Northern Colombia: The final days in South America

Day 58-60: Rincon Del Mar

On Sunday morning we bid our friends farewell and caught a cab to the local Montería bus station. Chelsie and Kon had taken the bus to Rincon Del Mar the weekend before and raved about it as one of Colombias best kept local secrets.

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We’d been long overdue for a beach fix, so we booked a couple nights there on our way to Cartagena.

After a successful negotiation with the bus company who tried to rip us off, we were placed in an old van in a parking lot. In front of the vans was a window that appeared to be an alcohol testing station for the drivers. Not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that.

As anticipated, the van had a broken AC and made multiple stops, with the driver running personal errands on the way. Eventually we were dropped off on the side of the road, bombarded by men yelling “Mototaxi! Mototaxi!”

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There’s only one way into Rincon Del Mar from the bus stop, and it’s via a 30 minute ride down a dirt road, typically by motorcycle. With heavy bags and a bruised tailbone eliminating mototaxis as an option, we managed to track down a car to take us there for $25k pesos (around $8).

Rincon Del Mar is a local fishing village—though village may even be too generous a word as it consists of a single dirt road lined with a handful of houses, two hostels, a few restaurants and two tiendas (aka windows selling some fruit, liquor and junk food).

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Like Montería, it’s off the beaten path, but there are a few people who visit after recommendations from other travelers. Many of them end up staying for weeks.

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Apart from the handful of travelers, the village is full of friendly locals who work as fishermen, run their tiendas, sell fruit and give rides into town. The children play futbol on the beach all day every day and hang out with travelers in the hostel, captivated by our smart phones and fancy devices. There is no crime, no one trying to sell you anything or rip anyone off—it’s perhaps the most simple and peaceful coexistence we’ve ever witnessed.

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At sunset on our first evening, we joined a few others aboard a small fishing boat headed toward an island off the coast. A storm was beginning to form in the east, and ten minutes into our voyage it turned a dark gray and took over half the sky, creeping towards us. The driver seemed a bit concerned, constantly looking back as lightning became more frequent. Lucas and I were getting soaked by the waves and I immediately regretted my decision to bring my camera, wrapping it in every dry thing we owned to protect it.

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The nervousness subsided for a moment when we approached an island with thousands of birds swarming overhead. They call it Bird Island, and it’s a sanctuary in the middle of the sea where they go to roost. The sight was even more dramatic with the ominous storm on the right, and fading pink sun on the left.

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At this point the eye of the storm seemed to be moving parallel to us, so we continued to our next destination as night fell. As it was too dark to take photos or video, you’ll have to use your imagination here with me on this part.

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The boat continued for another thirty minutes or so, until we pulled up to an empty shore lined by thick trees. We were instructed to hop off, not knowing what the plan was, until the driver shined a flashlight to a pathway with shallow water, just big enough for his boat to squeeze through. Ducking under the trees, we dragged the boat through the sand until the water deepened, and suddenly we were in the mouth of a lagoon.

After floating to the center of the still waters, our driver jumped in, inviting us to follow suit. We grabbed our masks and as we hit the water, dozens of tiny specks illuminated around us—it was bioluminescent plankton. A phenomena found in certain parts of the world. Lucas had experienced it in Vietnam and I also encountered it in Cambodia, but nowhere near this extent.

We floated in the lagoon for almost an hour, splashing in the water as glowing orbs covered our skin like a scene from Avatar. Bolts of lightning lit up the sky around us, providing a spectacular show as they formed spiderwebs across the clouds every few seconds. It was the most unforgettable, magical night of this trip.

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The following day we took another boat out to a group of islands 15 miles off the coast. The tour included a snorkeling stop in the middle of the shallow ocean, a glimpse at the worlds most densely populated island (1247 inhabitants on 3 acres), and a few hours on a beach sipping drinks out of a coconut.

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Even with sunscreen on a cloudy day, our faces were lobsters by the time we returned—have I mentioned how intense the sun is here?

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While the quiet days at Rincon Del Mar were a nice break, we were anxious to see more of Colombia before our time ran out. Sandy and sunburned, we went straight into town to catch the next bus to Cartagena after returning from the islands.

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Hoping for a legitimate bus this time, our bubble was burst when we found out it wouldn’t leave for another two hours and we were left with one option—the same sketchy van we took to get here.

Already mostly full with locals, we squeezed in to wherever we could find a spot, and another unfortunate traveler was given a plastic crate with a tarp to sit on next to me for the two hour journey.

Each bus driver here seems to be crazier than the next, and this one must have topped them all. Driving in the oncoming lane while honking his horn half the way there and easily going triple the speed limit, it was a white knuckle ride from start to finish. I felt worried for the mother in front of me with an infant on her lap, though I didn’t sense any concern on her end—I guess she’s used to it.

Unlike Brazil and parts of Peru, we feel as safe here as anywhere in the US—except when it comes to transportation.

Taxis and buses drive like they’re playing Gran Turismo, honking at pedestrians to get out of their way and swerving around cars into oncoming traffic. Families with infants squeeze onto motorbikes (helmetless, of course) and young children wander around the highways alone—a stark contrast to the highly regulated US standards. Seatbelts are rare and traffic signs and signals are merely a suggestion, not a rule. There have certainly been a few adrenaline packed rides on this trip (bruises included) but it’s all part of the adventure.

The upside of having a driver with a death wish is that we arrived 30 minutes early, even with his stops to refuel and buy mangoes off the street. He made us get out on the side of the freeway nowhere near the bus terminal and pay for a cab into town, but we were just grateful to be on solid ground alive.

Day 61-62: Cartagena, Colombia

The first thing we noticed about Cartagena was the epic pink sunset on the way in. The second was the suppressive heat. When people tell you about Cartagena, they speak of the vibrant colors, culture, people and food… and it always includes a “but it is so hot!” disclaimer.

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During our first full day in Cartagena, we wandered the streets of the old town in the afternoon, making sure to walk only in the shade and frequently ducking into banks and shops to avoid seeing spots from heat exhaustion. There weren’t many people outside, understandably—this may be the hottest place we’ve been.

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But man, is it a beautiful city.

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After drying the sweat off our clothes back at the hostel, we returned before sunset when it was cool enough for more people to come out of hiding. The old town is separated from the rest of the city by a 17th century wall built by the Spanish for protection.

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The buildings are loaded with charm, painted in pastels and saturated hues with massive wood and iron doors I wanted to steal for all of my future houses.

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Locals and tourists congregate along the wall to watch the sunset over the ocean, with a view of the skyline often accompanied by an afternoon thunderstorm. There’s a unique energy at this hour that seems to capture the spirit of Cartagena here—a city that’s warm and vibrant in every sense.

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Our flight back to the states was departing from here in eight days, so after just two nights in the city we made plans to visit a couple more places in Colombia during our final week.

Day 63-65: Minca, Colombia

A sweaty four hour bus ride north from Cartagena, Minca is a small town known for its coffee plantations.

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Nestled high in the mountains with limited paved roads, the only way up to our lodging was by mule or motorbike (or an hour uphill climb—not an option with our luggage in 100° humid heat).

We chose the motorbikes, and immediately began to question our decision when the path turned into vertical rocks, Lucas almost fell off the back and we nearly collided with a large snake.

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Drivers in South America are crazy but they’ve got some serious skills, and we were thankful for ours for keeping us injury-free before we crossed the river and hiked the rest of the way up to our hotel.

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Exhausted from the hike, we finally reached our destination and slid the bags off our sweaty backs. From here you could see the ocean behind the Santa Marta skyline, and we admired the view while wondering where everyone else was.

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Minutes later, a lady came out and served us fresh watermelon juice, smiling and welcoming us in Spanish with no further information. We sipped on our juice and wandered around the small building for a while, confused about the apparent lack of an owners presence.

