Tumbes, Peru: Appreciating the Ecosystem of Mangroves at Puerto 25 (Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes)

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

When I decided to travel to Tumbes, I knew I would be visiting lots of beaches like Máncora, Punta Sal, and Cabo Blanco, but I also wanted to be sure to round out my trip with a tour of ancient ruins and a foray into a fascinating ecosystem: mangroves.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

Since Tumbes has a subtropical climate due to its proximity to the equator, it is the ideal location for mangroves, known as manglares in Spanish. Mangroves grow in low-oxygen soil along the coastline where water moves slowly so that the roots can grow in the sediment.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

To be honest, I didn’t know much about mangroves before visiting the Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes at Puerto 25. Puerto 25 is one of the primary entrance points into the mangroves; the other is Puerto Pizarro. Despite my interest, I almost didn’t make it there due to timing, but I’d befriended a couple in my hostel who worked on reforestation in the Amazon and they convinced me to join them on the tour of the manglares before catching my bus back to Lima.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

Tours are simple: you arrive to Puerto 25 by private car or a tour agency and head out into the water with your guide on these simple rowboats, just like the fisherman do. What’s nice about the tours is that they are run by locals with a strong connection to the ecosystem, as many people continue to fish for the shellfish that thrive in this environment.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

On our tour, I learned more about the mangroves as well as the animals who call this ecosystem home. The environment is incredibly peaceful; your guide paddles you slowly through the rivers, giving you a chance to observe the roots of the trees up close and take in the birds flying through the air.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

Our guide spoke frankly and honestly about the challenges that they faced in protecting this ecosystem, which had become a dumping grounds for garbage over the years. Since the mangrove forests extend into nearby Ecuador, there is a cross-border alliance working to clean up the rivers and waters in this natural reserve and educate people about protecting plant and sea life in this region, but there is still a long way to go.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

Thankfully, nature is resilient, and as you can see from these little seedlings, there is still plenty of hope for the mangrove forests!

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

Such a unique type of forest, isn’t it? The roots stabilize the coastline and reduce erosion, and these stilt-like roots help the trees stay above the daily tides as they come in and out, although it’s hard to imagine rising and falling tides in such a still environment!

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

After paddling through different channels, we got out of the boat to follow the educational nature walk set up by the Peruvian parks service. There is a bridge that leads deeper into the mangrove forest, where you can feel what it’s like to be surrounded by the tallest mangrove trees and learn about the birds and other animals that live in this type of ecosystem.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

Of course, I couldn’t resist taking a selfie to remember my visit to this very different type of landscape.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

I may love gardening and plants and hiking in green forests, but I had never seen anything like this before! Although mangroves do not have the visual wow factor of other forests, such as those in Valdivia in southern Chile, closely observing these tangles of roots does make you appreciate nature’s amazing diversity and adaptability!

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

From there, we continued our loop back to where we had started, now all a little bit quieter, just taking in what it felt like to be on the wide brown river in this humid, jungle-like environment.

Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Puerto 25

And no sooner did we arrive back on shore than the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down around us! Thankfully, there is a little restaurant on site where you can eat the freshest fish in the area. My companions ordered up a feast and I swung in the hammock, appreciating the last few hours I would spend in the laid-back northern Peru vibe, at least for now!

Recommendations for Puerto 25 (Tumbes) and Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes, Peru:

  • Go! As with many places in Peru, the more tourists visit this nature reserve and appreciate the ecosystem through tours with locals, the more protection manages to come through from the local governments.
  • You can visit Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes through tours departing from Puerto 25 or Puerto Pizarro, a beach and artisan fishing port that can be reached by public transportation from the city of Tumbes. The hostel I stayed at in Zorritos arranged for their dedicated driver to take our group to Puerto 25, which is a little more relaxed, as you can see from the photos.
  • We visited on a very humid, cloudy day and we just missed being caught in a downpour; you might think about bringing a dry bag or at the very least a plastic bag for your camera equipment. I always carry a reusable vinyl bag which provides adequate protection from the rain.
  • You can read a little more about mangroves in English here.
  • At Puerto 25, there are bathrooms and an on-site restaurant with delicious food prepared from that day’s catch. As I mentioned, there’s even a hammock set up inside!
[Puerto 25, Tumbes, Peru: February 3, 2016]

Tumbes, Peru: Appreciating the Ecosystem of Mangroves at Puerto 25 (Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes)

Tumbes, Peru: Ancient Ruins at Cabeza de Vaca and Tumbes, the Tropical Border City

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru
Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

The first time I visited Tumbes, I passed through the city around 4AM after a full day of travel through Ecuador. I’d left Baños on a bus to Cuenca, and as soon as I arrived in Cuenca, I booked a ticket on a night bus to Piura, Peru. After all I’d read about a dangerous border crossing between Huaquillas, Ecuador and Tumbes, Peru, I was a little wary of crossing in the middle of the night, but it turned out my research was outdated. The border crossing complex is modern, well-lit, and super simple: you get stamped out of one country and into another in the same room!

So my first experience of Tumbes was subconscious, as I fitfully slept on a hot, stuffy night bus until the bus attendant shook us gringos awake, thinking we were heading to Máncora like most foreign tourists. In any case, since I had missed exploring Tumbes and Piura on my first pass-through, I was determined to give Tumbes a chance to win me over me with its tropical charm, like my beloved Tarapoto.

Corrales and Cabeza de Vaca (Fortaleza de Tumpis)

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru
Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

And win me over it did. As I researched my trip, I discovered that Tumbes is actually home to a massive pre-Incan complex of ruins pertaining to the Tumpis culture from this region. Located close to the ocean in a strategic position between the jungles of what is now Ecuador and northern Peru, the coastal desert, and the high Andes, this was an excellent place to construct a ceremonial and administrative center. So much so that the Incas took over the site when they grew their empire.

Museo, Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru
Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Despite the importance of this site in Peru’s pre-Colombian history, Cabeza de Vaca, also known as the Fortaleza de Tumpis, only was declared a national heritage site in 2000. Like many other desert ruins, the sand has covered the secrets of this temple and it’s hard to visually appreciate its former grandeur, unlike the massive rock structures of the Incas.

On top of that, Cabeza de Vaca is located in the Corrales district of Tumbes, which is a struggling community (much like Huaycán, where I volunteered in 2012-3). As in many parts of Peru, including Huaycán, this community has grown through land invasions. This means that many homes are actually built on top of the less obvious sections of the ruins, and it’s hard for the ministry of culture to protect them from damage.

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru
Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Because the ruins are only beginning to be excavated, studied, and understood, it is challenging for archeologists and the ministry of culture to get funding to protect the ruins as well as continue the investigation. There are many secrets beneath these layers of earth, but it is a painstaking process to understand why.

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

As you can see in this image, the interesting aspect of these ruins is that you can watch the process of excavation and see what new discoveries are being turned up as archeologists uncover and descend into deeper, better protected layers.

Cabeza de Vaca / Fortaleza de Tumpis, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

You end up seeing something like this, some sort of canal. The early cultures understood how to construct canals in the most ingenious ways, and these ruins also have an extensive system. If you notice the walls in these photos, the brickwork is very different, suggesting the different eras of construction.

Ruins Under Investigation, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Unfortunately for me, the most recent excavations – and according to my guide, some of the most interesting – were actually being protected from the El Niño phenomenon and its rains by these tarps, so there wasn’t much to see. I’d be curious to return on a future visit to see how work has progressed.

Views of Panamerican Highway, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

Museo, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, PeruFrom the vantage point of these ruins located on one of the few hills in the area, you can see the expanses of fields being toasted by the desert sun. Further west you run into the ocean and the mangroves. And that’s the Panamerican Highway as it passes through northern Peru, just a simple two-lane highway in these parts.

After my tour, we headed back to the museum to see some of the relics that have been uncovered during investigations. These shards of pottery do not look like much, but they are painted reminders of the ceremonial importance of this site.

Museo, Cabeza de Vaca, Corrales, Tumbes, Peru

The most interesting piece in the museum, for me, was this fragment of adobe painted in what is very clearly the chakana, or Inca cross, a symbol common in artwork found throughout the Andes. The colors on this piece are quite vibrant given the passage of time, and as I’ve learned through my travels, desert ruins that were painstakingly painted in this fashion had deep ceremonial significance.

All in all, I enjoyed my brief but fascinating visit to Cabeza de Vaca, and I highly suggest that you make time to get here if you’re enjoying the beaches of northern Peru. It’s super easy to get to the ruins on public transportation – you get off any shared van at the crossroads to Corrales and hop in a mototaxi to the ruins. I provide more information in my recommendations, below.

City of Tumbes

Menú vegetariano, Vegetarian Restaurant, Tumbes, PeruAfter visiting Cabeza de Vaca, I wanted to head into Tumbes to get to know the city and buy my return ticket to Lima. From Corrales, I took a mototaxi to Corrales’ main plaza, where I got another combi heading directly into Tumbes. By this time, I was starving, so I wandered around the main plaza looking for a restaurant with an appealing vegetarian option.

