Pre-Trip Anxiety

Tomorrow, Sam (of the High Sierra Trail trip) and I fly out to Montana to do a six day backpacking trip with my friend from law school, Mary.

Things I am worried about right now:

  • One or more of our checked bags being lost and either having to delay our start time (we are tightly scheduled due to Sam having to do this work thing I hear tell of) or having to buy new gear and the carefully prepared food that will cost quite a bit of time and money to replace.
  • Our flights being delayed enough to miss connections (I hate having to make connections).
  • Whether my new pack cover will arrive on time because of course the one that fits for a normal weekend trip doesn’t fit when my 45-55L pack is at its maximum capacity for a week long trip and the REI up the street doesn’t have the size I needed.
  • The last time I tried to go to Glacier (last year at this time), my brother died. Is Glacier cursed? Will something else disastrous happen to waylay me once again and I will just never see the Glaciers before climate change takes them away completely?
  • The fact that Glacier is on fire.
  • Bears.
  • None of us know CPR.
  • Going blind because of the eclipse with a three day hike out.

I know, realistically, that I am pretty good at shifting gears when shit goes wrong, that we have several plan Bs and Cs in place, and let’s just hope if we see bears, we see them from a distance, and that we just don’t need CPR.

Barring needing to engage plan Bs and plan Cs, and if we don’t manage to convince a park ranger to adjust our itinerary for our backpacking permit, here’s plan A:

Tomorrow: After a shared 4 am Lyft ride, Sam and I are flying to Kalispell, Montana, getting in a couple hours before Mary with enough time to run to Walmart for cooking gas and bear spray. Then we drive across the park and camp in a campground that night.

Roughly Friday through Wednesday next week, we’re doing roughly the North Circuit route in Glacier. See this video to approximate the experience without the blisters. We were kind of at the mercy of the permit office in our route, but the map looks like this:

Screenshot 2017-08-16 12.16.06.png

The red lettered numbers are our nights – night 1, night 2, etc. It’s a circuit, and day six we walk out. It works out to 56.7 miles, with our longest day over 14 miles and our shortest about 6.5 miles. Much less of a breakneck pace than the High Sierra Trail, which was 72 and change over the same stretch of time.

So, yea. That’s a thing that we’re doing. Barring fires, bears, blindness, or other injury, we’ll be back in civilization this time next week and I start my final year of law school shortly thereafter.

I don’t know where that anxiety came from, I think law school ruined me. Wait. What if someone reads our itinerary and stalks us deep into the woods and kills us?

I’m… just going to go back to packing now.

Screenshot 2017-08-16 12.29.59

Six days worth of food for three hungry backpackers.

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Affording Travel: 12 Day Caribbean Vacation for $1,342


Photo Credit

Something that I’ve heard a lot over the years is “How do you afford to travel [as a student or a nonprofit employee]?” I mean, first off, I prioritize travel and experiences. I don’t buy a lot of stuff (aside from books) and I follow a budget year round. Budget ninja, 365 days a year. Because I want to encourage more people to travel, I recorded everything I spent on my trip to Colombia so you could see my breakdown of a 12 day vacation that included both mountains and beaches. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The most important thing about budget travel is choosing your location. You know what’s expensive? Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc. You know where’s not expensive? Almost everywhere else. Get out of your comfort zone. There’s a whole world out there where you don’t have to spend $60/night for a hostel dorm bed, let alone $250/night for a hotel room, and you can actually get a single room with all its privacy for $30. Also, try to avoid traveling places that require a car rental, they’re expensive.

Another thing that makes a difference is choosing your timing. All of my trips are timed between leases so I’m not paying rent wherever I am back home. If you can do that, especially for longer trips – well, that’s whatever you pay for rent and utilities during that period (urban living in D.C. and Boston is not cheap) that is now freed up for travel. You would have spent your rent check on housing anyway – now it’s just going further for you in another location.  12 days of February (so, divided by 28 days) rent in Boston for me is about $366 that I spent on this trip instead.

