Invisible People

The low rumbling of the Jeep lulled me back to sleep after our 1:30am wake-up call. When we braked at the foot of the volcano, the tires kicking up dust in the frigid night air, we tumbled out of the car, stretching our sleepy limbs and preparing ourselves for the long walk up ahead.

Walking in the dark had grown on me over my travels, always chasing that sunrise– but at Kawah Ijen we had to reach the crater well beforehand in order to catch the famously nocturnal Blue Lava. As we trudged along the steep path in opaque blackness, the layers of shadows slowly grew shapes: footsteps of those before us, twisted low-hanging branches, scraggly bush. The peak was marked by a little Warung, selling soft drinks and snacks. Hikers caught their breath there, squashed onto a tiny wooden bench, slipping into their jackets as the brisk night air licked their sweat-coated bodies.

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Slowly, everyone pulled on their gas masks. It was time to climb into the fiery pits of Mordor. It was a precarious descent into the crater, each step slipping on loose stones tumbling downwards. The dense smell of rotten eggs hits you like a wall, saturating every pore. You’re so busy focusing on your footing that it takes you a tick to notice the soft blue glow emanating deep from within the well of the crater. As we drew closer, the blue grew brighter, fading into the background every now and then when the volcano wheezed and puffed steam that burned your eyes and lungs. Rupert and I made out shadows of people amidst the cloud and climbed our way towards them, wanting to get closer like moths to a flame, before realising too late after cries of warning that we were attempting to join the miners, precariously tilting on the mouth of the crater. Blinded by the smoke, struggling to breathe through the toxic fumes, we groped onto the rocks around us that crumbled like chalk in our hands and for a moment I thought the ground would just disintegrate into dust beneath me and I’d be swallowed whole. We scrambled out onto safer territory, admiring the smoldering, spurting blue lava from a reasonable distance.

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As the sun rose, the volcano grew sleepy and its glow faded, but the world around it emanated: the rocks around us dusted in pastel yellow, a bright blue lake behind us, rolling green hills behind them. We could see the lines of wear etched on the miner’s faces as they broke their backs, carrying between 70-90kg of sulphur up and down the volcano for $5 a trip, day in and day out, the weight and toxic fumes often resulting in disfigurations and shorter lives, inherited from the legacy of misfortune of being born in the wrong time and place and knowing no other way of life and no other opportunities. We bought a little frog carved out of sulphur they sold us and they wished us good fortunes… as if life hadn’t already been fortunate to us already.

Invisible People, by Luca Catalano-Gonzaga: http://www.witnessimage.com/stories/the-devils-gold/

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Montreal

Some of my favourite moments:

  • Summer BBQs on the roof, swathed in sarongs and cushions, fairy lights and candles ebbing as the night stretched on, the table heaving under the weight of plates piled with stuffed mushrooms, smoked chicken and corn so that the feast spills onto the floor.
  • Morning yoga and ice coffee in the park, espresso only, tucking in loose shirts into shorts, attempting headstands in the grass.
  • Spontaneous camping trips, following the yellow brick road, sand between our toes, stargazing, packing up in the rain and running after missed buses.
  • The deck at the foot of the lakehouse, cold beers and avocado sandwiches at our fingertips, taking routine dips, reading good books that feed the soul, and playing cards.
  • Big family dinners: pasta al dente smothered with garlic and chilli, Brazilian feijoada soaked in pork fat, a mussel cook-off with french fries, silky ginger salmon, slow-cooked meat melting off the bone, and midnight Vietnamese rolls.
  • Big family breakfasts: croissants from Kouign Amann, french toast and pancakes, an assortment of colourful fresh fruit, homemade jams, and always cheese.
  • Getting double-biked to Moksha, live music hot yoga Saturdays, drinking sweet tea before gorging on late-night ramen or arepas or Indian afterwards, followed by a boogie when ambitious.
  • Jam sessions– on the roof in summer, inside in winter, snuggled up and warm, people slipping in and out, singing off-key and content.
  • Raging house parties, hundreds of stamping feet, bottles of wine, angry neighbours, and squeezing into Leah’s bed at the end of the night.
  • Halloween crawls, four on Friday, two on Saturday, houses decked out with cobwebs and glowing pumpkins, the streets crammed with creepy-crawlies and riff-raff.
  • Walks with Dash, in the snow to school, late at night around the neighbourhood, up the mountain in fall, dancing in turning leaves.
  • Thanksgiving and Christmas, full of big toasty jumpers, cinnamon and pine smells. Tables crammed with roast chickens and marshmallow yams, Brazilian cod and Danish sweet coleslaw, cranberries and beans, molten lava cake, reindeer cupcakes, pumpkin pie. Evenings of colouring competitions and Secret Santas; dancing around the tree and in every room in the house; stealing presents. Squishing onto small sofas for Christmas movie marathons, attempting an 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, late nights playing Catan.
  • Last weeks, sunsets, songs, dinners, drinks, one by one, full stomachs and hearts, tears, laughter and joy.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Chapada, Brazil
Chapada, Brazil

