How to Camp on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

How to Camp on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Here’s a breakdown of camping along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, which is hands down my favorite country in the world. The landscapes, the people, the language, and relative affordability make this a great place to travel and camp.

This is my first time camping internationally with my one person Passage 1 tent from REI, which is light and has an excellent rain cover that has served me well as a tour guide who has camped all over the United States and its National Parks.

I started my backpacking trip two weeks ago by flying into Santa Marta, Colombia. This is my second visit to Colombia, and since I have already been to Cartagena, I decided to start my trip in Santa Marta. I plan to travel throughout the entire country, heading south, for the next few months on my 90 day tourist visa.

Before starting, I had no idea how accessible it would be to camp. Not only is it cheaper than paying for a dorm room in a hostel, I also find it to be quieter since there are rarely any people snoring next to me. I’m a light sleeper, so a quiet place to sleep is muy importante.

I hope these tips inspire you to camp in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast!

Santa Marta, Colombia

Hostal Chimila: $3/night including a light breakfast

View this post on Instagram

Day 3 of camping 🇨🇴

A post shared by Charlie (@vulnerabletraveler) on

I initially wanted to do the $350, 4-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), but since I came to the country in the peak of the rainy season that lasts from September to December, I decided against it. I spent a week at Chimila, which costs $1 round trip via bus to get into the city of Santa Marta. They also rent out bikes for free for the first two hours, but since it’s so hot here, I only rode the bike into the city once. It also located a bit far from the Rodadero Beach, so taking a bus is also a good idea.

Pros: The pool and the many friendly, mostly Venezuelan volunteers/staff. The atmosphere was incredibly relaxing, too. I don’t consider myself a homebody, but damn, this place made me want to stay forever! When I talked to one of the awesome Venezuelan staff members, Kelly, over breakfast, she mentioned that this place had served as a spiritual retreat for priests who would come here. Their positive energy has definitely stayed. I definitely made use of the hammock and the lounge chairs by the pool.

Cons: Lots of mosquitos, so buy Nopikex bug spray. I ended up lending a bunch of my handy spray to the staff in the evenings! There are also no roofed camping areas which can be a problem if you don’t have a solid rainfly.

Santa Marta wasn’t my favorite city. It’s very hot and dusty and full of tourists who seem to be on the prowl for drugs and sex. There was a great natural food cafe in the Parque de los Novios, which had a killer ceviche made with green apples, and the street art was impressive, but I wouldn’t go back. Santa Marta is more of a jumping off point to explore the neighboring activities , like Parque Tayrona or scuba diving in Taganga.

View this post on Instagram

En el parque de los novios con mi novia, Ceviche. ❤️

A post shared by Charlie (@vulnerabletraveler) on

Parque Tayrona

Eco Hostal Yuluka: $11/Night for a dorm room (no camping), breakfast included

Since Yuluka doesn’t have camping, I went all bougie and boked a dorm room at this relaxing hostel a few minutes away from the entrance to Parque Tayrona, and I’m glad I did. I went hiking into the park to see if I wanted to camp there, but because of all the mud, I’m glad I decided not to.

Pros: Friendly staff, cooler weather than Santa Marta, the best patacones (tostones) of life, a refreshing pool, and a free morning shuttle to the Park Entrance.

Cons: No camping, pricer food, a tiny pool, very few Colombians stayed here when I was here. Most of the guests were Dutch so I didn’t practice much of my Spanish outside of speaking with the staff.

Parque Tayrona: This is one of Colombia’s most famous parks. The jungle borders the ocean and if you’re lucky, you can spot monkeys on your hike down to the beaches. Again, I went during rainy season, so I didn’t want to lug my gear through the mud pits to camp. The hike from the entrance to Cabo San Juan del Guia, the most popular beach for backpackers, took about 3 hours and I was almost knee-high in mud. It was an adventure but not one I’d repeat, especially not with my camping gear!

Cost for a day pass: 61,000 COP ($20 USD). Camping spots cost $10+ USD, depending on where you book.

Palomino

El Arbol Ecolodges: Camping for $5/night without breakfast

Palomino is an odd mix between a sleepy, agricultural town and mecca for partygoing backpackers. Not a place I’d return to because it’s tourist central, but it was a decent halfway point with a beach between Parque Tayrona and Riohacha. I ate lunch at Sua Restaurant, which has great salads.

View this post on Instagram

Después de tanta fritanga, viene la ensalada.

A post shared by Charlie (@vulnerabletraveler) on

Pros: The cutest, cuddliest cats roam the property. There’s a hammock and a roof over the camp sites. The neighboring little food stall sells great falafel and arepas de huevo. For all you yoga lovers, there’s 9 AM yoga in the morning. The beach is a ten minute walk away.

Cons: No breakfast and there were tons of mosquitoes.

Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira

Analaüli Hospedaje Y Restaurante: $2 for a roofed camping spot without breakfast

La Guajira is Colombia and South America’s northernmost point. It’s rugged terrain, where the resilient Wayuu people have resisted colonization from the English, Dutch, and Spanish for centuries. You can book tours from Santa Marta, Riohacha, and more places, but since I speak Spanish and wanted to save money, I decided to wing it and head out there on my own.

I took a shared taxi from Riohacha to the town of Uribia, where I waited for nearly an hour for a shared 4 x 4 jeep to make the 2-3 hour journey to Cabo de la Vela, a remote fishing village to the north. I began chatting with Reiner, a local who took my to his aunt’s hostel. A group of Colombians from Bogota were also making the trip. The road to Cabo was muddy, and our land rover got stuck in the mud multiple times that day, so we had to call other drivers to pull us out of the mud with a makeshift belt and hook.

Once at the hostel, I tried the lobster for $10 which was really good. Just ask for some lime to sprinkle on it since it’s a little dry. The hostel was bare bones- we had to ask for toilet paper and there was no running water. Bucket baths cost a little less than $1. I paid Reiner about $33 USD for an excursion that night to the lighthouse and surrounding beaches, and my fare would also cover the boat ride to and from Punta Gallinas, an excursion to the beaches there, and the ride back to Uribia. It was a pretty sweet deal considering the distances traveled.

Pros: The camping spot is right near the beach, where kite surfers of all levels are gliding on (or crashing into) the shallow water.

Cons: No running water and I wish I’d brought my own toilet paper, but hey, it WAS only $2 and we were in the middle of a coastal desert, yo. I also wish I’d brought more snacks. Shout out to the Colombians who shared their snacks with me!

Punta Gallinas

Hospedaje Alexandra: $3.50 for a camping spot, not including breakfast

Punta Gallinas is the stunning northernmost point of South America. To get there, we took a 5 am boat through the choppy water for two hours. Hospedaje Alexandra is pretty much the only place to stay and is right up the steps from the port. We had a $3 USD breakfast of an arepa with eggs around 9 am, then from 10 am to 2 pm, we went on an included tour of the surrounding beaches and view points.

On the way there, we passed by goats that weaved their way through the cacti to chomp down on the greenest grass the region has seen in five years, which is how long the area went without rain. Our guide told us that one farmer had 200 goats, but by the end of the drought, he only had 50 left. I’m glad the Wayuu finally had some much deserved rain.

My favorite part of the tour was the final leg, during which we were dropped off at the base of a massive sand dune we scaled, then ran down and plunged into the neighboring sea. It was magic.

Pros: Hammocks galore at the Hospedaje. The fried fish they serve is massive. I decided to try their vegetrian lunch instead, which turned out to be a tasty lentil soup with friend plantains and salad.

Cons: Bathing in stored seawater was not my favorite, but again, it is remote desert! It’s a small price to pay for stunning scenery.

I hope my tips for camping in Colombia’s Caribbean coast have been useful! If there’s anything else you’d like to know, drop a line in the comments.

-Charlie

Advertisements

A Budget Travel Guide: The Big and Little Corn Islands

A Budget Travel Guide: The Big and Little Corn Islands

On a map, Big and Little Corn Island are unassuming specks in the Atlantic Ocean. They are located off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. They are unforgettable gems for the budget traveler.

I decided to go to the Corn Islands because I’ve heard so many other Peace Corps volunteers rave about them. When the $165-200 round trip flight from Managua equates to roughly the same as our monthly earnings, and they still go, then it must be worth it, right? Since my mom had already spent $1,200 on her flight from Pasco, Washington, I dug into my savings to buy our round trip tickets. We were on a budget because we were traveling to the Apoyo Lagoon after this.

You probably haven’t heard of Big and Little Corn Island because they are so small. Why are they named after a golden vegetable? Some say that it’s because of the wild corn that grows on the island. Others attribute the name to phonetics: pronounce “corn” in a Caribbean accent, and it sounds like “carne”, the Spanish word for meat. The islands were known for the cattle that grazed the land and whose meat fed the British pirates and colonizers in the 17th century. Most of the people who live there are the descendants of escaped slaves of Afro-Caribbean descent.

I didn’t have many expectations. I knew I’d explore gorgeous beaches and that I’d hear locals of Afro-Caribbean descent switch seamlessly from English Kreole to Spanish (or English). I’d only been to the NiCaribbean coast once in August, when I led a classroom management workshop for English teachers at the ANPI (Asociacion Nicaraguense de Profesores de Ingles) conference in Bluefields. ANPI paid for my flight and lodging, and some meals. When my meals weren’t covered, I was happy to sit in the park and share a $1 loaf of dense Coconut Bread with Amilcar, a friendly cab driver I met and came out to. I was excited to return to one of the few parts of the world where the language and culture of Latin American fuses beautifully with that of the Caribbean.