Completely by accident, I stumbled upon a vegetarian restaurant! There is usually one vegetarian restaurant in every significant Peruvian city, and I find it’s a great way to get a sense of regional food tastes.

Amusingly, I happened to get the last table in the restaurant, and so when a pair of relatives came in right behind me, I offered to let them sit at my table. Turns out it was their first experience with vegetarian food, and probably their first experience eating with a gringa in Tumbes!

Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

Sufficiently fueled, I continued wandering around the streets of Tumbes. The city center is compact and straightforward, so it is a pleasant place to spend the afternoon wandering around. The church on the plaza is pretty unique in construction style and reflects the colorful tastes of this region.

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

Here’s another view of the Plaza de Armas, where you can see its colorful, unique arches. The inscription reads “Tumbes, cradle of South America’s petroleum wealth,” celebrating a major industry in these parts. Some of the buildings surrounding the plaza are relics from the colonial days – in the distance, you can see the balconies that are reminiscent of Spanish-style architecture.

Ruta Panamericana, Tumbes, Peru

Behind the plaza, there is a raised pedestrian walkway where you can get views of the brown river and the bridge that leads into the city. This bridge gets a lot of traffic as it is part of the Ruta Panamericana.

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

You can see that the plaza was pretty empty due to the hot summer sun and humidity – everyone was hiding out in the more shady parts in the distance!

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

My favorite part of the plaza was this amazing mosaic built into the band shell right on the plaza. I was fascinated by its symbolism, really representing the spirit of the region.

Plaza de Armas, Tumbes, Peru

As I wrote in my Instagram post, this mosaic is called “Encuentro de Dos Mundos,” a slightly nicer way to say “Two Worlds Collide.” In this detail shot you can see the force of Chilimasa, chief of the Tumpis, resisting the Spanish colonizer in the battles among the lush landscape of the mangroves in Tumbes.

This same spirit of resisting, surviving, and gathering strength continues today throughout Peru.

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Last but not least, Tumbes has a lovely pedestrian walkway that runs along the church where you can also take in the widely varying architecture, do some shopping, and buy some fruit, as I did (mangos are amazing in this region!). Interestingly, this part of the city is pretty peaceful considering the chaos back on the Panamerican just a couple of blocks away.

Near here, you can catch a bus to Puerto Pizarro, one of the fishing bays and beaches located close by. Puerto Pizarro is also one of the most common gateways to the mangroves, although I went on a tour from Puerto 25.

As you can see, Tumbes is a great place to spend an afternoon getting to know a different aspect of Peruvian culture. I would have spent more time there, but I was looking forward to watching my last sunset in Zorritos.

Recommendations for Tumbes, Peru:

  • If you have time in your travel itinerary, make some time to get to know Tumbes and the surrounding area. Most travelers skip Tumbes and head directly to Máncora, but Tumbes can help broaden your perspective on life in this region. I suggest staying in Zorritos, located about 30 minutes from Tumbes, and using that as your base.
  • Tumbes is the first city you reach when crossing the border from Ecuador at Huaquillas. Contrary to the outdated information you may find in your Google search, the border crossing is now totally secure and easy as long as you have a through bus from Ecuador to Tumbes or Piura. Tumbes is a border city so it has its pockets of unsafe areas, but downtown Tumbes is perfectly safe to wander around and quite a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
  • To visit the mangroves near Tumbes, you can catch a colectivo to Puerto Pizarro from the center of Tumbes at the stop shown in Google Maps. Although I didn’t visit myself, the locals I ate lunch with said it was well worth a visit. Personally, I visited the mangroves on a guided tour from Puerto 25, arranged by my hostel. That was totally worth it as well to see such a fascinating ecosystem.
  • If you have any interest in pre-colonial, pre-Incan cultures, visit Cabeza de Vaca, also known as the Fortaleza de Tumpis, located in the district of Corrales on the outskirts of Tumbes. Note that Corrales is a developing community or shantytown where many homes have been built through land invasions, but as long as you don’t flash your camera or other symbols of wealth around, it’s perfectly safe. To get there, take a shared van to the crossroads of Corrales and find a mototaxi to take you to the ruins. It should cost S/.2-3.
  • When you leave Cabeza de Vaca, you just walk back to the main road and flag down another mototaxi to head to the plaza of Corrales (if you’re going to Tumbes), or to the Panamerican, if you’re hoping to head back towards Zorritos or the beaches in Piura. The bus from Corrales to Tumbes costs S/.1 and runs frequently.
  • As I mentioned above, Cabeza de Vaca is still seeking funding for its excavation and protection, and more tourist visits can help with this process. There is not too much visible, but it’s worth it if you’re interested in learning more about pre-Incan cultures.
  • The vegetarian restaurant in Tumbes is located on Francisco Bolognesi, across from Alfonso Ugarte street, before you get to Piura. During the lunch hour, there is a chalkboard out front with the lunch specials and that’s how you know it’s a vegetarian restaurant – it says “Restaurante vegetariano.”
  • The Paseo Jerusalem is a lovely pedestrian walkway continuing to the park. All around Tumbes there are lovely mosaics and artistically constructed stone buildings and overpasses. It’s a pretty fascinating city to walk around.
  • You can catch a van back to Zorritos or onward to Máncora from the Panamerican, but it’s a hectic street so you might want to ask a local for some help.
  • If you’re traveling to Lima, I suggest Civa, whose office in Tumbes is located on the Panamerican. You can get on the bus in Tumbes or in any of the beach towns along the way. They have a vegetarian menu and the food on the route from Tumbes was generous – a giant tortilla with plantains and rice, yum!
[Tumbes, Peru: February 2, 2016]

Tumbes, Peru- Ancient Ruins at Cabeza de Vaca and Tumbes, the Tropical Border City

Piura, Peru: Cabo Blanco, a Famous Fishing Village & Surf Paradise with Amazing Tubular Waves

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

Back in the 1950s, Cabo Blanco was not just any fishing village in northern Peru. Cabo Blanco was a tiny little town very clearly marked on the map as a see-and-be-seen destination for all the famous celebrities of the time – Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Spencer Tracy, Doris Day and so on. Why was that, exactly?

Well, in those days, Cabo Blanco was a fisherman’s paradise. Its unique location at the intersection of the El Niño and Humboldt currents keep the waters temperate year-round, which enabled plankton to grow, anchovies to feed on it, and so on and so forth, inviting giant black marlins. We’re talking big game. REALLY big. Naturally, I was curious to learn a little more about the history of place for myself.

Views from Panamerican Highway, near El Alto, Talara, Piura, Peru

When I started dreaming up my plan to visit the beaches of northern Peru, Cabo Blanco became a must-see destination. Already in love with tiny fishing villages after my visit to tranquil Tortugas the year before, I wanted to imagine Cabo Blanco’s former glory and check out its fascinating left breaking wave.

Although visiting Cabo Blanco is an all-day affair due to its isolated location, it’s straightforward. If you’re coming from Tumbes, take a combi van to Máncora, where you’ll catch another bus to El Alto. (From elsewhere in Piura, just head directly to El Alto.) On the way, you’ll climb up to the high desert cliffs and get these amazing views.

Bus to Cabo Blanco, El Alto, Talara, Piura, Peru

El Alto is a typical industrial desert city which produces a good percentage of Peru’s oil, which makes it a pretty well-to-do city. I didn’t see much while there (I lived in the desert for a year after all), but rather continued my mission to Cabo Blanco, hopping into this combi van.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

After about 20 minutes, you enter Cabo Blanco, which is basically a charming one-street town with a handful of restaurants, a couple of lodging options, and, well, a giant fish processing plant. (I’ve never been a huge fan of modern Peruvian construction, what can I say? Urban planning is not a thing here.)

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

As you enter the town, you get a giant visual reminder of Cabo Blanco’s glory days. This was the world record catch of big game fish – 1560 pounds! Well, you won’t see anything like that these days; the giant marlin no longer head to these shores, a combination of overzealous sport fishing and commercial harvesting of the anchovies that the drew them there in the first place.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

But that’s okay. Cabo Blanco is worth a visit anyway. Like nearby Punta Sal, Cabo Blanco’s draw is that it’s an isolated, attractive beach, with a fair amount of local color mixed in. But far from the exclusive days of the past, it now has simple accommodations which are starting to cater to a new population: surfers.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

That’s right: surfers. Check out this incredible tubular wave. This is the longest left break in the world. I don’t know much about surfing, but I stood for quite a while just watching this tube wave break again and again. So cool!