Another note about timing: the longer your trip, the cheaper it is. This seems counter intuitive, but often the most expensive part of your trip is your airfare, so maximize that as much as you can.

Something that also helps is getting a good travel credit card. I got mine right before my trip to California/Mexico and my move to Boston so I could get full advantage of the sign on bonus. Because I put everything on this credit card (from groceries to utilities) and pay the balance off every month, it’s basically free money. I took $99 off the cost of this trip with credit card rewards without deliberately saving my reward miles for this trip.

For this particular trip, I had the additional consideration of sunk cost. Because I had to cancel a Delta flight last August, I had $367.20 in use-or-loose-by-June Delta credit. I still included the total cost of the ticket in my calculations below, but this is notable because 1.) There were cheaper flights not on Delta but I was constrained by using Delta 2.) Emotionally this money didn’t really count in this calculation, if that makes sense.

I was also not in super budget mode – this was my vacation. In super budget mode, I would have probably made my own lunches, not had quite so many cocktails, not eaten twice at that fancy bar with shrimp wontons, and not splurged on a solo room in Santa Marta (Santa Marta expenses could have been halved, but then I was also sick for some of that and not keen on sharing a bathroom).

The total? $1,342.04 for a 12 days in the Caribbean, or $974.84 after considering the Delta credit, or $608.84 after considering the Delta credit and money I wasn’t spending on rent.

Roundtrip Airfare $450.76
Lyft to DCA (including tip, minus $5 promo code) $16.35
cab to hotel $5.04 15,000
bus to Santa Marta $16.13 48,000
Lost City Trek (4 days of hiking, transportation to/from trailhead, guide, translator, food, snacks, beds) $241.36 718,300
advanced hostel deposits $22.72
airport food $6.24
hostel cartagena dorm $15.37 45,750
water $2.02 6,000
pharmacy $14.33 42,650
coffee shop snacks $3.02 9,000
drinks + appetizer $25.54 76,000
cab from the side of the damn road $3.36 10,000
snacks + toiletries $15.07 44,860
road snacks $1.34 4,000
dinner + wine + tip $17.47 52,000
hostel santa Marta solo $34.92 103,920
tips for trek (guide and translator) $33.60 100,000
drinks on trail $10.08 30,000
hostel Santa Marta (two sick days in a private room, including water, laundry, crackers) $78.64 234,020
Beach towel, bread, bananas, water $10.08 30,000
getting to minca $9.74 29,000
coffee (to drink + beans) $23.52 70,000
one night, four meals, a snack, two drinks, horseback riding $68.18 202,910
getting from Minca to Cartagena $27.22 81,000
coke (the drink, guys) $1.34 4,000
night in Cartagena $15.71 46,750
drinks + food $27.75 82,574
getting to the island $20.16 60,000
two nights on the island $38.99 116,025
late lunch/dinner $11.76 35,000
breakfast $5.04 15,000
lunch + water + coke $13.78 41,000
coke + water $3.36 10,000
dinner + cocktails $22.18 66,000
breakfast + water $6.72 20,000
getting back to Cartagena $18.48 55,000
dinner $4.37 13,000
drinks $6.72 20,000
gum + water $2.76 8,200
souvenirs $21.51 64,000
night in Cartagena $15.71 46,750
hostel to airport $5.04 15,000
airport food ctg $5.71 17,000
airport food atl $23.50
Lyft home (including tip) $18.40
travel rewards from credit card -$99.05
Total $1,342.04

Tracked in google sheets on my phone using google’s currency converter between COP and USD. This code is =GoogleFinance(“CURRENCY:COPUSD”)). Currency conversion is current as of 3/4/17.

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3 Steps to Prepare for & Get to Isla Grande in the Rosario Islands

AKA everything I wish I knew before I went to Isla Grande for two nights.

Why you want to go:

This could be you! There’s also snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, and other activities.

How to get there:

1. Make a reservation. There are not a lot of options, you are probably staying at one of the collection of hostels at Paraiso Secreto. This is not something you can just show up for. (I booked mine through, but that’s only two of the half a dozen options in that collective.)