I went straight from da clubz to the airport and was so out of sorts I didn’t notice the time difference in my 6-hour layover and almost missed my connecting had the very nice stewardess not let me run frantically across the tarmac, air traffic controllers yelling at me, the passengers on the plane glaring at me as I took my seat in the back.

Luckily, I had the warmest welcome party waiting for me in Cuiabá, ready with pizzas and celebrity heads and a home—which I had been without for so long. It was twelve days of sleeping in, home-cooked meals, lazy days binging The Wire, shopping with little sisters, a cake a day, all-you-can-eat Brazilian food, Cool Snap, Settlers of Catan, “Africa”, beers, sneaking onto roofs, jamming sessions and sing-alongs. Roadtrips to national parks, hiking to hidden waterfalls, looking for lost keys. We went to the most beautiful mirador, where it felt like we were standing on the edge of the world. We lay on our backs precariously close to the edge, laughing till we clutched our tummies, and watched the sunset. It is crazy that nature gives us freely something to be awed by on a daily basis; something as simple as dawn and dusk. It was the kind of day that inspires songs; Ricardo played it for us, crooning on the ukulele in the early morning, bringing tears to our eyes. There was such a fondness amongst Tiago’s family and friends that bled my heart dry.

Chapada, Brazil

Chapada, Brazil
Chapada, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro has over 150 different hostels listed on hostelworld so trying to pick a good one felt impossible, but luckily I stumbled upon a great one in Books Hostel on Lapa, full of friendly faces and deceptively strong happy hour caipirinhas. It was the week before the Olympics, so tensions were running high–a potent mix of excitement, anticipation and hostility. There is no other way to best describe Rio other than alive. It is packed with things to do and see and taste. From the beaches of Copacobana and Ipanema filled with sculpted abs and toned tummies, to the sprawl of favelas on either side, running steeply hillside, houses piling on top of one another, trying to outbuild their neighbours for the best view. The peaks of Dos Hermanos, Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ de la Redeemer where you could spy the city meeting the sea with a cold beer in hand. The colourful explosion of mosaics at Escadaria Selaron; the moving solar panels of the Museum of Tomorrow; the graffiti splattered walls of Santa Teresa; the raging street parties of Lapa– Rio is vibrant and vivacious and the manic-pixie-dream-girl you will fall in love with however begrudgingly.

Dos Hermanos, Rio de JaneiroDos Hermanos, Rio de Janeiro

Escadaria Selarón, Rio de Janeiro
Escadaria Selarón, Rio de Janeiro

Ilha Grande by comparison was much more relaxed and quiet, reading Sylvia Plath on the beach, seeing seahorses in the water, sunbaking on boats. Curitiba consisted mainly of food and friends, drinks, music and art exhibitions. By the time I reached São Paulo, my very last stop of my Central and South American trip, I was tired and sad and broke. I was literally 50c short of the deposit required at the hostel which luckily the receptionist let slide, and had not eaten the entire day. Luckily the hostel bar worked on a tab system, so I lined my stomach with cachaça instead and a lively game of Kings broke out. I felt almost numb on my last day. A whole group of people swung by and boogied the night before and Tiago, Vitor and Ricardo dropped me off at my bus the next day, serenading me with our song and running alongside the bus until I was puddle of tears. It was painfully nostalgic to leave, but boy what a time it was.

