When disaster strikes your travel destination

Chimborazo sunrise

As I watched the footage of towns reduced to piles of rubble and people searching for their families after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador, I wasn’t sure if the trip I had booked a month later would happen.

The earthquake hit about a month before I was scheduled to depart on a 5-day mountain bike tour on the Cotopaxi volcano. It was a bit surreal to think about how close my trip came to when the earthquake hit, but my first thought was about my family and how worried they would be had I been there. (And an important reminder of why you should always leave loved ones with a detailed travel itinerary.)

It’s a reality check for any traveler. The world is fragile and disaster can strike at any moment.

I felt a range of emotions about my trip to Ecuador. I felt overwhelmingly connected and sad for the people who had lost everything. That feeling compounded with my own personal struggles and how much I had relied on this trip to get me through a rough patch in my own life. I also felt guilty for even thinking of my own problems when it was nothing compared to the Ecuadorians who had lost everything.

I e-mailed Ana Lucia Noboa, manager of the Quito-based mountain bike tour group I signed up for, Biking Dutchman. Quito had experienced very little damage, she said. The tours had not been impacted at all but the coast was nearly destroyed. She was sending tents, food, clothes and supplies to the people there and planning a trip to deliver the supplies to the worst areas.

“I have never lived such a tragedy,” Ana said “Even though we had had many earthquakes before and volcano eruptions and floods, this is by far the worst tragedy I have ever witnessed. The only thing that gives me comfort is when I am helping.”

I sent Ana a small donation via Paypal to assist with her efforts and I’ve decided to go ahead with my trip because so many Ecuadorians depend on the tourism industry for their livelihoods. It’s the one small thing I can do in the midst of a tragedy. The news often shows us the worst damage and gives the impression the entire country is in ruins, when that it not the case. This is what happened in Nepal, where tourism dropped 30 percent in 2015 after two earthquakes killed 9,000 people.

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I considered volunteering and due to limited time, I’m not sure if I can make it to the coast after my bike tour. But I am leaving a few days open after the tour if a volunteer opportunity presents itself.

My trip to Ecuador has taken on a new purpose and meaning. Since the earthquake, I’ve met several Ecuadorian students at the university I work at who are raising money to help their families and friends who have been impacted by the earthquake. Several of them have offered to help me learn Spanish as I prepare for my trip.

It’s taught me that even though events in the world can feel so far away and that they have little impact on our daily lives, the world is a lot smaller and connected than we think.

How you can help:

Donate to Biking Dutchman’s relief efforts by sending any amount via Paypal to biking.dutchman@gmail.com

World Vision has teams on the ground delivering water and temporary shelters to victims.

The Ecuadorian Red Cross also has teams on the ground providing first aid and rescuing victims.

 

Where should I travel in 2016?

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The beaches of Cuba

While most of you are agonizing over New Years Resolutions, I find myself having similar feelings about my travel plans for the next year. I think of a New Year in terms of the places I’ll go and with a limited number of vacation days, I know that I have to plan strategically to feed my wanderlust.

For my next international trip in 2016, I’ve decided to head back to Latin America. There’s a few reasons for this. While my wanderlust aches to explore new continents, Central and South America have a huge hold on my heart. I’ve now traveled to Costa Rica, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and Cuba and I still can’t enough of the warm and vibrant culture.

Because of the proximity to Florida, flights to Latin America are cheaper than flying anywhere else internationally. And did I mention how cheap it is when you actually get there? I managed to spend two weeks in Peru in 2014 for less than $2,000 and that included a 5-day guided hike along the Salkantay trek. 

At this point in my life, Latin America makes the most sense. And I would thoroughly love to explore every country in it. With that said. I’m agonizing over which country to pick next. I’ve narrowed down to three options and I need your help deciding. I’ll be announcing which trip I’m picking on Jan. 3 at 6 p.m. via Periscope.

Here are my options:

Colombia

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Bogota

Colombia has been on my list for a while but watching “Narcos” actually made me ache to visit this country even more. Yes, I realize Narcos would probably scare a normal person. But did you see those luscious mountains? Colombia is where I want to trace to footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, explore the country’s diverse landscape and get to know the people.

