7 things I learned (so far) travelling in South America

It’s only been two years now that I’ve been dipping a toe in the ocean of experiences on offer in our closest neighbouring continent. On my own I’ve only visited Colombia, Peru and now Chile but I’ve learned a few valuable lessons along the way that I think can be applied to most travelling situations.

1) Not everyone speaks English

Native English-speakers often make the (arrogant) assumption that most persons in foreign countries speak at least some English. I know I did. The immigration officer in Colombia’s Medellin Airport quickly proved me wrong though, as have a vast number of denizens of South America since.
Last year in Peru I took an entire cycling tour in Spanish because my guide spoke not a lick of English.

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These guys no hablan el inglés, but were great nonetheless 🙂

It turned out fine because my understanding of Spanish is vastly better than my speaking ability, but it was a valuable experience for me as a traveller. I’ve noticed that in both Peru and Chile, a large number of people on the tours are actually locals, or from neighbouring countries. Therefore it makes some sense that English isn’t a requirement to work in the tourism sector in this part of the world. I will say though that MOST of my tour guides have been able to speak some English, but I’ve had to improvise along the way when it comes to ordering food, buying anything anywhere, conversing with fellow tourists, etc. While I encourage learning a few key phrases in the language of the place you’re visiting, Google Translate (download your language of choice offline) is essential for excursions to South America.

2) Skip the capital

Ok ‘skip the capital’ is a little drastic, I mean you could stand to spend like a day in capital cities, of course, but in my experience so far, you wouldn’t miss it if you did pass it up. I’ve had my richest and most memorable experiences outside of the capital cities in the countries I’ve been to (and not just in South America).

Learning from my experience with Lima last year (i.e., bored out of my mind after one day) I opted to only spend one full day in Santiago at the end of my trip. I’ll use that time to visit some museums (Santiago seems to have a really vibrant art and museum culture) and eat some food and then get the hell out of dodge.

3) Do a food tour

I’m a firm believer that the best way to get to know a country and its people is through food. I make it a point to do at least one food tour in every country I go to. Food tour guides have also proven to be the most comprehensive, holistic ambassadors for the country, because food has its roots in every single aspect of life – from culture, to religion, to the economy and class divisions. It was a food tour guide who took me to temples in Thailand and then in Japan, and explained the prayers and rituals they have there.
It was food tours that took me down lanes and alleys traversed mostly by locals, giving valuable insight into daily habits and ways of life in the countries I was visiting.

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Ceviche in Peru (along with a few varieties of corn, which Peru has by the hundreds, maybe thousands)

If you only do one tour in a foreign country, I strongly recommend you do a food tour, but make sure your belly is up to the challenge.

4) Less is more

If you told me even a year ago that I would not only own a backpack, but I would be using it to traipse up and down Chile, I’d be like ‘Ok weirdo, you don’t know me AT ALL!’

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My sexy Osprey Porter 46 😍

Some people balk at the idea of backpacking. God knows I did. It’s definitely not for everyone – packing minimally for a few weeks of travel. But there are certain advantages to having nothing but a backpack when traveling – like when you have to climb a few flights of stairs cause the hotel or hostel you’re at has no lift and you’re on the top floor. Or when you’re rushing to catch a bus and can run like the wind because you don’t have a suitcase to yank along behind you. Not having to wait at a luggage belt or deal with lost luggage. And the list goes on. It challenges you to be resourceful and versatile.

I washed all my underwear and thermals in a hotel sink last week and HOPED to the heaven above it would all dry before I had to check out the following day. It did. Thank God.
My scarf on my Chile trip is actually a Turkish towel I got in a subscription box and I carried it because it’s a versatile item – scarf, sarong, light blanket or towel (of course).

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Plot twist – it’s a towel!

Packing light forces you to be economical with space and weight, and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised how much you don’t need to carry with you.