Dali’s Dream

Salt Flats, Bolivia
Salt Flats, Bolivia

Kat, Lainey and I parted ways in Peru, all off to go on our own adventures. It was a decision that came naturally and was executed smoothly at the right time. We had been together for five months 24/7, come rain or shine, that for awhile it did feel like I had phantom limbs –I would instinctively turn to tell them whenever something funny or exciting happened and realised they weren’t there. But it was a thrilling prospect to travel solo, especially at that stage when I was so comfortable and intoxicated with the #backpackinglyf. As it turns out, you’re rarely ever actually “alone” even when you’re travelling alone. All through Bolivia and Brazil I bumped into (purposefully and coincidentally) people from all walks of my life. I caught up with a friend from Indonesia in Copacobana; friends from Melbourne passing through Uyuni; housemates from Montreal in Cuiaba; and of course, constantly collided with fellow backpackers I had met previously on the gringo-trail. Scarcely a day would go by when I didn’t see at least one familiar face.

I spent my first night in Copacobana, put up in a seedy hotel by the bus company that gave me a good deal. It was the first (and only) time I had a room to myself in 8 months, so I didn’t even care that I appeared to have the dark, dingy fifth floor all to myself. I had just spent the day on Lake Titicaca, visiting islands woven together with reeds, constantly repadded with a fresh supply in order to keep afloat. Bravely -or alarmingly- the Uros people cooked on open flames, which with a strong gust of wind in the right direction, could easily burn their whole lives to the extremely flammable ground.

My first foot forward in La Paz was an uncertain one. The bus driver was kicking us (a busload of locals and myself) out onto the streets nowhere near the bus station as he wanted to avoid paying entrance fees. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, and with no cafes or restaurants in sight, had to beg the receptionist of a hotel to share the wifi with me. La Paz was a giant fishbowl, and my first time there, I was trapped in the same little bubble consisting of the Wild Rover and The Writer’s Coffee. I was much more productive the second time around, spinning through the Witches Market, where you can find love potions and llama foetuses side by side, and the infamously corrupt San Pedro prison where Marching Powder is set. I got sprayed by coke (Coca-Cola) at a Cholita wrestling match, the crowd screaming for blood at the middle-aged women dragging each other across the floor by their pigtails.

Sucre is a charming town, in a way that big cities rarely are. I arrived on the 3am bus and had forewarned the hostel beforehand who just clearly forgot, so had to sleep outside in the freezing courtyard till they opened. Luckily, the Beehive was such an awesome hostel and community centre who fed me such delicious breakfast that they were easy to forgive. A lovely little crew there would go museum hopping, gather to watch the sunset from the mirador, and then go cook some fanciful combination of paella/risotto enough to feed a dozen and drink wine as we stirred. There, I learned about Geocaching, and rued all the lost days of my past without it. We hunted for one man’s grave among thousands in Sucre’s beautiful general cemetery, and scribbled our names along with the dozens of others that came before us on a slip of paper tucked in a tree trunk.

Flags

The 3 day salt flats tour was the most wondrous changes in scenery you can encounter in such a short period of time. We opened on an old train graveyard, roaming through the metal skeletons of rusty locomotives. We then drove for miles and miles, quite literally crossing an ocean of salt (albeit one that had evaporated), observing islands made of petrified coral, mammoth cacti hundreds of years old, and hotels and sculptures carved entirely from salt. We took the iconic, cheesy-as-hell perspective pictures with dinosaurs, a house of cards, Oreos and polarbears as props. We stayed for sunset, letting a warm glow saturate the brilliant white, endless expanse laid out at our feet and rolling on and on. We walked blindly through steam blowholes on a volcano; waved delightedly at the dusty pink flamingos dipping into the frozen lake; climbed precariously the rocks of a thousand faces; and wandered through Salvador Dali’s dream, feeling like we were lost in one of his paintings ourselves.

Flamingos, Bolivia
Flamingos, Bolivia

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

We arrived at the capital of the Inca empire bleary eyed, rubbing the sleep from our eyes and pulling on extra layers. Cusco was as gorgeous as we had hoped, full of colour and life, with pre-Columbian buildings and traces of baroque architecture. Rainbow flags sailed on every corner, and we thought we had stumbled onto a pride march before someone explained to us that it was the official flag of Cusco. We soon discovered that festivals and parades and spectacles were a daily occurrence in Cusco’s beating centre. Literally, daily.