Corn-Island-Travel-Nicaragua-Tips

Day 1
Managua to Big Corn Island: 216 miles, or 1.5 hours via La Costeña AirlinesA cheaper option is to take a boat from Bluefields (a much longer trip)

It was a hot, humid Christmas Day. My mom and I woke up at 5 AM, then sat for three hours on a refurbished school bus from Matagalpa to the Managua Airport ($3). Luckily, our flight to Big Corn Island would only take half the time. We boarded around 11 AM. Our tiny airplane took off, and we shook and wobbled with the slightest gust of wind. Nervous excitement and tourists filled the plane. My ears plugged painfully as the cabin pressure changed. We cruised over the Atlantic Ocean. I was enamored by the way the puffy, small clouds cast dark blue shadows over the crystalline Caribbean Sea. Each cloud caste its own imaginary island on the water. The shallow water revealed undulating sand dunes underneath it. A flooded Sahara Desert. I could hear passengers chatting and pointing out the window, but my ears were too plugged to make out the words. I opened and closed my mouth to no avail.

After 30 minutes of flying over the massive, blue Dalmatian’s coat, the plane’s nose tipped down and we dove for a landing strip that divided Big Corn Island in two. We skidded to a stop, zooming past turquoise and orange houses on stilts. Three black children, resting under the shade of a massive palm tree, pointed at our plane, immediately distinguishing the locals from the tourists.

Corn-Island-Nicaragua-Travel-Caribbean-Tips
Big Corn Island is pretty small, with a comically massive dock jutting out of its south end.

I was the last one who exited the plane on the staircase. The tropical wall of breezy, yet sweltering humidity hit me. My mom and I took a cab for less than $1 to our hotel, the Tropical Dreams Hotel. I’d found it on Airbnb, and the rooms were $20 a night.

Our room was sweltering hot, and had no air conditioning. For 97% of my Peace Corps service, I’ve been used to relying on fans to cool off. Air conditioning is a luxury to me. The amount of mosquitoes quickly made us regret not bringing a full can of bug spray. My mom ended up upgrading us to a room with air conditioning and far less mosquitoes for the two following nights. The upgrade brought the room up to $60 with breakfast included (cereal, instant coffee, and toasted coconut bread). Our hosts were super friendly, as was the dog, Gretchen. If you go, watch out for this puppy’s warm, friendly licks!

On the budgetary bright side, our stay included a 10% discount at Marlene’s “Relax” Restaurant next door. Marlene has won several cooking competitions for her Caribbean concoctions, like Rondon (a coconut stew) and freshly caught lobster in garlic sauce. We ended up spending most of out meals there. The prices were double what I’m used to on the mainland, but it does cost more to ship everything out here.

Tropical Dreams Hotel to the Beach: A five-minute walk

The beach had peach-colored sand, coconuts laying around like easter eggs, and palm trees anchored into the sand. Their thin, emerald leaves rustled in the wind. The only other people there were two mestizo women and a handful of prepubescent boys. They splashed around near the shore, careful not to get swept away by the sneaky current. I’m a strong swimmer, but this was one of the strongest currents I’ve ever felt. It pulled me to my right as I faced out toward Africa. Then, I heard a “chh chh” sound. A 12-year-old boy waved me over to talk to him. His friend was already chatting next to my mom, who preferred to enjoy the beach by sitting on a log rather than swimming against the current.

As soon as I was close enough, the boy told me how beautiful I was. He grabbed my arm and traced it with his finger, as if assessing my level of beauty according to my whiteness. “Ohhh, yeah! You are pretty. Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. “No, I’m a lesbian.” His three friends came by to listen in. I was trying to fight the waves. It’s hard to have a learning moment when you’re getting slapped in the face by salt water and tossed around like a doll in a washing machine.

“Oh! So you’re a dyke!” the boy responded. His friends laughed. Calmly, I responded: “I don’t like being called that. It’s not nice. What if I came up to you and called you an idiot?” His friends laughed. “But he is an idiot!” one of his friends piped up. More laughter. “Well, I’m not going to say that because I don’t know you” I explained. “Well, how do you say it then?” the little flirt asked. “Les-bi-an-a” I responded. This interaction reminded of coming out on the bus to a surprised older man. I’ve never come out to so many curious strangers as I have in Nicaragua.

I’m not sure if this boy really understood what the word lesbian meant, since he proceeded to ask me for a kiss on the cheek before he had to go. I said no, and that I didn’t want to. He had been touching my arms and looked me up and down. “Why not?” he asked. “That’s not nice. What if I came up to you and starting touching you where you wouldn’t want to be touched?” He looked down, then waved goodbye as he ran back to shore.