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

And with few people there besides the locals, it’s a pleasant place to hang out and enjoy the beaches. Peru’s tourism board has talked from time to time about restoring Cabo Blanco to its old glory and boosting the economy for locals, but I didn’t see much evidence of that.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

As I wandered up and down the beach, enjoying the sunshine that peeked out from behind the near-constant clouds during my trip, I spotted the tourist information office and stumbled into one of the best parts of my day.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

The friendly woman staffing the tiny tourist information office had been born and raised in Cabo Blanco and had left to continue her studies in tourism at university. But she had returned to do an internship in her hometown, determined to raise the tourist profile of this attractive town. She spoke at length about the history of Cabo Blanco, showing me pictures of Ernest Hemingway, who had stayed there while writing The Old Man and the Sea, and other relics from the era when marlin fishing was king.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

Over the years I’ve spent in Peru, I’ve met a number of informed, intelligent people in the tourist information offices who are determined to share the culture of their country, and this young woman impressed me with her motivation to study English and her understanding of how the youth of the town can begin to imagine another future away from commercial fishing. I was sincerely moved by her story and her dreams.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

Thankfully, she’s not alone in her desire to improve life in Cabo Blanco. After the famous surf company Billabong hosted an annual surf competition in Cabo Blanco (which had happened the month prior to my visit), Peruvian surfers donated part of their prize money to furthering studies of the ecological system here. The Inkaterra organization has led initiatives towards marine conservation. Bringing ecotourism opportunities to Cabo Blanco could have a positive impact on the local population, both human and marine!

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

But for now, it’s worth visiting Cabo Blanco to enjoy its quiet beaches. This guy even got involved in the fun!

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

Personally, I could totally understand why Ernest Hemingway used this location as a writing retreat. If I were writing a book, I wouldn’t mind hanging out here and being inspired by these giant waves. (To some extent, it reminds me of Pablo Neruda’s home in Isla Negra.)

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

And as for the Cabo Blanco Fishing Club, the exclusive hotel and resort where celebrities used to hang out? Well, I didn’t quite make it there, but it’s on the other side of this cliff, about 2km away from the rest of the town. Check out the links in my recommendations below to see the strangely fascinating state of the abandoned property.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

In late afternoon, the surfers came out, getting ready to catch the waves. Just another day in this sleepy fishing village. But you don’t have to be a surfer or a sport fisherman to appreciate Cabo Blanco. It suited me just fine.

Views from Cabo Blanco, Talara, Piura, Peru

Recommendations for Cabo Blanco, Piura, Peru:

  • If you’re looking for a quiet place to spend the day on the beach that also has easy access to restaurants and tourist facilities, Cabo Blanco is the place for you. There are accommodations including a hostel that appeared to cater towards surfers, and you can probably camp on the beach.
  • To get to Cabo Blanco, take a Eppo bus from Máncora or Piura to El Alto. It cost S/.2.50 each way in February 2016. From there, ask someone to point you towards the nearby parking lot where the van shuttles leave for Cabo Blanco. It’s basically across the street but not immediately obvious as the pathway is down an alleyway between buildings. They cost S/.3 each way if I remember correctly.
  • If you want to visit Cabo Blanco Fishing Club, you can walk there but I wasn’t comfortable going alone. You can see pictures in this blog post and this Daily Mail article. I read that the hotel is in more decay than that now, with conflicting reports that it’s going to be restored.
  • For a little more information about surfing in Cabo Blanco (and the rest of northern Peru), try this blog post. PBS has an interesting article on the giant black marlin and what happened to them. And here’s another nice blog post on the appeal of Cabo Blanco.
[Cabo Blanco, Piura, Peru: February 1, 2016]

Piura, Peru- Cabo Blanco, a Famous Fishing Village & Surf Paradise with Amazing Tubular Waves

Tumbes, Peru: Punta Sal, its Pristine Beaches & Exclusive Coastal Community

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

When you think of luxurious beach resorts in northern Peru, what comes to mind first? If you’re like most Limeños, you think of Punta Sal. You might head to nearby Máncora for a night on the town or a fancy meal, but the truly exclusive stretch of beach in these parts is Punta Sal.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Many years ago, Punta Sal was the secret getaway for rich Limeños, who were able to invest in building vacation homes on beachfront properties, and over time a number of luxury hotels have sprung up along the coastline. Because the area occupied by Punta Sal is so expansive, there plenty of resorts located away from the crowds, a quick drive or taxi ride away from the center of town.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

The good news for travelers like myself is that Punta Sal’s magic is easily accessible and available for people of all budgets. It’s against the law to prohibit access to water and carve away private beaches, so these long stretches of sand are open game for visitors.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Even still, Punta Sal does require a commitment to visit. If you have a car, life is easier; you can drive down to the waterfront, passing through a security control as you leave the Panamerican Highway.

If you’re coming on public transportation like me, don’t worry, there are plenty of mototaxis and shared colectivo taxis waiting to take us down to the water. The frequent shuttles between Tumbes and Máncora pass right by the entrance to Punta Sal.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Although there are miles and miles upon MILES of accessible coastline throughout northern Peru (as well as several beaches like Canoas de Punta Sal that are close to the highway and perfectly nice places to spend an afternoon), I suggest you check out Punta Sal for yourself. You can hang out with the crowds right at the entrance to the beach, or you can do what I did and spend about 30 minutes wandering down the coast, accessing your own exclusive beaches.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

As you keep walking past the vacation homes, you’ll see only a couple of hotels along the way, and then suddenly, you’ll just see the cliffs behind you. But if you’re like me, you’ll be paying more attention to the beautiful pristine ocean views spreading out in front of you.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Although this region is known for its year-round sunny skies, the El Niño phenomenon meant there were a lot of clouds during my visit, but thankfully, the skies started to clear as the day went on and I was able to appreciate the sunshine and blue skies.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, PeruThere are lovely pockets of rocks where you can relax in the warm pools of water, as the gentle waves flow over you. It was here that I ran into a friendly couple saying they’d found their throne, and asking me to snap a picture of them appreciating this natural luxury. For the record there were only about five people on this stretch of beach!

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Continuing along my way, I chose to just observe the vastness of the ocean. I watched the seabirds flying over the water and waded into the water. For some reason, when I travel, I appreciate this sense of near-isolation, as it provides me a chance to truly take in and appreciate our natural surroundings and the wide, wide world we live in.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Seriously, is this an exclusive beach or what? You could spend the whole day just listening to the waves crash on the shore while reading a book in the soft sand.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Awww! I thought this little guy was so adorable. I forget his name in Spanish, but it translates to something like “useless crab” because he’s not one of the ones worth eating! This photo also shows you just how amazingly fine the sand is. This makes the beach pretty pristine!

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, PeruAs you can see from this photo, I was pretty joyful wandering along the shore, enjoying the privacy of an exclusive beach all to myself.

While I was soaking it all in, the couple I met earlier caught up to me and invited me to have lunch with them in their family’s beach house! Yet another one of those random travel opportunities, and a chance to experience the luxury of Peruvian beach culture from the inside. As I mentioned on Instagram, I felt rejuvenated from hearing the stories of people two and three times my age and connecting for a brief moment in time.

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

After a lovely afternoon on the beaches of Punta Sal, it was time to head back to my hostel in Zorritos. I was totally smitten with Punta Sal’s more hidden corners. If you decide to visit, be sure to leave the main stretch of beach and keep on walking to the sandy white beaches just a short wander away.

Recommendations for Punta Sal, Tumbes, Peru:

  • Although I was not a fan of overrated Máncora, I would still argue that it’s worth visiting Punta Sal. Unless you’re staying in one of the luxury resorts right in Punta Sal, you’ll probably base yourself in Máncora, or, if you’re like me, Zorritos to the north. There are frequent van shuttles (combis) that run between Tumbes and Máncora, as well as some that do the shorter, more lucrative run just between Punta Sal and Máncora. Just wait for a bus on the Panamerican Highway.
  • To enter Punta Sal, get off your bus at the entrance shown in the photo below. There are mototaxis waiting to take you down to the beachfront that cost about S./3. You’ll have to pass a security checkpoint, just a way to keep that exclusive feeling within the community.
  • The mototaxi will drop you off at the main entrance to the beach. Although I didn’t spend much time wandering around the main part of town, I noticed a number of restaurants and other shops. Walking food vendors are technically not allowed on the beach so you’ll have to head into town to buy a snack.
  • As I have mentioned a few times, be sure to walk beyond the main section of public beach in the direction of Máncora, past the resorts and vacation homes, and get to the wide open stretches of beaches with very few visitors. It only takes about 30 minutes to walk that far but the pristine sand is totally worth it!
  • There are several other beaches in the area. The exclusive resorts are located to the north of the public beach and even have their own special entrance. You can also reach the beachfront by stopping in Canoas de Punta Sal, also known as Cancas, and you’ll notice that Tumbes locals tend to enjoy the beaches there. They aren’t too crowded, are right off the Panamerican, and there are lots of small shops on the route. You can see a map and some information about entry points (in Spanish) here.
  • If you’re looking for another amazing beach without having to go this far north, I highly recommend visiting Tortugas near Casma, Peru.
  • Just FYI: When you enter the department of Tumbes north of Máncora, you will go through a immigration/customs checkpoint. If your van happens to be stopped, you will need to show ID and they will ask for your immigration card. Be sure to have it with you!
[Punta Sal, Tumbes, Peru: January 31, 2016]

Views from Punta Sal, Piura, Peru

Entrance to Punta Sal

Tumbes, Peru- Punta Sal, its Pristine Beaches & Exclusive Coastal Community

Piura, Peru: Máncora, a Crowded Party Town Worth Skipping for Other Beaches in Northern Peru

Beach in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Beach in Máncora, Piura, Peru

I tend to keep things positive here on Blueskylimit. There are so many other places on the internet where you can go to get your dose of negative opinions on perfectly nice tourist destinations. Here, I want to encourage you to invest your tourism dollars into the tiny little towns and family owned businesses that inspire me all over South America.