But as much as it had to offer during the day, it had just as much to offer at night. Bartops of Loki and Wild Rover in the evening; dancefloors of Temple and Chango after we were kicked out of there. It was a cesspool of all the people we had collected along the way, a tide of familiar faces, ghosts of countries past. The layers of connections were so deep one night, I drew a map to capture how everyone knew each other at the table. But Cusco did that; it drew people in and caught them in its sticky web.

Rainbow MountainRainbow Mountain

Even Cusco’s outskirts had ruffles. Ausangate, or ‘Rainbow Mountain’, was one of the most unreal magical places that one has to lay eyes on themselves to believe what they’re seeing. Although always known amongst indigenous people, remote and 5,100m high, it was only discovered commercially about 2 years ago, when someone managed to bring back a picture of those red, blue and yellow hues and showed it to a tour office in the city whose mouth filled with saliva and eyes shown with dollar signs as they plastered the picture on every billboard and blank wall in town.

The Amazon
The Amazon

We also took refuge in the Amazon, through the gateway of Puerto Maldonado, sailing along the river that could carry us all the way to Bolivia and Brazil if we let it. We canoed with caymans, zip-lined with cappuccino monkeys, caught catfish but no piranhas, and were chased by the endangered giant otter species. I saw stars like I had never seen them before. The mist of the milkyway swept across the sky like a confident brush stroke on canvas.

And of course, the reason everyone comes to Cusco, to Peru, to South America… there was Machu Picchu. The 4-day Salkantay trek there was cold and long and sleep-deprived, but totally worth it. You camp at mad high altitudes in 0 degree temperatures woken up by a boiling cup of tea at 4am everyday, walking up and down and all around for the day before settling in for soup and your sleeping bag cocoon for the night. It was a sigh of relief sinking into those hot springs in Santa Teresa, a momentary collapse of your muscles before hitching them up again for the walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Winding and flat, it’s actually a very pleasant walk, even with your backpacks strapped to your back. Aguas Calientes was a town built with the sole purpose to serve those on their way to Machu Picchu, so you have to forgive it for being a little expensive and touristy. It’s still hilly and pretty and colourful, and bonus: it has showers.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Four days of walking culminating to its climax. There’s something about waking up while it’s still dark outside that hollows out the pit of my stomach. Throwing on clothes, hair frazzled, we felt our way through the inky streets, taking wrong turns before stumbling upon the right one. For awhile we followed two tiny spotlights ahead, letting it guide us like fairy dust in a Disney movie. Then we came upon the lights of a hundred flashlights, winking across the bridge, petering slowly up and up and up. Clear your head, breathe, and take one step at a time. Keep putting one foot ahead of the other, steadily, surely, a couple thousand times. At the top, the sky was still veiled but darkness was relaxing its grip. Finding a cosy spot at its apex, I sat crosslegged, catching my breath, watching as the sun crept over the mountains, shyly peeking over at Machu Picchu. As its rays trickled over, the crown of the mountain was suddenly blazing and aglow. Like two people falling in love, as the sun slowly bared itself, so did Machu Picchu, shedding its shadows layer by layer, illuminating one part of itself at a time– its walls, its pathways, its bumps, and all the spaces in between.

I took a couple of photos and then put the camera away, stuffing it deep into my bag to try and rid myself of the temptation. Some moments, photos can’t capture. The movement of light, the shifting of colours, the significance, the awe. I remember just trying to take it all in, being glad to be alive and there.

I am not American.

I kept repeating that to myself, wondering why I was so frustrated and heartbroken over the results of the U.S. elections. It should not affect me so profoundly. That Donald Trump combined with a Republican congress and a conservative Supreme Court justice will likely result in the reduction of regulations on climate, businesses and Wall Street; the reduction of the role of the federal government in policy areas like education; sharp tax cuts for businesses and the wealthiest Americans; the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; the potential deportation of millions of undocumented migrants—these things do not affect me directly, so why do I care so much?

So, in my head, I went through a checklist of very logical reasons of why I’m upset personally. First and foremost, the very real and lasting damages that can be enacted on climate change agendas if Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese hoax, pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and scraps all the major regulations President Obama painstakingly put in place to reduce U.S. carbon emissions as Trump has promised to do, and which will shape all of our lives in the future. Secondly, the forewarnings of a global recession—the Australian dollar has already fallen, just as it did after Brexit, like what the actual fuck. Yes, yes, Trump will likely not fulfil many of his promises as he flipflops like an acrobat between them and things will calm down, but for now, the future still looks bleak from where I’m standing.