Some blogs I read recommended just buying toiletries in your destination, instead of loading up your luggage with them. If you’re not comfortable with no toiletries at all, buy some travel-sized bottles and decant your must-have potions accordingly.

Packing cubes have become travel essentials for me and I use them even when I’m not using a backpack. They help keep your clothing compact, separate and easy to find.

If you’re travelling somewhere temperate, I’ve tried and tested the Uniqlo Heattech line and found it to be toasty warm when you need it to be, but extremely thin and light weight. Pair it with the Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Jacket – also super packable – for extra warmth.

5) Functional wifi is a luxury, not a right

One thing I’ve had to get very comfortable with when travelling in South America is a lack of connectivity.
While it was very easy to get wifi or data plans in Asia, South America has proven to be more of a challenge on two occasions. In Peru, my schedule was just so packed I couldn’t get to a mobile provider store to get a SIM. Their set up is similar to T&T’s where you have to go to a dealer to acquire a SIM card, but even more stringent as even the phone kiosk in the airport couldn’t sell me a SIM, I had to go to a flagship store. And in Chile, I got my hands on a SIM, only to have it stop working on me 15 minutes in because apparently my phone isn’t ‘unlocked’ for Chile. You can imagine how thrilled I was by this, seeing that I’d already spent my money. But to be honest, not being reachable all the time is a real blessing. It means I can concentrate on the experience in front of me and not get caught up on what’s happening elsewhere. I’m a hyper-connected person when I’m home so it takes something as drastic as complete digital isolation to give me the space and breathing room I need to be fully engaged in what I’m doing in the moment. Sure it gets annoying, not having the resource of the internet in a fix but you can prepare for eventualities ahead of time and go brave. Also! I’ve had my fair share of janky wifi in hotels – both high end and hostels. My most reliable wifi to date has been at a hostel in the Atacama desert. My fancy lodge in Patagonia had the worst wifi ever – it didn’t even work properly in the advertised communal spaces. So be prepared to be disconnected, and be prepared to love it, even if you don’t want to.

6) Layer up 

The Andean mountain range and its surrounding topographical siblings provide a healthy range of sub climates across the South American continent. I’ve experienced sub zero temperatures giving way to T&T-like heat within a matter of hours; torrential rainfall and immense gusts of wind combined with hail and snow and then abruptly, heat again as you descend to sea level. To cope with this you have to get comfortable with the idea of layers and pack smart. Right now, as I mentioned previously I’ve been using the Heattech as a base layer (this post isn’t sponsored by Uniqlo, promise) and had every intention of using a lightweight sweater over that, then my down jacket, and when necessary, a waterproof shell from Columbia.

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At the Tatio Geysers, where the temperature dipped below zero (at over 4200m above sea level) but quickly rose as we descended back to 2000m (where San Pedro de Atacama sits)

Being able to remove and add as necessary makes moving across the varying climates much more manageable and comfortable. Don’t forget the hiking boots if you’re heading for even the slightest of rugged terrain. Opt for something waterproof and with ankle support.

7) Relax and enjoy the ride

I’ve grown so much as a traveler since my first real solo trip to Thailand early last year. I did nowhere near the level of planning for this trip as I did for Thailand. I think that’s a normal and healthy progression. I encourage anyone travelling solo for the first time, or indeed even if you’re not travelling solo to take some time and prepare your agenda. However, be prepared for things to go off track from time to time. Sometimes you might miss a flight or a bus, sometimes you might realise your hotel is NOT what was advertised and you end up with no water in your bathroom (true story) after 12 hours of travelling and multiple delays. Sometimes your hotel calls to say they can no longer accommodate you (also a true story). Sometimes a tour you were reaaaalllly looking forward to and kind of planned your trip around got altered or cancelled due to the weather (true story x 2 in Chile) MEH. Wah yuh go do? Having a credit card and a sense of humour will take you far when travelling, not just in South America but anywhere in the world. Have all your necessary documents secured, upload copies to Google Drive or your cloud service of choice, make sure your bank knows you’re travelling and do your best to keep a positive attitude on the road. Shit happens but you don’t have to let it ruin your trip.

