Uncornered Market http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Wed, 19 Aug 2015 21:31:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Askhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/volunteering-voluntourism-good-bad-and-questions-to-ask/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/volunteering-voluntourism-good-bad-and-questions-to-ask/#comments Thu, 06 Aug 2015 18:35:18 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20879 By Audrey Scott

As we rounded a busy Port-au-Prince street corner on our way to the southern coast of Haiti, I checked my messages and noticed a Tweet from one of our readers, a young woman: @umarket I’m planning a trip to Haiti to help at an orphanage. Do you feel safe? Sort of worried. Would be nice […]

The post Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Ethical volunteering

As we rounded a busy Port-au-Prince street corner on our way to the southern coast of Haiti, I checked my messages and noticed a Tweet from one of our readers, a young woman:

@umarket I’m planning a trip to Haiti to help at an orphanage. Do you feel safe? Sort of worried. Would be nice to hear from someone there!

On all accounts I was in a position to respond, but I turned to Cyril, our Haitian guide, and asked, “What do you think?”

“I would advise her to be very careful, perhaps choose to do something else,” he said.

He wasn’t talking about her physical safety, though.

“Especially after the earthquake, many of these orphanages were set up just to make money from foreign volunteers. Traditionally in Haiti, we didn’t have orphanages. Once people realized they could make money from this, the orphanages began to appear. In some cases, the children there actually have parents.”

While we’d encountered and read of orphanage tourism before, especially in places like Uganda, Nepal and Cambodia, our conversation outside of Port-au-Prince lent currency and context to a sad reality: although we can set out to do good through service, contribution and volunteering, we can sometimes inadvertently do harm instead.

Cyril concluded, “There are plenty of good organizations in Haiti. And there are ways to volunteer that don’t involve orphanages. She should just be careful.”

Volunteering is a good thing, right? But will it really help the people you aim to serve? Should you still volunteer if your service might do harm? Are there questions you can ask before you go to figure it all out?

We didn’t wish to squelch this young woman’s urge to serve, to contribute, to engage, to give back. We support and celebrate such altruistic inclinations. However, circumstances — the socioeconomic landscape, unscrupulous agents, and even our own intentions — can conspire to inadvertently harm the people and communities volunteers set out to help.

This is why awareness of the possible unintended negative consequences of volunteering and voluntourism is so important. And if you think this only affects a few people, think again. The volunteer “industry” is currently estimated at $2.8 billion in annual revenue, and is expected to grow as more people seek volunteer experiences each year.

If you are interested in volunteering internationally, what are the ethical considerations you should be aware of? Which questions can you ask to better ensure that your actions and any financial contribution are aligned with your values and expectations?

That’s what this article aims to unpack.

Just as in our piece Should Travelers Give to Children Who Beg?, we attempt to tackle a complex, nuanced topic loaded with shades of gray. Feel free to skip ahead to what interests you most:

Why Are We Writing about Ethical Volunteering Now?

We are honored to be asked to facilitate the first annual Leading Change Institute being held at the Kansas State University Staley School of Leadership Studies, from 10-14 August 2015. The focus of this year’s event is “Ethical Global Partnerships, Learning, and Service.” The event will convene academic and professional leaders from around the world working in local communities, NGOs, intermediary organizations and in higher education. One of its aims is to surface practical approaches and solutions that address some of the challenges facing the service learning and volunteering fields. As we’ve prepared for the event and shared its purpose with colleagues, it occurred to us to engage you — our readers and community — in the discussion.

We invite you to take part in the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #LeadChange. We and the event coordinators welcome your questions, thoughts and input before, during and after the event.

What Does it All Mean? Defining the Terms

Let’s start by defining a handful of key terms. We understand that definitions are not sexy, but as we explained the event to colleagues and friends, we recognized the risk of their misunderstanding and misuse.

Audrey and Women in Microfinance Group - West Bengal, India
Audrey listens to the stories of a microfinance group in West Bengal, India.

1. Volunteering (Volunteer)

Many of us are familiar with the concept. Volunteering involves actions ‘performed with free will, for the benefit of the community, and not primarily for financial gain’ (Leigh et al., 2011). In essence, we give our time and skills to benefit others.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we assume international volunteers heading from developed nations in the “West” or “Global North” to developing or transitional economies often referred to as the “Global South.” However, we believe the considerations we address apply no matter your origin or destination.

2. Voluntourism (Voluntourist)

A munge of the terms “volunteer” and “tourism” used to describe short-term volunteering placements of tourists as part of their overall vacation or travels. In many cases, the volunteer placement is not specifically connected to the voluntourist’s specific skills and involves a limited time commitment. In other words, the placement is often designed more with the intent of providing an experience to the tourist rather than fulfilling a specific need within the host community.

Volunteering vs. Voluntourism
Volunteering and voluntourism are often used interchangeably, though a significant distinction exists. Voluntourism is when the primary purpose of the trip is to travel, but includes a volunteer component. For example, you travel to Kenya on safari but spend time — from a few hours to several days — at a Maasai village teaching English. Volunteering is when the primary purpose of the trip is to work or to serve. Though a volunteer may travel as part of her experience, her service to the community is the primary reason for the journey. One example: my 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia.
English Class Reunion - Marjamaa, Estonia
Reuniting my English class from my Estonian village four years after I volunteered.

3. Global Service Learning

Service Learning is an educational approach that integrates meaningful community service and instruction. The “meaning” part is driven by a service experience that exposes the participant to broader issues such as common human dignity, self, culture, social responsibility, and socioeconomic, political and environmental circumstances. (adapted from Hartman & Kiely, 2014 and UNCFSU’s definition)

Note: For consistency and brevity, we will use the term “volunteer” as shorthand for individuals engaging in any of the three activities above.

4. Host Community Organization

The group on the ground that receives the volunteer and works with her for the benefit of the local community. Host organizations are typically located in socioeconomically challenged areas of Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

5. Intermediary Organization

Let’s face it, for someone sitting at her desk in New York City, it’s tricky and time-consuming to sort through volunteer host organizations in villages around the world. That’s where intermediary organizations step in. Think of them as agents, middlemen, organizers, or third-party providers that place volunteers. These organizations can be non-profit or for-profit, and their adherence to ethical practices varies widely.

6. Sponsoring Organization

A sponsoring organization encourages, advises and occasionally organizes its members to participate in volunteer or service learning activities. Some examples include study abroad offices at universities, church groups, and community-based service organizations. Sponsoring organizations will often work with intermediary organizations to coordinate volunteer placements.

Two-Way Benefits of Volunteering and Service

There is a reason why volunteering has become so popular. Ideally, a volunteer experience involves an exchange — of culture, skills, humanity and point of view — so that each party benefits. It reflects our evolving human need to:

  • Connect, to develop and feel human connection.
  • Learn from local people in a foreign, unfamiliar context.
  • Contribute. To give and to give back. To add value to and provide benefit to others.
  • Grow. To continually challenge, adapt and evolve ourselves. To feel transformation and shifts in our perspective.
  • Create meaning. To give greater purpose to our lives. To understand ourselves, the world and our place in it simultaneously.

Benefits to the Host Community

Perhaps the potential benefits of volunteering to host communities are obvious. That’s also why it’s important to restate them.

1. Transfers Needed Skills

Volunteers may possess certain skills and know-how that a host community needs, from computer skills or English language teaching skills to advanced engineering or medical skills. The goal of the volunteer experience is to transfer her skills to individuals in the community in order to help close a gap, thereby illustrating everyone’s favorite empowerment and development proverb, “Give a man to fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.”

For example, last year in Rwanda, we met a group of retired teachers helping to develop instructors and improve instruction at a college in the capital city of Kigali.

2. Provides Necessary Funds

This is an important benefit, perhaps because it is often overlooked when examining the ethical landscape of volunteer programs. Organizations in developing countries or transitional economies often struggle to find sustainable sources of funding. Collecting fees from international volunteers (who essentially pay for their experience, room and board) is one of the ways some organizations choose to operate and survive financially. One illustration came to us by way of an organization in Moshi, Tanzania called Give a Heart to Africa, whose volunteers pay fees that provide the ongoing funding for the organization and the free adult education classes it provides to local women.

English Class at Give a Heart to Africa - Moshi, Tanzania
English class at Give a Heart to Africa, taught by an American volunteer.

3. Bonds the Community to the Volunteer and the Wider World

Think of this as the intangible positive force for good, the magic factor of ethical, thoughtful volunteering and global service. Embedded in one’s international service is the idea that someone outside of the host community cares, and that the community itself is part of a fabric, connected to the wider world. In the best of circumstances, the relationship of volunteer to community reinforces that we are all human and that our commonality vastly outweighs our differences. Zikra Initiative, operating inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan does this nicely by reinforcing the concept that everyone has value, something to share and something to learn.

Benefits to the Volunteer

When I was in Peace Corps all the volunteers would joke in the brightest moments of self-deprecation and self-awareness, “When you join Peace Corps you think you’re going to save the world, but you soon realize that the person who benefits most from the experience is you.” Having said that, I’m proud of my contribution not only to my host organization, but to others in the community with whom I remain friends to this day.

So what are some of these benefits to the volunteer?

1. Satisfies one’s altruism

On the most basic level, volunteering satisfies our need to serve, to give of ourselves, to give back.

2. Improves existing professional skills and develops new ones

When we imagine service, we may be tempted to consider it a one-way transfer of skills from the volunteer to the host community. However, the development of the volunteer’s skills is often accelerated by encountering new problems and contexts in the field. This arguably applies universally — from construction to medicine, from engineering to education. For example, I taught economics and business at a local high school in Estonia, and helped local students create business plans and prepare for business fairs. This not only improved my speaking and presentation skills, but it also gave me added confidence.

Kiva Borrower Business - Chesuc, Guatemala
Using our photography skills to share the story of Kiva borrowers to help raise funds.

3. Develops emotional intelligence

An immersive volunteer experience can develop a raft of personal and professional “soft” skills including cross-cultural communication and empathy. Both are critical to understanding the inner workings of our globalized world…and ourselves.

A Lot of Questions at School in Hatiandha - Bangladesh
Navigating a sea of questions from young students at school in rural Bangladesh.

4. Develops situational creativity and problem solving skills

When you find yourself in an environment and culture very different from your own for a sustained period of time, you’ll likely develop a certain kind of emotional elasticity and flexibility. You might also encounter problems you’ve never before imagined, and fashion solutions you never could have imagined, either.

5. Become a global citizen, shift your outlook and perspective on the world

So many of your existing assumptions, stereotypes and fears come into question, and many of them fall away. Working together with local people in vastly different cultural, geopolitical and socioeconomic circumstances can broaden your view not only of the region where you serve but also of the wider world.

This process is deeply instructive; we’ve witnessed friends steer new directions in life after a volunteer or immersive learning experience.

Audrey and Vendor with Colorful Scarves - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Challenging assumptions and building new bonds in Turkmenistan.

6. Enhances your resume or CV

Whether you wish to be accepted into a graduate school program or to groom yourself for a professional opportunity, an immersive, relevant, practical volunteer experience on a resume can strengthen your personal story and make you a substantively stronger candidate.

Dan with School Kids at Fushimi Inari Shrine - Kyoto, Japan
Dan helps a group of Japanese students complete their English class assignment.

A Way to Support International Educational Opportunities for Disadvantaged Youth

If you are interested in providing disadvantaged youth in the United States an international learning experience that incorporates these benefits, please consider supporting the Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Exchange (FLYTE) initiative launched by our friend Matt Kepnes. FLYTE is raising funds to support five international group trips for students selected from lower income communities in the United States.

Volunteering Pitfalls: Causes and Effects

Given all the “good” surrounding volunteering, how can there be so many drawbacks? And what are the forces at work that create an environment where serving can do harm?

We’ll address both here.

Note: By no means is this an exhaustive list of concerns. Nor is it meant to be applied broad brush to every organization you might work with along your volunteer journey. These are considerations you ought to be aware of so you can make better, more informed decisions.

The Unintended Negative Consequences of Volunteering: 4 Causes

1. First, a word: Money

When an organization’s very existence becomes dependent on money from volunteer fees, it’s hard not to imagine various agents falling prey to conflicts of interest. It’s a twist on the principle agent problem, or the fox and the henhouse. Some intermediary organizations provide a service by connecting volunteers with opportunities and communities in need. However, the commercialization of volunteering can sometimes lead to projects that address the wrong needs, manufacture entirely new ones, and divert resources and attention from where they are needed most.

2. The Pressure to Impress (Profiles and CVs)

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a growing pressure to fashion a compelling social and professional profile. Sometimes it’s to impress schools or prospective employers. Now more than ever, demand exists for the distinctive and exceptional in one’s CV — in the form of “story”, “transformation” and “experiential” dimensions to set a candidate apart and underscore her apparent preparedness, worldliness or emotional intelligence. For a short clip on this destructive cliche, listen to “the mission that changed my life” vignette from 7:20-8:10 on How I Got Into College.)More generally, this applies to social profiles, when we try to impress our friends and peers with stories of heroic, exceptional and triumphant international experiences and contribution.

In itself, all this isn’t entirely bad. That is, until volunteering becomes a selfish short-term checkbox exercise that inadvertently disregards the host community and their real long-term needs.

Leigh Shulman, speaking of her own experience taking on volunteers at CloudHead, an NGO she co-founded in Salta, Argentina, puts a fine point on it: “It’s been my experience that about 1% of the people who want to volunteer are actually qualified to do so. And of the rest of the 99%, a very small percentage truly want to do the work. I think there’s this weird image people have that if they volunteer they are ‘good people.’ So really, the act of volunteering becomes selfish.”