The juice lady eventually came out again to bring us to a room, without asking our names or if we had a reservation. At one point we thought we may have been at the wrong place, since there were multiple names and locations on the map, and this B&B seemed to be out of business.

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Turns out, the owners went out of town for a couple days and the juice lady was a sister that lived there and helped run the farm. It’s all a very casual operation with no formal system, as typical with a family run business. What began as confusion turned into the awesome realization that we had this entire place to ourselves—an organic coffee and cocoa farm and undiscovered paradise for $40/night.

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Oh, and hands down the most amazing food we’ve had in months. Better than most restaurants back home, even. All organic homemade fish, quinoa stuffed peppers, avocado salad, chocolate cake from their cocoa beans, fresh fruit and juice and of course, delicious coffee on tap 24/7.

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Pure heaven, I tell you.

Even the outdoor bathrooms were special. How often can you reach out and pick a lime while on the toilet?

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The view was worth having centipedes, lizards and spiders the size of your hand stare at you while you pee.

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With only two days to enjoy this getaway, we decided to walk down to Pozo Azul—one of the local waterfalls. Since we were quite a trek from town, our hostess explained there was an alternate trail from the back of the hotel to the falls which should take 45-60 minutes. I made sure that there would be signs to lead the way, and felt about 75% confident that we understood enough of what she was saying to figure it out.

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At first it seemed easy enough, then the path began to split a few different directions and we found ourselves in someone’s yard with a machete wielding child. He ran up to us, waving his weapon yelling something we couldn’t understand. “Pozo Azul? Cascada?” we asked, noticing the machete was just a saw. He pointed to a direction and we continued that way for a while, until running into two more children with saws who told us we were going the wrong way.

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Their directions didn’t seem right, but they probably knew better than us, so we took their advice and turned around.

Some time later we came across another building with a local woman who told us we were also going the wrong way, and turned us around onto a different path into the the jungle.

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Moments later, I heard the bark of an angry dog growing closer and my heart dropped. We turned around to see a dog running straight at us, and suddenly a second one came behind it at full speed with its fangs out, ready to attack. Lucas told me to run and lunged at them with his fist before they could bite as I ran for my life. Fortunately, they were startled and backed down, and I could hear Lucas behind me yelling that we were safe. But I continued to run like Forrest Gump through that jungle until my flight mode calmed down, then picked up a big branch and kept it with me for protection the rest of the way.

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After our scare, we took a couple more wrong turns until finally coming across a makeshift bamboo bridge with a path that lead to the main road.

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Two hours after setting off, we stepped into the cold waters of Pozo Azul, relieved to have made it.

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But the journey was not over yet—we still had to get back.

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Clearly we weren’t going the way we came, so we began walking to Minca.

Once in town, men yelling “Moto! Moto!” approached us, but we decided we’d had enough danger for one day and would rather not relive our motorbike experience. So, we hiked for over an hour up the mountain back towards our hotel. Did I mention how hot is here?

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That day was the most physically exhausting we’ve had during this trip. But the more challenging the journey, the more rewarding the payoff…

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Day 66-67: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

With just a few days left in Colombia, we caught the early morning bus to Tayrona National Nature Park.

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As the main attraction in this part of Colombia, the park is 150 square miles of jungle that hugs a stunning rocky Caribbean coastline.

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It’s just as hot here, and our campsite is a 2 hour hike through the jungle and beaches. But we’re used to this by now.

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After stopping to hang out with a family of monkeys, admire fluorescent lizards and take photos of a stunning coastline, we made it to our beach by lunchtime.

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The day goes by way too fast here… with no electricity, wifi or entertainment of any kind, you’re forced to spend your time swimming or sleeping. It was the perfect way to end our South American adventure.

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There are a million reasons to love Colombia—the beautiful landscape, weather, friendly people, cost of living—but more than that, there’s just feeling you get that can’t be explained. Something in the warm air that welcomes you and feels like home. It’s a place we could see ourselves buying property in one day and staying for extended periods of time.

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Much like Southeast Asia, life here is much more laid back, less structured, often disorganized and illogical. It’s a different mindset and way of living that while at times may be frustrating, it instills patience, understanding and gratitude long after you’ve left. I was given a huge dose of this new perspective in Asia, and after going back to my normal routine at home, the unmatched feeling of freedom and peace has returned. It’s not something you experience after a week—it takes time to really settle in and change something in you.

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Today we fly back home for my sisters wedding, to briefly reconnect with the life we left, before landing in Portugal in ten days. These nine weeks have felt like their own lifetime, and I can’t believe it’s already over.

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What I realized some time ago holds true now more than ever—the only way I’ve found to add life to your years is to travel.

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There’s a whole world out there, and seeing it from another’s perspective will change you. We are so fortunate (yes, including you) to have the freedom to go to these places and have these experiences. There are plenty of sacrifices along the way, but you can choose it—and I highly implore you to do so.

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Our Colombia video is coming next, and I’m really looking forward to sharing this one! You can get caught up on our previous videos on my channel.

Thank you if you’ve read this far—it was a long one, but I don’t want to forget these details so we can tell our future grandchildren and relive all of these moments when we’re 80 😉

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Stay tuned for the video to go along with the stories…

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Medellín to Montería, Colombia

Day 49-52: Medellín, Colombia

Our day started early in the morning in Quito as we had to leave the hostel at 6am to take the hour long ride to the airport (having airports an hour plus ride away from the city center seems to be a recurring theme in South America). Today was a travel day to begin our adventure in Colombia, the final leg of South America. 

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It was a relatively uneventful trip that included the typical two hour airport delay and lots of people watching. That is until we were boarding our plane after our layover in Bogota and saw crowds of people taking photos with guys in green. It was our first celebrity spotting on the trip—Alexis Henríquez and Reinaldo Rueda, who are apparently the center back and coach for the Atlético Nacional futbol club. Most of the team was on our flight to play a game that Sunday. 

Upon departing the plane in Medellin, we were greeted by a throng of reporters, including ESPN, interviewing Rueda. It was quite the scene. 

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Medellín is an amazing city tucked into the Aburrá Valley in central Colombia. Most notoriously known internationally for Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel, the city has transformed over the past couple decades to be a culturally diverse, technologically advanced, and extremely friendly city. Once considered to be the most dangerous city in the world, that reputation is certainly something of the past. 

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We stayed in the Poblado neighborhood, which is an upper-middle class area known to be the center of Medellín nightlife. We were greeted at our hostel by a bubbly person named Lady, who might be our favorite hostel employee yet. She promptly led us to the roof that overlooked most of the city to join the hostel for an amazing group dinner. Not a bad way to start our first night. 

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After making new friends over dinner, we all headed out to see what the Medellín nightlife was all about. While most of Poblado is residential, there is a concentration of about 30 bars/restaurants around Parque Lleras. The area was crowded with tourists and locals, and provided us the means to show off our gringo dance moves to a mixture of Latin songs we didn’t understand. 

The following day we took the metro to a downtown stop in search of an artesenal market we had been told about. The city seemed alive upon arriving in the main square as groups of locals sat drinking coffee, men pushed carts full of fruit through the street, and people rushed by on their way through town. This scene brought us back to the hustle and bustle that accompanied many major cities in Vietnam and Thailand. 

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One of the highlights of our time in Medellín was going to the futbol game between Atletico Nacional and Cali. It is unlike any sporting event we have been to in the US. Half of the stadium is filled with flag waving fans that jump and sing the entire game. While the game itself ended in a 0-0 tie, the atmosphere is something that we will never forget. 

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One great thing about traveling is the people you meet, and where you run into them. While waiting in line to get into the stadium, we ran into a guy that was on our Peru Hop bus. Random encounters like this make traveling that much more fun. 