2. Stock up. Plan to bring enough water for you to drink for your stay (2-3L per person per day). Bring any snacks or other food that you may want. I would recommend bringing breakfast fixings, as the hostel breakfast is expensive and not very good. If you have any allergies to seafood, you may want to plan to bring all of your meals, while the the hostel does have pizza and burgers on their menu, I would not rely on this.

There is no fridge in the hostels, but there is a stovetop. Ants will be a problem, if that concerns you, maybe bring ziplock bags to store your food in. Make sure to bring enough sunscreen and bug spray as you will not be able to get some on the island. 

I would operate under the assumption that there are no stores on the island. They exist (in the front-of-someone’s house way), but they probably won’t have what you need. You cannot bring your own alcohol.

There is no ATM on the island, but you can use credit cards at the hostel (and only the hostel). They will charge 5% extra for credit cards, but you can use it for all the various activities, the bar, and paying for your room. 

Breakfast is about 15,000 COP, lunch or dinner is about 35,000 COP at either the hostel or La Pola, the other major food opportunity on the island (which is much better than the hostel food and actually quite good). Water (600mL bottle) and soda are about 5,000 COP, cocktails are around 15,000 COP. That’s hella expensive for water and they ran out at times, so bring as much as you can as discussed above.

Other things to bring: a long beach towel, snorkel gear if that’s your thing, and I appreciated having light long pants and long sleeve shirt in the evenings to avoid bugs.

3. Get your ticket. In Cartagena, go to the La Bodeguita del Muelle, which is the tourist dock, by no later than 8:15am. If you are facing the clocktower entrance into the old walled city, (from outside the old city, not inside) turn left along the water until you see the dock. You’ll be swarmed by ticket vendors, it should not be hard to find. 

You need both a ticket and a tourist tax ticket. You get your ticket from a pushy ticket sales person who is wandering around. They will find you. Make sure their boat will drop you off at Isla Grande, Paraiso Secreto, it will save you a lot of headache to just be dropped off directly on their own beach. Once you get that ticket, pay your tourist tax (the ticket with the barcode), and go inside the dock complex to wait for your name to be called to get on your boat. Combined, the ticket an tourist tax was 60,500 COP for me.

A note on coming back: the only boat that leaves Paraiso Secreto directly leaves at 2pm on the day you check out. It costs 55,000 COP cash. That’s 2pm island time, so 2:30/3:00pm actually (but maybe 2 exactly, so be there by 1:30). We didn’t get back to Cartagena until around 4pm.

Map of Isla Grande in chalk at the hostel. For the record, the paths are not as straightforward as they appear.

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If I Throw a Coconut at Someone, it Counts as Assault. Even if I Miss.

Grumpy morning face

I was trying so hard to not be grumpy. I mean, I was on a Carribean island for Christ’s sake. 
The night before, the three other women in my four bed hostel room came in speaking very loudly at 1am. They turned on the light, continued their loud conversation despite my grumbling at, you know, having been asleep only moments before. At 4:30 am, one of their alarms went off at heart attack volume level, she turned the main light on again to noisely pack up her shit and leave twenty minutes later. My usual wake up time is a little before 6, even on vacation, and it is unfortunately difficult for me to go back to sleep if I’m up close to 5. Horray four hours of sleep.

In the morning, the Cartagena hostel’s (bad) breakfast is served so late that I didn’t have time to do more than quickly get a handful of sips of my coffee in before I had to leave to get on a boat roster to Isla Grande in the Rosario Islands. The hostel’s email gave somewhat helpful information about this process, but it’s much more chaotic than the email suggests. The ticket windows are for your taxes. Pretty much just find one of a bazillion pushy ticket vendors walking around and get an actual boat ticket from them. But dealing with pushy sales people is frustrating even when you’re not tired, already hot, sans coffee, all that. I got a ticket and the sat under a canapoy while my particular boat’s list of passengers filled up and hoped that someone would actually call my name like they said they would.

