7 Items that All Backpackers Should Always Pack

7 Items that All Backpackers Should Always Pack

Hostel life can be easy and comfortable if you remember to pack beyond the basics. Although I try to keep my backpack as light and compact as possible, there are a few “extras” I always bring with me. 

Here’s my list of seven things that you shouldn’t leave home without, whether you’re backpacking for a week or a year.

Locks: This is essential for staying in dorm rooms.  Most provide lockers, but you are normally expected to bring your own lock.  I prefer using a combination lock so I don’t have to carry around a key, but sometimes the lockers won’t fit a regular combination lock, so my small padlock that I use to lock my suitcase comes in handy.  If you have room for the extra weight, a cable lock is a good tool for the solo traveler in case you need to momentarily leave your baggage unattended.  (Which I don’t recommend, but sometimes you may leave your bag in a bus agency office or something while waiting for a bus.  If you do this, always make sure all of the zippers are locked.

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And so ends 315 days of travel…

And so ends 315 days of travel…

In a few hours, I will head to El Dorado airport to travel the final 6651 km of my trip.

Tomorrow’s destination: Edmonton, Canada.

Home.

Over the last 315 days, I’ve found myself in 84 cities/towns in 17 different countries.  (Including flight layovers).  To get to these places, I’ve used 29 planes, 15 boats, five motorcycles, three bicycles, one helicopter… and more metros, trains, and buses than I can possibly count off the top of my head.

I’ve met hundreds of people, many of which have opened their homes to me or shared with me their food and stories.  Some of these people have become close friends, and I know for sure I will see them again in the future.  To everyone I’ve met, I am forever grateful for the way you have shaped my trip.  And of course, to my brother and friends from Canada/Holland who came and met up with me, thank you for your visits!  I’m glad I have people I love to share some of these memories with once I am home. 

Above all, thank you to everyone who has supported my writing by keeping up with La-Viajera.com.  For those of you who may have been wondering, my return to Canada will not mean the end of this website.  I’ve already renewed the domain for another year, and hope to extend it beyond that.  I have ten months of stories built up, and have hardly scratched the surface of that with what I’ve posted so far.  I have received lots of messages asking for South America travel advice, so in addition I want to build this site as a practical resource.  Above all, I hope to use this as a stepping stone for a career in (travel?) writing.

Some upcoming stories include…

-My Near-Death Experience on a Bolivian Bus

-How to budget a multi-month trip

-“Yellow Underwear” and Other Colombian New Year’s Superstitions

-Notes on Being a “Strawberry” in Mexico

-“So Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” — Reflections on Being a Single Solo Traveler

– One Malbec, Two Malbec, Three Malbec…Floor: Biking the Argentine Wine District

-How to Survive a Dutch Night Out

 

I hope that you continue to read and enjoy what I have to share.  My next adventure is just around the corner!

Thank you all once again for reading and participating in my trip.  For those of you in Canada, I can’t wait to see you all!

All my love,

La Viajera

A Christmas Message from La Viajera

A Christmas Message from La Viajera

My dearest readers,

As you may know, I’ve been on the road for almost ten months now, and I’m only a couple of weeks away from my return to Canada.  2012 has been full of adventures for me, and this trip will surely be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Whether you are friends, family, or someone I’ve never met, I want you all to know how grateful I am to have had your support over my last year of travel.  It’s been an incredible year for me, and I’ve loved having had the opportunity to share it all with you.  More than anything, I appreciate your comments — that’s what keeps my motivation going for my writing!  (So please, if you like/hate what I’m doing, let me know!  I’m interested in hearing the feedback!)

In addition to thanking you for your support, I want to wish all of you a wonderful Christmas, and a happy New Year.  I hope you are surrounded by either loved ones, or a fantastic travel destination in order to celebrate!

I myself will be quite busy over the next week, as I’m spending Christmas with the family of a dear Colombian friend of mine who is visiting from Edmonton.  We’ll be spending the holiday with his family, and then having a crazy week of salsa-related festivities at the famous “Feria de Cali.”