He was very persistent for a 12-year-old, and I wonder how much I impacted him, if at all. As I thought about what forces made this prepubescent child feel the need to seduce women at such an early age, I thought of queer blogger Bani Amor’s post about the flipside: when white women assault men of color. This article made me extremely uncomfortable at first, but it brings up a point no one talks about. I had never thought of white women as the perpetrators of these crimes, but now I think more critically of where I position myself as a queer, Mexican, white woman in Nicaragua. At first, I selfishly thought, well, maybe there are male victims, but the rate is not as high as it is for women. The rates are not the point. The fact that men of color are victimized for their skin tone, and that few people know about this, is the problem. Oh, Bani. You’re always making me challenge my own assumptions.

Then, came dinner at Marlene’s. I had a chicken taco (which resembles a fried, Mexican flauta) and a lobster taco rolled in a flour tortilla ($3 each). It was pan friend in coconut oil-I recognized the taste of the oil I’ve grown to cook with. I could’ve eaten four of them, but I was saving money for the trip to Little Corn Island the next day. I’d been convinced to leave one paradise for another after reading Big World Small Pocket’s 20 Things to Do on Little Corn Island. She is a great budget travel blogger-I recommend subscribing to her posts. Little Corn was also featured in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Food-Corn-Island-Travel-Tips
Lobster tacos and conch ceviche at Merlene’s Relax Restaurant.

Day 2
Big Corn Island to Little Corn Island
Distance: 45 minutes on a speed boat. Articles of clothing soaked: All of them. Number of waves that made us wish we hadn’t taken the panga: All of them.

After moving our things to the air-conditioned room, we took a cab to Briggs Bay. Our panga (speed boat) would leave for Little Corn Island at 10:30 AM. We paid $6 for our huge, laminated boarding passes, then waited for everyone to climb in first. We put on our neon orange life jackets. My mom sat next to a mestizo Nicaraguan, Alejandro, who was on vacation. Luckily for her, he also had a seat cushion to share with her.

I was sandwiched between the edge of the seat cushion and a backpacker with a manbun. He had thick, long, dark eyelashes and began to peel an orange as if he were on a picnic. The zest filled my nostrils while the peels filled the floor. He picked them up as the boat picked up speed. We abandoned the tranquil, turquoise waters and became acquainted with the Caribbean on a windy day- and the 20-foot waves that came with it.

Other than “Sorry!” I didn’t exchange a word with Mr. Manbun. I grabbed his forearm twice. The boat climbed up and over each wave, and slammed down to transform the water into concrete.

It was the longest, cheapest roller coaster ride of my life. If you’re ever had a spinal or neck injury, stay on Big Corn Island-this ride is not for you! 

After 45 minutes of the slamming and splashing, we reached sand. Mr. Manbun climbed out and turned around from the dock, making a peace sign with his fingers back toward the boat. I’m not sure if he was looking at me or at the captain, so I just waved back and smiled.

Big-Corn-Island-Little-Corn-Island-Boat
The back of the boat gets the most water, and the front is the bumpiest. We were in the middle. “Bumpy” is an understatement.

We didn’t have an agenda for Little Corn. Alejandro advised us to hike to the radio tower for a great view. I was in the mood for a mojito, after what we’d gone through. I had my mind set on finding the Little Corn Beach Bungalow, a Peace Corps favorite. I had no idea it would be so hard to find. There are no paved roads on Little Corn, but the amount of white hipsters, yogis, and coffee shops reminded me of Portland. So this is where all the young white people go, I thought. Most of the tourists we saw on Big Corn were older. After having survived the boat ride, I understand why. The millenials lounged about, reading novels on their beach chairs. Books replaced teddy bears for the sleepy hammock-goers.

As my mom and I kept walking, a gorgeous, young black woman sang “Excuse me!” as she passed by on her bicycle. I wonder how annoying all of these tourists are for the locals. The island isn’t developed very much, aside from the posh cafés and restaurants. I wonder how different Little Corn Island was 50 years ago.

It felt like a tight-knit community. Locals smiled at us and said “Mornin’”. On our walk, it began raining, and a generous homeowner waved at us to come find shelter from the five-minute sprinkle. His dog sat next to me while I scratched his ear. We thanked the owner and pressed on.

We walked for hours along the beach, and in the wrong direction. One woman told us where the Bungalow was, but she ended up pointing us to a private farm. The farm’s annoyed, yet understanding owner finally gave us the correct directions. We walked past yards decorated with empty soda bottles strewn on strings, and heard people clapping their hands at a church overlooking the sea. One girl was dressed up in a pink dress walked to church with her brothers holding on to her hands.

We walked past swamps and trudged through beachside paths that were filled with water from the high tide. We finally reached the Bungalow. It was the very last hotel on the way there. As we looked at the map of Little Corn, we realized that we could have made it from the dock in a 10-minute straight shot. Well, at least the walk back would involve less water.