But I know that’s not why I felt so sad down deep into my bones. Those were just justifications to be voiced to friends and acquaintances so that I sound reasonable and not melodramatic and not just another woman feeling hysterically and reacting emotionally. The truth is, an immediate and wholly intangible consequence of his win was that it inspired very real feelings of rejection and unwelcomeness among nonwhites, women, LGBTQIA and disabled people–myself included. This was not just about Democrats vs. Republicans. I know this, because I did not, and many did not, feel like this when their party lost in other elections.

As always with these things, I feel like I have to put up a disclaimer: I don’t believe that Donald Trump truly believed in half the things he said, he said them for attention and for ratings and for votes, but he said them, and people obviously listened. And I do not at all believe that the hundreds of millions of Americans that voted for him were racist, misogynistic, hateful people, some maybe, but definitely the minority (there’s a great article here about how his hateful rhetoric resonated with people through villanising the Other so that the vulnerable white working class did not have to feel like they themselves failed. Update: on the other hand, from the sudden influx of media outpourings in attempting to understand the poor white middle class, this). I have always believed in the good in people, and I still do.

But it still hurts. As a woman. As a nonwhite.

It hurts of course, to know that some people voted because of the awful things Trump spouted about minorities and women. That’s a given. But it still hurts that more people voted in spite of those things. That your dignity as a human being was an inconvenience to be carelessly tossed aside on the way to the polls, something to be overlooked, in the pursuance of change, regardless of the nature of that change.

I know its not like Trump can repeal civil rights or the suffragettes movement (although with his stance on immigration and pro-life and how today alone there has been a rush of women scrambling to get IUDs, there are going to be tangible differences in ways of life for minorities and women in America), but the gesture of his winning on such a hateful rhetoric, however symbolic and it’s just words, only reinforces and legitimises the feelings of nonwhites and women as second class citizens. Of unwantedness, of unworthiness. It validated those little voices that sometimes and unexpectedly crawls out of the deepest, darkest recessions of your mind. The people that dismiss or patronise these feelings of disappointment and grief over these elections need to check their own privilege.

I didn’t even know how much it had meant to me to have a woman become President until it didn’t happen. As overused and heavy handed as this analogy is, it doesn’t lessen its sting nonetheless, that the smartest, most overqualified, hard working woman still lost the job to a dumb man with no experience and no appeared desire to learn or better himself, who, as an extra slap in the face, has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault, including one on a thirteen year old girl. What a humiliating defeat to such an undignified and unworthy opponent. Hillary, and all the women with her, stood under a literal glass ceiling at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, waiting, hoping, expecting to shatter it, only to realise it was reinforced with steel.

I don’t want to claim that I have had a disadvantaged life in any way. I know that I am extremely privileged, and if there was ever proof that a nonwhite woman could be afforded endless opportunities, I’m it. I know that this is not the case for most people, and so many have it worse off than me. This is not meant to be a woe is me piece. However, I wish I could put into words, the everyday, little, idiosyncrasies of being a nonwhite woman that affects who I am and how I conduct myself today, but I really can’t. I tried today, and I can’t. You’ll just have to take me at my word, because I have lived it, that it does matter.

And I can sympathise that people, many liberals and democrats included, were angry and suspicious of Hillary for mishandling classified information and stealing the nomination from the people’s choice (and my personal choice) Bernie Sanders in the rigged primaries. Maybe she should have never gotten the nomination in the first place, but she did. And people can be and should be angry and upset by how that came about and waxing poetry about what could’ve been, but they should have also realised that the presidency and their term is bigger than just the one appointed individual– it’s about their policies on climate, on health and education, on immigration, on families and taxes; it’s about their team and who they surround themselves with and who they appoint; and it’s about the principles of which they stood for and the people they vowed to fight for. And so, to those liberals and democrats who exercised their freedom to vote for third parties who they knew had no chance of winning, or not at all, out of protest, to make a statement, you absolutely had that right, but know that you wasted your vote and now you, along with millions of people, even unseen people like myself, have to live with those consequences.