Sending you all my love for the holidays.

xoxo

Ellen

 

“It Finally Happened”: Getting Robbed in South America

“It Finally Happened”: Getting Robbed in South America

Maybe I jinxed myself.  On Wednesday, I had marveled at the fact that I had been traveling South America for nine months and nothing had been stolen.  Sure, I’d had some close calls: someone tried to walk off the bus with my friend’s bag one day (Cory caught him red-handed), and there have been numerous times in which locals have warned me that someone had just attempted to rob me, but had been warded off by my habit of keeping my hand over the zippers of my purse.

I wanted to go back home with all my belongings intact, not so much because I valued my possessions, but simply because I wanted to prove to people that you can backpack South America alone and be just fine, as long as you’re careful and use some common sense.

“Don’t start preaching just yet about South America,” I told myself.  “You still have one month left.”

The very next day, I got robbed.

So what happened?

On Thursday afternoon, I went to meet someone for lunch in Lima.  I arrived “early” (by Peruvian standards), so I grabbed a seat at the only free table, right in the doorway.  I sent a quick text saying that I had arrived, and placed my cellphone on the table to await the reply.  Because I had my SLR camera and wallet in my bag, I kept everything else on my lap, but I took out my iPod to pass the time.

Just then, three boys (maybe 18-21?) entered the restaurant in hopes of selling some caramels for a few cents.  This is a common occurrence in Peru, so I just ignored them.  As they were leaving, one of them stopped at my table and started waving the bag of candy directly in my face, pleading with me to buy some.  I thought he assumed that I had lots of change to spare since I was holding an iPod.  The other two boys came up behind me and started waving their bags around as well, while I shooed them away.

They retreated.

Immediately, I had a bad feeling, and did a quick check of my bag to make sure I still had everything.  But wait… I had left my phone on the table — where was it?!

I jumped up and looked outside, where the boys were walking calmly down the street.

“¡Me acaban de robar mi celular!”  I exclaimed to the restaurant owner.

No, lo tienes.  Fíjate bien tus cosas.” — No, you have it.  Take a good look through your stuff.

When I finally convinced the guy that I had indeed been robbed, he was utterly useless.

Ya se fueron.”  — They’re gone.

Peru is generally a country full of good, hard-working people. Here are some construction worker and labourer friends I made in Cusco.

They weren’t gone.  They were still less than 100 meters away.  But the owner said there was nothing we could do; it would be dangerous to follow them.  He was right about that.  If I ran after them, they could take my camera or iPod, which were far more valuable than my $100 non-smartphone.

By this point, two female customers came to my aid.  They borrowed a phone to call the police, and then tried calling my phone.  Apparently, sometimes these thieves will pick up and ask for money in return for the phone. Sadly, no answer.

Five minutes later, a security patrol showed up, and I went riding around, searching for the boys.  By this time, they were long gone, so I headed to the police station to file a report.  Because I was leaving Peru the next morning, it seemed a bit silly, but I needed it to later make an insurance claim.

I guess my $719 worth of travel insurance is once again proving useful

So, what can I take from this experience?

While the theft was quick and stealthy, there are still a few factors that led to me getting robbed.

1) Being in a familiar place: We all tend to let our guard down where we’re somewhere familiar.  I had come to this same restaurant for lunch almost every day for a month.  (Hey — they had a typical $2.30 USD menu with a different appetizer/entree each day — don’t blame me).  Because of that, I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings, and had even gotten accustomed to leaving my phone out, something I almost never do.

2) Sitting near the exit:  This is the first thing the female customers said to me after the incident.  “Never, sit by the doorway in a Peruvian restaurant.”  You become an easier target.

3) Letting myself get distracted: This is hard to control.  Lauren and I had a similar “distraction” experience in Buenos Aires, in which someone squirted mustard all over us in the metro.  (Because this is a common European gypsy trick, I assume it had bad intentions.)  We checked our stuff before anyone could take anything.  So, the important thing is to get in the habit of keeping a hand on your bag or wallet whenever a stranger approaches you.  This way, if your mind is being distracted, at least you have a physical guard against robbery.

