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 ingl√©s, but were great nonetheless ūüôā

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 ūüėć

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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Ceola does Colombiamoda // Day 2

My Day 2 and Colombiamoda’s official Day 1, Tuesday was a very long but very exciting experience.
It’s not every day you get to see how a world class fashion show and convention is orchestrated and executed. Not to say I took a glimpse backstage or anything, but the entire operation from the point of view of a spectator was seamless.

The day began with the herding of the press into our cool Inexmoda/Colombiamoda mini-buses to get us to the venue – Plaza Mayor – in time to go through the rigorous security checks and get seated comfortably for the inauguration of the trade show. Present was the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, who spoke about the tremendous growth the country has seen not just holistically but especially with regard to their position as the fashion hub of Latin America. The fashion industry of Colombia accounts for some 15.7% of employment in the country and there has been a 20% reduction in imports since 2013, an indication that far more preference and support was being shown to the national product. Those are statistics we in Trinidad & Tobago can only dream of seeing one day. If I’ve learned anything from this experience so far…it’s that Trinidad & Tobago has a long way to go before it can reasonably claim to have anything even resembling a fashion industry.

When I worked in government, we used to host a few developmental forums, and invited representatives from places like Singapore to conduct workshops and lectures on how to move from third world status to first world status. While Colombia may not be, on paper, a first world country (yet), I would not be surprised in the least if we would find more relevant and poignant solutions to our current crime scourge and societal issues by looking to countries like Colombia.

Anyway, enough politicking, on to the fashion! And fashion there was! This entire complex is basically a fashion mecca – so large ¬†I haven’t even been able to see more than 30% of it’m sure. I hope to rectify that in the time I have left here. Yesterday was mostly a day of runways or “pasarelas”.

First up was the Non-Stop Runway, featuring four designers – Andr√©s Paj√≥n, Bastardo, Mariang√©lica Guerra and Purpuratta. Andr√©s Paj√≥n was my favourite in the lineup, due in part to his bright, colourful designs, heavy embellishment and distinctly feminine aesthetic. It also helped tremendously that he sent his models down the runway to Busy Signal’s Tic Toc ūüôā

I also really enjoyed the intricacy of Mariang√©lica’s collection. Her largely neutral colour palette allowed the details of the interwoven fabric ¬†to shine through. Loved the pops of teal throughout as well.

The next show I hit up was presented by fashion magazine Fucsia – Ashes by designer Vanessa Gomez. It was a collection inspired by rock and roll bohemian and it showed. I loved the incorporation of fragmented knitwear throughout the loose, flowing fabrics. There’s no way you can wear this collection and not feel like a rockstar. Loved the styling as well.

La Alcald√≠a de Medell√≠n…or the Mayor’s Office to us English-speakers, presented three designers, all of whom went above and beyond my expectations – Natalia Londo√Īo, Love Citizens and Andrea Landa.

Natalia Londo√Īo was soft structure with amazing prints. I¬īve noticed, throughout all the collections, a subtle but very consistent attention to and respect for detail. Natalia’s was no different.

The super cool Love Citizens were next. While they were principally beach wear, their outerwear and separatess stunned, particularly the white mesh & neoprene (I think) skirt and jacket pictured below.

Last for this segment was Andrea Landa. She blew me away…so much detail – both the hand crafted macram√© and the slashed leather were stunning, juxtaposed with the relaxed fit of her garments. Easily one of my favourites for the week so far.

Next on the agenda was a super fun show – the Ipanema x Paradizia presentation. The suits were bright, colourful and detailed…pretty much everything we seem to want from suits nowadays. It’s only kind of amusing how little we purchase¬†swim wear now for actual swimming.

Last but not least was one of the few brands I knew about prior to arriving in Colombia. Custo Barcelona, in partnership with Haceb, produced a beautiful¬†collection. It was cacaphony of colours, prints and textures. It’s amazing how one does not even question the combinations presented…it just makes perfect sense once you see it in motion.

And so concludes the first official day of Colombiamoda! Hope you enjoy the clothing as much as I did ūüôā Time for bed…10+ hours of fashion looks a lot better on paper than it actually is in real life – exhausting.