3. Unprepared or untrained volunteers don’t have the skills needed

This is one part cause and another part effect. Sometimes intermediaries place volunteers in situations they are not prepared to handle. Perhaps they don’t have the emotional or cross-cultural skills, or even worse, they lack the professional or technical skills. There are stories of pre-professional medical volunteers treating patients or administering medical care without proper training. Not only is this dangerous, but it can be deadly.

Dan and the Handwashing Girls - Potosi, Bolivia
This time, Dan is being taught…how to properly wash his hands. Potosi, Bolivia.

4. The community has not been consulted

If no one asks the local community or host organization what it really needs, even in passing, how is it possible to help? This sounds obvious enough, but sadly it happens repeatedly that an international NGO or local organizer assumes they know, creates a program that doesn’t address a real need, and the community and volunteer end up disappointed. For example, it may sound like a great idea to build a new school for a community. But if you were to ask that community they might say they prefer to keep the current building, but would prefer money to pay for additional teachers or books instead.

You never know until you ask. However, your questions might not yield the results you’d hoped for.

Unintended Negative Consequences of Volunteering: 5 Outcomes

1. Resources are diverted from real problems and new problems are created

Perhaps the best examples are the ready-made orphanages created to exploit crises and the public’s desire to help. Money is often required to recover and rebuild, but the flip side is that the mere presence of money can also be gasoline to the fire of greed. This is the philanthropy world’s resource curse or paradox of plenty.

How to stop it? Awareness is good start. And in the case of orphanage tourism, focus instead on programs that transfer valuable skills to parents so they can earn their own money and take care of their own children. Not as easy and sexy as an orphanage, but certainly a better foundation for long-term change and development.

Guatemalan Mother and Baby - San Pedro Sacatepequez, Guatemala
Investing in projects that develop a mother’s skills so she can earn more for her family.

2. Intermediary groups keep the placement money for themselves

It’s not unheard of for sizable amounts of money to be paid to an intermediary organization for a volunteer placement, only for little to none of that amount to end up in the hands of the host organization or host family. This happened to Shannon O’Donnell, a colleague and friend of ours. After paying an intermediary organization for a volunteer placement to teach at a monastery in Nepal, Shannon later discovered that none of the placement money was passed on to the host organization that housed and fed her. In order to help other volunteers avoid this type of experience, she wrote the Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and developed Grassroots Volunteering, a database of volunteer host organizations who accept direct inquiry and placements.

3. Children can experience negative developmental effects

There are studies that show that the effect of a constant stream of new, friendly faces, whose quickly-formed bonds of attachment are regularly broken when they leave, can negatively affect early childhood development. Some organizations go so far as to advocate avoiding any service with children in foreign countries.

4. Local economy deprived of paying work

When we met Adrianne and Rick, they told us how when they first volunteered in Cambodia over 10 years ago it seemed a good idea to use their labor to build homes and schools. However, they soon realized the unintended consequences of their free labor on the community: it took jobs away from local people. Today, they fundraise at home in Canada and use the proceeds to buy materials locally and to hire local painters, carpenters and handymen to do the work.

This isn’t to say that all construction projects are bad. Sometimes, there’s a genuine lack of skilled or willing labor, but in other cases, volunteer labor deprives the local trade economy of the opportunity to develop and evolve.

5. The community and individuals are harmed due to incompetence

In extreme cases of ill-conceived volunteer placement, a volunteer with insufficient training or professional skills has a life in her hands that she has specifically been placed to treat or save. In other cases, the host organization wastes valuable working around the unskilled volunteer.

Video: Good and Bad Community Impacts of International Volunteering and Voluntouring

Sometimes a video can summarize several thousand words in just a couple of minutes. Globalsl.org’s recent video does just that by summarizing research insights on the potential benefits and drawbacks of volunteering.

Note: You can read the transcript and find more resources on Globalsl.org.

Questions to Ask Before Volunteering

After all this, you may be wondering what to do next to better navigate the volunteer waters. The following questions are intended to help you evaluate whether a volunteer opportunity will fit your goals and objectives and whether or not it’s an ethical, sound volunteer placement.

You might also be thinking: “Man, these guys are really raining on my parade. All I wanted was to do some good and have some fun.”

Dan Tries to Work the Shrak Dough - Ghor al Mazra'a, Jordan
Trying to make shrak, traditional bread, during an experience with Zikra Initiative in Jordan.

Yes, and…if you wish to optimize your experience without harming anyone, you must ask questions, including ones that might make you — and others — feel a little uncomfortable. Legitimate, ethical organizations will appreciate your queries. Those who ignore, dismiss or otherwise respond defensively should give you pause to reconsider.

Questions to Ask Yourself

1. What are my goals for volunteering?

Really. Let’s be honest here. What do you hope to get out of the experience personally and professionally? Is this something to look good on your CV or resume for graduate school? Or to gain additional experience or to hone a particular skill? Or to challenge yourself by immersion in a culture and environment beyond your comfort zone?

Perhaps you’re more likely to save the world if you’re honest as to who you are serving: you, the community, or ideally, a combination. You shouldn’t feel bad if you wish to derive benefit from a volunteer experience, but be frank with yourself to guide the decisions you make. This awareness will help you find a program that best uses your skills, fulfills your goals, and delivers benefit to the host community.

2. What do I hope to contribute to the host community? What skills will I bring to bear?

It’s crucial to manage your expectations and the community’s regarding your skills and impact.

3. Which of my skills do I hope to improve? How?

These could include professional skills and “soft” personal growth and life skills.

Questions to Ask Intermediaries and Host Organizations

1. Will the host community really benefit from my presence? How?

Does the program work together with community leaders to develop projects that meet real needs? Will the community benefit from something lasting and sustainable? Or are they simply making room for volunteers like me without investing of themselves in the process?

2. Are there any circumstances where my lack of experience can harm the host community?

This is a particularly important question to ask where elements of personal safety may be involved, like medicine or civil engineering. Some extreme examples of these include: “Am I expected to deliver medical care when I don’t have the experience or qualifications to safely perform my role? Am I expected to build a bridge or design a water filtration system beyond my qualifications?” Think before you commit.

3. How much time is really needed for me to have a positive impact on the community?

This is a challenging one, as we all have tight schedules and limited amounts of time. If you are looking for a deep, immersive experience with a culture and organization, it’s unlikely that a week or two here-or-there volunteer placement is going to help. There’s a reason why many host organizations will not accept volunteer placements shorter than three months. By the time the volunteer is “up to speed” and contributing, it will be time for her to return home. The result: more work and rework for the host organization and community.

4. Where is the money going?

If payment for your volunteer experience is involved, where is that money going? How much of it goes directly to the community? What sort of training or transitional support will you receive from the intermediary or host organization for that placement fee?

These days, it’s not unusual to pay a fee for a volunteer experience. However, one of your goals ought to be to maximize the contribution to the host community organization.

5. Will my presence take away jobs or learning opportunities for local people?

This is important, particularly if the project has a building or construction component. What is the rationale for volunteers supplying labor in place of local workers seeking paid employment?

6. Are there ways to contribute other than by giving your time and skills?

The answer to this question is often yes. There are plenty of opportunities to raise funds or frequent social enterprises on the ground who support community organizations with their profits. In fact, following a natural disaster it’s actually best NOT to book a flight and volunteer since money is usually more effective in the hands of vetted local or international organizations on the ground.

Volunteer and Voluntourism Resources

If you are interested in reading or learning more about ethical volunteering and opportunities, here are a few resources you might find useful.

Awareness of Ethical Volunteering Issues: Resources and Information

Resources and Articles on Finding Ethical Volunteering Opportunities

Moving Forward: The Future of Volunteering

If you are considering volunteering, we understand these issues might at first seem a little daunting. However, awareness of them places the power in your hands — the power to give careful, deliberate thought to the consequences of your decisions and actions. Ask questions and you can vote with your feet to choose an opportunity you’ve properly researched, that is vetted and matched at its core to the good intentions residing in your heart.

When you do, you’ll find that you also have the power to make a real impact, not only on the lives of the people and communities you aim to help, but also on your own.

If you have questions regarding volunteering or voluntourism, please leave a comment. We and field experts attending the Leading Change Institute will answer them as best we can. Our goal is to make this an ongoing resource for all those interested in ethical volunteering and global service.

The post Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Offbeat Treks: 11 Hikes You’re Not Considering…But Shouldhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/offbeat-treks-around-the-world/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/offbeat-treks-around-the-world/#comments Mon, 27 Jul 2015 12:53:36 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20781 By Audrey Scott

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. — John Muir When we first set out on our journey years ago, treks — especially of the long, multi-day variety — weren’t a priority on our activity list. Sure we […]

The post Offbeat Treks: 11 Hikes You’re Not Considering…But Should appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. — John Muir

When we first set out on our journey years ago, treks — especially of the long, multi-day variety — weren’t a priority on our activity list. Sure we enjoyed hikes and walks, but trekking wasn’t something we actively sought out. Instead, over the years we’ve found ourselves increasingly drawn to long walks in the mountains that allow us to disconnect from the busy world while connecting more with nature and ultimately ourselves. These days, we make an effort to take at least one long trek annually as a way to recharge and refresh.

Dan and Audrey at top of Mt. Gjeravica - Kosovo
Feeling good on the highest peak in Kosovo, Mount Gjeravica.

We don’t always wish to disconnect entirely from humanity, though. Instead, we are attracted to treks that feature a cultural component, one where we encounter and engage with local people, often through homestays. These types of treks not only challenge us physically by pushing us to do more than the usual, but they often stir us emotionally by forcing us to widen the cultural lens through which we view the region and our world.

Finally, this approach provides us the opportunity to contribute to the local economy and community by staying with local families.

Ladakhi Family in Skyu Village - Ladakh, India
Breakfast with our host family. Markha Valley, Ladakh.

Having recently finished two treks this year, we began fielding questions about others we’d recommend, especially as we tend to choose ones that are lesser known, in unusual destinations. Taking a cue from the Offbeat Travel Destination List we published earlier this year, we offer our Offbeat Treks List, this time in conjunction with the adrenaline junkies over at Expedia.

Without further delay, we offer 11 of our favorite offbeat treks — some multi-day, others daylong — from around the world. We believe the following are worth a look if you are interested in unusual and immersive experiences, both in nature and local culture.

1. Peaks of the Balkans: Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro

Days: 12
Distance: 200 km / 124 miles

Dan in the Karanfil Mountains - Peaks of the Balkans
Dan takes in the Karanfil Mountains on the border between Albania and Montenegro.

Descending Mount Gjeravica - Kosovo
Descending from Mount Gjeravica, Kosovo’s highest peak.

Why: To experience challenging climbs and stunning views from peaks in a relatively unknown part of Europe, while staying with local families in their farmhouses and shepherd huts along the way. This trek through the Accursed Mountains (sometimes referred to as the Albanian Alps) reminds us that sometimes the areas with the most beautiful landscapes are also the ones most difficult ones to live in. The Peaks of the Balkans, a relatively new concept trail, allows you to venture into areas and across borders that had previously been no-go zones for decades. The abandoned bunkers and border guard towers you’ll find along your way stand testament to this. Fresh off this trek, we are just now processing all of our experiences and photos, so stay tuned for a Beginner’s Guide to the Peaks of the Balkans coming soon.

2. Gheralta Mountains: Tigray Province, Ethiopia

Days: 1-2
Distance: 10-15 km / 6-9 miles, but the challenge is more in the free climbing

Climbing in the Gheralta Mountains - Tigray, Ethiopia
A little free-climbing in the Gheralta Mountains.

Following the Monk on a Cliff's Edge to Daniel Korkor Cave Church - Tigray, Ethiopia
Following the monk to Daniel Korkor, a church built into the cliff.

Why: To see 1,000-year old Ethiopian Orthodox churches carved high into the cliffs in a landscape reminiscent of the red rock deserts of Arizona and Utah. In order to reach those churches you must do some free-form rock climbing. The experience includes a few sheer drops that might send those with vertigo into a temporary, protective fetal position (We speak from experience, by the way).

However, there are rewards. In addition to the stunning views throughout the climb, you’ll have the opportunity to go inside remote cliff-side churches whose interiors are covered with 600-800 year old frescos – all with a monk or priest in as your guide. Although there are several treks in this area, the two we opted for were those up to the Daniel Korkor and Maryam Korkor churches. We suggest climbing them in that order, since tackling the former will help prepare you for the latter.

Read more:

More photos:Trekking in Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains


3. Lost City Trek: Sierra Nevada Mountains, Colombia

Days: 4 (can also do 5-6 day treks are also available)
Distance: 46 km / 28 miles

Lost City Trek, on the way - Colombia
Carving Sierra Nevada mountain trails to reach the Lost City of Teyuna.

Teyuna, Lost City - Colombia
The upper terraces of Teyuna, the jungle-tucked Lost City.

Why: To trek through the jungles of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to reach Teyuna, the capital of the ancient Tayrona civilization. When travelers consider trekking in South America, their thoughts most often go to Machu Picchu and Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia. While we can recommend both of these treks, we suggest the Lost City trek if you seek an experience of the sort that is a little less developed, a little less known. Our Wiwa indigenous guide also shared stories with us that were passed on to him by the shaman (holy men) about the ancient Tayrona civilization and the city of Teyuna. This combined cultural and historical context added to the entire experience.

Read more:

More photos: Lost City Trek Photos


4. Song Kul Lake: Kyrgyzstan

Days: 3 (but you can do up to 9 days with longer routes)
Distance: 35 km / 22 miles

Crossing Mountain Pass on Horse - Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Audrey coaxes her horse over the mountain pass en route to Song Kul Lake.