For that reason, I am going to share what my experience of Máncora was like and encourage you to visit Zorritos, Punta Sal, Cabo Blanco, or any other number of beaches in northern Peru instead.

Commercial Street in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Main Street in Máncora, Piura, Peru

I am sure that Máncora was once a beautiful fishing village with pristine white beaches that only drew the most dedicated surfers and intrepid travelers. In fact, it may have still had some of that vibe back in 2007 when I first heard about it. Well, those days are long gone.

Commercial Street in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Main Street in Máncora, Piura, Peru

Today, Máncora is a crowded, overpriced, loud, dirty stretch of roads, filled with party hostels and hustlers, drunk travelers, and half-built buildings that were either abandoned for lack of funds or kept in a constant state of construction for tax breaks.

Commercial Street in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Panamerican Highway in Máncora, Piura, Peru

I’m sure the beach is much more appealing on a sunny day, and if you go with a group of friends and you want easy access to pretty good food and plentiful alcohol, this may be the place for you. If you want to stay at some of the fanciest hostels in South America, where everything is provided on-site and you don’t have to leave, you might appreciate Máncora more than I did. Similarly, if you have access to expensive hotels with five star restaurants, your experience of Máncora will probably be much different than mine.

Crowded Beach in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Beach in Máncora, Piura, Peru

But as your average solo traveler who has lost interest in the party scene, Máncora wasn’t for me. Not with miles and miles of gorgeous coastline to explore throughout Tumbes and Piura, and pristine beaches just a short colectivo ride away in nearby Punta Sal.

Ruined Boardwalk in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Sunken Boardwalk in Máncora, Piura, Peru

Instead of Máncora, why not visit the other amazing beaches that I’ll be describing in the following posts? Actually take some time to travel around Tumbes, visit the mangroves, and check out Cabeza de Vaca, one of the most important archeological sites in this region. Visit one of the cleaner, less crowded beaches near Máncora that are accessible on public buses and actually enjoy relaxing on the coast.

Crowded Beach in Máncora, Piura, Peru

Beach in Máncora, Piura, Peru

To be completely fair, I went when El Niño was blanketing the coast in clouds, and I’m sure some sunshine would have brightened up the beaches and made them more appealing. But did you see that decaying boardwalk whose shoddy construction has made it sink into the sand, creating a hazard in the middle of the most popular, most accessible public beach?

No thanks, Máncora. Check out some of the other nearby beaches that I link to below.

Vegetarian Restaurant in Máncora, Piura, Peru
Delicious Vegetarian Lunch at Angela’s Place, Máncora, Piura, Peru

Recommendations for Máncora, Piura, Peru:

  • I spent only a few hours in Máncora, just enough time to have lunch at the delicious vegetarian restaurant, Angela’s Place, and walk around the beach for a while.
  • Because of its popularity as a destination, Máncora has become a transit hub for the region, and the colectivo vans from Tumbes end their route in Máncora, where you’ll need to make a connection onward to El Alto, to visit Cabo Blanco, or to the city of Piura.
  • From the Panamerican highway in Máncora, you can catch direct colectivos to Punta Sal, a very popular day trip from Máncora (and one that is well worth the time). They will ride up and down the street looking for passengers, shouting out “Punta Sal.”
  • If you want to get away from the beaches of Máncora, Las Pocitas, Los Órganos, Vichayito, and Ñuro all came highly recommended. Los Órganos is easy to get to because the EPPO buses from Máncora have a station there. From the bus terminal, you can catch a colectivo or maybe even a mototaxi to the beaches.
  • Beyond Máncora, you can take an EPPO bus to El Alto, where you can catch a regularly running colectivo van to Cabo Blanco, one of the most beautiful beaches in the area. I’ll be writing more in an upcoming post.
  • If you really want to avoid Máncora but don’t want to head all the way north to Tumbes (though you totally should give Tumbes some time!), Lobitos is one of the most popular surfing towns in Piura, and Colán is also highly recommended by friends. You can access Lobitos from Talara and Colán from the city of Piura. Note that I haven’t been yet; they’re pending for a future trip!
[Máncora, Piura, Peru: January 28, 2016]

Piura, Peru- Máncora, a Crowded Party Town Worth Skipping for Other Beaches in Northern Peru

Valdivia, Chile: Wandering the Riverside Towns and Old Spanish Forts in Niebla and Corral

Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

When I was in Ancud on the island of Chiloé, I met a traveler from France who was inspirational. In her late 60s or early 70s and fluent in Spanish and English in addition to French, she was backpacking on her own, getting off the beaten path, exploring independently, connecting with people by staying in hostels. So when she recommended I get out of the city of Valdivia and visit beautiful Niebla and Corral, I listened.

Niebla

Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Thanks to the wonders of public transportation, it is easy to visit Niebla and Corral; you can take a local bus to Niebla, and frequent boat ferries are available to take you over to Corral. (Alternatively or additionally, you can visit tiny Isla Mancera, which is one of the stops for the ferries and also has an old fort and views of the water.)

Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Upon arrival to Valdivia, I knew that I would spent my first full day heading outside the city to make sure I got a chance to get to know the deep blue rivers and emerald green forest landscapes for myself. We found the correct local bus and within 30 minutes, we found ourselves getting off the bus at the tiny main plaza in Niebla.

As it turned out, the old Spanish fort in Niebla was closed due to a strike; the employees of government-run museum were protesting unexpected changes to laws governing working conditions for employees of the ministry of culture. So although I have lovely pictures from the cliffs of Niebla, I didn’t get to see the inside of the fort or the views from the highest, most strategic points.

That said, we did stumble into a jazz performance in Niebla’s tiny little church and chat with one of the artisans selling her jewelry in Niebla, so it was worth it!

Beach in Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Beach in Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

From there, we walked to Niebla’s beach, located in a secluded little cove on the water. Although the water was still fairly cold at the beginning of summer, I could see how this would be an excellent place to visit in late January or February, at the height of Chile’s summer.

Beach in Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Views from Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

We walked up and down the beach to take in the waves crashing on the beach and appreciate the views of the wide expanses of river. As I have kept repeating in all of my posts about southern Chile: SO MUCH BLUE! 🙂

Feria Costumbrista, Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Feria Costumbrista, Niebla, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

From there, we walked over to the Feria Costumbrista a few blocks away. In Spanish, costumbrista describes local or regional customs, food, and folklore; basically, traditional culture. Each town in Chile hosts an annual feria costumbrista, where stands offer typical Chilean foods and music and dance are performed throughout the day and especially at night. In the Valle de Elqui, this meant eating lots of churrascas; in southern Chile, this meant empanadas and German-inspired kuchen and pastries. All in all, it was a perfect place to eat lunch before continuing on our way.

Boat Ride to Corral

On the Boat to Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
On the Boat to Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

After appreciating Niebla’s small-town charms (basically, a southern counterpart to my life in northern Chile’s desert mountains), we continued our journey to Corral, where the goal was to see one of these old Spanish forts. We took another bus to the passenger ferry dock in Niebla, and within a few moments we were on board.

On the Boat to Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
On the Boat to Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Naturally, if you’re not a frequent boat passenger, you want to head to the front of the boat where you can really experience the feeling of flying through the water, waves rippling out all around you.

On the Boat to Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
On the Boat to Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

We were lucky enough to be joined by this adorable fellow tourist and her family, who found the trio of foreigners (US, Australia, and Brazil) quite fascinating. 🙂

Corral

Views of the Fort on Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Old Spanish Fort, Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

After a quick stop on nearby Isla Mancera, we reached Corral, where we were able to get even more perspective on the very typically Valdivian landscape (that’s why they call it Valdivian rainforest, right?).

Views of the Fort on Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Old Spanish Fort, Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

We walked up the steep hills to Corral’s fort, which is run by the regional government so was not on strike. We were free to wander around the grounds, looking out over the old cannons and trying to imagine what life would have been like for these Spanish colonists all those centuries ago.

Views of the Fort on Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Old Spanish Fort, Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Lucky for us, we didn’t have to imagine too much; in the summer, the fort hosts daily reenactments of a major episode in Valdivia’s history, a conflict where Chile defeats Spain (Chilean military nationalism is a big part of the nation’s story, as I saw in Arica as well!). I enjoyed the hard work of the actors, so if the timing is right on your visit, I would suggest you try to catch it.