Let me know which are your favourite looks in the comment below! h

Ceola does Colombiamoda // Day 1

Ok so some of you may have figured out by now that I am in the land that gave us Shakira, Gabriel Garc√≠a M√°rquez and James Rodriguez (no ladies…I am yet to see him or any of his doppelg√§ngers).
To be more specific, I’m in Medell√≠n, the former stomping grounds of one Pablo Escobar, and a city that’s seen a radical transformation since the aforementioned’s reign.
To be fair, where I’m staying is one of the more affluent areas – El Poblado is an upscale neighborhood nestled in the hills just outside of the city centre of Medell√≠n. Here there’s lots of hotels (as it seems to be the preferred domain of tourists), restaurants and malls. I love how green everything is – trees line the streets and there are a lot of green spaces or parques scattered throughout the area.

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I’m here covering Colombiamoda on behalf of Metro Magazine. The actual Colombiamoda didn’t kick off til last night with an inaugural presentation by Camilo √Ālvarez, a Medell√≠n native and one of their rising stars in the fashion circuit. Anyway, I’m jumping ahead. Will give you more on Camilo’s show later.
The press (and we are a hefty number) was invited to attend an overview of the city and brunch hosted by the Medellín City Hall and the organisers of the event Inexmoda.
One of Medell√≠n’s most impressive features, to me, so far is their Metro system. They’re obviously quite proud of it as well, because we all hopped aboard to head out to Parque Arv√≠, where the event was being held. Their Metro system is new, clean and accessible. Imagine my surprise when I realised that they’ve integrated cable cars into their Metro – a concerted effort to provide more accessible transportation to those who live further up the hills of Medell√≠n (the more impoverished communities here proved to be a stark contrast to the sanitized facade of Poblado). We sailed in the sky above a sea of red brick and galvanize.

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I noted with some amusement that rather than having billboards, some advertisers have actually painted marketing messaging on the rooftops of some homes. Apt, when you consider the length of the journey up to the top of the mountain. Eventually the scene changed from houses to forest and we made our way across an expanse of greenery before arriving at our final destination. РParque Arví.
Parque Arví is stunning. As soon as we walked out of the Metro station we were greeted with a quaint reception Рfinger foods and a delicious fruit juice (I think it was pineapple).

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After milling about for a bit, we were all invited to don our cool gardening gloves that we got in our goodie bags and go plant a tree! I named my tree Paco, and with any luck I’ll be able to come back to Medell√≠n in a few years and see him again.

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After flexing our green thumbs, we assembled for brunch. First course was a delicious stuffed portobello mushroom. I was about to dig in when my seat mate Monica (one of the directors of Look Magazine in Guatemala) informed that there was ham in it. Whoops! Don’t eat ham. The caterers were kind enough to organise a ham-free plate for me though. Main course was a tomato quiche and desert was rice pudding and a cheesecake made with a local fruit called uchuva.

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Once we finished brunch it was back down the mountain for us. We headed back to the hotel and I headed out to a nearby mall SantaFe to capitalise on all the ‘Rebajas’ signs in the windows of some of my favourite stores. I also managed to find a sushi restaurant in Poblado – Sushi Light. The sushi was fair to fine considering they didn’t have the variety of rolls I’m accustomed to. It’s always fascinating to me how sushi differs from country to country depending on tastes.

That night was the inaugural runway of Colombiamoda featuring one Camilo √Ālavarez, in conjunction with title sponsor Cementos Argos.¬†A curious marriage no? Of construction material and fashion…? Not when you think about it though…for many designers, architecture and environment are a key influence and inspiration and for √Ālvarez it was no different. The press release by Inexmoda had this to say:

This interest for urban themes was taken as a theme of study and analysis, perfect for collaborative work with Cementos Argos ‚Äď which takes the idea of fashion and the city as a construction ‚Äď an idea that is becoming both stronger and viable in Medell√≠n as well as Colombia as a whole. The strengthening of these themes is partly due to talented young designers who have started to reconstruct national identity through design.

Camilo √Ālvarez has been a key player in the transformation of a new generation of critical, creative and original designers. ‚ÄúDesayuno‚ÄĚ is an example of the evolution of Colombian design. It is a collection through which the inspiration of the designer is seen through a series of tones which travel from early morning until midday hours demonstrated in a palate of colours that go from cold and neutral colours to warmer shades.

Naturally, I loved the collection. I’m a fan of anything I consider to be ‘elevated casual’ and that looks super comfortable while still bringing something unique and fresh to the table. I was a particular fan of the colour palette, and the way the looks transitioned from white to light blue, to blush, to black, to the metallic copper accents found on many garments later in the show.

√Ālvarez set the bar quite high for the three days to follow.