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Day 53: Guatapé, Colombia

After a bustling weekend in Medellín, we took a local bus a few hours east to the vacation destination of Guatapé. The area is extremely beautiful as lagoons and waterways surround the colorful, sleepy town. The area is most famous for the Peñol de Guatapé, a giant rock sticking out of the ground dating back 70 million years. 

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Our hostel here turned out to be one of the best of our trip. The owner, an energetic man named Willy, did everything he could to make everyone have the time of their lives. From sponsoring two travelers to cook a dinner for everyone, to being the DJ with music videos, to having free beer all night, it was a special experience. Plus there were two tiny kittens that we couldn’t get enough of. 

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The next day was our only full day before going back to Medellín, and we certainly made the most of it. After breakfast we climbed the 750 stairs to the top of Peñol de Guatapé. The 360 degree views from the top are absolutely stunning. 

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After taking in the views for about an hour, we joined two new Canadian friends and headed towards a water park that we hoped would provide a bit of adventure. 

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While the water park was a bit of a disappointment (it was generally geared towards younger kids) the highlight of our time in the water was jumping off the bridge on the way there. 

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The town of Guatapé itself is a vacation destination for Colombians. The buildings are an array of colors, each one with a painted mural or picture along the side. 

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We spent a few hours walking around, stopping at a local cafe to enjoy some fresh fruit juice. The scene was fun to witness as decorated tuk tuks wound around the streets and locals hung out drinking beer and playing games. 

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Day 54: Medellín (again)

We could have easily spent more time in Guatapé, but more adventures in Medellín were calling our names. We took the local bus back to the city that evening with anticipation building of one last attraction: the metro cable. 

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The metro cable was built as part of the public transportation system to help locals get to the town center and facilitate growth. Our purpose was a bit different—take in the best aerial view of the city. 

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The ride takes about 10 minutes, and glides over some of the roughest neighborhoods of Medellín.

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At the top, we took a few minutes to walk the neighborhood of Santo Domingo, which truly felt like a local experience. We stopped in a restaurant by the station to enjoy some food and the view. Here we made our biggest mistake of the day: ordering ceviche in a land locked city in a valley. The ceviche turned out to just be shrimp cocktail, but the view was still worth it. 

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Despite the ceviche experience, the food in Medellín was actually very good. The Menu Del Día (very inexpensive traditional lunch) consisted of the traditional Paisa food of a meat, soup, rice, “salad” and plantains. It usually costs between $2-3 and was the best traditional food we’ve had so far. 

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But still, like the rest of South America, 90% of meals are some form of starch and carbs, with limited or no vegetables. Like our super healthy breakfast…

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At least reading the menu is always entertaining. Gotta love their translations… 

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Overall we loved Medellín. It is a city that we barely scratched the surface of and definitely plan to return to in the future.

Day 55-57: Montería, Colombia

We found a $75/person flight to Montería and quickly determined it was worth paying an extra $40/person to avoid the 8.5 hour bumpy bus ride from Medellín.

After a short 30 minutes in the air, we stepped out onto the tarmac into a steamy field with a heat index of 110°.

Montería is a nondescript town surrounded by flat cow pastures, completely off the tourist circuit. Many Colombians have never even heard of it, and the ones that have were confused by the fact that we were choosing to go there.

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Back in Vietnam I had met Chelsie, a midwestern girl who was also traveling solo. We ended up sticking together for over a month, sharing some amazing and unforgettable adventures. She was also by my side when I met Lucas, and witnessed the beginning of our relationship.

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We’ve kept in touch and when I found out she had moved to Colombia with her boyfriend to teach English, Lucas and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit. Friendships and stories like this are why we travel.

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Because Montería is not on any tourists radar, many locals have never seen a gringo in person. Chelsie’s boyfriend, Kon, is originally from Zambia which makes it even more interesting.

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The stares, whistles and honks as we walked around town were entertaining to say the least. Waiters would run to the back, point us out to his friends and they’d all look at us and giggle. Very few people speak any English, and their Spanish is so fast and heavily accented that we could barely understand a word—thankfully we had our local friends.

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On our first day we took a stroll around the park, made friends with a giant iguana and hopped on a floating barge across the river. We grabbed a beer from a sidewalk shack and wandered around a sleepy neighborhood, passing stray animals and an endless parade of stares and yells from passing motorbikes.

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A group of neighborhood kids were playing futbol in the street, and we challenged them to a friendly game—USA vs Colombia.

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Colombia won.

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Like most of Colombia, Montería feels quite safe—this is even moreso the case in local areas that have no tourists to take advantage of. No one tries to pickpocket or rip you off. It was so nice to bring our camera and phones everywhere without thinking twice, and to be able to walk around empty streets at night simply enjoying the weather.

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Our favorite experience during our stay here was visiting a volcanic mud bath an hour outside of the city. A local had told us about this location which is even more off the beaten path than Montería.

The four of us squeezed into a cab as our driver swerved around fruit stands, kids on donkeys and herds of cows crossing the street, we caught a glimpse of the Caribbean before being dropped off in an empty dirt lot with signs pointing to the volcano.

With just a few locals hanging around, we nearly had the place to ourselves and slowly entered the foreign substance, not knowing what to expect.

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The mud is extremely buoyant and moving around is the oddest and most interesting feeling—it’s as if gravity is gone and you’re suspended in space. For under $2 each we were able to enjoy a unique experience with almost no one else there.

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After scrubbing the mud off our bodies, we followed a trail along the coast to the nearest town. There were abandoned resorts, boats, horses and stray animals to greet us.

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We grabbed a fish menú del dia lunch before heading back to Montería. It was the type of day we couldn’t have experienced without knowing someone local, and I’m so grateful for the friendships and connections that you gain through traveling.

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Chelsie and Kon recently started their own travel blog at tatteredpassports.com, where they share about their experience teaching English and living abroad—definitely worth reading to learn more about this country and gain an interesting perspective.

From their recommendation, we left Montería on Sunday and headed to a tiny local fishing village on the Caribbean coast. As of now, we’re swinging in hammocks with our feet in the sand, planning out the remaining ten days of our travels in Colombia. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Colombia, catch up on our travel videos or find me on instagram/facebook/snapchat for our daily life in between. More stories to come!

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Eight days in Ecuador: The Video

Another country down means another video! We had fun with this one—it’s a bit of a different vibe than Brazil and Peru. Click below to watch:

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Eight days was nowhere near long enough to visit this amazing country. Our Amazon adventure was my favorite experience of this entire trip, and we can’t wait to return someday.

We’re currently working our way north through Colombia, posting daily updates on instagram and facebook. Come along for the ride and let us know if you have any recommendations! Back soon with more…

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Eight days in Ecuador

Day 41: Quito, Ecuador

Our plane touched down in Quito in the afternoon, with still plenty of daylight to watch the scenery during the hour long taxi to our hostel.

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Without knowing much about Ecuadors capital city other than it being on the equator, we were a bit surprised by the cold and rainy weather.

The climate here is dictated mostly by altitude rather than season, which is currently spring in the north and fall in the south. Quito, like Cusco, is high in the mountains and shares some of the same characteristics—like frequent rain and potential altitude sickness.

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Fortunately we’ve become used to making the transition, and spent the evening enjoying the view of the city from our hostels rooftop.

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Like every new country, there were no plans or activities booked in advance, though we knew (by word of mouth) we wanted to visit a town called Baños as well as a trip into the Amazon jungle.

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Day 42-44: Baños, Ecuador

The next morning we found ourselves at a bus station waiting for a ride to Baños, where we decided to spend the weekend before a four day jungle trek we booked the night before.

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The only safety precautions we’d heard of in Ecuador were on the public buses. They’re notorious for robberies, and even the driver warned me to guard my bag.

For the next three hours we clutched our belongings as a rotation of locals hopped on at each stop, selling local toffee and breaded, fried sugary foods. We had front row seats to an excessively loud Spanish movie without subtitles, and I passed the time watching the landscape shift from children selling toilet paper between highway lanes, to pastures of cows and small mountain villages.