Pros: Colombia has cheap flights. According to a Kayak.com search, I could snag roundtrip airfare for $191. There’s Cartagena—the coastal colonial city with cobblestone streets and Caribbean influence. There’s art, music and culture in Bogota. There’s salsa dancing and cafes in Medellin.

Cons: Colombia is mucho grande and I only have 10 days to spend. While the airfare is cheap, I’ll likely need additional airfare or have to endure long bus rides to get to all my top destinations. And while Colombia is much more secure that it was 10 years ago, there’s a good chance I’ll be on this trip alone and I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with that.

Ecuador

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Photo credit: Elle Wildermuth

This lovely little gem of a country has everything I’m looking for: the Amazon jungle, amazing beaches and a volcano. It’s small enough that I can likely do all those things in 10 days and from what I’ve been able to tell, bus tickets are the cheapest here.

Pros: According to Kayak.com, I can snag roundtrip tickets here for about $500 or less. There’s a 3-day mountain biking tour I can do of the Cotopaxi Volcano. There’s the laidback coastal surfing town of Montanita and I hear the seafood dishes along the coast are amazing and only cost $4-5. Another big plus here is that a wonderful couple I met on the trek to Machu Picchu will be traveling here in the spring. As much as I like solo travel, I love having shared adventures and I really like the idea of meeting up with my travel buds.

Cons: I can’t afford Galapagos and it’s on my bucket list. It’s really hard for me to imagine going to Ecuador and skipping the Galapagos Islands but no matter how I roll the dice it looks like it would cost between $800 and $1,000 just for this excursion, plus I’d also be short on time. I can’t decide if it’s worth it to go all the way to Ecuador and skip an experience that’s so high up on my bucket list.

 

Cuba/Mexico

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Ever since I spent a week in Cuba last spring, I can’t stop thinking about going back. I’m literally obsessed with this amazing country and now that I have the lay of the land, I want to go back and see what it’s like to experience this country outside of a tour group. This time I’d skip the U.S. approved travel licenses and expensive charter flights and fly in through Cancun. As a travel blogger I think having the experience of going legally vs. illegally to Cuba would be valuable not only to myself but for my readers. Ideally I’d spend 4-5 days getting my diving certification in Tulum, Mexico and then flying into Cuba for another five days.

Pros: For this trip I’d get to knock out two countries in one trip. Right now Kayak.com tells me that flights to Cancun are about $300 from Orlando. Another ticket to Cuba would likely be between $200 and $300. Tulum has some amazing beaches, cave diving, food and Mayan ruins. Cuba has everything I love: grit, warm people, art, music and a million opportunities for off the beaten path adventures. It’s like traveling to a different planet but its only 90 miles from Florida!

Cons: I don’t really want to go back to Cuba alone. As much as I feel safe in Cuba, I am a walking target for getting taken advantage of. And as amazing as the Cubans are, I learned last year that they are very clever at finding ways to get you to fork over cash. The tourism infrastructure here is a bit unreliable—with no ATMs or easily accessible wifi. There’s also the thought that I’ve already been here and maybe I should go somewhere I’ve never been before.

See my dilemma? I need your help! I’d love all comments, suggestions and feedback on which trip I should pick! And don’t forget to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter below for exclusive weekend getaway ideas and updates on my travel plans.

 

Winning and Losing in Cuba

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The half written journal entries and mess of scribbles in my notebook prove that Cuba is a difficult place to translate into words. For the last week, when people have asked me “How was your trip?” I usually stare blankly at them for a few seconds before responding: I’m not sure how to sum it up in just a few words.

Cuba is nothing like anything you’ve ever seen and it’s everything you’ve ever imagined. I can only say that I’ve come back from Cuba with more questions than before I left. During an outdoor dance performance later in the week at a community project, the man organizing the show said it best:

“Enjoy my beautiful country but don’t try to understand it.”

When I asked him what he meant by that, he replied: “I don’t even understand it.”