4) Not yelling for help: I noticed instantly that something had been stolen, and I probably could have stopped the boys by screaming for help.  It was a busy street, with lots of shops and traffic, so there’s a good chance that someone would have intervened.  (Or maybe not — Peruvians/Brazilians are quite cautious because of the risk of concealed weapons).  So why didn’t I yell?  The restaurant owner telling me that my phone was still somewhere in my bag threw me off, which delayed any chance of reaction.

***

In the end, I wouldn’t say that this incident  was necessarily my fault.  I’m always extremely cautious and walk with my hand over my bag.  But, this was a case of me letting my guard down and not knowing how to react.

Does this mean that Peru is a dangerous place?  Not exactly.  While Peru has a high incidence rate of petty theft, I still believe that you’re almost as likely to get pick-pocketed or robbed in countries like Italy or Spain as you are in South America.  Wherever you go, even if it’s just outside your front door, you need to be careful and be aware.

Why you Should Visit Ecuador — the Real “Middle Earth”

Why you Should Visit Ecuador — the Real “Middle Earth”

Once an important part of the Inca empire, Ecuador no longer holds the same international political importance that it did in the past.  In terms of tourism however, it is slowly gaining ground.  The country’s star attraction is undeniably the Galapagos Islands, but a visit to Darwin’s paradise may not fit into the budget of every traveler.  Still, that’s no reason to sidestep the country.  Here are some reasons why you should add Ecuador to the top of your To-Visit List, as well as some photos below.

Stand in Both Hemispheres at Once: In Grade Two, I first learned about the equator and imagined a place of unbearable heat and constant sun.  I was wrong on both counts, but coming to Ecuador still fulfilled a childhood fantasy of visiting the “Mitad del Mundo” (Middle of the Earth) and walking the equator line.  However, although the Mitad del Mundo site promotes itself as a sort of Equator Disneyland, it is important to realize that it is not actually the correct equatorial line.  GPS technology has revealed the actual equator to be around 240 metres north of the monument at the Mitad del Mundo site.  

 

Get up Close to Some Rare Species: With the world-famous Galapagos Islands and a section of the Amazon rainforest within national borders, Ecuador’s abundance of flora and fauna is no surprise.  What did catch my attention, however is that scientists consider Ecuador to be the most biodiverse country of its size on the planet.  According to the Biodiversity Group, “It holds about 8% of all the species of amphibians on Earth and 16% of bird species–all in a country about the size of Arizona!”

Explore one of the Continent’s Best-Preserved Colonial Capitals:  The first thing I visited in Quito’s historic centre was the Basilica del Voto Nacional, an immense Neo-Gothic cathedral.  I felt like I had teleported to medieval Europe, but then I stepped outside and noticed that the outer church walls were lined with shops selling empanadas and I realized that it was just one of Quito’s many examples of the fusion of old and new world culture.

Cross the Country in a Matter of Hours:  The convenient thing about traveling Europe is that countries are so compact that you can cross them in less than a day with public transportation.  After numerous 24-hour buses in Argentina and Peru, it was a relief to arrive in Ecuador.  Here, you can get pretty much anywhere in ten hours or less. This makes daytrips and weekends away easy and affordable, which brings me to the next point:

Discover Jungles, Mountains, Beaches and Volcanoes in Just a Week (Or Day, if You’re Crazy Enough!):  Despite its small size, Ecuador has plenty of different regional landscapes, and they are all in easy reach of one another.  Scale Cayambe volcano one day, whale-watch off Puerto Lopez’s beaches the next, and venture into the Amazon jungle at Puyo the next.  Countless options are out there; it just depends how much time you have.

Keep Your Wallet Happy:  It’s no secret… South American backpackers love Bolivia for its appealing budget.  I would say the same for Ecuador.  It may not be as cheap as Bolivia, but it is the second-most affordable country I’ve visited on the continent.  For example, while a ten-hour bus ride in Peru would cost upwards of $20 USD (and don’t even ask about Argetina!!), the equivalent in Ecuador would cost $10, (with $1 USD/hour of travel being a good rule of thumb).