First Snow on Yurt and Mountains - Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Yurt under the first snow at Song Kul alpine lake.

Why: To go jailoo (high mountain pasture) hopping to witness Kyrgyz nomads at work on their horses tending to their herds of goats and flocks of sheep. The local experience includes spending the night and eating with local families in their yurts, which if it’s Ramadan, can make you the special guest worthy of an impromptu goat slaughter. And there’s nothing more special and warm than tea and retiring to sleep in a womb-like yurt of your own. After crossing several high mountain passes, your final destination is Song Kul, an alpine lake at 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), whose shores are outlined with yurts lived in by nomadic families.

We did this trek as a horse trek, which allows you to cover more ground each day. However, longer variations are offered that you can hike on foot.

Read more:

More photos: Horse Trekking to Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan


5. Markha Valley Trek: Ladakh, India

Days: 7
Distance: 75 km / 47 miles

Chorten and Snow-Covered Mountain - Hankar, Markha Valley Trek
Buddhist chorten and snow-covered peaks, Hankar village.

Gongmaru La Pass, Prayer Flags at the Top - Ladakh, India
Prayer flags at the top of Gongmaru La Pass (5,130m/16,800 feet) along Markha Valley trek.

Why: To challenge yourself in the high deserts of the Indian Himalayas by crossing 5,000 meter (16,400 foot) mountain passes, all while learning about traditional Ladakhi Buddhist culture through your local guide and host families. Ladakh features some of the most stunning scenery we have ever encountered. We include this trek here as most travelers think “Nepal” when they consider trekking in the Himalayas, and rightly so, as the Annapurna Circuit trek we did there remains one of our top experiences of all times. However, Ladakh offers a more remote, less explored trekking alternative. It’s also important to note that several trails and treks outside of the than Markha Valley are available if you are seek something even more far-flung and unusual.

Read more:

More photos: Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh


6. Svaneti: High Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia — Mestia (Zhibeshi) to Ushguli

Days: 3
Distance: 45 km / 28 miles

Mountain Trekking - Svaneti, Georgia
Green and granite, the High Caucasus Mountains. Svaneti region, Georgia.
Green Village - Svaneti, Georgia
A typical village in Svaneti, complete with signature Svan defensive towers.

Why: To trek through the High Caucasus Mountains to Ushguli, purportedly the highest inhabited village in Europe at 2,100m / 6,900ft, and stay with local Svan families along the way. Our trek in Svaneti was our first multi-day, home stay trek that enlightened us as to how trekking could not only be an immersive experience in nature, but also in local culture. We were hooked.

To say that local Svan people, who view themselves as the protectors of these mountains, are intense is perhaps an understatement. You’ll find the people of Svaneti welcoming — just as fierce in their present-day hospitality as they are in their historical resistance to outsiders. Just beware of your liver, as the endless toasts each night with local wine and firewater can add up.

Read more:

More photos: Trekking in Svaneti, Georgia


7. Xela to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Days: 3 days
Distance: 37 km / 23 miles

Looking at the Sun Rise Over Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Sunrise over Lake Atitlan, the final morning wake of our trek.

Santa Catarina, Guatemala
The village of Santa Catarina, one of our overnights en route to Lake Atitlan.

Why: To trek through mountains and hill villages between two of Guatemala’s most popular tourist destinations — Xela and Lake Atitlan — and to finish with a beautiful sunrise view of the lake from above. We were told that this trail was developed by a veteran of the Guatemalan civil war (ended in 1996) as a means of stealthily moving about the region.

Along the way up and down the volcanic mountains and into the valleys, you stay in simple guest houses (sometimes schools or community buildings) or with families, including one that allows you to try their traditional Mayan sauna. On the final morning, you’ll enjoy breakfast at sunrise from above Lake Atitlan. This trek might afford you a new appreciation for both the town and the lake after making the effort to trek the highlands between the two.

More photos: More photos: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala


8. Lake Khecheopalri to Yuksom: Sikkim, India

Distance: 20-25 km / 12 – 15 miles
Days: 3

Day Breaks in the Village Above Lake Khecheopalri in Sikkim
Daybreak in our overnight stop above Lake Khecheopalri, Sikkim.

View of Mt. Khangchendzonga - Yuksom, Sikkim
Clouds clear for a view of Mt. Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Why: To get a taste of Nepali and Bhutanese culture while still in India, and to appreciate a view of majestic Mount Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world (8,586 m /28,169 ft). When we first decided to visit Sikkim, a semi-autonomous region in northwestern India that borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet (China), our plan did not include trekking. Only after seeing the mountains and hearing that the trails were easy to follow, did we set off with a daypack to explore the area around Lake Khecheopalri and Yuksom. We stayed in family guesthouses and enjoyed all the interactions and tea stops in villages along the way.

Note: If you are interested in a more strenuous journey in this region, consider the route to Goecha La (4,940 meters) from which the best views of Mount Khangchendzonga are reportedly had.

More photos: Trekking in Sikkim, India


9. Trek to Big Almaty Lake: Tian Shan Mountains, Kazakhstan

Distance: 20 km / 12 miles (one way)
Days: 2

Big Almaty Lake in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Big Almaty Lake. Tian Shan Mountains, Kazakhstan. No Photoshop needed.

Deserted Bus at Tian Shan Observatory - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Abandoned bus at the Tian Shan Observatory. Soviet-era industrial detritus, frozen in time.

Why: To get a quick look into the Tian Shan Mountains, reach the turquoise waters of Big Almaty Lake and spend the night at a funky, former Soviet astronomical observatory. While the lake is beautiful and the hike up is pleasant enough, the highlight of this trek was the surreal experience of spending the night at the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory. During our visit, we felt as though we’d landed on a movie set, a time-frozen remnant, wild west outpost of the Soviet Union. Scientists still live and work up there, however, and they keep the high-powered telescopes going. If you pay $5-10, one of them will open the telescope and show you the stars.

Please do not do what we did on our second day and use a Lonely Planet guidebook map to guide your return to Almaty over the mountain pass and down through one of the river beds. The route to Kosmostancia, another bizarre scientific outpost up the mountain from the observatory, is easy. After that, however, we lost the trail and almost didn’t make it out of the mountains at all (here’s that full story). So, words to the wise: learn from our mistake. Return down the mountain to Almaty the same way you came. Otherwise, carry a usable trekking map, use a map app with trekking route overlays able, or hire a guide so you can enjoy yourself and return without unnecessary drama.

Read more:

More photos: Trekking in the Tian Shan Mountains outside Almaty


10. Pic la Selle and Parc National la Visite: Haiti

Distance: 25-35 km / 15-29 miles
Days: 3

View from Pic Cabayo in Parc Nacional la Visite - Haiti
View from Pic Cabayo — Parc National la Visite, Haiti. Just gorgeous.

Women Balance Goods on Head - Haiti
Market roads wind their way to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Why: To experience Haiti’s endless layers of mountains (the country’s name means “land of mountains” in the local indigenous Taino language) and its unexpected natural beauty while having the chance to meet and engage with people all along the way. You’ll meet school children on their way home, women carrying goods on their heads to market, and farmers plowing the fields. Haiti’s cities can be busy and frenetic, so spending a few days in the hills of Parc National La Visite with a walk down local paths towards Port-au-Prince provides a chance to slow it all down and absorb this fascinating yet complicated destination in a different way. Not to mention, spending the cool evenings in the hills drinking Haitian hot chocolate and listening to konpa music is something we’ll never forget.

Read more:

More photos: Trekking in Haiti Photos


11. Kalaw to Inle Lake: Myanmar (Burma)

Distance: 61 km / 38 miles
Days: 3

Hiking - Inle Lake, Burma
Layers of hills, Shan State en route to Inle Lake.

Mother and Daughter - Inle Lake, Burma
A mother and daughter moment at a tea stop along our trek.

Why: To trek through the hills of Myanmar’s Shan State between the town of Kalaw and the popular tourist destination of Inle Lake, and get a feel for rural life in Myanmar by staying with families and in a local monastery. What made this trek stand out for us was the interaction and engagement with people along the way, from the grandmother harvesting ginger roots to the ethnic Pao girls who wanted our water bottles so they had something to drink from while working the fields. Walking to Inle Lake makes you appreciate the work of hill village locals who carry their their goods several times a week to the lakeside weekly markets.

Read more:

More photos: Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)


What have we missed? Is there an offbeat trek you’d add to this list? Please let us know in the comments! We – and our readers always appreciate more trekking inspiration.

Disclosure: We teamed up with Expedia to write this article as part of their new aspect, TrIP. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

The post Offbeat Treks: 11 Hikes You’re Not Considering…But Should appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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The Lost City Trek, Colombia: All You Need to Knowhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/lost-city-trek-colombia/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/lost-city-trek-colombia/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:29:52 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20725 By Audrey Scott

We were out of breath, having just climbed 1,200 stone steps when Celso, our indigenous guide, called for us to join him around a group of stones arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the middle of the circle stood another square stone on top of which lay a pile of coca leaves placed […]

The post The Lost City Trek, Colombia: All You Need to Know appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

We were out of breath, having just climbed 1,200 stone steps when Celso, our indigenous guide, called for us to join him around a group of stones arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the middle of the circle stood another square stone on top of which lay a pile of coca leaves placed as an offering. Celso explained with trademark calm in a slow, deliberate voice, “This is a place where we should let go of our impurities, our negative thoughts and emotions.”

We stood in silence, not only to “cleanse” ourselves so that we might better experience this sacred site, but also to enjoy its peace and quiet. To Celso, we were then prepared to further visit Teyuna, otherwise known as the Lost City (La Ciudad Perdida), the ultimate destination to which we’d been trekking in the rainforest for the previous two days.

Making it to the Lost City! Colombia
Spoiler alert: We found the Lost City!

The Lost City Trek, as it’s called, takes you 46km (28 miles) round trip through the jungles, hills and river valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern Colombia. We’d had our sights set on this trek for years, so expectations had built up. Fortunately, the challenge, landscape, and experience exceeded so many of them.

Here’s why. Here’s also why you might want to consider putting the Lost City Trek on your travel wish list, in case it isn’t there already. We’ve also included all you need to know to plan, prepare for and enjoy this trek.

We’re back! Next up, we take you on a virtual tour of our @gadventures trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, northern Colombia. Although much of the trail is thick in the rainforest, the views and landscape are remarkably diverse. The current trekking route is challenging and steep, winding slowly uphill 23  kilometers (14  miles, roundtrip 29 miles) and down through river valleys until you reach the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) itself, known also as Teyuna. Archaeologists estimate that the site was built around A.D. 800 by the Tayrona civilization, though there are limited clues due to the lack of written evidence and site looting that occurred during its public "discovery" in the early 1970s.  Today, the area is home to the local indigenous groups — Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo — who are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona people who inhabited the area since approximately A.D. 200. Pictured: Audrey with her trail backpack and rain cover just after the daily downpour. Note the mist rising from the mountains in the background. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1QoJdU5
A taste of landscape along the Lost City Trek.


We have divided this article into different sections based on questions we’ve received. Skip ahead to what interests you most:

  1. What to Expect, Day by Day
  2. Conditions and Difficulty Level
  3. Organizing Your Lost City Trek
  4. Lost City Trek Packing List

What to Expect on the Lost City Trek: Day by Day

When I researched the Lost City Trek, I found a fair bit of conventional history about the site, often paired with a photo or two of the final destination, including what I refer to as the “golf course” shot.

Overlooking the upper chambers of Teyuna (The Lost City), Colombia -- at 1300m (4265 ft) on a mountain ridge in the Sierra Nevada range. It's believed that this capital of the Tayrona civilization was built in 800A.D., pre-dating Machu Picchu by 600 years. It's estimated that the visible excavated portions of the site, including 169 stone terraces, might only account for 10% of what's actually underneath. Buried history. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1KNvh10
The upper terraces of the Lost City (aka, the golf course shot).

What I didn’t find much of was the nature of the actual journey there. The trail and landscape is more beautiful and varied than we had expected and the Lost City site itself is far more extensive than most photos indicate. We especially appreciated having an indigenous guide. Celso, a member of the local Wiwa indigenous community, shared his culture with us and linked it to the other indigenous communities, their relationship to nature and their shared connection to the ancient Tayrona civilization.

Our Wiwa Guide with his Poporo - Lost City Trek, Colombia
Our Wiwa guide, Celso, with his poporo, a gourd used for carrying crushed seashells (lime).

Our days usually began early, around 5:00 A.M., so we could get on the trail while it was still cool and so that we could complete our day’s journey before the rains of the mid-late afternoon. We appreciated getting up early, and we enjoyed all the benefits of the early morning – light, coolness and silence among them.

Note: The route below is the Lost City four-day route that we took. If you opt for a five-day trek then your second and third days will be shorter, as you’ll have two days to complete the entire route. Your day 4 and 5 will look the same day 3 and 4 below.

Lost City Trek Map
Lost City trailhead sign with route, campsites and distances.

Day 1

Start/Finish: Machete (El Mamey) to Adán Camp (Campsite #1)
Distance: 7.6km

All Lost City treks seem to set off from Santa Marta. From there, a jeep or van transfer takes 45 minutes along the highway, during which you’ll still have some cell coverage. You’ll likely stop at a convenience store for last minute snacks and water and the final bit of mobile phone connectivity. From there, you’ll head up a dirt track into the mountains. After you arrive in Machete, you’ll have lunch, then begin the hike. (Note: this is when you should ask the people coming off the trek if they have a walking stick they can give you. This is really helpful for balance and ease on the trail.)

The beginning of the walk eases you into things, with a swimming hole a close 25 minutes from the trailhead. After cooling off in the water, you’ll have a steep uphill for around 45 minutes, then a bit of a break, then a long descent into the valley where Adán, the first campsite, is located.