I ate grilled cheese sliders with onion rings ($4), and my mom ate some fries. I doused everything in a dark green, curry-like sauce in an old rum bottle. “What sauce is this!? It’s so good!” I asked the waitress. “Oh, that is just a vegetable and spice sauce” she said, in her melodic Caribbean accent. “They sell it everywhere. It’s called Lizano.” I thought Lizano was just a hot sauce, but yes, they do in fact sell it everywhere. I bought a bottle after that and the taste reminds me of how tired I felt after finally having found the place. Not to mention it takes me back to those greasy, cheesy sliders.

Little-Corn-Island-Things-To-Do
A Little Corn Islander

After lunch, we sat by the water. The Bungalow is more of a high-end resort. It’s a neat business that is pretty eco-friendly and is involved in the community. The resort has lots of neat sustainability initiatives, such as a spaying and neutering campaign. Normally, guests can be found scuba diving and snorkeling nearby, but the wind was so strong that the normally clear, blue water turned murky. We took the path we should have taken all along back to the center, and hiked to the radio tower. Mom climbed up the ladder rungs to the lookout point first, and I followed her. We had a panoramic view of the little island. Big Corn Island jutted out to the south. “Climbing up is always easier than climbing down”, mom said. I decided to count the number of ladder rungs in order to stay busy instead of nervous. There were 36 rungs.

IMG_2902
It was strangely soothing to count up, instead of wondering what my obituary would say.

On the way back to the dock, we stopped to buy coconut bread from an older woman. The smell of freshly baked Coconut bread is more memorable than the taste, but not by much. I told my mom about the time I ate coconut bread in Bluefields with a stick of margarine after my Amilcar suggested that it was the best way to enjoy it. “We have margarine”, the baker’s husband chimed in. “It’s the day after Christmas and I’m on a diet,” I joked. He laughed and pat my shoulder. We walked out, sharing ripped pieces of the fluffly, warm bread. “It doesn’t taste like anything”, mom said. I just smiled because the taste wasn’t what I was after. It was the smell and the experience of buying it. Since I’ve left the states, I’ve come to appreciate the process of buying a product rather than the product itself.

A five-year old boy extended his hand and asked me for a piece of my huge loaf. I ripped of a piece and handed it to him. Instead of a “thank you” he bit into it, as if this were his price for sharing his little island with me. Then, we passed by the little boy who had asked me for a kiss the day before. “Adios”, I said to him, as he walked by with an older man. Only the man said “adios” back to me. Mom and I had some time to kill, so we waited on the beach. I jumped in and swam to cool off.

Only now do I realize that Johnny Depp’s eyeliner must have been very, very waterproof for it to stay on after all of the perspiration one excretes in the Caribbean.

Our boat back to Big Corn Island was supposed to leave at 4 PM, but the captain didn’t even show up until 4:15. This reminded me of the time my friend Jen and I boarded a bus to hike Cosiguina Volcano, only to sit inside of it for over an hour in 90-degree heat before it departed. It was just another day of hurrying up and waiting, as she’d say. The Captain strolled lackadaisically from the beach onto the dock, then boarded the boat. It was as if he were disappointed that passengers even showed up. The tourists loaded up first, carrying their waterproof nikons and snorkeling kits. Locals loaded up bags of rice and an ice cream cart.

We set out at 4:30. I was mentally preparing myself for another round of getting slammed by the sea, but this never happened. Our boat turned out to be the large, gentle, two-hour ferry. One woman leaned against the ice cream cart and took a nap. How different things were now! As, we sat there, realizing we had more time than we thought to look out into the ocean instead of nearly pissing ourselves, I thought of one of my favorite travel writing passages, Mark Schatzker’s description of the ocean in A Tale of Two Crossings:

“It is vast. It is impersonal. It is wavy like you can’t imagine, except for those rare moments when, miraculously, it lies still. On a bright afternoon two thousand miles south of Alaska, it looked like a magnificent indigo pile rug. A day later, under a sky blotched with clouds, it resembled the hide of a huge slumbering animal, heaving up and down as it breathed…an ocean swell is the ultimate in existentialism: unremitting and blind. The waves marched across the horizon like Victorian factory workers. Their movement was both vigorous and futile- as if to say, “What else you gonna do out here?”

That morning on the treacherous panga ride, I had my own existential crisis. By the time we pulled back into Briggs Bay, the ocean was just another animal, slumbering under the twinkling stars above. I was relieved. We reached shore, and we had no more oceanic panga rides planned. Ever again.

We climbed into a cab that was headed in the opposite way of our hotel. I expected the driver to turn around as soon as we climbed in, but when I told him this, he mumbled that he was taking the other way around. He then turned up Pitbull’s timelessly tacky Taxi to keep us from bothering him. We came home at the same time after having driven the opposite way. Big Corn Island is not so big. Two lobster tacos later, I was ready for bed in our air-conditioned room.