Views of the Fort on Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Old Spanish Fort, Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Besides that, there is not much to do in Corral besides appreciate the views from the fort. So I’m going to let the next few photos speak for themselves.

Views of the Fort on Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Views of the Fort on Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Views from Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Old Spanish Fort, Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

While we were waiting for the reenactment, we wandered a little further up the hillside, where we spotted these views of the recently restored plaza. (You can see the passenger ferry dock on the left side.)

And that’s about it for Corral! After an enjoyable tour of Castillo de San Sebastián de la Cruz (the official name of the fort), we had some ice cream and took a ferry back to Niebla. All in all, visiting Niebla and Corral was a perfect way to get another perspective on these small towns that had a significant role in the cultural, political, and military history of the Los Ríos region.

Recommendations for Niebla and Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile:

  • Buses to Niebla leave from the center of Valdivia on Ruta 20 – you can see the number or a sign with “Niebla” in the window of the bus. You can also flag down these buses at other bus stops; ask a local for the nearest stop. These buses also go to Isla Teja and pass by Cervecería Kunstmann. If you are ambitious and leave early enough, you can try to visit all these places on the same day. The Valdivia/Niebla trip costs $600 CLP each way and local stops are around $400CLP.
  • Make sure to ask for directions to Niebla’s beach; this gives you a chance to experience both the cliff-side views and get down into the water if you’d like.
  • Niebla’s Feria Costumbrista seems to be open year-round, so it’s a good place to eat a quick, inexpensive lunch of traditional Chilean meals, particularly empanadas. I saw a stand with vegetarian papa rellena (filled potatoes) but we were there too early in the day to get them.
  • Ferries to Corral leave from Niebla’s passenger dock regularly and cost $800 CLP per person each way. Life preservers are provided. Some of the ferries stop at nearby Isla Mancera, which is another possible destination if you’re interested in seeing all the forts in the area.
  • Niebla’s fort museum is part of Chile’s national DIBAM network and has free entry. But this also means it is affected by strikes of state employees, just FYI!
  • Corral’s fort is run by the regional government and costs $1500 CLP to enter (as of January 2016). This includes the reenactment of a conflict between Spain and Chile every afternoon (at least during the summer) and you can leave to have lunch and walk around and come back as long as you still have your ticket.
  • Besides visiting the city of Valdivia and Isla Teja, there are other ways to experience the gorgeous landscape of the rivers region: you can head to Parque Oncol, just 30 kilometers from Valdivia as well as the beautiful beaches and reserve in Curiñanco. I had to head to Santiago for work so didn’t get a chance to visit, but they came highly recommended by a local Chilean friend as well as fellow travelers, so I’d make time to go if you can. They are also accessible by bus.
[Niebla and Corral, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile: January 6, 2016]

Valdivia, Chile- Wandering the Riverside Towns and Old Spanish Forts in Niebla and Corral

Valdivia, Chile: Appreciating the Riverside Views, Forests and University Culture of This Unique City and Nearby Isla Teja

Views over the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Views over the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

As my travels around southern Chile over Christmas and the New Year came to a close, I decided I wanted to squeeze in one last stop: Valdivia.

Although Valdivia is only a few hours from the nearby Araucanía and Los Lagos regions, the city is sometimes skipped by travelers, as it requires detouring away from the Panamerican Highway towards the ocean. In my opinion, it is well worth a visit in order to expand your understanding of this important city and its role in Chile’s history.

Views over the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Views over the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Today, Valdivia is home to one of Chile’s most important universities, the Universidad Austral de Chile, so it maintains a college town vibe. With strong German influence, artisanal breweries abound in the surrounding region and are some of the area’s biggest draws for tourism. Many of the hillsides of nearby towns house ruins of old Spanish forts.

On top of that, Valdivia’s ecology is unique; it is surrounded by rivers and the temperate Valdivian rainforest, which I’d first seen at the Ojos de Caburga near Pucón as well as in the Parque Nacional Chiloé. Finally, it is the site of the infamous 1960 earthquake that leveled the city and caused tsunamis that wreaked destruction throughout Chile.

Views over the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Views of the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Today, Valdivia is a modern Chilean city, and most of the downtown areas echo the development of other cities in Chile. To experience Valdivia’s riverside character, you have to be sure to take a boat ride, either from the docks next to the market area or by visiting nearby towns Niebla and Corral (subject of my next post!). Before these bridges were built, boats were the primary form of transportation around the different towns along the river!

Plaza, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Main Plaza, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

When I visited Valdivia, I made sure to check out the main plaza and commercial district, as well as Esmerelda, home to many popular restaurants and bars, but I actually spent most of my time exploring the islands outside the city.

Mercado

Open Market, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Open Market, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

I was excited to head out early in the morning to check out the open market located right next to the river. Southern Chile has amazing fruit and vegetables, especially the berries in season during my visit in early January! I ended up buying delicious little plums, perfect for an afternoon’s wandering.

Mercado, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Open Market, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

There are many stands selling just about any type of produce you can work, and you can also buy herbs like the ever-popular merken, smoked chile pepper produced by the Mapuche around nearby Temuco.

Artisan Market in Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Artisan Market, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Next to the outdoor market, you can find a building housing several floors of artisan wares, most of them built from local wood from the booming forestry industry. I also managed to find a store selling several different types of artisanal beer, a good stop for anyone who doesn’t have time to travel to the breweries on the outskirts of Valdivia.

Universidad Austral de Chile & Isla Teja

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

After the markets, I walked across the bridge to Isla Teja. In the olden days, Isla Teja used to be separated from central Valdivia by the river, so its German-descendant inhabitants tended to speak more German than Spanish. Today, Isla Teja is connected to downtown Valdivia and you can walk, drive, or take a local bus.

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

My first top on Isla Teja was the Universidad Austral de Chile, one of the largest universities in the country. As you can see above, the entrance is lined by majestic trees leading you towards the campus.

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

This university reminded me a lot of the college campuses in the US, with expanses of green lawn for students to sprawl on during the school year. I enjoyed wandering through the campus looking for the entrance to the Universidad Austral de Chile’s botanical gardens.

Botanical Gardens on Isla Teja

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Botanical Gardens, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

As it turns out, I wandered into the botanical gardens through one of the side entrances used by students and professors who duck into the botanical gardens for a quick stroll or as a shortcut around the campus.

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Botanical Gardens, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Wandering through the shaded forest lined with all kinds of species of trees, I was reminded of the forest paths in New England, where I’m from. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering around, enjoying being in nature.

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Botanical Gardens, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

For those interested in learning more about the species that make up the botanical gardens, there are several trees and sections of trees labeled with signs, but I was more interested in enjoying the shade on such a hot summer day.

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Botanical Gardens, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Botanical Gardens, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

I spent a little while reading underneath the trees, avoiding the heat of midday, and then I continued on foot to my next destination on Isla Teja, the nearby museums. As it turns out, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo was closed during my visit, so I headed to the anthropology museum, Museo Maurice van de Maele.

Museo Maurice van de Maele

Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

Since I had read about Valdivia’s unique heritage, I was curious to check out the Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, a small but comprehensive museum located in a historic building across the river from downtown Valdivia.

Isla Teja, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

As you can see, it has great views, and the property has several remnants of an earlier time, including old carriage cars.

Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile

The first floor of the museum has several exhibits explaining the history of the region and the German settlers in this area, including period pieces like those you see in the photo above. The second floor houses an exhibit dedicated to the Mapuche, including their famous silver jewelry, as well as a gallery of old maps. I felt this was the perfect size for a museum – enough to give you background on Valdivia but not overwhelming.

Airesbuenos Hostel

Airesbuenos Hostel, Valdivia, Chile
Sunny Dining Room, Airesbuenos Hostel

One of the highlights of my stay in Valdivia was the Airesbuenos Hostel, a hostel that really embraces the spirit of hostels, that of community, sustainable living and travel, and sharing resources. In the commercial district of Valdivia, the hostel is like an oasis, with a green backyard filled with edible plants, an herb garden located on the patio, and open kitchen on the patio, and welcoming rooms inside.

Airesbuenos Hostel, Valdivia, Chile
Outdoor Patio and Herbs, Airesbuenos Hostel

I particularly liked the breakfast nook, and the fact that they offered loose leaf tea along with their homemade granola served every morning.

Friends at the Airesbuenos Hostel, Valdivia, Chile
Travel Buddies, Airesbuenos Hostel

On top of that, on my first night in the hostel, I randomly fell into what became a deep, personal, and transformative conversation with the two lovely ladies pictured above. Even though I enjoyed my trip to Valdivia, the spirit of sharing I felt among the guests reenergized me to pay attention to my intuition as I puzzled out my next steps for life after working in Chile, and made the detour totally worth it.