Swimming Hole Along Lost City Trek - Colombia
The first of several swimming holes along the trail.
In the hills of the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) Trek
Everything on the trail comes up on the backs of mules or horses.
Taking a Rest, Lost City Trek (Day 1)
Enjoying the view during a fruit and water break, Day 1.
Following our Wiwa Guide, Lost City Trek
Steep terrain into the valley of the first campsite.

Day 2

Start/Finish: Adán Camp (Campsite #1) to El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3)
Distance: 14.7km
This is a long trekking day. The first segment of the day takes you uphill and across some beautiful terrain, including some local farms. After a jump in a swimming hole and lunch at Campsite #2 (Wiwa Camp), you continue all the way to Campsite #3 (El Paraiso), located only 1km downhill from the site of the Lost City. This day takes you through a great deal of varied landscape — deeper into the tropical jungle, across rivers and by a couple of Kogi village communities along the way.

Lost City trail along Rio Buritaca, Colombia
The trail crosses Rio Buritaca several times during the journey.
Dan Across the High River - Lost City Trek, Colombia
When the river is too high, you cross in a mid-air cage-like contraption. Don’t worry, it’s more secure than it looks.
Kogi Village, Lost City Trek - Colombia
Passing by a small Kogi village.
Lost City Trek, trail through tropical forest - Colombia.
A little rain never hurt anyone…
Dan on Lost City Trek, Colombia
After the rains, enjoying the open landscape.

Day 3

Start/Finish: El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3) to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2), via the Lost City
Distance: 13.6km
You rise very early on this day (around 4:30A.M.) so that you can set off at dawn and enjoy the Lost City in the softest light and coolest air possible. After a short walk from the campsite, you reach the starting point of the 1,200 stone stairs you’ll need to walk and scramble to reach the terraces of the city above. It’s not an easy climb, and can be a bit treacherous if wet or damp, but if you take care and get into a meditative rhythm, you’ll find it goes very quickly.

After a demanding 14  miles up, the last hurdle you must clear on the way to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) comes in the form of 1200 stone steps leading to the site itself. The site yielded only gold coins and limited tools upon excavation. Our Wiwa guide told us legend has it that the stairs were formed by a series of lightning strikes. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1Sb1Bx9
Slow and steady up 1,200 carved stairs.

After the steps, you’ll have reached the lower chambers of Teyuna, also known as The Lost City. It is believed that this was a capital city built by the Tayrona civilization in 800 A.D., approximately 600 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu in Peru. When Spanish colonialists came close to finding or approaching the in the 16th century, the Tayrona opted to abandon the city instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands.

Kogi Tribesmen on the Steps of the Lost City (Teyuna) - Colombia
Two Kogi men return from the upper chambers of Teyuna.

Teyuna was then overtaken by jungle for the next several hundred years, as only the shaman (holy men) of the four indigenous groups who live in the area were aware of its existence and would visit it regularly for ceremonies. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the site was “discovered” by the outside world. Tomb thieves cleared out much of the gold, valuable artifacts and other remains. Due to this misfortune and the fact that no written record of the Tayrona exists, much about the city and civilization remains the subject of speculation.

Our Wiwa Guide Explaining History of Teyuna - Lost City Trek, Colombia
Celso explains the competing theories of the Lost City version of the Rosetta Stone.

The Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo indigenous groups are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona and have carried on their stories and traditions. We noticed when we arrived at the Lost City, Celso let down his hair, the surprising length of which is said to represent the wisdom that flows from the sacred mountains through the rivers to the coast. He was dressed in white, as was his custom, to represent the purity and integrity of the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, out of sight in the distance.

Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) - Colombia
Celso leads us to the upper terraces of Teyuna, the Lost City.

Throughout our journey, he shared stories that had been passed on to him, through generations, from shaman to shaman, from elders to children, about the Lost City. The stories told of its creation, the symbolism of the different terraces, and the Tayrona relationship with nature. The indigenous that inhabit the area believe they are the symbolic “elder brothers,” there to protect both the sacred Sierra Nevada Mountains and their “younger brothers” – meaning the rest of us. The sense of responsibility to the equilibrium and the good and health of others was evident.

Looking Up at Upper Terraces of Teyuna, Lost City
Approaching the upper chambers of the Lost City.

After your visit to the Lost City, you return to El Paraiso (Campsite #3) for a quick lunch and begin your return all the way to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2). For us, we were met with an afternoon downpour that made it feel as though we were skiing through mud crevasses in the rainforest. We were glad for the experience; it was actually more delightful than it sounds.

Audrey with our Wiwa Guide, Lost City Trek - Colombia
After the rains, watching the clouds rise up through the hills.

Day 4

Start/Finish: Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2) to Machete/El Mamey
Distance: 12.7km
This is another early rise since much of the trail is uncovered, and therefore becomes quite hot. You try to make it as far as you’re able before the sun becomes too strong. As you’ll remember from your first day, much of the trail is up or down, without much in between. After a stop for fruit at the first campsite and a jump in the swimming hole, you find yourself back where you began, with a celebratory lunch in Machete.

Day 1, Walking Through White Sand - Lost City Trek
Through a limestone path en route to Machete.
After the Lost City Trek - Colombia
Back where we started, at the trail head sign in Machete.

Lost City Trek Difficulty Level and Conditions

We’d give this trek a medium-high difficulty ranking for all the reasons we’re about to elaborate. This means that you should not require special training to trek the Lost City trail, but you should be relatively active and in good physical shape. You should either be accustomed to or be prepared for day-long treks with steep, slow uphill climbs and very long walks in intense heat and humidity.

Not a Technical Trail

The Lost City Trek is not at all technical, meaning that you will not need any special equipment for it like climbing ropes or other fittings. The trail is well-maintained and for the most part, it’s an easy path to follow, but it’s necessary to have a guide to navigate the rivers and some turns. You’ll have to cross a few streams or rivers — with waterproof shoes on, or with your shoes and socks in your hand — but that is part of the fun.

Climbing Up to the Lost City, Colombia
Through the tropical forest on the way to the Lost City stairs.

Altitude, Steep Hills and Valleys

Altitude is not really an issue, as the trek’s highest point is around 1,500 meters/4,920 feet. However, the Lost City trail seems to either be straight up or straight down without much flat. Our advice is to take it slow and steady on the uphill. Keep in mind that it’s not a race. It’s better to proceed deliberately and take fewer breaks than to quickly wear yourself out and have to recuperate with frequent and longer stops.

Heat and Humidity

One of the challenges of this trek is the combination of heat and humidity. I’m not sure we’ve ever poured sweat with such intensity and consistency. It actually felt great, like a cleansing process. Just be sure that you drink plenty of water to replenish. Note that respite from the heat comes a couple of times a day in the form of rivers and swimming holes to jump into.


Another challenge and irritation of this trek: bugs and their bites. There are lots of them, especially mosquitoes at the Lost City itself. We suggest applying plenty of bug repellent (bring on the DEET if you need to). If you are especially susceptible to mosquito bites consider trekking in long trousers. Finally, pick up a pack of generic B-complex tablets (“Compejo-B generico” runs 25 pills for $1.00), as certain B vitamins are said to repel mosquitoes.

Another thing to watch out for are fleas and/or bedbugs in the hammocks and/or blankets at the campsites – this is where we collected most of our bug bites (especially campsite #2). We recommend carrying a sleep sack, so that you have another layer of protection while you are sleeping. Finally, check your body closely for ticks when you emerge from the Lost City Trek. We each had a few on us; they are very tiny and difficult to see, so look closely. (Note: For advice on how to properly remove a tick, check out this article.)

Rain and Mud

We had been warned plenty about rain and mud, but didn’t find wet weather too much of a hindrance. Yes, it rained from time to time (usually mid-afternoon), but we were often so hot anyway that the cool rain was welcome. Be certain any valuable electronic gear is well-protected and any dry sleeping clothes are at least wrapped in plastic. If you fall in the mud, just go with the flow and don’t think about it too much. You can always wash yourself and your clothes later.

Navigating the Mud, Lost City Trek
A little rain and mud just adds to the excitement.


You will certainly not go hungry on this trek. Each group is assigned a cook and not only will you be served three large meals a day (e.g., fish and rice, pasta, chicken and potatoes), but you will also enjoy well-placed fruit stops along the trail. These are very welcome for the additional boost of energy and hydration just when you need it. If you are vegetarian or have food restrictions, alert your trekking company and your guide in advance so they can respond accordingly.

Cooking along the Lost City Trek - Colombia
Enrique, our cook, made us a feast every dinner.

Campsites and Sleeping Arrangements

There are a handful of campsites along the way, so we can only speak to the ones that we stayed in — Adán Camp, Wiwa Camp, and El Paraiso. Not always, but often you’ll have an option to sleep in a hammock or on a mattress/bed (both with mosquito nets). There are cold water showers and flush toilets at all the campsites. Clotheslines will be strung around so you’ll be able to hang up your wet clothes from the day. However, the rainforest is so damp, do not expect anything to fully dry overnight, if at all. Evenings also get cool, so keep a long-sleeved shirt or fleece handy at night.

Hammocks at Campsite #1, Lost City Trek
Sleeping along the Lost City Trek. Hammocks covered with mosquito nets.

Organizing The Lost City Trek: Your Options

Choosing a trekking operator

You cannot do the Lost City Trek independently (at this time), meaning you must go with one of the four or five authorized operators. We took our Lost City Trek with G Adventures. It’s one of their new offerings from June 2015. They work with a local organization that provides indigenous guides so that their travelers are able to learn about the indigenous cultures and communities still living in the Sierra Nevada mountain area.

Regardless of which operator you choose to take you on the Lost City Trek, select one that works with indigenous guides. The cultural and living history background is essential to a full Lost City trekking experience.

How many days do you need for the trek?

Most trekking operators offer four-, five- or six-day trek options. We did the Lost City Trek in four days, but all the standard G Adventures Lost City Trek offerings are five days. As the route is the same, the main difference is that a five-day trek includes a relaxed day #2 with only a few hours of trekking to the second campsite.

As for the six-day option, we can’t really imagine taking that much time to do the trek. But if you are worried about your trekking abilities and stamina then talk with an operator regarding what they suggest.

Lost City Trek Packing List

Much of what we include in our How to Pack for a Trek article holds true here. However, we offer a customized Lost City Trek packing list to ensure you have what you need for the tropical rainforest conditions but don’t overpack.

While there is the option on some of the route to hire a mule to carry belongings, it’s best not to count on it. You should pack and plan as if you will be carrying your pack the entire length of the trail.

Trust us, pack light. You’ll quickly begin to feel the extra weight going up those steep hills.

Drinking Water

You will go through several liters of water each day (if not, then you’re not drinking enough) since you’ll be sweating constantly. Bring with you 1-2 refillable water bottles (or buy a 1 or 1.5 liter bottle of water before you go) so that you always have at least one liter of water on you at all times. Each campsite offers clean water, so you can refill your water bottles every couple of hours on the trail. Alternatively, pack a foldable water bladder into your backpack.

Consider bringing Gatorade powder packets or similar electrolyte sports drink mix with you to help you replenish some of the minerals that you’ll sweat out each day. And let’s face it, sometimes drinking liters of water gets boring and you want some flavor.

Walking Stick

We highly recommend carrying a walking stick. We were very thankful for ours, especially when things got muddy and slippery. Trekkers just finishing and on their way out of the trail donated their wooden sticks to us. If this doesn’t happen, then ask your guide for one and he will find a walking stick for you, or fashion one for you with his machete.

Audrey on Lost City Trek, Colombia
A walking stick, even a basic one like this, is essential for this trek.


You really don’t need much in this department. Don’t worry about packing clean clothes for each day, as you will be sweating buckets within minutes every morning of getting out on the trail. Here’s what we suggest:

  • 1 set of hiking clothes: T-shirt, shorts, hiking socks. This means you will wear the same clothes every day. Don’t worry about it. Everyone does it. And you’ll be thankful not to carry the weight of extra clothes. Note: if mosquitoes love you, consider wearing trousers the whole time. Dan did this and it cut down on his mosquito bites considerably. If you are especially sun-sensitive, consider bringing a very light long-sleeved hiking shirt, but be aware that you may be warm.
  • Hiking shoes: We wore low-rise hiking shoes and were fine. Other people wore light trainers, however some mid-ankle support is useful because of the pitch of the terrain.
  • 1 set of evening clothes for post-shower and sleep: T-shirt, long pants (or pajama bottoms), socks. To ensure these remain dry, pack them in a plastic bag or other impermeable container inside your backpack.
  • Extra t-shirt: Just in case.
  • Underwear for every day of your trek: With an extra pair thrown in for good measure, if you like.
  • Extra pair of socks: Just in case your first pair get soaked beyond comfort while rock jumping at the river crossings.
  • Bathing suit: Keep near the top of your backpack to have handy for swimming holes.
  • Long sleeved shirt: For cool nights or sleeping.
  • Fleece jacket: For cool nights or sleeping (can double as a pillow, too).
  • Rain jacket (optional): We didn’t use ours due to the heat and humidity. We appreciated the cool rain. Not to mention, a rain jacket in the tropics can feel like a personal sauna.
  • Flip-flops or river shoes (e.g., Tevas): To use in river crossings, showers, and evenings when you wish to get out of your hiking shoes.