I’ll add more travelling lessons as time and my adventures progress, but I hope what I’ve written here is helpful so far if you’re considering exploring this beautiful continent. If you have any questions about any of the places I’ve been or am planning to go (Bolivia or Ecuador looks like it’s up next) leave me a comment or reach out to me on IG @CeolaB.

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Thoughts in Transit // Go Alone 

Current location: Gate A6, Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, en route to Chiang Mai. 

  

I figure the only time I may have to write on this trip is while I’m in transit.

My days have been packed to capacity with tours, dinner outings and roaming the streets. 

Since I began planning this vacation, people have expressed a healthy mix of concern and admiration for the fact that I was coming here alone. 

I won’t pretend it’s an easy decision to make. Going anywhere alone can be intimidating.

Halfway across the world? To a country where you know neither a soul nor the language? 

Well that…is straight up terrifying. 

Or it should have been. But for me it was easier done than said. I don’t know why. Maybe I was fed up. Fed up of saying I wanted to go places and never going. Fed up of saying ‘Oh that’s on my bucket list’ while ignoring the fact that my time could be up any hour of any day and my bucket list remained unchecked.  

I spend dumb money. All the time. I buy things that go to the back of my closet and never see daylight again until a year later when I decide to clear my closet to donate, and it gets thrown into the pile of ‘stuff I bought a long time ago but never wore and now it’s not my style anymore so bye’.

I figured it was time to start spending money on experiences and memories, rather than disposable things. 

 

except stocks…probably. and gold.

 
The next common excuse for me has been, even more so than finances, that unfortunately I don’t have a dedicated travel buddy. Not one in Trinidad anyway. There’s no friend I can message in the dead of the night and say “Hey, let’s go to Thailand nah.” and have them reply “Ok cool, will start looking at flights.” and mean it. 

That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their priorities and interest. It just so happens that I don’t have one whose priorities and interests align with mine at the time I need it to. There are any number of limitations when seeking a travel companion – their finances, time, they were planning to go somewhere else, they don’t necessarily want to go where I want to go. 

Again, that’s ok. That’s no one’s fault. But what I could not keep doing was allowing that to prevent me from going. 

So I made the decision to get my shit together and book a flight. 

  
I plan to blog more about my actual trip but I figured a good place to start would be some of the things I learned while preparing for this journey. Hopefully this will help or motivate any one of you who’s been thinking about taking the plunge and buying the ticket to actually do it. 

1. Plan plan plan plan plan. As a solo traveler, and as a female no less, it was imperative that I have as much of this trip planned as I possibly could cater for. Now that’s not to say you can’t have spontaneous moments on your trip, but I spent a lot of time checking hotels, cross referencing reviews on TripAdvisor, checking the distance from said hotels to places of interest, evaluating public transportation options close to potential hotels, checking tours and comparing prices across different providers. One big challenge I encountered planning this trip was that many tours require two persons minimum. That, or you pay out of your eyeballs. For example, one tour increased to USD$130 from USD$50 because I am but one person. Eventually I found the same tour (and pretty much everyone offers the same tours) at a much more reasonable cost. I booked most of my tours on Viator and the balance on tour operators recommended on TripAdvisor forums. For hotels and flight I used Kayak and then checked reviews on TripAdvisor. For Thailand I originally reached out to one of those vacation concierge services. The price they quoted me was INSANE, especially since one of the reasons I chose Thailand was because I’ve often heard that it’s one of the most affordable places to visit. These people were recommending a budget of USD$300 a day! What?! I was going for 14 days. And that’s not even including airfare. So I decided to book everything myself. Sure it takes longer but my budget was half of their recommendation by the time I was done. So yeah, get ready for some serious leg work in the run up to your trip, if you want to save some coin.