Nicaragua-Travel-Corn-Island

Day 3
Tropical Dreams Hotel to Picnic Center Beach
Distance: Just a walk and a cab ride away.

What a great day to not ride the panga! This was our last full day on Big Corn Island. My mom and I set out to walk around and end up at Picnic Center, which we’d heard was the most swimmable beach. We passed past crab crossing signs and houses on stilts that blasted country music from their porches.

Corn-Island-Crab-Travel
Stand next to a crab crossing sign: check.

We stopped by this cozy little green shack for some fresh coconuts in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood. The owners, Sidney and Adele, have been married for 40 years. They were the most warm, relaxed hosts. 40-cents later, we were sipping on a fresh coconut through a straw. Then, Sidney hacked it in half. We scooped out the gelatinous, white pulp. We giggled because of how good it was. I felt like a kid again. If only I’d had some chile and lime to put on it. I left Mexico when I was three, but one of the few things I do remember was seeing roadside stands selling fresh coconut doused in lime and chile powder. I also thought of how straws are called “popotes” in Mexico. Here, they are “pajillas”. This is just one example of the many linguistic differences between Latin American countries. I wanted to stay there forever, but my mom rightfully pulled me away. We ended up coming back the next day and I found out why Adele has never left the island.

We pressed on along the road. The hot, humid air started to make my neck unbearably itchy. I’ve had eczema all of my life, but for the past two years, my neck has been the only itchy spot on my body. Dermatogologists don’t know what to do with me, other than prescribing a rotating list of ineffective lotions and harmful steroid creams. I’ve even taken prednisone to stop the itching before. We were downtown, and my neck felt as if it were on fire. I bought a gallon of water and tub of Vaseline, then went outside and splashed my neck. I put on some Vaseline, which helped a bit. We took a cab to the Picnic Center beach, and the burning started to die down. We ordered beers and I asked for a bag of ice to press on my neck. The burning died down, and I jumped into the endless, still infinity pool of the ocean.

The beach was nearly deserted- and this was the “high season.” We walked back to town and spun around to see just another airplane glide over us. This time, we were the ones pointing at it. A troupe of young men played soccer on the beach. Other men welcomed us to the island and asked if we wanted to buy a conch. I thought they were selling us conches for ceviche, and replied “No thanks. I’m full.” My mom playfully clarified: “It’s not to eat. They want to sell you the shells!” “Oops!” I said, laughing.

Taxis honked at us, as if to ask “Why are you white people walking? You don’t know where you’re going!”

We weren’t in a rush to go to the hotel, though. Luckily, the only bus on Corn Island approached. It was a blue van with a huge decal in bubble letters that said “My Bus” on the windshield. We waved it down and stepped in. Dancehall music blasted from inside. It cost 40 cents to ride anywhere on the circuitous route. We took the “long” way back to Tropical Dreams. About 12 minutes later, we stopped by Marlene’s to place an order for Rondon ($11), a local specialty.

Two hours later, we sat down at the restaurant and were each served immediately. The staff placed a big, bony fish cooked in coconut milk in front of us. We daintily picked out the bones from each steaming forkful, and then came another offering: a huge bowl of plantains, malanga, yucca, shrimp, and green bananas cooked in coconut milk and spices. My favorite part was the broth. It tasted like gravy.

The Rondon took two hours to prepare, and 45 minutes to eat. The vegetables were tougher than I expected, but the fish was perfect-after we drizzled lime juice onto it. 

Panza llena, corazon contenta (Full stomach, happy heart) is a common saying here. My heart was definitely happy, as I sat there in a food coma. It was not bad for a final NiCaribbean dinner on Big Corn Island.

Corn-Island-Food-Rondon
Rondon: A Caribbean Coconut Stew paired with fresh fish cooked in coconut milk. Check out my travel photos here!

Day 4 
Big Corn Island to Managua
Distance: The blink of an eye.

I had booked our flight out at 12:45. I knew I wouldn’t want to leave paradise first thing in the morning. Our alarm, a half-grown rooster shrieking outside, woke us up. I’m used to the feeling of waking up in a zoo, but my mom isn’t. I don’t pay much attention to the dogs yelping at 2 AM anymore. The only thing that I’ll never get used to is the BANG of cats landing on my tin roof. We walked one last time to Adele’s and filled up on more fresh coconut juice. We then tip toed in between washed up sea urchins, sea weed, and coconuts on the beach.

Corn-Island-Travel-Tips
I wonder how long it would take this sprout to grow into just another towering palm tree. Maybe when I come back, it will still be there, and I won’t even recognize it.

We took a cab to the three-room airport. We paid our $2 exit tax and I received a massive wooden boarding pass for the both of us. It could’ve replaced a cutting board.

Yes, this is a boarding pass.