Other Trekking Gear

  • Waterproof backpack cover: You never know when a rainstorm will hit, so it’s essential to keep a rain cover for your backpack close at hand. Your guide will likely also have a supply of plastic garbage bags in case you need extra rain protection.
  • Travel towel: To dry off after showers, and also after a swim. Hang it on the outside of your backpack in the morning so it dries quickly in the sun and air as you move.
  • Sleep sack: To provide an extra layer between you and the hammock (or mattress) and blanket. Fleas and other bugs in the hammocks bit us and other travelers we spoke to.
  • Headlamp: Most of the campsites do not have electricity, so be prepared. Carry your own headlamp to find your way to the toilet and to sort through your stuff at night in and around your hammock.
  • Earplugs: A precaution in the case your camp has a snorer. We know from our Lost City trail experience that this can demolish a good night’s sleep.

Toiletries and Health Kit

You will have access to a shower every evening, and you will be so thankful for the cold water shower to wash away all the sweat and salt on your body from the day’s efforts.

  • Shampoo, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste: The basics.
  • Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the better
  • Sunglasses: Of course.
  • Bug repellent: You will apply this frequently, especially at the Lost City itself. The mosquitoes there are big, aggressive and plenty.
  • Hand sanitizer: To be on the safe side.
  • Pack of tissues or toilet paper: The campsites all have toilet paper, but it’s always a good idea to carry a pack of tissues in case of messes, spills or emergencies.
  • Vitamin B Complex: Take one pill per day (called Complejo-B in Spanish, available at pharmacies in Colombia). Supposedly, mosquitoes don’t appreciate the smell and taste of your blood when B-1 Thiamine is present. It is debatable whether this really works to repel mosquitoes, but we appreciated using it and felt that it helped.
  • Duct tape: Very effective for hot spots and blisters on your feet.
  • Medical Kit (for emergencies): Band-Aids, anti-bacterial gel (for cuts), rehydration powders, ciprofloxacin (or another medication against stomach bacteria), Tylenol (anti-headache/aches), Immodium (or some sort of “stopper” if you get diarrhea). Note: all these are easily and inexpensively purchased at local pharmacies, including in Santa Marta from where you depart for the trek.

Electricity and Charging Batteries

While a couple of the campsites do have electricity, it’s unreliable. Prepare yourself for not having access to electricity during the trek. Some tips to handle this and further your battery power.

  • Put your smartphone on airplane mode. There is no connectivity along the trek anyhow, so don’t waste your phone’s battery power trying to find a network.
  • Consider buying a phone case that doubles as an extra battery. Here’s the iPhone 6 battery case that we use. It provides another 1-1.5 charges.
  • Take an extra camera battery or two.
  • Don’t spent time reviewing your images, as this will eat up your battery power quickly. Unless you are reviewing images to determine whether you’ve captured a specific shot, there will be time enough for photo review when your trek is finished.

Have other questions about the Lost City Trek? Just ask in the comments below and we’ll incorporate the information into the article so others may benefit.

Disclosure: Our Lost City trek was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

The experiences above were from the G Adventures Lost City Trek. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

G Adventures South America Tours

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Travel to Colombia: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/colombia-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/colombia-travel/#comments Mon, 15 Jun 2015 12:05:13 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20682 By Audrey Scott

Call it my imagination. While I looked forward to our visit to Colombia, I harbored the occasional image of thuggy bush-mustached Colombian narco-gangsters and aggressive gold cap-toothed street thieves shaking me down in the back shadows of Bogota or Medellin. (Yes, I realize I’ve probably watched one too many bad airplane movies.) Colombia, thankfully, was […]

The post Travel to Colombia: First Impressions appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Call it my imagination. While I looked forward to our visit to Colombia, I harbored the occasional image of thuggy bush-mustached Colombian narco-gangsters and aggressive gold cap-toothed street thieves shaking me down in the back shadows of Bogota or Medellin. (Yes, I realize I’ve probably watched one too many bad airplane movies.)

Colombia, thankfully, was altogether different. We spent time on our own, under the auspices of friends, on tours, in cities, way up in the hills, on the coast, and in destinations in between.

No narco-gangsters. No untoward experiences, for us.

Hiking the Camino Real to Guane, Colombia
Guane, a lazy Colonial village on the ancient Camino Real trail.

Trying to understand a place is not only about jettisoning stereotype ballast, but also about absorbing details, parsing quotes, and plumbing idiosyncrasies to comprehend a culture for ourselves.

So we did — in barrios, on buses, in markets, on miradors.

And this is our initial unpacking of our Colombia experience, our first brush of impressions of the country, across dimensions.

1. You really don’t know how big Colombia is.

Really, you don’t. Or, at least we didn’t. Hint: combine the landmasses of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Yes, Colombia is that big.

Chicamocha Canyon Views - Colombia
Exploring Chicamocha Canyon, one of biggest in world, in eastern Colombia.

It’s also more geographically diverse than we realized. The Andean mountain range, once it enters Colombia, splits into three branches; the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea sit west and north respectively. Throw in the Amazon rainforest, the plains, the desert and top it off with the Sierra Nevadas, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and you have Colombia. And I’m sure someone will tell us we’ve missed something.
Acaime Peak, Cocora Valley. Dotted with towering palma de cera (wax palms), some of which grow to over 200 feet high. When we set off on our morning hike (up to 2700 meters) rain looked like it might ruin the day, but it was just the touch of atmosphere the cloud forest needed. This is #Colombia. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1LzbOz1
Trekking through the cloud forest, Cocora Valley.

Because of this and the contours of landscapes, people and vibe, Colombia can sometimes feel like several countries rolled into one. In fact, given all that we learned during our trip about Colombia we now have an even longer travel wish list than when we first arrived, including San Agustin, Nuqui, Caño Cristales and many other areas that we’ve heard are fantastic for trekking and mountain biking.

Tayrona National Park Beach - Cabo San Juan, Colombia
The beaches of Tayrona National Park, Caribbean coast.

Note: When planning your travel around Colombia, check distances and bus times and consider flying the longer segments. The country features an impressive network of airports and domestic flights, which were previously intended to circumvent the danger found on roads due to FARC and paramilitary groups. Nowadays, violence is less a factor than it once was, but road conditions, distances and the recent introduction of low-cost airlines like VivaColombia make flying an easier choice. It will save you a lot of time and help you avoid some of the pains of enduring winding mountain roads.

2. Colombian People: Exceptionally Friendly, Courteous, Helpful

Sure, we’d heard Colombians were friendly and open — especially from Colombians themselves :) — but there was still a part of us that wondered whether we’d meet the gangster stereotypes conjured in our heads by bad movies and media. (Think: Vinnie Chase as Pablo Escobar from the TV Show Entourage for a start).

Um, no. The exact opposite, to an extreme.

Grandfather and grandson - Guane, Colombia
A family moment in a park in Guane.

What struck us about Colombians, especially in areas less impacted by tourism, is not only how open they were towards us, but also how they went beyond whatever we asked. They wanted to help. Take for example the employee at Chicamocha National Park who insisted on standing in the rain after her workday ended to ensure we boarded the correct bus. Or the random guy at a busy Bogota TransMilenio (public bus) station who went well out of his way to walk us to our correct bus stop. Beyond that, teenage kids in villages greeted us politely and wished us good evening. People stopped and gave us rides. Sure, this wasn’t happening in the midst of downtown Bogota or in the crowds of Cartagena, but it did happen. And it seemed more par for the course than the exception.

Smiles at Villa de Leyva Market - Colombia
A girl tending her family fruit stand, Villa de Leyva.

We were told that Colombia’s violent past made it somewhat difficult for the Colombian people to trust one another, not to mention outsiders. The openness we found — not only toward us as gringos, but to other Colombians as well – made this all the more surprising.

I understand that we often point out how friendly people are just about everywhere we go. But in general, and specifically in Latin America, Colombians’ distinction for being notably open, polite and helpful will stay with us.

Kids of San Francisco Barrio - Cartagena, Colombia
Kids from an after-school program in the San Francisco barrio of Cartagena.

Note: Knowing how to speak some Spanish, even if imperfectly, will greatly aid your engagement with Colombians. Especially compared to its neighbors, there’s not a great deal of fluent English spoken…yet.

3. Give Security Forces a Thumbs Up

In some destinations, armed men in military fatigues on the side of the road could be cause for alarm. In Colombia, however, the scene is common and welcome. In a country that lived through decades of instability and violence, the presence of military and national police indicates: “This area is safe. We are here to protect you.”

Spending time with a friend at his finca (farm) in the hills outside of Bogota. Hiking, poking around virtually gringo-free mountain villages, birdspotting. This is lush country -- mountain, jungle and local farmlands all rolled into one. This is Rio Blanco. #Colombia via Instagram http://ift.tt/1AhEEU6
Near Choachí, an area that used to be known for kidnappings.

Colombians indicate their gratitude and support by giving the thumbs-up sign to the security forces. Even better, imagine that the big guys with semi-automatic rifles often give the thumbs-up sign right back, with a smile.

However endearing the gesture, it reflects something deeper: how appreciative Colombian people are for the security and stability they now have. Until 10 years ago or so, large swathes of the country were off-limits and road travel posed serious threat because of guerilla roadblocks and kidnappings.

Should they sense unease, Colombians may also assure you of your safety, sometimes to even humorous effect. In the town of Barichara, our hosts opened with the following welcome: “It’s very safe here. Don’t worry. No one will offer you marijuana or other drugs.”

4. Colombia, A Vegetarian Dream, But Only in the Markets for Now

Walk into a market in Colombia and you’ll likely find piles of fruit, herbs, vegetables, roots and tubers you’ve never encountered before. To what do we owe this vast selection? Colombian biodiversity. Mountains, coast, and rainforest, each with their own climate and soil. It’s among the best of all worlds, agriculturally.

San Gil Central Market - Colombia
Downstairs at the San Gil market overflows with produce.

When you visit a fresh market, be sure to chat with vendors to get a mini-tutorial on all that they are selling. Sample whatever you can, from gooseberries to lulo, from yucca to malanga. And don’t forget to check out the avocados the size of small footballs. As you do, keep in mind #2 above: people are friendly, don’t be afraid to engage.

Among the Colombian fresh markets we recommend: Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota, the San Gil central market, and the Villa de Leyva Saturday market.

Saturday Market in Villa de Leyva - Colombia
The fantastic Villa de Leyva Saturday market seems to have everything, all with an Andean twist.

The disappointing flip side to these amazing markets? It remains more difficult than it ought to be to find all these vegetables used creatively in local dishes and in local restaurants. There are some chefs and menu designers in Colombia trying to change this, but it’s taking time.

Piles of Fruit at Mercado Paloquemao - Bogota, Colombia
Piles of delicious, unusual fruit at Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota.

A note for gluten-free travelers: Colombia is a surprisingly decent destination for gluten-free eaters. Many dishes, soups and treats are corn-based, and various other baked goods are actually made with tubers such as yucca and suga.

5. “No Dar Papaya” (Don’t Give Papaya)

The story behind this phrase and advice: just as it’s hard to resist eating a sweet, ripe papaya that’s placed in front of you, it’s hard not to thieve something that is left out or waved around carelessly in front of you.

Thievery is not necessarily met with approval in Colombia per se, but it does not come as a surprise to a Colombian should you expose yourself indiscreetly. So take care with your belongings.

Another interpretation of this concept that applies more broadly: you shouldn’t expose weaknesses in yourself so that others may take advantage of you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open, but rather be deliberate and careful regarding what you share, how and with whom.

What does this say about the culture and the Colombian mindset? The optimist says good advice: Don’t be careless and remain realistic about human nature. The cynic says: a cultural justification and rationalization for bad behavior.

You decide.

While we are here, let’s further address the issue of safety in Colombia. During our more than three weeks with friends, on our own, on a tour, in cities and in hills, we never once felt threatened or at risk during our visit. We walked about quite a bit on our own, but we also know that there are notoriously dangerous areas that are to be avoided altogether. Ask someone with local knowledge where it’s safe, and don’t try to prove anything to anyone. Should you choose to venture into an area known for crime (as we did in Barrio San Francisco, Cartagena), be sure to go during the day with someone from the community who knows the lay of the land.

6. Stratos, A Hierarchical Society

Colombian society is systemically hierarchical and class-based, which is not unlike many other countries in Latin America. However, the government has taken it a step further by formalizing it through a classification of neighborhoods by socio-economic status into levels called stratos (with stratos 6 being the highest level). The idea: those living in richer neighborhoods subsidize the utility bills of people living in poorer neighborhoods. While this subsidy may be beneficial in some respects, it also stigmatizes and systematizes a sort of social class caste system. Some suggested to us that even today it’s nearly impossible to move up from, or date and marry outside of one’s stratos.

Alex Rocha Youth Center - San Francisco Barrio, Cartagena, Colombia
Visiting a community center in a stratos 1 neighborhood of Cartagena, part of a Context Travel tour.

As with many of its neighbors, much of Colombia’s turbulence and political upheaval has been rooted in socioeconomy and the yawning wealth gap between rich and poor. Guerrilla movements like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and criminal warlords like Pablo Escobar have all employed strains of populist rhetoric to justify their actions and the violence left in their wake. (Note: For an entertaining, yet sad, primer on Pablo Escobar and the rise of Colombian football, watch The Two Escobars)

For the traveler who spends all her time in Bogota’s Zona Rosa or Candelaria, Colombian coffee country, and the old town core of Cartagena, it’s possible to believe that Colombia’s richness has been for the benefit of everyone. But walk a few blocks off the path, and you may find a very different story.

Getsmani Neighborhood of Cartagena - Colombia
Life in Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.

7. Urban Planning for Social Change

Imagine your favorite city in the U.S. or Europe closing off vast segments of its roads on a Sunday to enable cyclists and joggers to move safely in an automobile-free environment. You’d think we were crazy, no?