And please don’t tell me that I’m preaching to the choir, or shouting into an echo-chamber, I know that okay. It’s just how I feel.

Grains of Sand

Laguna 69, Peru
Laguna 69, Peru

Peru is this crazy amazing whirlwind of landscapes that makes your head spin and your lungs ache from the dramatic changes in altitude. We went from blistering beaches to tall mountains to crumbling ruins to big cities to windswept deserts to more beaches to more cities on more mountains, to these little ruins also known as Machu Picchu, to these wild rainforests also known as the Amazon, to colonial capitals and to a floating town built on reeds on top of the highest lake in the world.

We started in Mancora, a sleepy seaside neighbourhood with one infamous party hostel, Loki, the hottest ticket in town. There, you wake up with the sun –setting that is, and curl your eyelashes for the night ahead, dancing in the moonlight, hooked on a feeling. We then escaped to the mountains, Chachapoyas, for Kuelap, one of Peru’s largest but most overlooked Incan ruins, so remote we had to take 4 overnight buses in 6 days to get in and out of there, so that we ended up spending more nights on a bus than in a bed that week.

Laguna 69
Laguna 69, Peru

Exhausted, we trudged to Laguna 69 in Huaraz, which boasts some of the most spectacular hikes in the world. Revived by the crisp air, valleys overrun with wildflowers, and waterfalls feeding spools of winding oxbow lakes, it all culminated in a series of snow peaked mountains and the bluest of lakes. So brightly, boldly blue that all the blues that came before it wept at its own lacklustre colour and a karner butterfly shed its wings in shame.

We hurtled on to Lima for Sophie’s birthday and celebrated with a champagne breakfast the morning we got in, the bubbles keeping us going long into the night at a local joint. The next day, we crawled out of the house only for brunch at El Pan de la Chola, an inspired café flooding our senses with roasted coffee and “the best sandwiches I have ever had in my life” –Lainey Allen, 2016. Its crusty, buttered bread was overstuffed with homemade hummus and avocado; marinated eggplant and feta; fresh pesto and oozing cheddar. Lima, and Peru as a whole, had some of the best food of our trip: crispy falafel wraps slathered in garlicky tahini goodness; delicious fresh homemade pastas; Pisco sours with a twist of lime, crushed brown sugar and frothed with egg whites. We also ate ourselves silly in Arequipa, inhaling exceptional vegan sushi with deep fried tofu and mango slices, paper-thin crepes with caramelised pear, goats cheese and nuts, and woodfired oven pizzas.

Huacachina
Huacachina, Peru

We saw penguins waddle and sea lions sunbathe in Paracas, the “poor-man’s-Galapagos” which was us to a tee, and sand-boarded down towering dunes in Huacachina, an oasis buried in the middle of the desert. On one evening, we trekked up to the ridge of one of the surrounding dunes, sliding down and losing half a step for every step taken in order to catch the sun set over vast wasteland. It was beautiful, almost indescribably so, just because it was so different from any other terrain I’ve experienced before, and its all just sand and light and shadows. We laughed and rolled around and wondered whether we could be the only people ever in the world to touch a particular grain of sand.

Riding Coattails

Casa Banos
La Casa Del Arbol, Banos

We were supposed to breeze straight through Ecuador, our coattails flapping in the wind behind us. Everyone rambles and raves about Colombia and Peru, but rarely does anyone mention the small country tucked in between, whose charm caught us by surprise.

It only took us 18 hours and 7 different vehicles to cross the border but we finally made it to the city of clouds, Quito. We wandered through plazas, churches and parks, climbing up a small hill (tailed by a policemen) to a beautiful cemetery enshrouded in mist. A bus ride away was the snowcapped Cotopaxi, and though it was closed due to volcanic activity while we were there, we were still able to hike its neighbours. Our local guide was a tiny powerhouse of a woman, who we would struggle to spot through the tall weeds as she sped through, crunching over the gravel path. The cooler climate and grassy marshlands pickled with wild rabbits made it feel like we were lost in the Scottish highlands –not necessarily the first landscape you would associate with a country plopped square on the equator.

