sauce of your choice; I opted for the Frutito del Aguaymanto & Chicken and had my freakin’ mind blown.  The best part?  It’s not an outrageous splurge.  It has a lively atmosphere and is always packed, so make a reservation–you won’t be sorry.

Where do you like to grub in Cusco, Peru?

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Emails from Abroad #15: Holidays in Cusco

Holiday season in Peru, 5 months of South American travel behind me; written from my “home base” of Cusco, December 13, 2013.  

“I’ve been in Peru for nearly 2 months and even more time has passed since my last email.  I’m sure with facebook at least most of you can rest assured knowing I’m alive if not a little sunburnt or hungover (or both).

“As it turns out, there is an outright plethora of things to do and see in this enormous country…who’da thought?  Peru is composed of desert, impressive mountain ranges, and amazonian jungle.  The landscape and climate change as quickly and drastically as the regional food and culture from one place to the next, and it has all proven beautiful and captivating…in every case worthy of the time spent there if not a little more.

“My friends and I ventured into Peru overland from Ecuador, stopping first in a northern beach town called Máncora.  At that point, I had roughly one week to get through the northern part of the country and all the way to Cusco in the Andes where I had a hostel and Inca trail adventure awaiting me.  It was a tall order, but I prioritized my activities and, to save a little time, booked a short flight from Lima to Cusco (a one-hour trip versus 21 hours on a bus).  After a whirlwind 10 days in Ecuador and plenty of beach time and parties, I decided to move on a few days ahead of some of my travel buddies to do a little hiking in La Cordillera Blanca, one of the aforementioned stunning mountain ranges.  Two days in Máncora was more than enough for me.

“Two friends accompanied me to Huaraz, the little town at the base of the mountains that serves as the jumping-off point for all the hiking in the region.  Located at about 3050m elevation (about 10,140 feet) it was a rude awakening after more than a week at sea level.  I’m not usually particularly susceptible to altitude sickness but this time around I definitely felt the effects, most notably punishing headaches that bordered on migraine-level pain.  However, due to our (my) time constraint, we had to make good use of our two full days and so decided to book two back-to-back day trips (my friends selflessly decided to keep pace with me, at least to Lima, and since it was quite rainy at the time nobody was very keen on doing the more demanding 4- or 8-day hikes in such miserable weather).

“Our first excursion was to a glacier named Pastoruri (a Quechua name…Quechua = Inca).  This trip only required about 1 hr 45 minutes of hiking, but since we STARTED this little hike at an elevation of 5000 meters (16,404 feet) and would top out at 5400m (17,716 ft) it was nevertheless a challenge.  I found myself dizzy and lightheaded, even seeing auras on occasion, more than this “strong, independent,” and proud little woman would like to admit.  And this was just our “warm-up” hike to prepare us for the longer day that followed.  In any case, we made it up to the glacier, snapped a load of silly photos and ate our sack lunches while admiring its grandeur and thanking the universe for the lovely sunny day.  The next day another travel buddy joined us for a longer hike that would lead us to one of the most stunning glacial lagoons I’ve ever seen.  This hike lasted about 5 hours round-trip and lead us through a much more varied landscape; green pastures, tall waterfalls and snowy mountain peaks were all around for our eyes to feast on.  Weather didn’t cooperate as well this day, however…upon arrival at our gorgeous turquoise-hued desination, Laguna 69 (numbered in the order they were discovered, so they say) we were greeted with a nasty hail storm.  Once it passed, the sun peeped out for a bit, we took our requisite million photos and started our descent.  A thunderstorm made the return trip interesting if not slightly terrifying, but we made it back to the van reeking of wet dog and self-satisfaction.

“One overnight bus later, we arrived at some insanely early-morning hour to the capital city of Lima.  An afternoon of wandering around the touristic area of Miraflores is all I could muster.  I put myself to bed early in order to wake up for my flight to Cusco the next day.  The flight went smoother than I could have hoped for, and I arrived at my hostel with 3 days to get my bearings and acclimate once again to the altitude of the city (3400 meters) before I started off on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

“Since I could write a veritable novel about my experience on the Inca trail, I will instead highlight the most important aspects, in list form:

1) The hike was much more challenging than I thought it would be, and if I had to do it over, I would hire the help of an extra porter.  It was a great accomplishment but I’m sure my body would thank me next time for not overestimating its abilities.
2) Weather was easily the most important factor in the “enjoyability” of this hike.  Not much to enjoy about a wall of fog in your face or rain soaking you to the bone for hours on end…some days were amazing, others were miserable.
3) The ruins at Machu Picchu were NOT in fact the best part of the trip for me.  I got much more satisfaction from completing the 4-day hike, building camaraderie with my hiking group and guides, and seeing the lesser-known ruins and stunning views along the trail (only 200 tourists are allowed on this particular trail per day…there is no limit to the number of people allowed at Machu Picchu).
4) If you ever have the opportunity to experience this, I highly recommend it (just avoid the rainy months of November-Feb if possible) and do plenty of research before choosing a tour company.