But that’s exactly what Bogota does every Sunday with its Ciclovía when it cordons off over 400km of continuous roadway for the benefit of those who want to walk, jog, cycle or otherwise get some exercise and fresh air. Impressive, especially in a city of over eight million people.

Medellin's Public Transport Cable Cars to Santo Domingo Barrio - Colombia
Medellin’s impressive public transport system, includes cable cars to outlying neighborhoods.

Medellin serves as another fascinating case study in urban planning for social change and public safety improvement. Officials there invested in public transport, including a very cool cable car system into several poor and often gang-riddled barrios (neighborhoods) in the hills so that residents would have better access to the city. Additionally, other public works, including the Spain Library in Santo Domingo, were built to provide clean, safe learning environments for residents and children. The infrastructure and resulting impact also encourages people from other parts of the city to visit these neighborhoods, thereby aiding the normalization of relations between once disparate parts of town.

Kids in Santo Domingo Barrio - Medellin, Colombia
Kids from Santo Domingo, hopefully with a more peaceful neighborhood to grow up in.

Although Medellin still has its share of problems, the transformation that the city has undergone in the last decade, especially in its poorer barrios, is worth watching. One may argue as to the sustainability of all these measures, but as a local teen told us: “We used to be at war with the barrio down there. Now we have a bridge that connects us.”

Beat that.

8. Impressive Street Art Culture

Another surprise from Colombia: fantastic street art. Not just some, but loads of it, at an astonishing level of quality, typically to make a political or cultural statement. Even more surprising, the acceptance and support from officials. Occasionally, the artistic process is even monitored by local police to ensure the protection of the artists.

Street Art in Candelaria, Bogota - Colombia
Respect. Just one piece of the colorful Bogota street art scene.

Unsurprisingly, Botoga serves as the epicenter of Colombia’s street art scene. Travelers tempted to view the city as a transit point or a destination to be avoided altogether, think again. It’s worth a visit, even if for a day or two. Wander the streets in Candelaria or around the area of Calle 20 and Carrera 4 in the Centro for the most message-laden pieces of street art.
Bogota Street Art - Colombia
Street murals carry political and social messages in Bogota.

In Cartagena, we really enjoyed the street art in Getsemani, the neighborhood just across the way from the core of its famous colonial old town. This area was originally where escaped slaves and the lower classes lived, but today it features a hip not-quite-fully-discovered vibe that serves as a worthy contrast to the polish and finish of the old town center.

Street art, Cartagena. Cross from the spiffy, polished old town into Getsemani, the hip-but-doesn't-quite-know-it-yet working class neighborhood. Loads of old, unfinished stone, bits of beautiful decrepitude and locals reading newspapers in the shade. Very much living -- and lived-in -- history. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1cu9TzY
Catching up on the news under a mural. Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.

Note: To understand the history behind the Bogota street art scene and the story of some of its most important artists, sign up for the Bogota Graffiti Tour (10 AM every day).

9. Arepas Unite!

In a country so vast and diverse in climate, culture, and geography, there’s one corn-based constant that unites it all: the flatbread arepa.

Arepas de Choclo con Quesito - Medellin, Colombia
Arepas de Choclo con Quesito (sweet corn with farmer’s cheese). Part of our Medellin street food tour.

Each region does its arepa a little differently, none with less pride than the other. After tasting dozens over the last couple of weeks, we can attest to the fact that not all arepas are created equal. Arepas range from the appallingly dense and hockey-puck like to the crisp and delightful brine-cheese filled, from the cardboard tasteless, to the soft, sweet cornmeal.

Our favorites include the super crispy Arepas Boyacense and the warm, moist Arepas Santandereano. There’s a stand at the Bogota Mercado Paloquemao that serves up amazing cheese-stuffed Boyacense arepas.

Cheese-Stuffed Arepa at Mercado Paloquemao - Bogota, Colombia
Arepas Boyacense, Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota.

10. Colombian Coffee

Does an image of Juan Valdez come into your head when you think of Colombian coffee? If so, there’s a reason for that. The Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers created him in a brilliant marketing move in 1958 to be the “face” of the country’s coffee to the rest of the world. Yes, Juan is kind of cliché at this point, but the campaign worked.

Colorful Coffee Country - Quindio, Colombia
Colorfully painted houses in Colombia’s coffee country.

Today, Colombia stands an impressive #3 in the world for coffee production after Brazil and Vietnam. What differentiates Colombia is that it tends to grows the more difficult, and often more prized, Arabica coffee bean rather than the higher yielding Robusta beans.

Visit coffee country around the town of Armenia and you will see plantation hills covered with coffee bushes, while in the Sierra Nevada mountains you’ll find an occasional bush planted by an indigenous family trying to diversify its income stream. In other words, coffee is everywhere in Colombia.

Coffee Beans at ReCuCa Coffee Farm - Quindio, Colombia
When a coffee beans turns red, it’s ready to pick.

A visit to one of these coffee farms will help you appreciate all that goes into making your morning cuppa’, including the people. A surprising coffee factoid: 100 kilos of picked coffee berries yields only 13 kilos of final product roasted beans. Coffee pickers are paid 500 pesos ($0.25) per kilo of beans. In one day, a good picker can make around $20-$25 from picking 100 kilos of beans. We were sent into the fields to pick beans; it’s immensely difficult work, especially in the energy-sapping heat. So, next time you peer into your cup of coffee, take a moment to think of everyone who helped create it.
Coffee Tasting at ReCuCa Farm in Quindío, Colombia
Coffee tasting at ReCuCa coffee farm in Quindio.

Although much of the first quality coffee beans are exported, we found the quality of coffee in general served in Colombia much higher than in other Latin American coffee-producing countries we’d visited (e.g., Guatemala, Honduras). While Juan Valdez cafés usually serve up consistently good brew, we found our tidiest cup of Joe at Jesús Martín Café in the tourist favorite Salento.
The back streets of Salento, Colombia. The colorful commercial epicenter of Colombian coffee country (Quindio department). Just about every door is brightly painted, billiard halls serve as community centers for old men, and terrific cups of coffee, including at renowned Jesus Martin, are in long supply. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1FN7iwR
Back streets of Salento.

There is one notable exception to the Colombian high quality coffee rule: tinto. Think watered down Nescafe with several spoonfuls of sugar turned in. It’s an acquired taste for outsiders, but it’s the Colombian national drink. And since Colombians grew up with it, they love it. You’ll find tinto vendors on every major street corner or market, so it won’t be hard for you to find – and judge — for yourself.

11. Cocaine and the Coca Leaf

Cocaine does not appear as relevant to mainstream Colombia these days, but it remains a force under the surface, if not still above it. Such is the world of the illegal drug trade. Don’t make it the first mention to Colombians, however, if you choose to mention it all at. Most Colombians are understandably tired of this stereotype, have more important things going on in their lives, and wish to move on.

Before going further, we’d like to make a distinction between cocaine and coca. The coca leaf has been grown and chewed by indigenous populations throughout South America for millennia – it’s crucial to their rituals, it’s part of their culture and their identity. For example, during our trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, our indigenous guide always carried a sack of coca leaves, and would exchange leaves with other indigenous men as he greeted them. This was critical to his identity as a Wiwa man.

Cocaine, on the other hand, is a substance altogether different. Yes, the green coca leaf forms the foundation, but after that the process of cocaine production becomes flush with chemicals and explosive danger.

The cook on our Lost City trek, Enrique, sat down with us one evening to describe to us the entire process of cocaine production, from start to finish, including a frightening list of ingredients and refinement steps involving gasoline, acid and a host of chemicals that transform the green coca leaf into white powder. The knowledge he shared, and the way he shared it, formed a bit of a history lesson for us. It came from a time in his life when narcotics traffickers controlled the Sierra Nevada hills, and most people living in the area had little choice but to work with them. Today, he’s very thankful to be able to cook food instead for the trekkers on the way to the Lost City.

So while Pablo Escobar and many in his infamous Medellin Cartel are dead, cocaine – and the byproduct “industry” that gets built up around it – still exists in Colombia. Fighting the illicit cocaine trade and all the social and economic by-products of the criminal networks built up around it, however, remains an uphill battle.

Note: We also encountered this during our travels in Bolivia and wrote: Cocaine: A Story that Begins in the Bolivian Jungle

12. Tourism in Colombia: Still Early Days

Only in the last decade has stability and restored public safety enabled people to travel easily without fear of violence and kidnapping. As a result, outside of the Caribbean, foreign tourism in Colombia is still in its relative infancy.

Today, we learned a little more about Cartagena past and present by following the path of some characters from Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels, and the life of Marquez himself, in a @contexttravel walking tour. Amusing and fascinating way to add some texture, color and reality to the polish of the city's old town. Apparently when Marquez worked as a journalist in Cartagena he would spend time around the warehouses and docks after hours and talk with guards, workers, prostitutes, and drunks to get the "real" news. Along the way, he collected bizarre stories and characters that he later used in his novels. This is how a Nobel prize winning writer worked. Now, off to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Other Demons. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1JnrKpg
Cartagena, no stranger to tourism.

What this means is that there are many destinations in Colombia that remain “off-the-beaten path.” Even those on it still don’t receive a great deal of foreign travelers. For example, when we visited Barichara and Villa de Leyva, two colonial towns high on traditional “must see” lists for first-time visitors to Colombia, we came across only a handful of foreign travelers in each.
Night Falls in Colonial Town of Barichara, Colombia
Barichara, all to ourselves.

The upshot? With the exception of Cartagena and some other well-traveled areas along the north coast, Colombia retains a bit of pre-tourism innocence.

Sure, perhaps the infrastructure can be a bit spotty in places and information can sometimes be hard to find, but if you make a little effort you’ll always find what you are looking for, often with the help of some random stranger. It seems that Colombian people really want to help, and to share their country with others. And to us, this is really what matters.

Colombia’s tourism industry will only continue to grow. So if you’re considering a visit, factor in timing. Think about visiting soon, so as to catch a little bit of the early air and take part in Colombia’s development — and maybe even your own.

A note of thanks to: Gregg Bleakney who enticed with videos of Colombia long before we arrived and piled us with great travel advice, Tansy Evans who opened our eyes up to the culinary potential of Colombian fruits and vegetables, and our G Adventures CEOs (leaders) Henry Sisa and Carmen Trujillo who were always there to answer all of our questions and help us understand the nature, culture and history of this complicated place called Colombia.

Disclosure: We spent a week traveling independently in Colombia followed by the G Adventures Colombia Experience and Lost City Tours. Our flights and these tours were provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our San Francisco Barrio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez walking tours in Cartagena were provided by Context Travel. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

Most of experiences above were from the G Adventures Colombia Experience Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Adventures in Silence: A Vipassana 10-Day Meditation Retreathttp://uncorneredmarket.com/vipassana-meditation-retreat/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/vipassana-meditation-retreat/#comments Tue, 26 May 2015 14:05:32 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20548 By Daniel Noll

This is my story about recently completing a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation in Malaysia. It’s also a story about impermanence. Day four. It was 90 degrees outside, maybe pushing 95. Inside the meditation hall, I had been in some form of a restless, tortured cross-legged meditation posture for a total approaching six hours that […]

The post Adventures in Silence: A Vipassana 10-Day Meditation Retreat appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

This is my story about recently completing a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation in Malaysia. It’s also a story about impermanence.

Day four. It was 90 degrees outside, maybe pushing 95. Inside the meditation hall, I had been in some form of a restless, tortured cross-legged meditation posture for a total approaching six hours that day. It was 2:00 P.M. and I was in the midst of what one might informally refer to as a “body scan.” I was systematically surveying the surface of my body for sensations when I again faced a familiar barrier.

I sat hunched over at the bend in my lower back, forever a nexus of pain and constraint. “I cannot get to the rest of my body if I can’t get beyond here,” I thought to myself again. Sweat poured down my sides, inside my legs. A good sweat, the cleansing kind, the lubricating kind that eases the muscles and mind and allows impurities to spill from the body.

I leaned forward, to the left, attempting to wrest motion from and liberate the right side of my body. I caught on something, maybe a rib, maybe a burr, and pressed into a familiar painful muscle cluster, ground zero for all my body’s tension for as long as I have known. I moved further forward, twisting, bending.

Maybe this was focus. Maybe this was the “observation” I’d heard about over the speakers in the first days: “Observe the pain…craving and aversion create misery.” I observed my pain so deeply; it was electric. I leaned right into it. I immersed myself, bathing in the burn.

Then something snapped. I felt an unusual vibration, waves deep inside. Imagine twisting the tuning peg on a guitar just a little too far. You know, when the string breaks.

I have divided this article into different sections based on the various questions that have been asked of me about my experience. Skip ahead to what interests you most:

  1. How I First Learned of Vipassana and Why I Put It Off for Years
  2. The Snap…Continued
  3. The Flow of My Vipassana Experience
  4. Should I Take a Vipassana Meditation Course? (physical and mental expectations and outcomes)
  5. How to Take a Vipassana Course, All the Practical Details (finding a course, food, lodging, cost)
  6. A Typical Day: The Vipassana Daily Schedule

Sunrise at Mt. Batur - Bali, Indonesia

The Back Story: How I First Learned of Vipassana and Why I Put It Off for Years

Years ago our friend Jennie mentioned something about a silent meditation course retreat she’d taken. “It’s called Vipassana…ten days…no speaking…meditation…clear the mind…lots of traffic…it’s loud in the head…then peace.”

Those were among the tempting phrases and hooks I recall.

The term Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” It is a pre-Buddhist meditation method, revived by Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha) over 2,500 years ago.