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Finally, we ended up at the Baños bus station and walked through the streets with our belongings until we found our home for the next two nights.

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Baños is a small town located in a canyon at the base of an active volcano. Home to countless waterfalls, hikes and hot springs, it’s a popular local vacation spot and destination for adventure enthusiasts.

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With limited time, we rented a buggy and spent a day cruising the wet and windy main road through tunnels and bridges along the gorge, stopping at waterfalls and roadside attractions along the way.

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We took a cable car at the first stop, paying $2 to be suspended above two large waterfalls which converged into the river below.

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Other waterfalls had hiking trails, so we made our way through the canyon, listening to the powerful roar of the falling water and enjoying the perfect weather. With May being off-season there was hardly anyone in sight, so we practically had these amazing waterfalls to ourselves. It was one of the most memorable days of our entire trip.

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After a day of chasing waterfalls, we stopped into one of Baños’ many local restaurants for our first taste of real Ecuadorian food. It was packed with families all eating the same dish, so we asked for the same thing. For $2.75, we were served a huge bowl of broth soup, rotisserie chicken, rice, beans, cabbage, fries and fresh squeezed juice. After Brazil and Peru, we were thrilled to be in a country with cheap food. It was quite delicious, too.

My only complaint, as with the rest of South American cuisine, is lack of vegetables. I’m not sure how the locals survive on carbs and sugar, but they do and they consume it like water. Their “salad” is a couple spoonfuls of purple cabbage and one slice of tomato—it’s the same dish everywhere and there are no alternatives. Two weeks into our trip I became sick and still don’t feel 100%, and I am sure poor diet is the cause. Anyone on a gluten free/paleo/low carb diet here would starve. Perhaps there are better options in the fancier restaurants but not on our backpackers budget.

I thought Brazil and Peru were extreme with their bakeries and ice cream on every corner but Ecuador takes the cake (no pun intended). Toffee shops line the streets, each one identical to the next, and the candy makers stand in the doorway with giant ropes of melcocha, handing out pieces as you walk by. There’s also carts selling this stuff, along with pure sugar cane, at every bus stop and terminal. It’s a national obsession.

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Of course we had to see what all the fuss was about, so we bought a bag of assorted sweets to sample. After chipping my tooth on one, we left them behind. I’d rather save my sugar intake for ice cream!

On our last night in Baños we paid a visit to the hot springs, which consisted of several pools ranging from freezing cold to burning hot, packed with locals of all ages. The hot and cold shock therapy was the perfect way to reset and reenergize our bodies for the jungle days ahead.

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Our hostel was home to a host of stray animals—protective dogs who would guide us into town when we left to make sure we were safe, and sweet cuddly cats who’d curl up onto your lap and purr for hours. I’m missing Susie terribly these days—it’s hard to deal with spending the rest of this year without her.

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When in Baños, a ride on the “swing at the end of the world” is an absolute must. I remember coming across photos of this treehouse on Pinterest years ago, and didn’t realize where it was until recently.

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It had rained all morning so we were lucky to have a small crowd when we arrived. There was plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the view of the volcano.

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We could have easily stayed in Baños longer—it’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited and has everything we love in a town—safe, affordable, plenty of activities, good nightlife but also quiet and friendly locals. If you’re in Ecuador, you can’t miss it.

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At 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, we walked to the bus station to catch a ride on another public bus back to Quito. The 3 hour journey turned into 5, and after a long taxi back into town, we finally stepped foot into the hostel lobby at 9pm. Starving and tired, we realized there were no food options nearby open on a Sunday night, and had to resort to another healthy dinner from the mini-mart: fried sugary empanadas, bananas and chips.

We waited in the lobby until another bus picked us up at 11pm, and after a wild and bumpy overnight ride with intermittent sleep, we found ourselves in a parking lot at 5:30am in the town of Lago Agrio, one of the gateways to the Amazon.

Day 45-48: Cuyabeno, Amazon rainforest

The owner of a restaurant called us upstairs, where we napped in hammocks and ate croissants until a van arrived.

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The Andes mountains had given way to flat land covered in tropical greenery, and we became more excited by the minute as we approached our destination.

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After a few hours we pulled up to a river bed lined with motorized canoes and met a man named Jorge who would be our guide for the next four days.

The canoe took us through a narrow river surrounded by a large variety of trees and plants, and we stopped frequently to spot monkeys, snakes, birds and reptiles.

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After another two hours, we finally pulled up to our lodge—24 hours after we began our initial travel from Baños.

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The next four days make up the most memorable of this trip so far. Being in the Amazon, with nothing but jungle and wildlife surrounding you for miles, completely disconnected from the rest of the world is unlike anything else. I’ve been to jungles in Costa Rica and Southeast Asia but it’s different when you’re sharing it with the person you love.

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On our first night we were broken into the jungle with a nocturnal walk—a hike through the forest in the darkness to hunt for poisonous spiders and snakes. It’s not for the faint of heart.

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Drenched in bug spray with our rubber boots and flashlights, we walked single file through the bushes, calling out when we spotted a web or pair of glowing eyes. The spiders were massive, with webs as big as my body.

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At one point we turned off all the lights and stood silently as Jorge communicated with a monkey in the tree. It was more exciting than scary—that is until Jorge came across tracks in the mud, stopped to analyze them, nervously told us all to wait there as he took off and left us alone for several minutes. I was thinking a big animal was after us but it turns out he was just lost. Still not ideal being lost in the Amazon, but fortunately we made it back to the lodge in one piece.

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The lodge is on a floating forest only accessible by boat, so most of our days and evenings were spent on the water. We did a lot of monkey spotting and bird watching, trekking through the swamp, and night excursions.

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On our last day we visited a local community, meeting up with a woman and her son to help make bread from scratch using manihot roots we pulled from a nearby crop. A shaman came to visit, performing a traditional blessing and taking us to see an ayahuasca vine (look that stuff up if you’ve never heard of it… fascinating drug).

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My favorite animal sighting was a wild baby pig whose mother had died, and it was adopted by a family in the village. You could hear the squeals of this tiny thing from a mile away, and it would follow the little boy around like a puppy.

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Jorge took us on the boat one night after fishing for piranhas, and we rode through the trees, coming inches from snakes as they twisted around branches above our heads. We spotted glowing red eyes from a Caiman alligator and returned to the lodge where frogs had snuck into some of the bedrooms.

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Every evening we’d go to the lagoon to swim and watch the sunset. The sun’s intensity is extreme at the equator, so a dip in the water to cool off at the end of the day was always a highlight.

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The sunsets here are gorgeous, layered with storm clouds and always accompanied by lightning in the distance.

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At night the jungle comes alive with the buzz of cicadas and echoes of birds and monkeys. Without any light pollution, you can see every constellation in the Milky Way.

I’ll never forget those nights—gliding over calm waters through warm winds, gazing up into the sky at twinkling red planets… lying in bed under a mosquito net, listening to the rain and growls of howler monkeys… realizing where we are, and that these moments will never happen again—soon we’ll be married, and life will be different.

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We often pause to reflect on this, daydreaming about our future but equally realizing the importance of soaking up the days of our engagement before they pass.

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By the time this is published, we’ll be in Colombia, spending our last few weeks in South America before heading home for my sisters’ wedding and then Europe.

Eight days in Ecuador was barely enough to scratch the surface of this beautiful country, and we will return one day without a doubt.

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Stay tuned for the Ecuador video coming very soon, and join me on Instagram as I post live daily updates from our adventure. Sending love from Colombia!

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17 Days in Peru: The Video

From the mountains to the desert to the coast, Peru exceeded our expectations and provided months worth of memories in the short 17 days we were there.

It feels like ages ago that we first touched down in Cusco—and despite the illnesses, mysterious rashes and lack of sleep, we never took our time here for granted and made the most of every day.