They did. I got on a boat, and about an hour later, I was deposited at the beach for my hostel. Where I spent an hour waiting for the check in process to go through. 

The hostel where I stayed

The hostel makes a big deal about being a “community of hostels” – there’s half a dozen or so pretty but old buildings and they’re each “separate” – but really, if you’re staying on a hostel on Isla Grande, you are staying in effectively the same hostel.  These identical buildings were allegedly made in the 1970s by some guy who had less than legal means of making money and wanted a resort. So it has the sort of aging, forgotten resort feel to the place and was only relatively recently reclaimed from the jungle.
When I finally got to my actual hostel and made coffee (!) in the kitchen, then thought I’d wander around the island a bit. I thought maybe the town would have food to buy (it doesn’t, or at least not beyond the usual store-in-someone’s-house level of food), and cursed the lack of information available about the island before I signed up for a two day stay here. I will likely do a separate post detailing how to prepare for a trip here – but the key thing is that there’s a difference between saying, “bring water” as the hostel does in its email and saying “bring enough drinking water for your whole stay as there may or may not actually be drinking water when you get here.” The restaurant at the hostel also ran out of food, and water, several times over the course of my stay, as it did for that first lunch.

So, it took me awhile of wandering around in the sun looking for food. Too long for my grumpy, hangry self. I had lunch around 3pm. There’s a restaurant about a ten minute walk through the windy forest paths (which are the roads here) that sells truly excellent food. As far as I can tell, it is one of only a handful of options to eat here, so the fact that it’s tasty is good. The options were fried fish, lobster, or calamari. I had a lot of calamari on this trip, as while I’ll literally eat whatever you put in front of me, fish and lobster are at the bottom of the list of things I enjoy eating. And those were pretty much the options, period.

The food here is damn good.

So, for that first day, I had a very quick dip in the ocean on a beach at the other side of the island, got lost in the very poor town at the center of things (I spotted a Peace Corps painting on a building somewhere: despite the lack of ammenitites, an assignment here would not suck), ate calamari, and then checked out the (less nice) beach at the hostel for a bit. The water everywhere is like bathwater. Very green, clear, bathwater. With bits of stone, broken coral, and seaweed scraping your feet as you go, but that’s easy enough to ignore, especially in light of how damn pretty it all is. 

Hard at work.

The next day was better and less grumpy – I’d taken to buying the overpriced water available wherever I found it, and I met a lovely woman in my hostel over coffee and went back to the beach on the other end of things with her for the morning. I ran out of my SPF 30 bottle I’d brought with me from the States and tried to eek a little more out of it while alternating with the SPF 15 moisturizer I bought here in Colombia. What a place to run out of sunscreen.
After a good conversation, we parted ways around lunch time, where I went back to The Nice Restaurant (the food at the hostel is not good), ate lunch, and swam at the beach there a bit before heading back to the hostel for a shower, a cocktail, and journaling.

There are so many cute creatures here

I had intentions to Do Things (snorkeling, paddle boarding, exploring the plankton lagoon) besides read, eat, and lie on the beach, but it turns out lying in the sun is exhausting. Such hard work. I need a recovery from my recovery. Even now, at seven thirty in the morning, my motivation to expose myself to the sun in any activity is low. Especially as I’m a little pink around the edges and my budget is very close to the outside end of things. 

So, I’ll likely spend my morning in my long sleeve shirt in a hammock at the hostel, finishing up my fantasy novel which I perhaps optimistically thought would be the end of a series. In the afternoon, back to Cartagena.

Uncrowded white sand beach

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Fae Hostel in Minca

In the fantasy novels I read, there are parties in worlds run by the fae that people enter and never leave. They come for a time, by accident or on purpose, and then they get stuck and never leave. The old world as they knew it fades away and before they know it, a lifetime – or centuries – have passed. 

Some hostels strike me as a bit fae in that way. Around the world, there are pockets where time runs a bit differently, and people seem to arrive and motivation to depart vaporates. And each hostel has a different flavor of person stuck in their trap.