2. Leave a trail. Again, top of mind for me in planning this trip was my security. Not that I’ve heard Thailand is an unsafe place per se, and my experience so far confirms that Thailand feels a lot safer than home. However, you can’t take for granted the fact that you’re out here alone and IF something happens to you…it shouldn’t be for lack of sense on your part. I printed off two copies of my hotel bookings and my flight confirmations and left a detailed itinerary with my parents, which said where I would be on each day – which tours I was taking, along with contact information for each tour provider. Let me put it this way (and of course this is morbid) if anything were to happen to me, God forbid, my loved ones should AT LEAST know where to find my body. Just saying. I also created a Google Sheet with the same itinerary and shared with a few responsible friends, just in case I had any changes to my schedule, I could update it there. 

3. Stay in touch. I check in with my dad everyday. I also have an app installed on my phone – bSafe. Highly recommend it for solo travellers. It basically allows you to send friends (who also have to download the app) updates with your location. If you’re in a crisis, there’s an alarm feature that will send them a push notification, and start the camera on your phone, record for an amount of time then send that recording to them. I gave said friends my parents’ contact information so they could reach them if they got an alarm from me. I would have installed it on my dad’s phone but I don’t know if he would have been as proficient at checking it as my more digitally inclined friends. Once I got to Thailand I got a local SIM card. Since Thailand is such a tourist destination, there were SIM cards marketed especially to tourists, offering 7-day data packages and access to wifi hotspots. It’s ESSENTIAL that you have data on your phone while abroad. And roaming makes no financial sense. Pop a SIM card in your phone, activate data and also have a way to contact hotels, tour operators, new friends (ew) on the cheap. It’s a no-brainer. 

4. Don’t overpack. This is a good rule even if you’re not travelling alone, but especially essential when you’re the only one available to tote luggage. I’ve been in some really horrible situations as a solo traveller before, in places like London, no less, so I wanted to be sure I could manage my baggage on this trip, both from a security perspective and a struggling to get up some steps perspective. 

5. Be realistic about your timeline. I knew there was no way I could see and do everything I wanted to do in the time I had. I had to prioritise. Jet lag is a bitch. I’m running on about four hours of sleep a night since I’ve been here because my body thinks I’m trying to take a day nap. Taking that exhaustion into consideration, as well as travel times, distance from sights, duration of tours, etc, you need to know what you can do in the time you have, and be willing to cut some things off your check list, where possible. 

6. Conquer public transport. This is a big thing for me no matter where I go. I’m not a big fan of buses but if there is a metro, I dey. Get acquainted with the various public transportation options, since you won’t be splitting the taxi fare with anyone and that cost can rack up. Luckily for me, Bangkok has about a bousand different ways to get around and I was able to learn the MRT (subway) and BTS (sky train) system pretty quickly. It’s so much cheaper and quicker than taking a cab. 

7. Make Google Maps your bestie. Any map service should work but Google Maps is my personal pick abroad. I use it to map out my journey regardless of mode of transportation. I also use it to get an idea of what taxi fares would be like, know how long I have to nap on a tour bus, and just generally a way to figure out where the f I’m going if I’m walking. It’s saved my butt more than a few times. You also have to stop and ask for directions less, which is important for me as a solo female traveler because I don’t necessarily want to give anyone the impression that I’m lost, ever, in life. This circles back to the importance of having data on your mobile. 

8. Get familiar with the culture. Before I left I looked up some of the cultural disparities between my home and my destination. You think “Oh I’m going on vacation, let me pack my shortest shorts and strappiest tops and get ready to skin out.” NAH. Thailand turned out to be a very conservative country. Most of the temples enforce a strict dress code for visitors – no bare shoulders or knees, and no tight fitting clothing. I can’t lie, getting dressed here has been challenging but I’m getting better. It’s also useful to know what’s generally frowned upon in a country so you can not do those things. Check your attitude once you board that plane because you are no longer on home turf and you are in people country with no contacts. No Visa face here people, only jail. 