Canyoning, Banos
Canyoning, Banos

Baños was a somersault of whitewater rafting, abseiling, bungee jumping, parasailing; a quick fix for adrenaline junkies straight to the veins. Our rafting instructor was certifiably insane, heckling other boats and forcing us to stand precariously on the cushioned edge of the inflatable raft holding hands and chanting, before throwing us into the whirlpools one by one. Where other boats would swerve to the side of the river, he would take us straight down the middle, at one point capsizing us over a particularly steep rapid where we lost two of our members (they were swiftly picked up by another boat ahead). We unknowingly jumped off the edge of a 45m waterfall, the steam rising off the bottom so thick we didn’t know how far the drop was.

Montenita
Montanita

We survived to make it to Montañita, a quaint beachside town with a good swell, it’s narrow streets lined with wooden stalls selling juices during the day and cocktails at night. Brimming with bars and restaurants, it’s easy to see how hopping and popping it’s nightlife can be. However we came soon after Ecuador’s terrible earthquake which hit a lot of its coast, and thus there was a tranquillity atypical to the town; its glaring orange sun going quietly into the night. We found refuge at the backpackers paradise, Kamala, stretching our legs and our time there one more day everyday, stuffing ourselves with cheese toasties and fudge brownies, as we lounged around in hammocks and daybeds for days on end, occasionally breaking out of our stupor for a round of pingpong or beerpong before retiring once more into the pool sipping on a White Russian.

Cuenca was all waterfront and willow trees and fedoras worth thousands of dollars apiece, intricately and hotly melded to the width of your head. It was a mishmash of falling asleep in felt-lined coffins, scoldings by park policemen for being over 12 years and swinging in perfect harmony, and squashing ourselves onto one sofa with steaming cups of milo in hand, binge watching rom-coms and dance movies in the communal tv room which we managed to monopolise every evening, perfectly unaware of the dash and the rush of the days that would follow on a string of buses in Northern Peru.

Colombia’s Magic

Salento, Colombia
Salento, Colombia

The rest of Colombia moved like a blur, with a few days scattered here and there as we moved southward. We were supposed to have also seen the North, but due to our escapades in Capurgana, I ended up having to skip it altogether (any excuse to come back to Colombia). Salento is home to Valle del Cauca, where the tallest palm trees in the world sway, its long limbs flailing precariously in the wind. There, we also accidentally found ourselves 18km deep in a rough hike through rain and fog clad in only in a dress and converse, so that place is forever tainted for me. It’s many rolling hills, paddocks and waterfalls make it a beautiful place for horseback riding, the horses often free to gallop wildly and without abandon. This did result however, in waking up and feeling every muscle, joint and sinew in my feeble body and I couldn’t do steps for days following that ride.

Street art, Bogota
Street art, Bogota

Bogota is huge and complicated and overwhelming and I only managed to explore a tiny pocket of it. Most time was spent in La Candelaria, the hip, bohemian part of town, full of street art, compact candlelit bars and crooked hostels. It is easy to get lost; the whole city is a gallery, the streets your exhibition, a sea of graffiti and colour, where beautiful works of art sit side by side with loud political commentary. Colombia has such a rich recent history that is very present and tangible in it’s architecture, it’s artwork, and it’s people, and is a big part of what makes it so magical.

We had one of the best nights out in Bogota at Theatron, the biggest gay nightclub in the Americas. The line wound around the block, through a parking lot, piling up to the entrance, a renovated old fashioned theatre. Set like a cul-de-sac of clubs and bars, we entered in awe into a thundering Ibiza-like stage where we watched a killer dragshow, before wandering next door to the lively reggaeton room in an abandoned church. For air, we made our way to a rooftop terrace hosting live music, before finally settling down in a cosy pub with billiards. The real kicker is that you pay a set 40,000 pesos entry fee (about $18 on a Saturday night) and with it you receive a cup. This cup is refillable in any part of the club with any spirit you can dream of till 2am. It’s like going on a crazy bar crawl where all the drinks are free.

Monsarrate, Bogota
Monserrate, Bogota
Popayan, Colombia
Popayan, Colombia

Popayan had the least colour of any city I have ever been to–and I don’t mean that metaphorically. Aesthetically and structurally, it was all white and grey. Curiously, zebra crossings -which ARE traditionally black and white- shine every colour of the rainbow in Popayan, the brightest bits of town! It was like entering a dystopian world, where oceans run pink and skies bleed mustard. There is beauty in its clean, crisp look though, like snow powdering a quaint countryside. This was only heightened by the religious parade we stumbled across on our first night, the light of a hundred candles flickering across the small streets and putting the stars to shame.