In Minca, where I went after my sick day of bread and bananas in the hostel in Santa Marta, the hostel flavor was French and white boy dreds, with art during the day and late night cocktails with a firepit in the evening. 


Minca is a town about forty minutes up a mountain overlooking Santa Marta. The hostel I stayed at is in the middle of a coffee plantation called La Victoria, which was founded by a Brit (of course) in 1892. I knew that the collectivo from Santa Marta to Minca picked up around the central market area, and had an (incorrect) intersection from my guidebook, so I did the usual travel strategy of walk around looking lost until someone pointed me in the right direction of the collectivo. (This almost always works just fine in countries where you stick out and they assume you’re going to one of a handful of places.) Once in Minca, the original plan was to hop onto a motorcycle the additional twenty minutes or so up to the coffee plantation. But one of the Spanish speaking tourists on the collectivo got the driver to take us all the way up for a little extra, so I tagged along.

I walked around the coffee plantation with a young woman who worked there and spoke very good English and learned about how the coffee is processed from the fields – it was actually quite interesting, and their coffee was pretty good. I may have bought three pounds of it… and then walked straight up hill for the twenty five minute walk up to the hostel.

I did actually escape the fae hostel.

The view and the food at the hostel was fantastic, so I basically just hung out in a hammock for an entire afternoon eating and drinking fresh squeezed lemonade and then later gin and tonics as happy hour arrived. There were possibly more staff members (those entraped by the fae nature of it all, as discussed) than hostel guests, all in varying states of removal from “the real world.”
I was disinclined to do much beyond the coffee plantation tour and enjoying the view, which somewhat amused me because I had done nothing but read on my sick day and yet somehow the experience of reading in a hammock near the top of the mountain with a slice of chocolate cake is different from reading near a hostel pool, slowly nursing bread over the course of a day.

I can definitely understand the appeal of staying for longer than a night. If I hadn’t been sick, the extra night would have been well spent up in Minca, perhaps actually doing some of the hikes and bird watching available. (Minca is famous for its birds – something that is apparent by the hummingbirds that regularly joined me at my hammock.)

Trying not to die.

Instead, I woke up, had some of the best oatmeal (yes, oatmeal) I’ve ever had, and then got on a horse and meandered up to the top of the mountain for the view and the experience of Trying Not To Break My Neck Even Though I Have No Idea What The Hell I Am Doing On This Creature and then made my way down the mountain to start the process of getting to Cartagena. First, by motorcycle, then collectivo, a taxi, and finally a bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena, which actually dropped me off at my hostel instead of on the side of the road like the last one.
It was an exhausting series of different forms of transportation for one day.

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La Ciudad Perdida Trek

I consider myself a pretty experienced hiker. I’ve been hiking regularly since I was just a child, and it was love of hiking that motivated me to get in shape in the first place. I’ve done the Annapurna Circuit and been on several backpacking trips. I’m also in great cardiovascular conditioning due to all the long distance running I do.
La Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”) is not an easy hike. It is missing the technical skills required to be an advanced hike – it is impossible to get lost, and you don’t need to carry the weight of your own food as the mule train take care of that, and there’s no need to cook for yourself, as the camps take care of that.

But it is straight fucking up and straight fucking down for the vast majority of the four day out and back trip. I never thought I’d long for switchbacks. There were people on the trail where this was their first hike. Don’t do that to yourself. This is not a beginner hike.

Furthermore, it’s hot as shit. The oppressive humidity means you’re soaked through an hour in and unless you have a couple of hours during the day to dry your clothes in the sun, everything that gets wet will stay wet. And then weigh twice as much in your pack.

But along the way, there are several swimming holes where you can swim in a river tucked among hanging vines and with waterfalls in the distance. There are great vistas (which, to be honest, you notice more on the way back when you’re going more down than up), and at the end there is a hidden city of stone circles where at one point over 300 houses of the native people stood on the top of a mountain. The circles are initially unimpressive until you go even further up (of course) and into the city, when you can really get a feel for the scale of it all.