An officer stood in the corner with his black, drug sniffing lab next to him. “Sentáte”, he said. The pooch quickly sat down and looked up at his master with eager eyes. I sat next to a young couple from Vancouver in the waiting room. They asked about my Peace Corps experience. I explained the negatives and positives of living away from home for 27 months. A skinny woman with a bob sat in front of us. She kept turning around to listen in. I mentioned that yes, it’s safe here. I’ve been assaulted, but that could have happened anywhere. I referred to Nicaragua as a “peaceful country”, and when the woman in front heard this, she whipped around. “Excuse me? Did you just say this is a peaceful country?” she asked me. “Yes, it is, compared to other countries,” I responded. “Oh okay, in the day-to-day, you mean.” “Yes, it’s not the 1980’s anymore.” “Oh yeah, I was going to say…” she nodded and turned back around.

What does peaceful even mean? It’s such a relative term. I had just gone running while listening to music on the island, something I’m still afraid to do again on the mainland after my assault on a run a month ago. I felt very safe on the island, but it does depend so heavily on tourism. Everyone knows everyone. I still see the mainland as peaceful, in its own way. Petty crimes are common, but there’s not as much gang-based violence or mass shootings as there are in the United States.

Peaceful is a relative term. As I pondered the meaning of a word that makes up my job title, we boarded the plane. Again, I was relieved to find out that this plane was much larger than the last one. Our ride back was much less bumpy. The Corn Islands were testing us during our first panga and plane rides, then forgave us with a tranquil voyage back. It was a predictably refreshing trip, and surprising in other ways.

Big and Little Corn Island are familiarly Nicaraguan, but distinctly Caribbean. I came knowing I’d be in a peaceful place, but left wondering what exactly peaceful means. What does it mean to you?

Corn-Island-Budget
A Beach in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood.

Travel Throwback: Susie’s Travels From Australia to Qatar

I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?

travel-yosemite-generational-women
Susie with her daughter, Lauren, at Yosemite National Park.

Here is fellow Wellesley Alum Susie Billings‘ story.

1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they been and why?

My dad only ever “lived abroad” when he was stationed in England during WWII. He never got his three day pass to London, as his plane was shot down, and then he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He passed through the Paris rail yards on his return home. When I was 11, we made a trip to London and later to Paris as he wanted to see the places he didn’t get to see. They took me when I was young, as I traveled on a child’s fare on the airplane, and they hoped I would be old enough to remember.

My dad’s family traces its history to the Mayflower and I qualify through his side to be a “daughter of the American Revolution”. My mum was 5th generation Australian – originally from Britain but post convict era. My mum had a major tragedy just before she was 17- her father was murdered and the guy tried to get my mum and her mum too, but was unsuccessful.

I believe this was her major impetus to “get away”.

When she was 20, she had moved to the opposite side of the country, to West Australia (she is from Melbourne), but she came home to celebrate her 21st birthday. A couple years later she and a friend (who is now my mother in law) went to work in New Zealand. A few years after that she moved to London and worked there to find travels around Europe. I know a few of her friends did similar things. It was very common for Australians to travel to the UK and then travel around Europe before returning home to marry and have families. All Australians travelled on British passports until 1967, I think.

Paris-bombing-women-travel
Paris, the Sunday after the November attack. Photo by Susie Billings.

2. Did Wellesley College influence you to travel at all? What was it like going there for you?

Wellesley didn’t influence me to travel as I already had the travel bug. I had grown up in California so the climate of Boston was a big shock, needed a new wardrobe and did call come pretty regularly but really wanted to get away from where I grew up. I had always said I appreciated where I grew up, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live.

vietnam-rice-fields
Rice fields of Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

3. What did your loved ones think about your mom traveling? What did they think about you traveling?

I know my mum’s sister moved around Australia due to her husband’s job and my mum was overseas so I know my mum’s mum was sad she was away. I think it was understood that she wasn’t settled anywhere – she didn’t meet my dad or get married until she was 33. She had me at 36.

My parents always encouraged me to travel and they were able to help fund it when I was younger. However, none of my friends traveled, and we were considered very unusual. In fact, we often didn’t say much about our travels as there was some jealously about us traveling. On the other hand, other people had fancy cars and bought bigger houses, fancy TVs, and sound systems. We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went towards travel.

Venice-women-travel
“We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went toward travel” Photo of Venice by Susie Billings.

4. What was it like staying in touch with loved ones thousands of miles away?

Calls home to my mum’s family when I was a kid were for three minutes at Christmas. The line used to beep so you knew your three minutes were up. Otherwise, we called only for emergencies or major news. Sometimes cassettes would be recorded and sent in the post.

We would get a half hour news reel of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives.

We sent the annual Christmas letter to everyone “back home” so they would know what was going on in our lives. We filled every square inch of airletters – really fine paper that folded over so there was no envelope to make the airmail postage as inexpensive as possible. And we always did gifts and Christmas letters early so they could do the international portion by sea mail. That way, it was much, much cheaper!