City of the Eternal Spring

Guatape, Colombia
Guatape, Colombia

As a traveler through Latin America, you hear a lot about Colombia and how fantastic it is and how easy it is to get stuck there and how you absolutely must leave at least a month for it that’s how fantastic the cities, the nightlife, the dancing and the people (more accurately: the women) are there. Then, within Colombia, you start hearing about Medellin.

I never thought I’d see the day when I would well up in a conversation about the subway, but I could feel my eyes prickle, hearing Hernando talk so passionately about when the metro was built in Medellin. How proud and valued it was that no one would dare deface or litter on its tracks out of reverence and respect. That when Medellin was branded the Most Dangerous City in the world back in the 90’s when Pablo Escobar ruled the streets, how the metro represented a shining beacon of hope for its people; that they could still come and design and build up society together. Medellin has since gained the title of Most Innovative City due to a little trick known as “democratic architecture” or, turning negative spaces into positive ones. Brilliantly, the city created light installations and libraries in the most run-down, dangerous areas of the city, making them places of socialising and learning. They commissioned Fernando Botero to sculpt his famous bronze distorted figures and filled a crime-ridden plaza with them, transforming the square into a hub of art and tourism. They built an efficient cablecart system that allowed the favelas up in the mountains and the people who lived in them to feel a part of the city and cared for.

Medellin, Colombia
Paragliding in Medellin

Now, affectionately nicknamed the City of the Eternal Spring for its cooler climate almost 1,500 meters high, Medellin is enclosed in a parade of mountains that is best captured up another 1,000 meters in the air -preferably, paragliding. Paragliding is actually a lot more peaceful than you would think; rather than the usual adrenaline rush of having your stomach sliding up your ribcage, you make the leap off the cliff gently, sitting back comfortably into your snug harness, as the wind sweeps past your ears. The city sprawls like an intricately woven carpet beneath you, with loose threads of luxury and pockets of poverty stitched side by side.

From there, you can see Park Lleras, clad with tourists, bottles and ciggies in hand. Wrapped around the park are bow-tied waiters inviting passerbys into their packed pricey restaurants and cocktail bars, accompanied by hawk-eyed bouncers, trained to pick out stragglers trying to casually sneak in to relieve their alcohol-laden bladders in their pristine bathrooms. Around the corner lies a street choked with hipster cafes, such as Pergamino and Cafe Velvet, whose wooden paneled benches and creamy coffees remind me much of Melbourne.

Guatape, Colombia
Guatape, Colombia

A short bus ride from the city is another charming town called Guatape. It’s cobblestoned streets and brightly coloured buildings are reminiscent of Antigua, but with even finer detail, as each house had its own unique little paintings, individually and lovingly laboured upon its walls. Coupled with its old-fashioned streetlights, you can point your camera anywhere and shoot a picture worthy of the album.

Known for its majestical maze of lakes, Guatape also boasts Pablo Escobar’s abandoned lakehouse, which now hosts an infamous paintballing arena. It’s guns are known to be pressurized and lethal, and will leave you with nasty scars and a great story to scare your grandkids with, about that one time you were under heavy fire at Escobar’s house. One that blossomed violet on my upper thigh, I was told by someone who trained with SWAT teams, that he had only ever seen rubber bullets leave similar marks. Even as far as Peru though, backpackers pull up their sleeves and roll up their trousers to display their perfectly round skin discolourations and compare their battle wounds.

Pablo Escobar's Lakehouse, Guatape
Pablo Escobar’s bombed-out Lakehouse, Guatape
Paintballing scars, Guatape
Paintballing scars, Guatape

Guatape is also home to a giant, monolithic rock formation, La Piedra, which, in just 740 steps, you are rewarded with a breathtaking (also see: stairs) view of the lake and all the islands it creates below. On a clear day, the view looks photoshopped, the lake too blue, the islands too green; a patchwork of moss among turquoise. The day we went, there was a light film of mist hanging in the air, creating a magical, mystical scene of a land far, far away.