Here is our experience condensed into a 3.5 minute movie (click to watch):

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We hope you enjoy watching as much as we enjoyed creating this… thank you as always for joining us on our adventures! Tomorrow we’ll be on a canoe in the Amazon, off the grid for the next four days as we explore the Ecuadorian rainforest.

As always, you can follow in real time on my instagram stories for more frequent updates. More from Ecuador, coming soon!

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From Cusco to Lima, Peru

Day 27: Puno, Peru

At 10pm on our last day in Cusco we boarded a bus headed for the town of Puno, a lake town at the far southeast end of Peru.

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After seven hours of tossing and turning, the driver turned the lights on at 5am and we were instructed to disembark and wait for a van to take us to our hostel. We had signed up for a hop on hop off bus tour which would loop around the southern half of Peru and end at Lima. For $190 each, we figured it’d be the best way to see the highlights, eliminate the confusion and delays of public transport and meet fellow travelers along the way.

After a week of high altitude and chilly weather in Cusco, I was looking forward to returning to a normal climate and wasn’t expecting the 39° air as I stepped off that bus. There’s also apparently no heaters in Puno, so we bundled up and waited in a lobby for hours for another van to take us to the dock.

Puno is the gateway to the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, which straddles Bolivia at over 12,000 feet above sea level.

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Here is where you’ll find the village of Uros, a community of man made floating islands (big enough to hold just a few huts) constructed from reeds, which are still inhabited by the indigenous people.

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Our boat landed on one of the islands where we met with one of the leaders of the community who paddled us around on his reed boat and explained his history and culture.

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From there we were transported to Taquile Island, where around 1500 people live and still practice traditions passed down by their ancestors.

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We climbed to the top of the mountain (even though it was higher than Cusco it felt much more manageable), past sheep-filled rocky pastures and two year olds selling bracelets, and ended the tour feasting on trout overlooking the water.

That evening in Puno was quiet, as I was still trying to recover from the flu and we had several more hours to kill before the bus without a room to retreat to. We found shelter in a restaurant with two girls from Malta, chugging tea to stay warm while killing time. I was counting down the hours until I had access to a hot shower and a bed, but still had one more night on the bus.

Day 31-32: Arequipa, Peru

Our bus that night was much older and rattled the whole way, but fortunately due to pure exhaustion I was finally able to get some sleep. We arrived in our next destination of Arequipa before dawn and happily paid the extra $10 to check in early and crawl into a real bed.

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After a relaxing morning, we joined the Maltese girls for a walking tour of the city and were relieved to be at a lower elevation with warmer weather.

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Arequipa sits at the base of the Andes below a range of volcanic mountains, which makes for a pretty stunning backdrop.

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The buildings were constructed from volcanic rock in the 16th century (though most have been repaired/rebuilt due to numerous earthquakes).

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We kept to the central areas but the city felt very safe and walkable, much like Cusco and everywhere else we’ve been in Peru. The best part of the walking tour? Meeting this little one:

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My love for llamas has been solidified.

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After our tour, our guide pointed us to a local restaurant outside of the touristy areas, in which we were served huge portions of fish soup and delicious relleno for a bargain. Every region in Peru seems to have a different food specialty, although rice and French fries on the side are standard everywhere. And much like Brazil, they can’t get enough sugar and bread.

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We found the local market and it was filled with rows of every kind of fruit imaginable, among a random assortment of meats and potatoes (Peru is home to over 2,000 types of potatoes!)

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Always up for surprises, we picked two random fruit juices off the menu—one of which had the texture of chalk and tasted like roasted marshmallow (Lucas disagrees).

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The following day we took a bus around the countryside which was my personal favorite part. There’s so much more to Arequipa than just the downtown central district.

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After two days in the city, it was time to move on to our next destination.

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Day 33-35: Nazca & Huacachina, Peru

We woke up at 5am, ready for a full day of bus travel. Shortly after leaving the city limits, the landscape began to turn into sand, and soon enough we were surrounded by mountains of dunes in every direction.

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Suddenly the desert met the ocean and we were reunited with the Pacific for the first time in over a month. The ride up the coast was beautiful and familiar, like we were headed up highway 1 in central California (but more deserted).

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We stopped at a small fishing town along the way for ceviche, then made it to a town called Nazca before sunset.

There, on the side of an open highway with nothing around for miles, we climbed an old metal viewing tour and peered out over the desert landscape in search of large drawings in the sand drawn by the ancient Nazca people dating back to as far as 500 BCE. From the viewing tower we could only see a couple drawings as the largest ones cover up to 1,200 ft.

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Thirty minutes later we were en route to our next destination—the desert oasis of Huacachina.

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I’d come across this place in my South America research and immediately added it to our list of places to go.

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Apart from a photo of a lake and sand buggy, I had no idea what to expect (which is my favorite way to travel) so we chose a hostel at the last minute and prepared for a fun night.

At some point during the drive to sea level, my congestion finally cleared and my hearing was fully restored (after 3 weeks!) so I was ready to celebrate. We joined a big barbecue then headed to a bar/club with our bus tour guide, drinking pisco and dancing salsa for hours. The club was also full of dogs (stray/resident animals are typical at nearly every establishment here), one of which was very pregnant and loved being at the center of the dance floor.

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After our fill of Latin music, we all climbed to the top of a sand dune carrying palm leaves and branches up to a bonfire, which we gathered around for into the early hours of the morning. Sidenote: scaling sand dunes is much more difficult than you’d think—one small hill took more effort than the entirely of Machu Picchu.

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The next day we ventured into the nearby town of Ica, where we toured a local vineyard and tasted pisco before grabbing tuk tuks (although here they just call them motor taxis) to a local market for ceviche with our guide—he knew all the best local spots.

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When we returned, it was time for the fine buggy & sandboarding tour. This is the main draw of Huacachina and we’d been looking forward to it for days.

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We were strapped into a buggy with 8 other people and told we’d been given the craziest driver.

For the next two hours we were holding on for dear life as our buggy flew through the sand, getting sideways and catching air while coming inches from other buggies and people (GoPro video coming soon!)

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Along the way we stopped at the top of the peaks, grabbed a board and slid head first 100 feet down the face of the tallest and steepest dunes in South America.

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Right behind Machu Picchu, this was my second favorite experience in Peru. We didn’t want it to end—so much so that we extended our trip and stayed another night in Huacachina.

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That night we met a British couple and went to dinner with them to exchange GoPro footage, and we met up with them the next day to get some amazing drone shots (just wait for the next video!)

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It was the setting of this desert oasis that got me. Neither of us had any idea that a vast and breathtaking desert landscape made up so much of Peru—most people picture Machu Picchu and the highlands when they think of this country, but it’s much more diverse. And bonus, the desert makes a killer setup for photo & video shoots.

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After an amazing two days in Huacachina, I didn’t want to leave but we were anxious to continue our journey and get to Lima. With sand still clinging to our every crevice of our bodies, we caught the 6pm bus headed north—next stop: Paracas.

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Day 36-37: Paracas, Peru

Just a couple hours up the coast, Paracas is a small port town serving as the gateway to Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands, otherwise known as the poor man’s Galapagos.

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We arrived late in the evening and booked an early boat tour to the islands, as recommended by our bus company.

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The tour was a quick two hours, as we circled rocky islands full of birds, crabs, seals and even saw penguins!

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It was interesting to see but felt like it had ended almost as soon as it had begun. We barely had enough time to take photos, let alone take in our surroundings.

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Fortunately there was still a full day left in Paracas after returning, so we spoke to a handful of tour companies and ended up finding a guy who agreed to take us on a private ATV tour of the national reserve for 120 soles ($40) for 2 hours. Sold.

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Hands down, best thing to do in Paracas. We rode through the barren landscape that was once the ocean floor, finding ancient fossils and marveling at miles of scenery that felt somewhere between New Mexico and Mars.