La Última Frontera

Lunch and Beer at La Ultima Frontera, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Vegetarian Sandwich at La Última Frontera, Valdivia

On the recommendation of one of my former students from Valdivia, I headed to the well-known café, restaurant, and bar, La Última Frontera. La Última Frontera is one of those quintessential places catering to the college student crowd, while welcoming people of all ages, including foreign tourists who want to check out its unique menu and quirky decor. I went for one of the giant vegetarian sandwiches – the term can be used loosely for filling barely contained by bread!

Lunch and Beer at La Ultima Frontera, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Quirky Art All Around, La Última Frontera, Valdivia

Lunch and Beer at La Ultima Frontera, Valdivia, Los Ríos, ChileAlthough they have ample seating space outside on the patio, I decided to escape the sun for a little while and enjoy a table inside in this quiet nook in the back. The walls were decorated with interesting photos showing the vibe of the place, and even the bathroom was covered in quirky memorabilia. The front room of the restaurant is different, with walls made of dark German wood, giving more of a brewhouse ambiance.

Because La Última Frontera is so welcoming, I saw people having meals, doing work over a couple of beers, and hanging out with their families in the fresh air. I decided to order a local beer even though I’m not a beer drinker and enjoy it slowly, reading my latest book. It was a perfect way to spend my last afternoon in Valdivia and I’m thankful for the recommendation.

 

Street Art in Valdivia

Graffiti, Valdivia, Chile
Graffiti on Isla Teja, Valdivia, Chile

AStreet Art in Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chilelthough Valdivia is a college town, I didn’t actually see much mural art around the streets of Valdivia. I spotted this crazy mushroom on plywood in an abandoned lot on Isla Teja and couldn’t resist taking a picture.

To the right is a mural honoring the Mapuche culture of southern Chile. This was surprising to me as Valdivia has stronger ties to its German and Spanish heritage; nearby Temuco and Villarica are where the Mapuche tend to live. That said, I thought this was a beautiful mural and a nice tribute.

Recommendations for Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile:

  • Valdivia is easily accessible from other destination in southern Chile. From Santiago, you can take TurBus; if you’re coming from Chiloé, Cruz del Sur buses also head to Valdivia. You may also make connections from Temuco, Pucón, and Villarica, or transfer to a bus heading to Valdivia in Osorno.
  • Make sure to check out the outdoor market located right on the river near downtown Valdivia. There is also an artisan market nearby, and boat tours are constantly being sold right there from the dock.
  • Be sure to give yourself time to visit Isla Teja, where you can find the Universidad Austral de Chile, its botanical gardens, and the Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele. The botanical gardens are free, although you may have to pay for parking, and the museum entry cost $1500 CLP in January 2016.
  • As mentioned above, I highly recommend staying at Airesbuenos Hostel at García Reyes 550, walkable from the bus station, and eating at La Última Frontera at Vicente Pérez Rosales 787. Because Valdivia has such a cool café culture, there are plenty of other neat cafés lining the streets around the main plaza.
  • Buses to Isla Teja leave frequently from the center of town – ask at the hostel and they’ll mark the stop on the map. You want the buses heading to Niebla. Buses continue on past the Kunstmann beer brewery in Torobayo, another popular destination, as well as Corral and Niebla, islands famous for their Spanish forts and beautiful beaches and views.
  • If you’re just going to Isla Teja, you can easily walk across the bridge – I walked to and from the botanical gardens and museum on foot.
  • Even if you’re not a beer drinker like me, make sure to at least try one of the brews from the region. It’s a big part of the culture and a neat experience, different from the way people drink in the rest of Chile.
  • Besides visiting Valdivia, Isla Teja, and nearby Niebla and Corral, there are other ways to experience the gorgeous landscape of the rivers region: you can head to Parque Oncol, just 30 kilometers from Valdivia as well as the beautiful beaches and reserve in Curiñanco. I had to head to Santiago for work so didn’t get a chance to visit, but they came highly recommended by a local Chilean friend as well as fellow travelers, so I’d make time to go if you can. They are also accessible by bus.
[Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile: January 5-7, 2016]

Valdivia, Chile- Appreciating the Riverside Views, Forests and University Culture of This Unique City and Nearby Isla Teja

Chiloé, Chile: The Forests of Parque Nacional Chiloé and the Oceanside Town of Cucao

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

On my last full day in Chiloé, I experienced all of the things the island is known for: its changeable weather, its lush forests, and its privileged location on the Pacific Ocean. Waking up in Castro, the moody clouds foretold rain, but the journey to Cucao was going to take about two hours, so with any luck the skies would clear and we’d be blessed with the glorious summer sun.

With Marilene, my travel companion from my time in Puerto Varas and Ancud, we headed up the hill to downtown Castro to take the regional bus to Cucao. On the way, the skies opened up and we got completely drenched, which was more amusing than anything else. That’s Chiloé for you! We bought tickets for the next departure, waited about 15 minutes, and soon were on our way inland to Cucao.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Entering Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

As I mentioned, Chiloé is known for its extremely fertile land and green landscapes, some of which I’d seen during my visit to Puñihuil with its detour through beautiful fields and farmlands. But if you’re visiting Chiloé, you definitely need to visit the national park, located on the other side of the island bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

What many people don’t know about Chiloé, as well as southern Chile in general, is that it used to be covered with amazing native forests filled with biodiversity. Due to the way Chile’s economy and society developed over the past few centuries, most of these native forests have been cleared away and have since filled in with new growth, or secondary forests, including species that have been imported from other parts of the world over the years.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Parque Nacional Chiloé hosts one of these second-growth forests, but it is well-worth visiting to get a sense of the lushness of nature given the right conditions – and the massive rainfall on Chiloé! Like most government-operated parks in Chile, there are clearly marked, clearly determined paths through the national park, with trees labeled along the way so that you can get a sense of what you are looking at.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

After so much time in the deserts of northern Chile, I was fascinated by all the beautiful foliage, which reminded me of my native New England and Marilene, of the forests of France.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

We wandered through the forests, coming out to a clearing in the marshland just as the skies themselves cleared and started revealing blue skies beneath the clouds.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

In this part of the park, the landscape changes to these beautiful reeds, and you can climb on a viewpoint to get a sense of the vastness all around you.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

I’m not sure exactly why the landscape changes so suddenly – were these lands left bare and filled in by other species, dried out by the occasional sun? There are ferns and forest flowers everywhere, worth inspecting closely (as you can see that I did).

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

The last loop of this trail through the national park leads to the tallest trees hosting the most common species found on Chiloé. The coigue, pictured above, is known as Dombey’s beech in English, and is one of the native species found in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, ChileAs we finished our loop through the forest, the sun shone down in full force, creating beautiful light through the leaves of the trees above us.

This made the rest of the day a lot more pleasant, as we had a chance to really see the colors of the national park and appreciate the views over the landscape.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Looping back along the path, we retraced our steps towards the entrance. I should mention that the paths through the national park are easy and accessible for just about everyone – and there’s even a shorter path near the entrance for the very young and people who may not be able to walk several kilometers. It’s a nice walk for a few hours, as long as you’re not expecting to go trekking!

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

It was totally worth climbing to the top of the viewpoint to see the views of the hills descending into the indigo blue waters. As we visited during the beginning of summer, the foliage was filled in with green leaves, making the views particularly striking.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Because the clouds had lifted, we were able to get another perspective on the farmlands in the distance. If you look carefully, you can see a bird above the silo off towards the horizon.

Posing at Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Of course, we had to commemorate our explorations with a selfie. Marilene is an excellent travel companion and I’m glad our journeys intersected. As two foreigners living in Chile, we had a lot to talk about – and a lot of experiences to process.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Back at the entrance to the national park, we ate our picnic lunch before exploring the other main path leading towards the ocean.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

We were in for a treat; this path led through fields of cheerful yellow flowers. I was in heaven, snapping pictures left and right of the bright flowers under my much-loved blue skies.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Throughout the day, we kept spotting this giant leaf-like plant. Any idea what it is?

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Of course, we can’t forget the beautiful, ever-changing clouds – Chiloé is a perfect place for cloudspotters like me.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, ChileParque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

As we approached the ocean, I heard the low hum of the waves crashing, even asking myself what that was, until we came out to a viewpoint and realized it was just the ocean from a distance!

Views of the Pacific Ocean from Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

As you can see, the route from within the national park descends to the beach along another clearly marked path. (For what it’s worth, this part of the national park is accessible from a path that opens along the main road through Cucao, although I think it’s worth paying the entrance fee to support the preservation of the forests.)

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

I loved the views as we walked towards the beach with the green-tinged cliffs off in the distance. For me, this was the highlight of the day.

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Check out those fields covered in wildflowers and nature’s palette in all its glory!

Views of Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Let’s not forget the imposing clouds towering over the wide-expanses visible all around us!

Views of the Pacific Ocean in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Pacific Ocean, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

After a ten minute walk, we arrived at the beach, where we decided to relax for a while, just taking in the amazing views all around us. There were a few other people walking along the shore, but it was incredibly peaceful.