S.N. Goenka, a Burmese man of Indian descent who one might say reintroduced Vipassana to the world in the 1970s, opened the first centers. Today, there are more than 190 Vipassana centers around the world. His instructions and lessons are played during the course, the structure of which is identical regardless of the location: 10 days of silence, meditation from 4:00 A.M. and 9:00 P.M. with breaks for meals and rest in between.

Audrey and I were both sold on the idea, but I felt I had some physical impediments to overcome, including an inability to properly sit cross-legged. I could not fold my right leg in; I always sat leaning to the right or with my right leg kicked out. Whenever I visited a Buddhist temple during my travels, I was invariably that guy whose feet pointed in transgression at the Buddha, the altar, or the monks.

I have scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. Through nurture, nature or some devilish combination, the top of my spine is like a corkscrew, twisting like a piece of fusilli pasta while the base of my spine then collapses forward and the bottom tails off to the left. A lifetime of compensating for this had built up a rail of tension along the right side of my spine, a couple of small knots along the way, then a baseball-sized knot at the base. The tightness in the right side of my back extended to the hip and ultimately to the knee. Thus all those temple transgressions.

I never characterized myself as someone with chronic pain. When you have it, chronic pain is something you just learn to live with.

Shiatsu masters and Thai, Burmese, Swedish, Chinese, Laotian, blind, sighted masseurs — you name it and I have seen every type of massage therapist across the world — were all bewildered by my knots. I even took ten sessions with a Rolfing myofascial tissue specialist in Berlin last year, followed by sessions with other physiotherapists. All of that may have done some fleeting good, but nothing felt as though it really made a difference.

Each year I inched closer to being able to sit cross-legged, a little more flexible for some exercise I had done. Audrey and I would flirt with the idea: “Let’s do Vipassana this year.”

But I never felt prepared physically, so I put it off. It wasn’t the fear of silence, or other pleasures — like alcohol — that must be foregone during the course.

Then, last month Audrey was headed to Switzerland with her mom, giving me an opening of 10-14 days. I had plenty to occupy me work-wise. I also considered a host of getaways — to the beach, to the mountains, etc.

“How about Vipassana?” I thought. Ironically, Audrey was the more enthusiastic of the two of us about it. Perhaps that’s why I ought to have been the first to go.

So I did a search, found a newly available course at a long-standing center in Malaysia. I thought on it for a night, woke up, applied for the course and booked a flight to Malaysia for the following week.

If I waited until I felt “ready” I’d never go.

And what about the supposed mental benefits of a meditation course?

Yes, this.

The most apt description I’ve given as to my mental state prior to the course: “My head feels like a traffic jam.” I felt a ball of agitation, of quick response. Always reacting. I responded to too many circumstances negatively – not only more negatively than I would have liked, but also more so than was good for my health and for that of others around me. Whatever the appearances and whatever the notion is regarding “normal” for a freelance lifestyle, I was bearing a lot of stress.

It was time.
Bench with a Sunset View - Morgan's Rock, Nicaragua

The Snap…Continued

So, about that snap of the guitar string on day four…

“What was that?” After the confusion and pang of “Holy shit, what did I just do to myself?” I felt a most remarkable release. A dissolve. An unraveling.

Buckets of emotion washed over my entire body. I felt as if someone continuously poured warm water over my head and the rivulets seeped under my skin. Then came the river of tears. Unassociated tears. Tears of joy. Tears of stored physical and emotional garbage. Tears for so much of a life lived with chronic pain. I sat in the meditation hall, soaked and completely wiped out.

I got up slowly as one does after his body has been pretzeled. I exited the hall, closed my eyes and the brightness of something new streamed through the veil of my eyelids. I bent over once, then twice. Did it really happen?

Yes, it did. No more mother of all knots.

Just like that?

Yes, just like that.

The knot was truly gone. There one minute. Gone the next. I poked around for it. My experience was the textbook illustration of the concept of annicca, or impermanence, that had been echoed throughout the course instructions.

I felt phenomenal. More accurately, I felt like I had never felt before.

It often struck me – no, it still strikes me — as facile the suggestion that we ought to focus on our pain, that focus alone can make it go away. I found it simplistic, until I found a reason and approach that doesn’t belie the reality that this process involves a great deal of work. (Note: I am not suggesting that observing your freshly broken leg will heal it on the spot, by the way.)

A short time later, the meditation bell rang calling us back into the hall. We were asked to sit, holding whichever position we chose for one hour. Excruciating. Whatever my joy, it had been replaced with unassailable pain.

My moment of glory was short-lived.

Impermanence, it seems, cuts both ways.

Sunset and Acacia Tree - Serengeti, Tanzania

The Flow of My Vipassana Experience

The Vipassana experience is a personal one. So it is different for everyone. I hesitate to share my journey out of concern that it may unduly influence someone else’s process and create unreasonable expectations. However, I’ve been asked a lot of excellent questions, and conversations suggest that sharing my story might serve to allay fears and apprehension about the course and process.

Arrival at the Vipassana Center

When I first arrived at the center, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Approximately 100 people were taking the course with me. There were people everywhere it seemed, people who appeared more adequately prepared for the experience in every way than I might have been.

I had the chance to speak with other students before the observation of “Noble Silence” began that evening. It was then I realized that meditators come from all over the world — truly of all ages and from all walks of life. Some had absolute no experience meditating while others had meditated a great deal. Some knew nothing of Vipassana, while others were returning for their seventh sitting of the course.

There were some who were severely troubled and were willing to talk about it — including people seeking to overcome addiction and personal loss. Others appeared fully evolved and completely free of internal struggle, however accurate or inaccurate that outward appearance might have been.

Within that universe, you learn to become comfortable. Comfortable with what is, who you are, where you are. Therein lies the first lesson.

Leaning into the Silence: The Work Begins

It became clear to me why the silence, why the monastic sort of life for 10 days. The process and schedule seems aimed to minimize decisions and to put one’s mind at ease regarding needs and logistics. With none of that to worry about, you can focus on the process and yourself.

For the first three days, we learn to focus solely on our respiration, not to control it. To focus the mind, I observe my breath at the point where it enters and exits the nostrils. This focus proves an almost laughable struggle mentally and physically.

As I do this, I recall one of the returning student’s observations before we went silent, “You will uncover memories you didn’t even know you had.”

To his point, my mind becomes a flipbook of memories in those first days, as I turn page by page from present to the past as far back as pre-kindergarten. I find I’m re-processing who I am.

This is a good thing.

I appreciate that I can eventually identify bodily sensation in and around my nostrils and upper lip. This sounds ludicrous, I know. But eventually you take that focused awareness of sensation to the rest of your body.

…unpleasant experiences arise and fall, come and go. The flip side: the pleasant ones do, too.

And that’s where you spend the remaining six or seven days. During this time, the connection between mind and body becomes clearer, and the relationship between all that and how to balance oneself day-to-day becomes clearer, too.

During the one-hour video “discourses” screened in the evenings, S.N. Goenka explains the phenomena we experienced that day and foreshadows some we may experience the next. It’s as if he can read our minds. He puts into astonishing and also sometimes emotionally painful perspective that unpleasant experiences arise and fall, come and go. The flip side: the pleasant ones do, too.

When this awareness finally landed, I felt free. But I also felt a little bit sad. Everything in our lives, good and bad, comes and goes.

And so do we. But we cause ourselves more pain by trying to hold on to it all.

Breaking the Noble Silence: We Are Not Alone

On the tenth day, “Noble Silence” is lifted, enabling us to speak with other students. Many of us were surprised to find ourselves slightly reluctant to re-enter the world of the speaking. But we’re human, wired for connection with others, and so we do.

Particularly in the West, we are taught to be strong. But to find our greatest strength, sometimes we must find room to surrender.

During my first “speaking” lunch, I had a conversation with another student who shared his experience with focusing on pain. Beyond the physical pain, he explained, he found a “gap” in his body — a feeling, in his words, indicating that he “somehow didn’t belong.” The sadness he related still chokes me a little as I write.

But this is what it means to be human. We hurt. We all hurt, just as we all experience joy. It’s this recognition that allows us to settle who we are and leave a growing space of compassion for others.

He belonged as much as any of us. I realized more than I have ever realized, the power of the words I spoke in a talk we gave several years ago:

“We are not alone. We will go through challenges, and we will go through very significant struggles, and they will be personal, they’ll be financial, they will be emotional, and they’ll be physical, but understand this: there are people in our midst who are going through the same thing, and if not, there are people half way around the world who are sharing it with us. Take solace in this.”

Particularly in the West, we are taught to be strong. But to find our greatest strength, sometimes we must find room to surrender.

Final Meditation Sessions

With even more newfound perspective from my fellow meditators, my final three meditation sittings were perhaps the most productive of my time. I went farther than before, finding something deeper, achieving moments of greater focus. I cried a lot, not for something specific or even for something sad, but perhaps for the inexplicable beauty of the moment.

The words to describe reaching such a point currently do not exist in my vocabulary. “Powerful” and “transformational” can’t even touch it.

I leaned over and touched my toes for the first time in my life.

As I scanned my body, I felt that flow I always do on the left-hand side of my body, but I stopped at the top of my right hip. I watched it. And probably because of the 90-degree heat and 10 days of stretching, it finally gave way. A line of muscles tensed at the base of my spine began to dissolve, as if to separate from the bone. The physical sensation was absolutely bizarre. Imagine old, caked adhesive warmed by the sharpened heat and focus of the sun, then pulled away from the wall it was long stuck to.

I exited the hall after the meditation bell rang. When I did, I leaned over and touched my toes for the first time in my life.

This wasn’t some kind of crazy healing. It was a recognition of and focus on a storehouse of emotional and physical tension balled up in stiffness and pain. And as I slowly rid my body and mind of that tension during those 10 days, I felt a freedom, the likes of which I’d never felt before.

I appreciated the moment, recognized its impermanence, and was grateful for it.

Should I Take a Vipassana Course?

Rare are the experiences in life that get an unequivocal “yes” from me, but this is one of them. Vipassana is not for the faint of heart. The 10-day course is demanding and difficult in many ways. However, it is ultimately doable by absolutely anyone.

Understanding the Physical Requirements of a Vipassana Course

If the thought of sitting cross-legged seems physically daunting and too painful to bear, there’s the possibility of using back rests or even a chair. In other words, your perceived physical limitations should not deter you from taking the course.

And know this: I did it. Sure, I was athletic and ran road races and climbed mountains. But I could barely touch my knees, let alone my toes. And you already know about my fusilli pasta spine.

Despite that, I’m glad I toughed it out on the ground on my meditation cushion, for I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have achieved the results — physical, mental, or emotional — had I done otherwise. During the course, you have 10 days to experiment and plumb the depths of what you can withstand and achieve.

Managing Expectations and Accepting the Work

Will Vipassana solve all of my problems? Can Vipassana help me dominate the planet and become rich?

The Vipassana website will be the first to disabuse you of the notion that Vipassana is a panacea. It can provide a process for focusing the mind, appreciating the present moment, and navigating life’s never-ending stream of vicissitudes. That’s it, really. But that’s kind of a lot.

…there are no gurus and it’s up to each of us to find our own way. It’s found and cultivated here, in the present moment.

I asked one of the returning students, there for his seventh sitting of the course, what he gains with these additional visits. “The measuring stick remains the same: equanimity.” He said. “I gain a greater inner vision. With that, I not only understand myself better, but I make better decisions.”


I also appreciate another fundamental message of the course: that we are the source of our own wisdom and liberation. Though Goenka is the voice of instruction and there are assistants who can be consulted for guidance, Vipassana sends a clear message – or at least it sent that message to me — that there are no gurus and it’s up to each of us to find our own way. It is not given to us or promised to us upon death. Instead, it’s found and cultivated right here, in the present moment.

If we wish to find answers, it’s on us to reach inside ourselves to do so. This is very difficult work, the sort that takes a lifetime. And it’s much easier said than done.

Make no mistake, however: the focus on self is not ego, but a rejection of ego paired with responsibility. It’s no surprise that the terms “service” and “compassion” occur frequently in the discourses.

Developing Your Personal Meditation Practice

It’s not a requirement that you have prior meditation experience to sit a Vipassana course. I realized almost immediately how little I really knew about meditation, regardless of how much I’d attempted to practice it for the previous 18 months.

Vipassana shifted my focus to observing my breath and bodily sensations. To observe myself, in broad and subtle ways, to observe my discord, to observe my peace. Sure, I had done “body scans” before, as prompted by meditation apps like Headspace (a decent place to begin for meditation, by the way), but I never understood how to properly observe sensations — and most importantly, why I would do so. Both the how and why have become clearer, as has the impact on my meditation, my daily life and my understanding of the world around me.

It’s recommended that at the completion of the course, you continue your Vipassana practice by meditating two hours each day — one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. For various reasons, this is not an immediate reality for me. So I meditate 30 minutes in the morning, with the hope that I will eventually introduce a session in the evening.

At first, meditating feels like a chore to me because of some physical stiffness, but after about 30 seconds, I’m grateful. And after 30 minutes, I’m grateful still. It proves a little easier each day.

Will I return to sit another course? Yes. Some people even do so annually, either as a reboot, a continual building on their practice, or both.

What I Learned

The lessons I learned during my ten days are the stuff of books. Note, I did not say book-worthy. Even though I did not have paper, pens or any recording device (you surrender those when you arrive…for the good of your meditation), I have written well over 10,000 words about my experience since, from the more technical aspects of Vipassana meditation, to the underlying philosophy to the implications of what I learned on my everyday life going forward.

Yes, there’s a lot to take in. But never has being slightly overwhelmed felt this good.

Isn’t There More?