“Naturally, a much-needed rest period immediately followed the hike.  My friends had zipped around to other places in Southern Peru and made their way to Cusco so we could all spend Halloween together.  Cusco is a wonderfully lively little city with loads of culture and things to do…some may complain that it’s too touristy but there are plenty of ways to avoid that if you try.  For me, it’s no more touristy than, say, Chiang Mai.  Around the main Plaza de Armas, you will be constantly implored to spend your money on artisenal goods, services (massage, Miss?  manicure?) 5-course lunch menus or tours; on the other hand, walk 10 minutes in the opposite direction to encounter local food markets devoid of a single other gringo and replete with delicacies I’m far too weak stomached to ever try, much less look at/smell for long periods of time (think: chicken feet, any organ meat you can imagine, whole goat heads still containing teeth and tongues) or lunch menus costing a whopping 3 soles ($1 US).  I’ve come to know Cusco better than most places on my travels thus far and it was an easy choice when some of my Colombian traveling family suggested I ring in the new year in this Andean city.

“I’m back in Cusco now, getting comfortable and feeling incredibly thankful for the opportunity to lay low for awhile and not feel so rushed to cram every day full of activities.

“Hope your Thanksgiving holidays were wonderful, I’m really missing the holiday cheer of Christmas…Peru just isn’t as enthusiastic (over the top?) with the holiday decorations…gotta hand it to America on that one.”

SUP Mancora PeruStand-up paddling in Mancora, Peru!
IMG_5906Pretending to be energetic at 17,000ft.
IMG_6057 Laguna 69 near Huaraz, Peru.  Amazing hike!
DSC04102What it looks like when you don’t hire an extra porter on the Inca Trail!
IMG_6148Day three on the Inca Trail – the town of Aguas Calientes visible in the distance.
DSC04129We survived the Inca Trail!
DSC04049Cusco’s main plaza on a beautiful day.  A great place to call home for a few months.
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9 Little Essentials I’ll Never Travel Without Again

Compact.  Lightweight.  Versatile.

If every item I packed for my travels could be described using these exact three words, I’d be the World’s Most Efficient Packer and no doubt collect my Nobel Prize shortly thereafter.  They’d have to create a new category especially for me, but hey, I’d be worth it.

Unfortunately, ahem, packing hasn’t historically been my strong suit; with each new trip come new challenges, and I tweak and experiment even though I’m fairly sure I’ll never get it exactly right.  But learning from my past mistakes is inching me ever closer to packing nirvana, if such a thing exists.

In this process, I’ve discovered a handful of items I just can’t live without when I travel. Each one perfectly fits the bill of easy-to-pack and ultra-useful.  Some of these were ascertained through trial and error, others are suggestions from other travelers that make perfect sense to me, too. When I hit the road this September, you can be sure I’ll have each of these 9 tiny, practical items in tow.

1. Travel Journals
This may seem like a no-brainer to most people, but writing things down while traveling isn’t a habit I’ve cultivated to perfection yet, and I plan to change that.  All the little details that really bring travel stories to life will finally have a place to live that’s infinitely more reliable than my brain, which will certainly make this blogging business a lot smoother.  I like having different sizes for different occasions–the smaller one will come with me everywhere.

2. Pocket Knife
Oh, the kilos upon kilos of fresh fruit I would have purchased if I’d only had the right utensil to prepare it!  Hostels cannot be relied upon to provide such necessities.  I won’t even mention the million other things a knife could come in handy for–I’m sure you can use your imagination–but I’d say fresh produce is easily my main concern.

3. Corkscrew
Yes, I am THAT much of a wine-o that I’ve decided traveling with my own personal corkscrew is the only way to go.  I can no longer count with two hands the number of times I wish I’d had one of these babies (yes, many of those times were in Argentina), and again, hostels aren’t always prepared for this type of emergency.

4. Handkerchief
This little cloth is the stuff of MacGyver’s dreams!  The uses for a handkerchief are absolutely endless.  Some ways I personally plan to use mine: lens cleaner for sunglasses, sweat towel, unwashed hair cover, face mask (when it’s dusty or polluted), fashion accessory.  MacGyver would probably make a time machine or something, that guy’s such a show-off.

5. Folding Sun Hat
Let’s face it, hats are a bitch to travel with.

“Where do I put it?  Do I have to wear it ALL THE TIME?  In the airport?  On the bus?  It doesn’t stay on my head, or in my lap, and I can’t put it on the FLOOR!  It’ll get crushed in my bag!  Ahh fuck it, I’ll just leave it behind.”

                                                             -Me, last year (RIP fedora)

I’ve been searching high and low for a solution to this problem, because if there’s anything I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s that SUN DAMAGE is REAL!  Protecting my face from damaging UV rays has become a top priority, so you can imagine the joy I felt when I stumbled upon this reversible, crushable, indestructible sun hat!  I can enjoy my time in the sun, then casually cram the hat back into my bag without worry (although this one came with a nice mesh bag to store it in).  And it’s not hideous! Win-win-win!