I enjoyed the hike immensely, even with getting food poisioning. And I did, I think during my last celebratory lunch. I made it the two hour jeep drive back feeling just nauseous. In the office, I came out one end and thought maybe that was it. But in the three block walk back to my hostel I threw up on the street twice. Which I’ve never done. And then spent the evening and night alterately sleeping and hugging either the sink or the toilet or both. I seem to be keeping water down and am experimenting with toast and juice. Fingers crossed, food poisioning is pretty miserable.
Today, I’m sticking close to my hostel and figuring out what my next step is and operating under the opitimistic assumption that I’ll be ready to travel tomorrow. Initially, I was going to go to Tayrona National Park during these two days but the park is closed for a month, something I didn’t learn until I got to Colombia (and is a bit of a bummer as I was looking forward to it). 

It’s kind of the best sort of question: do I want beaches or mountains?

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Type A Zen

Wandering around Cartagena

I flew into Cartagena late in the afternoon the day before yesterday and spent most of the rest of the day just wandering around the old city until I reached the point of hunger where I stopped at a random coffee shop to refeul on cheap empanadas and pastries before looking for a bar for a cocktail before an early bed (as I’d been up since like, 3am that morning).
I have a mobile phone service that works seamlessly in most countries and it’s been bizarre to travel with data reception. It causes a shift inhow I approach wandering – instead of just wandering until I find something that looks good, I deliberately googled a good cocktail bar in the area and wandered in that general direction. In hostels instead of people talking or reading books or playing cards, you’ll see a whole room full of people on their smart phones.

I’m not sure I like it.

Cartagena, old and new

I’ve certainly gotten too old for hostel dorms. Teenage girls are slobs and walking to my bed at the back of the room required a level of scrambling that is kind of unacceptable for a shared space. (Tip toe over the loaf of bread on the floor in the middle of the room, anyone?) Get off my lawn, whipper snappers.
When I (finally) got to Santa Marta, I splurged on a single room. Which I think I’m going to try and do for the rest of the trip because my tolerance for other people in my downtime space has decreased significantly in the last five years.

I purchased my MarSol ticket to Santa Marta from my hostel in Cartagena. My ticket said Santa Marta on it. I get picked up at my hotel by the bus and and the driver calls out “Santa Marta” at this time. We drive around a bit more, picking up more people. We stop briefly at a bus station. I think that at this point I was supposed to get off and get on a different bus. A guy came on and rattled off some towns and a few people got off, but none of those towns were Santa Marta. The same bus driver that picked me up takes my ticket right before we leave. My ticket that says Santa Marta.

My bus was not going to Santa Marta. By the time we figured all this out, we’d already passed the turn off for Santa Marta – not that they would have stopped anyway – and I got dropped off on the side of the highway to wait for the next MarSol going in the direction of Santa Marta. So I spent two hours chilling with my fantasy novel, hoping the alleged four o’clock bus would turn up. I was struggling to be zen about it all. There wasn’t anything I could do about it at that point, I would get there eventually, one way or another. To be honest, if I didn’t have an appointment this morning to leave on a trek I probably would have just gone wherever the original bus was taking me because I’m pretty sure it’s a town on my radar anyway. But the travel zen warred a bit withi irritation because I was pretty sure the miscommunication was not entirely at the hands of my shaky Spanish.

But – the bus did come, I did get on it without incident (and without paying for another trip), and forty-five minutes later, I was dropped off on the side of the highway again, but this time at a taxi stand. I took a taxi from the highway to my hostel and got in about eight hours from the time I left my last one.

In an hour, I leave for a four day Lost City trek which is the only thing on my schedule, especially as Tayrona National Park is closed (which is a big bummer as I was looking forward to that part of my trip).

I’ll figure out the rest of my trip when I get back. Mostly I just need to figure out what town I’ll spend a couple days hanging out in a hammock with my book(s) in.

Morning sun over Santa Marta roof tops

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