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Along the way we stopped at a few viewpoints to catch a glimpse of the coastline…

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And dramatic red sand beaches…

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I could have spent all day there, but we had to catch the night bus to Lima that evening. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend exploring the reserve via ATV or sand buggy.

The town of Paracas itself is quite small and lackluster (it’s all for tourists) so we were happy to get back on the bus for Lima.

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Day 38-40: Lima, Peru

In the wee hours of the morning our bus finally arrived to Lima—the final stop on our bus route. We’d made it to the end!

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We had no plans upon arrival, booking our hostel at the last minute and hoping for the best. We knew to stay in the Miraflores or neighboring Barranco areas, as Lima has a reputation for being quite unsafe (even moreso than Rio).

During our final few days in Peru, we toured both the central district and Barranco (absolutely loved Barranco), explored the beaches and restaurants and ate enough ceviche to hold me over for months. I’m no ceviche connoisseur, but it all seems to be exactly the same everywhere in Peru. It always looks like this:

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Fish, lime juice and spices, raw purple onions and a sweet potato. Lima is known as the the ceviche capital of the world (you can’t go a block without someone advertising it) and I’ve never had so much raw fish in my life. Another dish everyone talks about is the lomo saltado (stir fry beef with peppers & onions, served with white rice and fries) but we tried it a few times and didn’t understand the hype.

My favorite Peruvian dish actually wasn’t discovered until reaching Lima (apparently it’s only available in Lima?)—it’s the tacu tacu which is pan fried rice and beans, topped with a meat or fish in a sauce. It is the closest thing they have to Mexican food and what I wouldn’t give for a good street taco or enchilada these days…

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Anyway, we enjoyed being back in a big city with a variety of cuisines and modern amenities before heading off to the jungle. By the time this post is published we’ll be on a plane to Ecuador, where we’ll spend several days in the Amazon before traveling to Colombia to wrap up the South America leg of our travels.

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It seems like ages ago that we landed in Cusco—and feels as if we’re worlds away from Machu Picchu. One of the best parts of traveling is how it slows down time, giving you years worth of memories in a month and more years in your life. While there are many parts of home we miss, we wouldn’t trade these days for the world.

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Stay tuned for our Peru video, coming soon! In the meantime you can follow my stories on instagram for our daily adventures from Ecuador. Until then…

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Cusco & Machu Picchu, Peru

Day 23-26: Cusco, Peru

We touched down in Cusco after 12 hours of taxis, planes and transfers from Rio and Lima and welcomed the cool mountain air.

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I’m a tropical climate girl at heart, but we were both ready for a new country and scenery. My flu was now on day 7 without any sign of slowing down, so I was also hoping the change in weather and altitude might improve things.

Our hostel sat at the top of a hill looking over the city, and looked more like a college campus/apartment complex (in a good way). We had splurged $56/night for a private room for my birthday, and were led up several flights of stairs to what we called the penthouse suite, complete with a view of the entire city and mountains beyond.

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Hands down, best $56 ever spent (the beds were a dream, too).

I knew something was off when I struggled to make it up just one flight of stairs, and my illness wasn’t to blame. The altitude caught up to me as soon as we settled into our room as my head began to pound and my heart wouldn’t stop racing.

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Cusco sits at 11,200 feet above sea level and altitude sickness can start to set in at 8000 feet. Machu Picchu is at 7970, for reference (convenient, right?)

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Our symptoms subsided after that first night but for the next week spent in Cusco, my heart rate was always elevated and it was difficult to walk at any incline. High altitude is no joke!

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Lucas stocked up on meds from the pharmacy for me and we immediately extended our stay, spending much of the next 3 days and nights huddled in bed, enjoying the hot showers and watching the sky change colors from our window.

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We did manage to squeeze in a day tour of the city, stopping at a ruins site and getting up close and personal with llamas.

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After the tour we were dropped off nowhere near our hostel in the pouring rain, so we found the nearest local spot to grab dinner and it was every bit as good as we’d been told to expect from Peru—and so much cheaper than Brazil!

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The following day we set out in search for warmer clothing, which is a challenge to find in a city full of all tourist shops. We located something labeled “Mall” on our GPS and headed in that direction.

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Several streets off the main tourist square, we had clearly entered the locals area with residents selling fruit and vegetables on the sidewalks of narrow roads and alleyways. Eventually we ended up in front of an enclosed building with rows of open storage units where vendors hung and stacked piles of their wares for sale.

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We roamed the aisles, looking for normal clothes until we both found a pair of knockoff brand sweatpants—not nearly the bargain we expected them to be and you can’t haggle on the prices either—but we got them anyway.

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The real gem of this outing was the row of “restaurants” on the other end, aka a couple people in a cubby cooking food. We ordered something we had never heard of for 5 soles each (less than $2) and were handed a big bowl of some sort of delicious rice, chicken and potato concoction.

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A mug of freshly squeezed papaya/strawberry and mango juice from the cubicle next door and we had ourselves the best lunch in town for around $7. And this town is very touristy, so we’re hoping to really save money once we head to the lesser traveled towns.

Day 27-28:  Machu Picchu

By day 4 in Cusco my hearing still hadn’t fully returned and the congestion and nightly coughing fits weren’t going away, but we were anxious to get to Machu Picchu and I felt well enough to take the trip, so we booked it that day (ps: anyone have recommendations on how to clear stubborn head/ear congestion?!)

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There are several ways to get there, and we had originally planned on doing a jungle trek which is 4 days of mountain biking, ziplining, water rafting and hiking but with my current condition that was no longer an option. Instead we decided to do the bus/train/bus route, which ended up being four hours of perhaps the most scenic drive I’ve ever witnessed.

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The bus led us through open fields and small Peruvian villages with clay homes built onto the side of a cliff opposite steep forested mountains and rivers below.

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The staggering size and presence of the Andes mountains as you near Machu Picchu can only be truly appreciated in person. They rise from the earth abruptly, like a wall of granite and jungle straight to the sky with their peaks permanently shrouded by clouds. Our train had windows in the ceiling just so you could see the top of them.

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On Friday afternoon we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the small town just outside of Machu Picchu. A hot springs nearby had been recommended, so we figured we’d give the cities’ namesake a visit.

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It rained as we walked through the village with no cars, past souvenir shops and a football field, over bridges and up muddy hills.

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The view from the top was beautiful, even in the rain and foggy mountains.

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We stayed in the pool for over two hours, drinking pisco sours and making friends with Canadians, and coincidentally meeting two different people from my small hometown. The steady downpour continued as we soaked in the steamy sulphuric water, and it was one of our simplest yet best memories of Peru.

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At 5:23am on Saturday the alarm rang and off we went, eager to witness this wonder of the world. The 25 minute bus ride to the entrance felt as if we were stepping back into the Jurassic period—I was half expecting to see a dinosaur pop out from behind a mountain.

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The early morning fog was thick, but that didn’t take away from the majestic beauty just steps from the entrance.

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We followed a tour guide for the first two hours, who led us through the ruins, teaching of Incan history. It rained off and on with a steady inflow of clouds and fog, enveloping the surrounding mountains.

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This has to be the most photogenic place on earth… half of these images are from my iphone. Can you tell which ones? (I can’t).

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Just as the Incas did, we prayed to the Sun God and within a couple hours, the skies began to clear.

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For seven hours we explored Machu Picchu—discovering hiding spots in the ruins, finding the best vantage points and taking selfies with llamas, naturally.

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While a trek would have been amazing, it wasn’t in the cards for us but I wouldn’t trade our experience for anything. We both agreed it was the best day of our trip so far, and we were able to relax and take our time (and witness the scenery in a range of weather).

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As I write this now on the bus back to Cusco, images of Machu Picchu are all I can see when I close my eyes—they’ve been forever burned into my mind, and I hope I never forget the feeling of this day.