Views of the Pacific Ocean in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Pacific Ocean, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Just nature, being beautiful, no big deal. This is probably my ideal way to experience the Pacific Ocean – miles of near-empty beaches, wandering barefoot through the sand.

Views of the Pacific Ocean in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Pacific Ocean, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

I loved the reflective surface of the ocean and watching other people explore the coastline. I can still remember the feeling of standing in the water and just realizing the vastness of the earth all around me. One of those unforgettable travel moments that remind you how much you have to be thankful for.

Beach in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Pretty Designs in the Sand, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Cows at the Beach in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

After lounging for a little while, we headed back towards Cucao to begin our return to Castro. We spotted the cows just chilling on the beach like we had been a few moments earlier.

Views of Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

As you can see, the national park’s path border nearby farmlands, making it impossible to get lost even if you wander up and down the shore for a while.

Views of Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

After a couple more glances at the fascinating colorful landscape around me, we returned through the forest on our way back to Cucao proper.

Parque Nacional Chiloé in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

We took one final detour and ended up seeing more beautiful trees. I suggest spending a leisurely day wandering around the national park – it’s small, but it’s worth spending a restorative day breathing the fresh air and appreciating the simplicity of nature.

Parque Nacional Chiloé in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Back through the fields of flowers, we found our way once again to the main road and walked towards Cucao rather than back through the national park.

Kuchen and Tea in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Parque Nacional Chiloé, Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Lucky for us, the bus stop is actually outside one of the restaurants located outside the park in tiny Cucao, and we had just enough time for some tea and a snack. I was curious to try the other type of kuchen, this one topped with a barely sweet custard and blueberries. Mmm.

As you can see, visiting Cucao is an excellent idea for a day trip during a stay on Chiloé – just be sure to take the path to the beach as well as the paths through the forests!

Recommendations for Cucao, Chiloé, Chile:

  • Buses to Cucao leave from Castro’s regional terminal on a regular schedule, about every 30 minutes to an hour. One way fares cost $2000 CLP and if you buy round trip tickets, it costs $3500.
  • Cucao is tiny, and the bus drops you off in front of the national park and leaves from in front of one of the restaurants on the main road. The road continues after the last stop; this is where you can find the pathway to the beach.
  • There are some lodging options in Cucao including a hostel, and it would totally be worth staying there for a night or two if you plan to enjoy a bit of a retreat from the city or want easy access to the beach. If I could do it over again, I would have gone directly to Cucao upon arrival in Castro, and then stayed in Castro on my way back.
  • Parque Nacional Chiloé is run by CONAF, Chile’s national park service, and that means that it has all the installations you could need, such a bathrooms, a small visitor’s center, some facilities for kids, and clearly marked paths. Here’s the website. Admission for foreigners costs $4000 CLP.
  • I suggest bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy on the beach – we would have eaten there if we had realized how close it was! You can also eat at the restaurant or just have a snack as we did. Like everywhere on Chiloé, prices are very reasonable.
[Parque Nacional Chiloé/Cucao, Chile: January 4, 2016]

Chiloe, Chile- The Forests of Parque Nacional Chiloé and the Oceanside Town of Cucao

Announcing My Latest Project: 100 Days of South American Memories

Rano Raraku (Moai Quarry)
Rano Raraku Quarry, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

For the past 15 years, travel in South America has been one of the guiding interests in my life. As I mentioned in my last post, my backpacking trips to experience the natural wonders of Argentina during my study abroad year opened up my mind to the transformative potential of travel, and sparked my desire to learn more about the fascinating regional cultures all around the continent.

For years, my list of goals included plans to get in mountaineering shape to hike Patagonia (still pending!), travel for an extended period without an itinerary (check!), and volunteer for a year in Latin America (double check!).

When I moved to Chile in 2014, I did not have a return date in mind; I wanted to see where my adventures led me. Although I did quite a lot of travel in my most recent stint in South America, the adventure actually led me within myself and eventually back to the US, where I’ve been for the past six weeks. But let’s go a little backwards in time.

Laguna Huaracocha at Marcahuasi
Marcahuasi, Peru

What’s Happened

In January, I went on a vipassana retreat, which gave me a lot of time to think without distractions about what my next step was. The overwhelming answer from within was that I needed to rebuild my online teaching business so that I could be location independent. At the same time, I knew I needed to keep on meditating and connecting to my intuition (although very clearly NOT in the discipline taught during the retreat).

Although I fell in love with Santiago during my last couple of weeks in Chile, I ended up basing myself out of my familiar, much-loved Lima where I would not be so tempted to explore since I already knew the city very well. The three months I spent there helped me process how much I had changed since arriving in 2012 for my first volunteer year, and embrace the new direction my life was taking.

This meant saying some tough goodbyes, facing some difficult truths, and experiencing super uncomfortable emotions. However, because of my focus on intentional habits and routines, I had a framework to keep me moving forward through all of this, along with the aforementioned guiding project, my online teaching business. This steady progress on both fronts is already showing up in major ways in my life.

Hummingbird Colibri Nasca Lines Peru
Hummingbird (Colibrí), Nasca Lines, Peru

Right before leaving Peru to come back to the US, I traveled to Nasca and Paracas, two of the most visited areas in Peru, two places which seemed so familiar to me through other people’s stories, but which I had yet to experience for myself. During my trip I realized there is so much more to that region than I had previously understood; I left filled with curiosity and questions about the ancient cultures of Peru and what they understood about life’s possibilities.

After this trip, I know I am not “done” with Peru or with the powerful energy of the Andes; I’ll definitely be back, but in due course.

What’s Now

When I arrived back in the US six weeks ago, I didn’t have much of a plan except to spend quality time with my friends and family. (This has even become a bit of a joke with my mom, and we keep asking each other if certain shared moments count as quality time!) At US immigration, the officer asked me my plans and I told him, quite honestly, that I had not planned anything past this flight.

Instead, I’ve just been seeing how things go. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into growing my tutoring business and understanding how entrepreneurship works for me right now, in 2016.

Forests of Rhode Island

Forests of Rhode Island, USA

Of course, I’ve traveled around New England a little bit, visiting friends in New Hampshire and Boston and Rhode Island, spending hours catching up on everything that’s happened, getting to see new places and really appreciate the greenery of the region after a year in the desert.

At the same time, I’ve finally been following through on my push to organize and minimize my belongings in storage at my parents’ house – there’s nothing like living with a limited wardrobe and only the essentials to motivate you to get rid of any excess. (I’ve been using the KonMari method – sorting by category and figuring out which items I want to keep because they spark joy and motivate me to build a life I love.)

What’s Next

The interesting thing about decluttering and going through years (really, decades) of possessions is that it helps you to process old, trapped emotions as well as understand how much progress is possible over the course of a lifetime. I found an old assignment for my Portuguese class where I wrote, in Portuguese, that I wanted to work for myself but did not have any idea how to make that happen.

Imagine that – when I wrote that, I hadn’t even started teaching yet, and here I am, 8 years later, with years of experience under my belt and a very focused online teaching business. Life is funny.

Now that my tutoring and my “tidying” are cruising steadily, I have some space to think about other ways to invest my time and energy. I recently attended a Being Boss workshop on passion projects, and I realized that English with Kim has shifted from being a passion project to my work.

As I listened to the creative brainstorming in the workshop, they mentioned the 100 Day Project, where you spend 100 days in a row doing something creative and by the end have a body of work. And it hit me: that’s just the amount of time I need to catch up on processing my photos from my South American adventures and writing posts on all the amazing places I’ve visited!

So here’s the big announcement…

Kuelap Chachapoyas Peru

Ruins of Kuelap, Chachapoyas, Peru

#100daysofsouthamericanmemories

Starting today, I will post one photo to Instagram every day telling a short story from my amazing experiences in South America.

At the same time, I’ll finish writing about Rapa Nui (visited in December 2012!), the rest of my backpacking trip through Peru and Ecuador, and my most recent travels in 2016. I’ll write more about the Valle de Elqui, where I lived for all of 2015. I made a list of all the pending posts, and there are about 75. Those other 25 days give me a little wiggle room for sorting through photos. 🙂

Start Date: July 23, 2016

End Date: October 31, 2016

I’m starting today because it’s one month before my 35th birthday, and by late August I should be able to write posts on the three-year anniversary of when I took the photos in 2013. 😉 Ending on Halloween is a pretty interesting choice, as the next day is the Day of the Dead, a day for remembrance in many Latin American cultures.

If you’re interested in following my progress, follow @blueskylimit on Instagram or search for #100daysofsouthamericanmemories! (I’ll also be posting to my newly-created Facebook page if that’s where you’d rather follow along.)

I’m really excited about this endeavor; by November I should have completely caught up on my travel posts so I can open up space for new opportunities!

As I mentioned above, returning to South America was an underlying motivation for most of my decisions over the past decade, and it’s time I finish processing that experience and sharing it with the world, even if it’s just in my little corner of the web!