9. Find contacts. Look up the embassy or consulate of your home country in your destination country. If there isn’t one, find the closest one to you. Ask around among friends to see if anyone has any friends or family where you’re headed, so at least you have a number and a name if anything goes awry. Trinis like salt, there must be a few where you’re headed. Ensure that they’re fine with you contacting them if need be and save that number. 

10. Keep your phone charged. Without a functional phone, most of the technological aides I described earlier, as well as the basic function of calling your hotel or taxi is null and void. Invest in a few battery packs, keep them fully charged and walk with extra charging cables. Don’t assume you will find a port or an outlet everywhere you go. Be sure to check the electric socket where you’re going too. Never know if you may need a converter. 

11. Invest in a monopod. A lot of people like to scorn selfie-sticks. I think that’s more ego and less sense to be honest, especially if you’re travelling alone abroad. If you don’t like the idea of using an extendable monopod, then make sure you’re cool with close, tightly-cropped pictures of yourself, no pictures of yourself at all, or constantly depending on a stranger to take a photo for you. About a month before I came I bought the new Go Pro Hero Session 4, which is a miniature, hardier version of the popular camera. I also bought an extendable monopod and a head mount. This is probably the best thing I’ve bought in a while. It not only captures video but time lapse photographs, and you can download the Go Pro app to your phone to control it remotely. Bear in mind this version of the Go Pro has no screen on the back so you’ll be flying blind unless you hook up to the app. 

Those are all the single traveler tips I can come up with at the moment. I think I covered the most essential bits. 

Sorry if this post doesn’t have much by way of pictures and whatnot, like I said, this is a rush job.

For prettier and more entertaining updates you can follow my trip on my social pages – @CeolaB (Instagram) and CeolaB (Snapchat). 

Hopefully this encourages you to take that vacation you’ve been meaning to take, and go to that place you’ve always dreamed of going, even if it means going alone.  

 

Travel Diary // Eating the Big Apple I

Hi, I’m back and slowly but surely getting over my intense NYC withdrawal.

For those of you who follow me on Instagram and Snapchat (@CeolaB), you probably witnessed me successfully eating my way through The Big Apple last weekend with my best friend Sandi and her sister Ashanna.

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No makeup selfie on the way to Brooklyn from JFK. Shout out to Jose who was the best host ever (AirBNB y’all).

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These beauts on the A train ^^^

Normally my trips to NY are just huge shopping marathons with my mom but on this trip I wanted to focus on eating at places I’d never been to before. I polled my FB friends before I left to try and get a gist of some of the best NYC eateries that I should hit up while on vacation.

Naturally I couldn’t hit them all, but I think I achieved my goal of enjoying a true foodie experience in New York.

Check out the pics below for a run down of all the grub I had.

Spice was one place that kept coming up when I asked about good food in New York. It’s a chain restaurant with extremely quick service, which doesn’t come at the expense of the quality of the food. We had a great meal and all our entrees came with complimentary appetizers. Don’t mind if we do.

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That night we decided to check out a Zagat rated southern comfort restaurant nearby where we staying. Peaches Hot House was packed to capacity when we arrived around 8:30pm. We placed our names on a board and went outside in the cold to wait, staring daggers at this group of folks who were taking forever to pay their bill and leave.

Eventually we got a seat and started in on some good ol’ comfort food. Not too shabby, but admittedly, didn’t live up to my expectations. I was super excited about the mac n cheese and blackened catfish but the fish turned out tasting a bit overseasoned and the cheese was slightly too sharp given the tartness of the salsa on the catfish.

Sorry about the dodgy pics, the lighting in the restaurant was next to none and I didn’t want to blind my fellow diners with my flash.

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That was day one of my NYC eats. Look out for the next post in which I gush over Chelsea Market.