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On our last day in Cusco, the sky put on a farewell display in the form of a double rainbow:

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Best way to end an unforgettable birthday week. Last night we left the city for a week long (potentially longer) bus trip around the south of Peru where we’ll eventually end up in Lima. Machu Picchu may be the most breathtaking sight, but we’re ready for a new adventure (and lower altitude!)

Follow my instagram stories & snapchat to watch live daily updates and join us for the ride! More on the way from Peru…

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3 Weeks in Brazil: Our first Travel Video

You’ve seen the photos and read the stories since we began our travel adventure… but there’s something about video that captures the experience in a way nothing else can.

Here is our first travel video, documenting our amazing three weeks in Brazil (including the proposal!) Click below to watch:

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I spent countless hours shooting and editing (Lucas actually did about half of the shooting—this has become a fun project for us to work together on) and we can’t wait to make more!

We hope you enjoy the video and welcome any feedback so we can continue to improve and make these fun for you to watch.

The next post will be from Peru, and you can follow my instagram stories and snapchat for daily updates!

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Salvador & Morro de São Paulo, Brazil

Day 15-19: Salvador, Brazil

On Easter Sunday we woke up in our hotel room, still blissfully happy from our engagement the night before.IMG_6325

We said goodbye to Rio as we boarded a plane to Salvador, 700 miles up the coast.

Our hostel in Salvador had given us broad instructions to take a public bus into town, and we circled outside of the mostly deserted airport, unable to find anyone who could point us in the right direction. Finally, we spotted what appeared to be a bus stop across a field behind the parking lots and waited there, wondering if we should go back and spend the $10 on an uber. 

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Two English speaking Jehovah’s Witness missionaries noticed our confusion and approached us, explaining which bus to take while handing over pamphlets about how we need to be saved. They definitely saved us, and 30 minutes later we paid 80 cents as we loaded our backpacks onto the bus and settled in for the 15 mile ride.

15 miles turned into two hours, as the bus stopped every few blocks, opening its doors to a rotating cast of interesting characters. We were told to get off at the last stop, and that we couldn’t miss it as the bus would stay there for several minutes. We knew it was getting close, but then it started driving in the opposite direction. Worried we had missed our stop and unable to ask anyone (language barrier) we decided to hop off at the next stop, which was now nearly a mile from our hostel. In most places this wouldn’t be a problem, but this is Brazil. We’d heard the constant warnings from both locals and travelers to stay in crowded areas/safe zones, and this bus stop was neither. It was raining and the streets were deserted, apart from a few questionable wandering men. We had no choice but to walk with all of our belongings to our hostel, fast. 

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Even walking the streets alone in Vietnam I felt more safe than I do here (both Rio and Salvador) in broad daylight with Lucas. Maybe we’re being overly cautious, but we’ve met people in every city who had been robbed or witnessed a robbery. Our hostel gave us a map with a path drawn and warned us to stay on that path. As we were nearing our hostel that day, about to turn right, a local stopped us and motioned to not walk down that street (which looked just like any other street). Cops in military gear stand on the street corners all day, and behind us as we eat dinner on the sidewalk as if they’re our personal guards.

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I rarely took my phone anywhere and only brought my camera out of the hostel once. Being an obvious target doesn’t help the situation, but it’s unusual to not be able to freely explore a city and to be on constant high alert. 

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On the first day, we took a risk and brought my camera out of the hostel to try and capture a few shots. A capoeira group was in the main square putting on a show with a drum ensemble. We approached them and they grabbed Lucas to join in (video coming soon!). It was one of the highlights of our time here, and fascinating to watch.

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But the biggest highlight of Salvador… it’s where I found my ring! 

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If you read the proposal story, you know that Lucas had lost the ring so we planned to find a new one together at our next destination. We walked into a jewelry store with nothing specific in mind, except that it had to be unique and non-traditional. I’d heard that Brazil was known for its gemstones, and the jeweler said she had something special that she thought I’d love. She opened a bag of raw uncut imperial topaz jewels, which are rare and mined only in Brazil.

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I chose the palest pink/peach stone and had it cut into a 3.8 carat irregular shape, and set into a custom brushed rose gold band. Three days later it was ready, and it’s absolutely perfect.

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On Tuesday we had a boat trip planned, but I woke up feeling sick and couldn’t make it out of bed, let alone a boat. Worry began to set in with all of the potential viruses in the area, so we decided to see a doctor to be safe. After getting instructions to a free clinic, we finally found it and attempted to communicate (via google translate on our phone). It was a long and confusing process, and they had us wait in a hallway for an hour before telling us the only doctor who speaks some English couldn’t see me that day.

With half the day wasted, we then got an uber to another free clinic 5 miles away, and watched the lost driver circle around the city for an hour, not following GPS. When we finally arrived, there was a line of 50+ people out the door of a sweaty dark room with bugs and screaming kids. With my condition deteriorating, I attempted to ask how long the wait was but they didn’t understand/wouldn’t answer. Frustrated, we gave up and got a taxi back to our hostel. It was easily the worst day of this trip… but then I stop and realize where I’m at, who I’m with, and I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.

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Still determined to find a doctor, we bit the bullet and went to an expensive private hospital. Like the day before, it was a long process with many obstacles, but after several hours we were able to confirm that it was indeed a regular flu virus and nothing more. Whew. 

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At the pharmacy we stocked up on every medicine we could and I hibernated in bed for the next couple days. Unfortunately, the symptoms only worsened and the next day we had tickets to Gamboa Beach, next to the bustling town of Morro de São Paulo. We stuck to the plan though, anxious to leave Salvador and see one last town before leaving Brazil. 

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Day 20-22: Gamboa & Morro de São Paulo, Brazil

Continuing our trend of bad luck with transportation, the tour bus forgot to pick us up and we spent all day waiting in their office. By sunset we boarded the ferry and stood on the top deck for the 80 minute ride, watching the sky change colors and the cars sway beneath us.

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The warm breeze felt refreshing on my achy body as I was taken back to the feeling of my ferry boat rides across the open ocean in Thailand. This time around it’s much more fulfilling. 

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The next three hours consisted of more transfers, the coldest two hour bus ride of my life, another boat ride and carrying our bags along an empty beach at night until we finally found our hostel, 12 hours after we’d left that morning. Travel days can be the most challenging part of backpacking, and it’s compounded when you’re sick. 

Between crowded airports, stuffy buses packed with people, dirty hostels, lack of sleep, new germs and weakened immune system, illness is almost guaranteed. It’s also a reminder that we’re not on vacation—this is our life for the next 7 months, and  as tempting as it is to want to live it up in every city with the new friends you meet, we need to take time off to rest. We’re not in college anymore and our bodies can’t sustain that lifestyle (getting old is no fun, am I right?!) so we’re still trying to figure out the right balance.

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Our $45/night pousada (we upgraded from a hostel) was the ideal place to detox. We had the entire place to ourselves, and enjoyed the company of the sweet family who ran it along with two playful puppies.

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See the favela on the hilltop in the background? We were instructed to stay on the beach and not take any back roads. Didn’t feel safe in Gamboa either.

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On Friday it rained, and we sat in the hammocks overlooking the ocean and beautiful gardens for 10 hours straight—just what the doctor ordered. I even started to feel better, so we finally booked that boat tour we’d been looking forward to.

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The recovery was short lived though, as I woke up Saturday morning in a deteriorated condition with loss of hearing in one ear due to congestion. We canceled the boat trip (again) but we hadn’t come all this way for nothing, so instead we caught the next ferry to Morro de São Paulo. 

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And within moments of stepping on shore, I was in my new favorite place in Brazil. It felt like a Disney park with hilly cobblestone streets, walls painted with bright intricate murals, lush plant life and a winding river—and it felt safe.