Reflections on My 15th Anniversary with South America and How One Decision Changed My Entire Life

Scenes from Washington, DC!
American Flags in Washington, DC, Photo from September 2014

Independence Day weekend is always an important one for me, but not just because it’s a fun summer weekend when I usually travel to visit friends or family.

Instead, I often jokingly refer to July 4th as my “Independence from America” day. On July 4, 2001, I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina to spend a year studying abroad in the top universities in that amazing, vibrant city. I remember my plane taking off from Chicago, seeing the fireworks happening below us, and feeling a bit terrified of what I was getting myself into, even though I was more than ready for an adventure.

Considering the majority of my blog focuses on my experiences volunteering and traveling throughout South America, you’d think that I was always adventurous, but that is absolutely not the case. The person I am now started developing 15 years ago, and the transformation certainly continues.

That 19-year-old college student flying to Buenos Aires was an extremely cautious person who had never been outside of North America before. As a kid, I’d been lucky enough to travel around the United States and parts of Canada with my family, and I’d been on a cruise to the Bahamas. Even though I was from small-town NH and grew up in a fairly homogenous area, I’d fallen in love with the idea of speaking Spanish and always thought I’d study in Madrid to become fluent in the language and experience what life was like in a big, cosmopolitan city.

When I’d gone in for my required study abroad consultation with one of our deans, she’d heard my reasons for choosing Madrid and suggested that I look into Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile instead so that I would be less likely to speak English with the hoards of Americans studying in Spain. For some reason, Buenos Aires captured my attention, even though, admittedly, I did very little research on the country before my arrival.

Despite my excellent grades in Spanish over the years — I even received the award for Spanish at my high school graduation! — I arrived unable to actually speak the language whatsoever. On my first or second night in Buenos Aires, I went out to dinner with a group of fellow students and couldn’t even order a salad. I was shy and embarrassed and scared and all of those uncomfortable but important emotions you experience when trying to navigate an unfamiliar city in another language.

Cruz, Tafí del Valle
Tafí de Valle, Tucumán, Photo from July 2001

Thankfully, the study abroad program was prepared for that and took us out of Buenos Aires and to Tafí de Valle, Tucumán, where we would get a chance to take intensive Spanish classes and acclimate to our environment. Now that I’ve run a similar program, I see what a good call that was! They suggested only speaking Spanish for those two weeks, and I did my best to follow through with that. I fell in with the more nerdy, less party-oriented exchange students who also opted to speak only Spanish and within two weeks I was able to speak with much more confidence, my words finally flowing together.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Reencuentro en Cumaná
Friends from Argentina, Reunited in June 2015

This year was transformative on so many levels – I became fluent in Spanish, learned a lot about living in another culture, fell in love with the highly intellectual, artsy city lifestyle, and made some amazing friendships which continue till this day. But I would say the most lasting effect this year had on me was that it opened my eyes to travel and how fulfilling it can be to explore a new location with curiosity and an open mind.

At the moment, I’m wearing a hummingbird pendant that I picked up a month ago on my trip to Nasca, Peru. I’ve always loved hummingbirds, but this has special meaning to me because it reminds me of a lovely talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, where she encourages us all to explore our curiosity instead of looking for the one guiding passion that we’re often told is important for success. And I’ve really started to embrace the curious style of living, of having goals but not plans, of releasing expectations, of realizing that I truly have no idea where one decision can take me.

Cataratas del Iguazú
Iguazú Falls (Cataratas de Iguazú), Argentina/Brazil, Photo from November 2001

When I arrived in Argentina, I had no idea what travel really was or could be, because I’d only ever gone on vacations with my family and they’d always been in charge of the itinerary. I had already started to love travel photography, but I didn’t really get that the world is so, so big and that there are so many places that can fill you with wonder. With friends, I took my first trips to Córdoba, Iguazu Falls and Patagonia, and seeing these vastly different, gorgeous landscapes got me completely hooked on travel. In February 2002, I took my first solo trip to Mendoza, where I grew to understand the appeal of solo backpacking, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

Glaciar Perito Moreno
Glaciar Perito Moreno, Argentina, Photo from December 2001

By the time I returned to the US for my senior year of college back, I’d traveled to almost every province in Argentina and become fluent in Spanish. And all I knew is that I wanted to keep on traveling and that I would certainly be back someday.

In the end, it took me five years to return to South America. Looking back, the reason it took so long is that I felt I had to do things by the book, on the schedule I’d grown up thinking was normal. I got a job in New York City and worked in corporate America for three years, taking advantage of NYC’s awesome opportunities to take classes in all kinds of things and see independent film and eat really amazing food.

After that, my love for South America that brought me to graduate school to get a degree in Latin American Studies, where I knew I would have an opportunity to travel again in order to do my thesis research. Traveling in Salta, Argentina back in 2002 had gotten me curious about the folklore and culture of the Andes, so I decided to write about music in Peru and Bolivia and headed to Lima with an embarrassingly vague research topic and a similarly vague desire to go on an extended backpacking trip around the region.

Plaza de Armas, Catedral
Catedral de Lima, Peru, Photo from July 2007

On July 2, 2007, I left San Diego for Lima, where I embarked on yet another South American adventure. I had never traveled on my own for such an extended period of time (just under three months), but I soon embraced the freedom and flexibility of backpacking.

Cuzco's Main Plaza
Catedral de Cusco, Peru, Photo from July 2007

I met amazing people in the hostels, went on multi-day hikes, asked lots of random people questions about popular and traditional music, and learned that not every decision had to be planned in advance. I traveled throughout southern Peru and part of Bolivia, and then headed back to northwest Argentina and Buenos Aires, falling hard for the Andes and reconnecting with my first love(s).

And then, somehow, another five years passed – I finished grad school, became an ESL teacher, and left California for New England. At the beginning of 2012, I was ready for a change and a new challenge, and I felt called back to Peru. Once again, on July 1, 2012, I headed back to Peru, this time to volunteer for a year in a nonprofit in Huaycán, a developing community outside Lima.

Posing with Zone S Kids and a Puppy!
Posing with the Kids of Huaycán, Photo from 2013

Even though my previous stints in South America had had a major impact on my life, I feel like the year of volunteering was most transformative, probably because it was the most challenging. There’s no question that I loved the kids I met through our programs fully and unconditionally. That kind of love changes you. (As a related note, I absolutely love this Facebook post by BC Serna – he expresses what I learned so beautifully.)

[Side note: I plan to write more about volunteering in the future, because my feelings about volunteering are complicated and I think serving in two very different year-long programs has given me important insight into the pros and cons of volunteering abroad, privilege and dependency, and the true meaning of service.]

By the time I finished my volunteer year, I was a different person. I had learned to let go of expectations, to learn from challenges, to follow through on commitments, to take the long view, to advocate for my beliefs. But most of all, I had learned to live in the moment – to really feel and express gratitude, to embrace my life as it was.

Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, Atacama, Chile, July 2013

On July 1, 2013, I took off on yet another backpacking adventure through South America, this time spending five months traveling throughout Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador. This was the trip I had dreamed of since 2002 – no obligations to research for my Master’s thesis, no real itinerary, just making decisions based on how I felt on a given day and what seemed to be the next best step.

[Honestly, looking back at that statement, it’s a nice reminder of how to live each and every day no matter where you are, but it’s much more freeing when you’re on the road toting all your possessions on your back. :)]

I’ve said time and again that my trip in 2013 was blessed with luck and love. There are so many instances of when things worked out absolutely perfectly just because I trusted that they would. I connected with amazing people who continue to part of my life to this day. I learned so much from others who crossed my paths for just a couple of hours, during which they shared their stories with me, their struggles and triumphs, their philosophies and ways of life, helped me understand their cities and villages, and then continued on their way.

Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile
July 4th Weekend in Guanaqueros, Chile in 2015

Although I started my most recent stint in South America at the end of 2014, I spent last year’s 4th  of July weekend with three amazing people, volunteers-turned-friends, the people who supported me and inspired me and grew with me during our year in the Valle de Elqui. We cheered Chile’s victory in the Copa América 2015 and sang the American national anthem wandering on the beach (even the Canadian!). And we set intentions for how to finish out our volunteer year in the best way possible.

And now here I am, back in the US for an extended visit, focusing on my online business and building a location independent lifestyle. I know I’ll head back to South America at some point, but this time around, I hear Colombia and Brazil whispering to me. I’m also curious about what life would look like in Mexico or Portugal or even Spain.

Whatever happens, I am thankful for my first “Independence from America” Day 15 years ago, and all the experiences that have come about as a result. Living and traveling in South America has left an indelible mark on me, and all I can do is encourage you to try and get there for yourself.

Whatever draws you to South America, whether it’s the amazing natural wonders of the continent, or the incredibly rich ancient cultures that inhabited its lands, or the widely varying lifestyles in the cities, mountains, coast, and jungle, or even the amazing food, music, dance, and artesanía, you will leave with a deeper appreciation for this corner of the world.

And if you’re as lucky as me, your trip might just change your life.