6. Slippers
My long flights and bus rides are about to get soo much more comfortable with the addition of these soft and fuzzy slippers.  The pliable fabric means they’ll pack snugly pretty much anywhere, and on chilly nights and mornings my feet will stay toasty warm.

7. Eye Mask
Fall asleep easily just about anywhere at any time of day with the help of this little accessory.  Blinded by the movie that’s playing on your bus?  Need an afternoon nap?  Obnoxious dorm roomies turning all the lights on when they get back to the hostel at 3am?  An eye mask is your new best friend.  A tiny investment in both price and space.

8. Insulated Water Bottle
A water bottle is essential on the road, and this time I’m going to do it right.  The Hydro Flask company, which was launched right here in the Pacific Northwest (Bend, Oregon to be exact) has created a beautiful high-performance water bottle with double-walled vacuum insulation to keep your hot drinks hot (for 12 hours!) and your cold drinks cold (for 24 hours!).  Ya’ll know how I love my coffee and there’s nothing worse than a cold cup of joe–with my new Hydro Flask, I could make coffee at night and have it hot the next morning!  That’d be cool and gross at the same time.

What’s more, Hydro Flasks are BPA-free, and with their 5% Back program, a portion of your purchase can be donated to the charity of your choice.  Products that give back always get my vote.

9. Joey
I fell in love with Joey, my little llama covered in 100% baby alpaca wool, when I was traveling through Arequipa, Peru.  Joey’s not one of those travel souvenirs that’s resigned to collecting dust on my shelf at home; he’s become my nightly bed buddy and I couldn’t imagine being on the road without him.  We all need that little something that comforts us during moments of homesickness, and for me, that’s Joey.  He may not be the most versatile item on this list, but could YOU say no to that face?

What are your travel essentials?

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Emails from Abroad #14: Colombia to Ecuador

Letter to friends and family, two-and-a-half months into my South America trip; written from Quito, Ecuador, October 7th, 2013.

“It’s been just about 6 weeks since I left Venezuela.  I flew to Colombia with just a little trouble from the airline in Caracas…I didn’t have an onward or return ticket as I was planning to head over land to Ecuador, but was able to talk my way onto the flight anyway, promising I wouldn’t overstay my welcome in Colombia since I had to be in Peru by a certain date, etc.  I’m getting better at this.

“I flew into Cartagena, a lovely colonial city on the Caribbean, to find my friend Allison from Berkeley.  We got lucky and met some other really cool people in our respective hostels and ended up traveling as a group of 5 for the majority of my time in Colombia.  We spent 2 weeks on the coast, visiting the amazingly beautiful Tayrona National park and a few other little towns with gorgeous beaches.

From the coast, we bussed to Medellin, a beautiful city in a deep valley of the Northern Andes.  The bus journey was even colder than I could have ever imagined…worse than any bus I experienced in Venezuela.  The bus drivers claim they have no control over the air conditioning.  And of course they had a never-ending supply of horribly violent movies to show on the way.  These are the common themes of South American buses as far as I can tell.  The journey was worth it though, we loved Medellin and found it very difficult to leave.  We went there not knowing what to expect and ended up staying for nearly 2 weeks.  Great coffee, museums, parks, nightlife, amazing weather (it is known as ‘the city of eternal spring’)…Medellin has it all.  It was easily my favorite city in Colombia.

“After Medellin, we relaxed for a few days in Salento, a cute town in the coffee-growing region further south.  I went on a tour of a small family-owned coffee farm and learned a little about the production process from an adorable old man named Elias.  Allison was the first to leave the group from Salento, heading back north to catch a boat to the San Blas islands of Panama on her way back to the states.  Another group member went south to Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital, and me and the other 2 headed to Bogotá to stay with our Colombian friend Silvia, whom we met in Santa Marta on the coast.

“Staying with Silvia’s family in Bogota was amazing.  They were so welcoming and friendly, and genuinely interested in learning about us, where we come from and our experiences.  They put us up for 4 days over the weekend and Silvia showed us some great parts of the city.

“The last two in the group I had been traveling with, a pair of twins that coincidentally grew up in Berkeley, headed back to the states after Bogota.  I hopped on a bus to Cali for a few nights on my way to Ecuador.  I took a salsa class at the hostel, then headed to a nearby salsa club to be thrown around by a few guys who were much better dancers than me.  It was a good laugh anyway.

“I think this email is already unreasonably long so I’ll save the rest for the next one!  I’m currently in Ecuador and enjoying it a lot more than I expected, in part because I’ve run into a bunch of people I met in Colombia, including my travel buddy Katie.”

The start of some beautiful friendships in Cartagena. 
The dream team in Palomino on the Caribbean coast.
The dream team in Palomino on the Caribbean coast.
I left my heart in Medellin!I left my heart in Medellin!
Hiking through the coffee region of Salento.Hiking through the coffee region near Salento. 
Con la hermosa Silvia en Bogota!Con la hermosa Silvia en Bogota! 
Cali, the salsa capital.Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia.
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