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We made our way through narrow alleyways until finding our new pousada, tucked away in a jungle-like setting with a rooftop view. 

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We spent the day on the beach, soaking up our last rays of Brazilian sun, eating ceviche and sipping from coconuts. It was a national holiday weekend so the island was packed, and we were surely the only Americans there (still nowhere near tan enough to blend in).

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At night the streets filled with live music and lively crowds singing in a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. We found an Italian restaurant with a deck view of the festivities below and spent the evening people watching. When we come back to Brazil one day, Morro de São Paulo is a must visit—I just wish we had more time here.

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As we make our way back to the airport bound for Peru tomorrow, it’s hard to believe we’ve only been here three weeks. It feels like ages ago that we took in Rio’s breathtaking skyline from a cable car on our first night in the city, and I’m leaving this country a different person than when I entered—now engaged and planning a future for two.

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Brazil will always hold a special place in my heart, and now I’ll carry a piece of it on my ring finger forever. Thank you for the memories. 

See you next week from Peru!

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Ilha Grande & Paraty, Brazil

Thank you all so much for the kind words regarding our engagement! It means everything to us—we are truly feeling the love and couldn’t be happier or more excited for this next chapter <3 

Day 8-10: Ilha Grande, Brazil

A bus arrived at our hostel in the morning bound for the island of Ilha Grande, where we had booked a beachfront hostel for the next two nights. The driver spoke only Portuguese but we were told the trip would take just a few hours. We watched our location on our phones’ GPS, confused as it continued to move farther in the opposite direction of our destination. I reached for my seatbelt as the bus came inches from the guard rail and was taken back to the days of wild rides through Southeast Asia. The driver maneuvered the bus like a formula 1 car, swerving around traffic with one hand on the wheel while texting with the other, to a soundtrack of 90’s American rock ballads on repeat.

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Fortunately, we made it in one piece and were led to a pier where we boarded a boat headed for the island. Thirty minutes later my feet hit the sand and I was instantly in love. With our backpacks in tow, we trekked along the shoreline past colorful weathered buildings, cafes with live music and lively crowds drinking cervejas. Our hostel was situated at the far end of the beach with a postcard worthy view of the entire bay and surrounding mountains covered in dense forest.

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We dropped our belongings off in our dorm and set out to see as much of the island as possible in the remaining daylight hours. Moving away from town, a dirt trail led us along the rocky eastern coast through forests with glowing bugs, abandoned buildings and vine covered stone walls. At dusk, we found a quiet beach and watched the sun set over our new island paradise.

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That night in our six bedroom shared dorm I got to relive the full backpacker experience. Up until that night we had stayed in a private room, but those are $100/night on this island and costs have been adding up quicker than expected. Instead we payed $30/night each for a twin bed in shared bunks. That same bed is $5/night in Cambodia, for reference. I knew Brazil wouldn’t be as affordable as Southeast Asia, but Rio is not cheap by any standard. You can find some inexpensive street food and drinks, but we’ve found that restaurants and lodging are typical of average US prices.

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People often ask how we are able to afford to travel for months at a time, and apart from my shop/blog which I operate online, using credit card points for flights and saving up some cash, it’s pretty simple: we don’t get fancy. That means sacrificing luxurious accommodations and staying in hostels (bonus: you meet awesome people from around the world) and not dining at 5 star restaurants. We stray off the beaten path, take cheap overnight buses and use public transportation. For us, cold showers, sweaty dorms and no wi-fi are worth once in a lifetime experiences that we couldn’t otherwise afford.

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Don’t get me wrong—we do splurge from time to time and we’ve planned for that in this trip (Europe is certainly not going to be this cheap). But I lived for $30/day in Southeast Asia and did everything I wanted without worrying about cost. Here in Brazil so far we’ve been living on around $110/day, not including our flight to Rio, and this is the most expensive city. To put things into perspective, our cost just to live in San Francisco was significantly higher—so we get to explore the most exotic locations in the world for less than the price of rent. Technically, we’re actually saving money this way 😉

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But these days of hostel living are numbered, I thought to myself as I woke up and removed my ear plugs—which failed to keep me from waking up at all hours of the night. The last two to get out of bed, we dragged ourselves to the deck and filled our plates with the exact same breakfast served by every hostel in Brazil (they must get a group discount?). After fighting off the bees, we dined on pineapple, watermelon, cake and stale Frosted Flakes while watching colorful boats fill the bay.

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I counted the constellations of bug bites on my legs as we planned our route for a hike to a waterfall and beach, and made sure to lather on the bug spray and feet. Lucas had an impressive farmers tan and my legs were still peeling from a Florida sunburn a month ago.

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Weighed down by my camera equipment and thick humid air, our hike through the forest was slow and scenic. With Macchu Picchu planned in a couple weeks, we need all the training we can get.

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We cooled off in the waterfall and finally made it to the beach, where we spent an hour evening out our tans and enjoying açai (of course).

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Night life is quiet on the small island with no cars or transportation, and our evenings consisted of card games and cervejas with an assortment of Dutch, German and British guys. We also stumbled upon a homemade Argentinian pasta restaurant, and it was hands down the best meal I’ve had in Brazil. Top ten in my life, and I’m not even a big pasta eater.

The best day of the trip so far was our boat tour of the surrounding islands. We stopped at six different locations, ranging from lagoons to sandy beaches to private islands.

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There we snorkeled in the reefs of turquoise waters, sipped on sake and ate bananas while practicing our Spanish with lawyers from Argentina.

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Halfway through our day the clouds rolled in and threatened our picture perfect beach day, but that didn’t stop us from setting up some fun video shots with the GoPro (video coming soon!)

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We also spotted and snorkeled with a big turtle at one stop, which completely made our trip. If you are coming to this area of Brazil, Ilha Grande is a must.

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Day 11-12: Paraty, Brazil

The next morning we had an afternoon bus booked to Paraty, which is a charming colonial town a couple hours south of Ilha Grande. The sky had opened up and it was pouring rain as we boarded a taxi boat back to the mainland. There were no actual seats, and we squished along the sides of the boat with 50 other people and our bags piled around us, every surface drenched in water.

This boat was very different than the one we arrived on, slowed by the choppy seas and wind that began blowing the storm into the boat. Mothers shielded their babies and umbrellas were opened as the boat rocked and the ocean came in through the bottom of the floor (if you saw the video of this on instagram/snapchat, you’ll remember how crazy it was).

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Sketchy transportation seems to be a recurring theme in Brazil.

But fortunately, again we survived, and two hours later we were safe and sound in the picturesque town of Paraty.

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Our hostel was once again empty, so we spent the next two days enjoying each others company and exploring as much of the area as we could.

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This place is an instagrammer’s paradise if I’ve ever seen one. Rocky cobblestone streets and old buildings loaded with character.

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We stayed mostly in the old town where no cars are allowed, and walked down each street of cafes, ice cream and tourist shops. The centuries-old buildings are preserved with patches of history showing through, each with a unique style of colorful doors and windows.

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Rows of vibrant wooden boats line the river and bay surrounding the city center.

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On the first night we ducked into a restaurant with live acoustic jazz and made friends with our waiter, Roberto, who used to live in New Jersey and has a wife and kids living in Florida. He rarely meets Americans and gave us free passion fruit and special cachaça. He had the most interesting Portuguese/Spanish/New Jersey accent.

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We also found a gourmet artesanal burger shop with one of the top 3 burgers I’ve ever tried (Brazil has treated me well in the food category) and stopped at a cachaçaria to buy a bottle of the flavored cachaça we tried the night before (this area of Brazil is known for their distilleries which make the specialty cachaças).

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It rained the entire first day, but it was probably for the better as I was able to catch up on work (and write this post!)

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I would have loved to stay longer in Paraty, but what I didn’t know then is that we were about to spend one last night in Rio that would change things forever.

Stories from Salvador, up next…

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