To truly experience Cuba you must forget everything you thought you knew about this country and let it take you, dismantle your ideas of the world and put them back together one piece at a time. As an American, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking “our way is the best way,” but Cuba is a heartfelt reminder of some of the things we’ve lost in the name of progress.

So I’m holding off on making any conclusions, which makes much of my experience impossible to write about. Instead I’ve decided to tally up my wins and losses on the trip, as to give aspiring Cuba travelers an idea of the highlights as well as the conundrums I faced on my trip.  (Note: even when I “losing,” I was having a ball)

So here’s day 1 & 2.

Winning

Strolling down Paseo del Prado

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On weekends, this tree-lined walkway along Havana’s main corridor is filled with government-run community projects where artists lead workshops for children. It’s amazing to see artists at work showcasing some of their finest work and making beautiful pieces of art out of few resources. Want a seat at a project? Apparently it’s B.Y.O.S. (Bring your own stool).

Eating at a Paladar

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If you are looking for homemade Cuban food, eating at a paladar is your best bet. A few years ago the government loosened restrictions to allow private owners to open restaurants out of their homes. I was expecting to eat dinner in someone’s living room but many of the paladares look and function like any other restaurant with the owner’s bedroom hidden upstairs or next door. On our first night we went to Dona Blanquita, with an upstairs balcony overlooking Prado. While Dona Blanquita would be one of the pricier dinners of the week (entrees range from $7-11), the food, mojitos and atmosphere was authentic and the food was delicious.

Drinking mojitos on top of Hotel La Inglaterra

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Walking into the Hotel Inglaterra is like stepping back into the early 1900s with its well-preserved ambiance and neoclassical architecture. During the afternoons a large crowd of Cubans and tourists gather outside the hotel’s sidewalk café to dance to live music. But the real delight here is the hotel’s rooftop terrace that has one of the best views of the city, live music and $3 mojitos.

Taking a trip to the farmacia

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Another throwback in time is the 1898 restored Farmacia Taqechel. Porcelain canisters on floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves line the interior and herbs and spices are for sale. It’s buildings like the painstakingly well-preserved farmacia that stand apart from the crumbling facades and make you wonder what the entire city could look like if there was enough money or planning to restore it all.

Getting chocolate drunk

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Museo de Chocolate is a café that doubles as a chocolate museum and serves cups of creamy chocolate milk with honey. The cacao is grown in eastern Cuba around Guantanamo and the chocolate is made on the premises. I also doubled up on truffles with rum, which were amazing. I’m not sure if it was the cocoa beans or the rum that had me buzzing.

Losing

Almost getting kicked out of Hemingway’s hotel

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The look on my face while I’m getting yelled at by museum staff.

Not yet off my sugar high, I busted up into Hemingway’s famous room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos squeling with excitement. For just $2 you can get a guided tour of his favorite hotel room where he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “The Green Hills of Africa.” The room has been carefully preserved and replicated to look the same way as he left it and I when I saw his typewriter and desk near a large window overlooking Havana, I was geeking out so hard I almost lost my mind. I asked the women guiding our tour if I could take a picture with the desk and after she said yes I quickly threw my bag onto Hemingway’s dresser, pulled out the chair and plopped right down only to be met with a look of horror. She let out a gasp and then a loud reprimand: NO NO NO! YOU CANNOT DO THAT. Apparently in a country that worships Hemingway even more than I do, this is one of this biggest faux pas one can make. Oops. The sting of embarrassment lasted for the rest of the tour up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where Hemingway was known to swing back a mojito or two.

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The mojitos are flowing on the roof at Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Falling for the Salsa Festival

After dinner with Anita on our second night, I decided to search for some live musica on my own. That’s when I met Alberto, a 29-year-old Cuban in a park who adamantly told me he was singing in a band at the club La Casa de la Musica later that night. Right away he asks if I like salsa and promises to take me to a salsa festival the next day. But first I must meet his family, he tells me excitedly. Then I must come over for dinner before the salsa festival. And tonight, I can come watch him perform. No problem, he tells me as he holds my hand and leads me through the streets of Havana. I realize a woman who has any wits about her might be thinking: no thanks. But my first thought is: I’m going to hang out with a Cuban family and go to a real Cuban salsa festival! This is going to be an adventure.