My now husband and I have a stack of letters we wrote to each other over 18 months of our long distance relationship. We sometimes wrote four page letters as we knew it would be several weeks between exchanges of letters.

I recently ran across a letter from my mum’s mum to my mum berating her for not keeping up her correspondence!

bryce-canyon-women-travel
Bryce Canyon. Photo by Susie Billings.

5. Some people say that people traveled as much back then as they do now. We just make a bigger deal about it now with social media. How do you think social media has framed how we view travel today?

I don’t think people travelled as much at all. We would save for years and years to travel to Australia for special occasions. Dad would bank his holiday time and we would have to travel with lots and lots of stopovers. We lived in the Sacramento area and we would have to fly first to LA, then to Hawaii, then to Fiji, then to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. It was very time consuming and costly.

Today you can fly non- stop from San Francisco to Sydney in under 14 hours – the same journey used to take closer to 24. Also, with the advent of much more competition with international flights, frequent flyer programmes, and budget airlines, relative prices are so much cheaper.

In fact, overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with their friends!

There weren’t web sites to google- only some picture books at a store or library. I have an ongoing project of going through both my parents and grandparents slides. They are labeled in cartridges and I remember pulling down slide projection screens mounted in some people’s homes.

London-women-travel
“Overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with friends!” Photo of London by Susie Billings.

6. Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?

I don’t remember my first flight, as I was two. My mum took me to Australia for the first time to meet her family. To save money, my dad didn’t come. My mum was so proud I was “potty trained,” but then when I had to use the airplane bathroom (which makes a VERY loud sucking sound when you flush), apparently all that training went out the window- much to her dismay.

7. Traveling has become pretty normal for you. I’m the first in my immigrant Mexican family to move and live abroad by choice and not necessity. Did you face pushback for leaving home?

Not from my family, since my mother had already done it herself. But, I still have family friends in California asking when will I move back home, even though I left in 1986!

vietnam-travel-women
A balancing act in Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

8. How and why were you able to travel so much?

Initially support from family until I was 20 – for family trips and a religious camp and school trips, then I prioritised savings and lived fairly minimally so could continue to travel. Also, worked for an international company so I took advantage of lots of business travel. Other than my initial self-funded move to Australia after graduation, the rest of the moves have been on a company’s dime. I have stayed in a lot of youth hostels – even now in my late 40’s, I have been known to stay in a hostel from time to time and have a favorite one star hotel in Paris that we have stayed in when we took the Eurostar from London. I believe more in traveling for the experience, than for the luxury. I’ve also developed a broad network of people who host us.

great-barrier-reef-women-travel
Scuba diving in The Great Barrier Reef! Photo by Susie Billings.

9. Where are you now? What’s next?

I am kind of in two places at the moment. I have lived with my husband and two kids in Qatar for over 8 years. He has a great job and they are in a good school, but I was treading water. I am now in London for an academic year doing another masters and visiting “home in Qatar” when possible. I also use Skype/FaceTime iMessage to stay in touch with my family’s daily life. We have a bank of air miles (my husband travels a lot for work) so I am hoping to go home once a month. We may be in Qatar for another six years to get our kids through high school, but we never know for sure.We also don’t know for sure where we will end up or where we will go next.

travel-women-throwback
On Safari with Brett, Lachlan, and Lauren in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Susie Billings.
Traveling (and then working abroad) has been very enriching for us intellectually, socially, financially.

We got one of Hotmail’s first “free” email addresses back in 1996. In those days, you had to have subscriptions with a service provider like AOL. That way, we kept in touch with family and friends while we backpacked around the world for about 9 months in 1997. There were no cell phones to travel with then, and we would drop into Internet cafés every couple of weeks and send a long note to let people know we were still alive.

Given how I hover over my own kids now, and how I want them to text me back immediately, I am amazed at how relaxed my parents were about me traveling like that.

Lastly, I remember in my first job out of college in Melbourne, Australia, where I met colleagues who were originally from England, who had migrated to Australia, and had never returned. Airline travel was really a major expense and families from Melbourne would road trip 16 hours up to Queensland for their holidays with packed lunches. My husband, who is from Australia, didn’t travel on an airplane until he was in his late teens. Most Australians “did Europe” once in their early twenties and then maybe traveled overseas when they retired. Now with cheap airfares tons go to Bali or Hong Kong. Sometimes now it is still cheaper to travel overseas from Australia than to fly within Australia!

Doha-women-travel-qatar
More than just a bird’s eye view of Doha, Qatar. Photo by Susie Billings.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susie!

Want to read more “Travel Before Facebook” stories? Check out my Wanderful column! I interview Barbara Bergin, whose grandmother traveled the world on freighters.