When we arrive at Alberto’s house, I sit awkwardly on the couch as his four cousins and brothers gather around in a circle and look dumbfounded. The two-bed room apartment with concrete floors has sheets that divide the bedrooms and small kitchen while a flat screen television plays music videos. I can’t understand what anyone is saying but I get the feeling its something along the lines: “Where the hell did she come from?” A blonde American girl is apparently an anomaly in these parts.

Hours later, it’s not apparent to me that I’m responsible for buying rounds at a bar next to Casa de la Musica until Alberto asks for $10 CUCs and I see him walk behind the bar and deliver it to the bartender. Alberto says to follow him to the venue and when he tells me I need to fork over $20 to get in, I balk—it’s only $10 to get in per person. Don’t you get in for free because you are the musician?, I ask. Alberto says he’ll be right back and after waiting for 20 minutes, I realized I’ve been duped.

I kick myself on the walk home for being so naïve but then my first world guilt sets in. Maybe I should have just paid for him to get in and not made a fuss. The next day when I told our tour guide, Jesus, about the mishap, he barreled over with laughter. Apparently the salsa fest line is the oldest one in the book. “If anyone ever invites you to come with them to a salsa fest, don’t believe the bullshit,” Jesus said.

 

 

 

Kicking the solo travel blues

On top of the world during my solo adventure to Peru.

I’m all about solo travel but often the biggest challenge to traveling alone is that it isn’t always cheap. That realization put me in a major funk last week when I decided to cancel a trip to the Florida Keys.

As Valentine’s Day approached, I found myself sulking hardcore. I had spent hours tirelessly searching for affordable accommodations but struggled to find a hotel room under $200 per night. I floated the trip to a few friends but they weren’t interested. If only I had someone who was obligated to do stuff with me, I thought. The constant theme of doing everything solo was starting to feel old.

I decided that the Keys were just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d see Hemmingway’s house when I had a boyfriend who I could take a weekend trip with.

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And then I remembered a promise I made to myself.  Exactly two years ago I had wanted to take a weekend trip to St. Petersburg and Cedar Key but I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. This would be my first solo travel jaunt and I was so glad I went. I promised myself  then that I’d never let my lack of a travel companion be an excuse for not taking a trip or doing anything else for that matter.

I’ve been dying to go to the Keys ever since I learned who Ernest Hemingway was and each year I’ve put off the trip even though it’s only a five-hour drive from Daytona Beach. I believe that if you really want to make something happen in this life, you’ll find a way.

So when a Google search led me to a Key West campground, I booked a campsite (a much more affordable option) instead of canceling the trip. Do I even own a tent? Nope. Have I ever even set up a tent or camped alone? Nope. But what the hell, I’ll figure it out, I told myself. And even if I don’t I’m sure it will make a really good story.

Photo of Key West by Natalie Kornicks.

 

Here’s the thing, if you never expand your horizons you are always going to stay in the same place. But as much as I love traveling I still get stuck in this rut sometimes where it just feels too hard to put myself out there and try something new. But being single is not an excuse. If anything, it’s an opportunity.

I thought about this as I headed to Orlando last week for Nerd Nite at Stardust Video and Coffee. I had never been there and didn’t have anyone to go with but had heard about the night of interesting speakers and conversation and knew it was my kind of jam.

 

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Nerd Nite at Stardust Coffee in Orlando.

No matter how many times I venture out alone, there’s always this initial feeling of “what the hell am I doing?” when I walk into a new place. But in no time, I was making friends and struck up a great conversation with woman who had just gotten back from a six month backpacking trip in Thailand. I also found out about a dozen other really awesome things going on in Orlando that I can’t wait to check out.

And then, when an opportunity to work on a possible project came my way this week (stay turned for details), I was asked: “Do you have family or a spouse or any thing that would keep you from traveling?”

“Nope, not all,” I replied and I had one of those fleeting moments where I felt like I am exactly where I am suppose to be in life.