Yes, there’s always more. But that’s for you to find out for yourself. As I’ve shared my experience with Audrey and other friends, I have approached a sort of limit. I feel over-sharing might deprive you of experiencing some of the course’s most pleasant surprises and painful yet productive discoveries on your own.

I’m certain Audrey will also take a Vipassana course someday soon. We share so much in our lives together, it will be interesting to compare notes on experiences so similar, yet I’m sure so entirely different.

So I pull up a bit short and leave some of that on the table. The point of sharing all that I have shared is to suggest that life journeys are long, and that good things often require great effort. Stories do not unfold in the snap of a finger.

Vipassana is a good thing to do, even if you feel as though you might not be up to it right now. Someday maybe you’ll decide it’s the right time, and you’ll go. And you’ll find that the feeling you are least likely to emerge with is regret.

Just as I have.

Practical Details for a Vipassana Meditation Course

If I have piqued your interest in taking a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course, here’s some information you might need to help you take the next step. If you have more questions, please leave them in the comments section so I can address them in this article for the benefit of others.

Where can I take a Vipassana course?

Although the Vipassana course was developed in Asia, you can find Vipassana centers all around the world today. Check this website for a complete listing of course locations and dates. To understand which language(s) the instruction is in, check the Vipassana site. The audio and video components of the Vipassana course are in English (usually with local language translation offered) and individual consultation and question and answer sessions are often in the local language with one or another foreign language translation offered.

There are centers throughout Europe and the North America, although I found that these tend to fill up quickly. You may have to plan in advance to book your spot, especially if you are a beginner. The schedule, program, instruction and video discourses are identical no matter where you choose to sit your Vipassana course.

Can I do this course in less than 10 days?

Ten days may sound like a major time investment. Consider, however, that people from all walks of life with stacks of personal, professional and family obligations – far beyond my own limited responsibilities — have found the time. They do so because they have a sense that this process will be for their betterment and for the benefit of the ones they love. You’ll find other courses, shorter and longer, available on the Vipassana website. However, you must begin with a 10-day course.

“Did you ever feel the urge to quit?” No. Out of the 100 or so people who sat the course with me, only one left during the ten days.

Can I take the Vipassana course with a spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend?

The intent of the course is to focus on oneself, so the idea that you are taking the course with someone else or you have “company” becomes irrelevant once the course begins. In fact, it may be distracting.

Ideally, you and your partner set off at the same time and attend different centers and return together with a comparable, yet personal and differentiated experience. And most importantly, a new, shared vocabulary.

Where I took my course: The Dhamma Malaya Vipassana Center in Malaysia

I’m going to resist keeping this place a secret, all to myself. I thought the center and its facilities were excellent. I had my own room, for which I was grateful. (Note: I understand that not all Vipassana centers around the world are equipped to give new students their own room, but I found this feature immensely helpful, not only for my own convenience, but also to avoid creating any stir or inconvenience for someone happening to room with me.)

Having said all that, the center is not luxurious, nor is it supposed to be. It’s not a spa. It’s basic. Your ten days are to be lived simply.

For me, taking the course in the hot season was great. I could pack very light (a first for me!), as in a pair of light cotton trousers, a couple of t-shirts and bathroom stuff. Laundry dried quickly and I was never cold (something I find distracting). Additionally, all that I achieved physically was helped along greatly by the stretching I’d done, which I find becomes much easier in the heat.

What about the food at a Vipassana course?

“Simple vegetarian food” is on offer. It is plenty and it’s tasty. And there’s enough variety to meet most taste preferences. If you wanted, it would be easy enough to eat vegan during the week. If you have specific dietary restrictions, just let the organizers know in advance. There was even a pregnant woman taking the course while I was there.

Volunteers who have previously taken a course serve meals. I was profoundly grateful for them and their service. And they sometimes made me laugh inside. Watching a diligent server manage a 10-piece toaster while a bunch of ravenous meditators, me included, are trying to figure it out on the first day, is skit-worthy.

You also realize that food is one of those things with which we can barrage our body and senses. When heat and spice are toned down — not typical in my dining practice — as it is with Vipassana food, I found that it was one less distraction my body had to deal with. I also now find myself more sensitive to subtle tastes in food in general. I still eat the heat, but I find I’m even more attuned to enjoying the flavor.

Although the evening meal was very light – usually just fruit – I never felt wanting for food. You learn to eat only as much as your body really needs.

What is the cost of a Vipassana meditation course?

On principle, no fee for the Vipassana course is charged. Centers are instead maintained by the donations of those who have completed a meditation course. You may donate only once you have completed a course and you are free to choose the amount you wish to donate.

The idea: those who came before you support your course while your donation supports future participants. So you pay it forward.

Schedule: A Typical Vipassana Day and Timetable

For days one through nine, participants observe a “Noble Silence” which means no talking and no charades or other non-verbal communication. You can ask the instructor questions during sessions at 12:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M. Remaining silent during this time is not nearly as difficult as it sounds.

The schedule is the same at every Vipassana 10-day meditation course, no matter where it is being held in the world. You can see this at the bottom of the Vipassana FAQ page.

Wake up bell: 4:00 A.M.

Most mornings, for whatever reason, my body anticipated the waking bells at 4:00 A.M. I set an alarm for 4:10 A.M. just in case and never had to use it. Not because I wasn’t tired in some way, or even jet lagged a bit, but because it was clear I had something important that I must do.

After a quick wash and water and a stretch, I was out the door into the pre-dawn darkness for a walk from my room to the meditation hall. The touch of cool before the birds would come alive and the warmth of the Malaysia hot season would land was something I’ll never forget.

Meditate in the hall or in your room: 4:30-6:30 A.M.

I quickly realized after a brief conversation with the instructor that meditating in the hall for newcomers is an important discipline. I found I would go much further with the structure and discipline of the early morning in the hall, despite the fact that the morning sessions ended with a chant that typically drove me borderline crazy.

On Day 10, after silence is lifted, one of the other students shared that he was tempted to leave the hall one morning after experiencing pain and frustration, only to look over and find me in a fit of what appeared to be even greater torture. Though we were discouraged from minding other participants, I’m grateful my struggles could serve as an inspiration to others.

Breakfast and rest: 6:30-8:00 A.M.

Both western and Asian options were usually offered for breakfast, meaning you could have toast and oatmeal or rice noodle soup and vegetables.

After breakfast, I would take a walk around the male side of the center (sexes are segregated during the course). I appreciated each and every sunrise in spectacular detail, well beyond the usual attention I might pay.

One sunrise sky in particular stood out: layers of the color wheel were strewn in bent wisps through contrails that arced over the intersection of red rooftops. The image was accented by the perfectly hung earth-tone outfits of the Bikkhu, those training to be monks.

If there was one tableau that captured the peace and simplicity of my 10 days, it was this. No, I didn’t have a camera or iPhone to capture the image (you surrender those, too). But I’ll never forget it.

Group meditation in the hall: 8:00-9:00 A.M.


Meditate in the hall or in your room: 9:00-11:00 A.M.


Lunch and rest: 11:00 A.M.-1:00 P.M.

For returning students, this is the final meal of the day.

Meditate in the hall or in your room: 1:00-2:30 P.M.


Group meditation in the hall: 2:30-3:30 P.M.


Meditate in the hall or in your room: 3:30-5:00 P.M.


Tea break: 5:00-6:00 P.M.

For new students, this is the final taste of food for the day. It usually consisted of a piece or two of fruit. Returning students only take tea. Hint: If you really think you’re starving, have some hot chocolate.

Group meditation in the hall: 6:00-7:00 P.M.


Evening discourse: 7:00-8:15 P.M.

“Discourses” are the videotaped talks given by S.N. Goenka, the founder of this Vipassana meditation course. These talks struck me as important because they explained the day’s experience, foreshadowed the practice for the following day and shed light on the connection between what we were doing, our lives and broad issues, including even life and death.

Final group meditation: 8:15-9:00 P.M.


Lights out: 9:30 P.M.

By bedtime, you are definitely ready for sleep.

Do you have any other questions regarding taking a Vipassana 10-day meditation course? Leave a comment and I will expand the information in this post so others may benefit from it.

The post Adventures in Silence: A Vipassana 10-Day Meditation Retreat appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Next Up: Exploring Colombia and Finding The Lost Cityhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/exploring-colombia/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/exploring-colombia/#comments Fri, 15 May 2015 17:51:48 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20620 By Audrey Scott

We’re headed to Colombia tomorrow. We’re off to see a country we were supposed to visit five years ago. We’ll be on the trail for Colombian culture — from the Andes to the Pacific to the Caribbean — and to find The Lost City along the way. Colombia. It’s one of the countries that got […]

The post Next Up: Exploring Colombia and Finding The Lost City appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

We’re headed to Colombia tomorrow. We’re off to see a country we were supposed to visit five years ago. We’ll be on the trail for Colombian culture — from the Andes to the Pacific to the Caribbean — and to find The Lost City along the way.

The colorful streets of Cartagena, Colombia.

Colombia. It’s one of the countries that got away during the 15 months we traveled through Latin America a few years ago. We didn’t skip it because of safety concerns — in fact, even at that time ever more travelers were saying the opposite and urging us to go. We just happened to pass it at the height of rainy season and we figured we’d return when we were certain to have ample time to explore.

We didn’t expect it would take five years to return, but here we are.

We leave for Colombia tomorrow.

Note: In full disclosure, we technically have been to Colombia before. A couple of years ago, we enjoyed an eight-hour layover in Bogota, visited a friend in the city and tooled around for several hours. Dan thinks this counts. I do not.

Editor’s Note: Dan here. I’m not entirely certain what Audrey means by “counts.” Have I been to Colombia? Yes. Have I really “been to Colombia” in the Uncornered Market way. Not yet.

Colombia In My Imagination: Marquez

While many are introduced to Colombia by way of the news media – reports on things like drugs cartels and FARC rebels and the tenor of companion violence that comes with all that – I’d like to think I first met Colombia by reading Gabriel García Márquez novels, including Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s characters and plot lines were so vivid and outlandish, but I knew those portraits were drawn from and grounded in personal experience, composites of people and life events as Marquez had lived them.

Marquez’s depictions conveyed an intensity in Colombian life, both in its joys and its sorrows. Scenes played out in colorfully painted towns and villages, albeit against the backdrop of corrupt politicians and clergy, all dashed with an undeniable Spanish colonial angst.

Cartagena Streets
Tropical, colorful and sweet — Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

This Colombia intrigued me. The Colombia of emotion, of color and perhaps a touch of calamity.

So after reading and hearing about Colombia for so long, we’re curious to dig in, to see for ourselves, to meet who we can, and to find what we will in the coming weeks.

Safety in Colombia

As we’ve shared our upcoming trip to Colombia with friends and family, among the first questions: “Is it safe there now?”

Dan and Audrey, meet the travel safety elephant in the room. Colombia has certainly witnessed its share of turmoil and violence, and although it isn’t competing with the likes of Singapore at the top of the list of the world’s safest countries to visit, it has made a great deal of progress in the last decade on those counts. This is not to say that incidents don’t still happen. However, we’ve found in our travels in nearby countries where awareness of visitor safety remains high (e.g., Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.), we often find locals quite protective of us, advising us on-the-fly as to where we should and should not go.

Medellin: the public transportation gondola takes you high above the city.

We will remain aware and be mindful just as we would in cities anywhere — in the United States, Europe or elsewhere in Latin America. As we’ve written before, there are ways to remain safe yet open to local people and experiences.

What We Will See and Do in Colombia

We will spend a little over three weeks in Colombia, with the first week on our own and the next two and a half weeks on a G Adventures tour and Lost City Trek. Although we’ve done some research on Colombia, we are intent on gathering advice and tips as we go. So we welcome any recommendations.

Colombian Coffee
Going straight to the source for Colombian coffee: Armenia.

Our First Week in Colombia: South or West?

We will travel independently during our first week in country. We’ll spend the first couple of days at a friend’s cabin outside of Bogota, but after that we’re not entirely certain. We’d hoped to go to the Pacific Coast to the area near the town of Nuqui, but as there are no roads in that region we’re dependent upon flights and they are proving a bit problematic. So now we’re considering visiting San Agustín so we can explore the 500 stone statues left in the hills by prehistoric peoples living in the area almost 5,000 years ago.

Of course, all this may change between the time we publish and the time we land in Bogota.

Update: After talking with friends here in Colombia and getting feedback from you all on our Facebook page we’ve decided to go to the Sierra Nevada and Barichara for the week.

What is your advice? Where would you go with a week in either Colombia’s west or south?

Colombia Experience Tour

This is the time for all those places and experiences that dance in our heads when we think of Colombia. Medellin, Cartagena, coffee plantations in the hills, beaches and jungles in the north — they all come into play during the next segment of our trip. We’ll spend almost two weeks exploring the country on the G Adventures Colombia Experience Tour.

Bogota's Cathedral - Columbia
Bogota Cathedral. One of the few photos from our brief visit years ago.

A few highlights of this trip include:

  • Bogota: Although we spent an afternoon here many years ago (I refer you to the inline argument between writer and editor, husband and wife above) we are looking forward to returning, digging in and exploring its markets, neighborhoods and art galleries.
  • Armenia: We will spend time in the hills of Colombia’s main coffee-growing region, visiting coffee farms and meeting some of the people behind the coffee beans of Juan Valdez lore. We’ll also have some time to explore Salento and Cocora.
  • Medellin: The prevailing reputation of Medellin was once one of violence and drugs (think: Medellin cartel), but it now stands as another example of destinations that are not static, places that have witnessed positive change and will hopefully continue to do so. We know several people who chose Medellin as their home, and have heard great things about the laid back feel of the city and the friendliness of its people.
  • Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona: This is where we begin to shift gears and enjoy some of the beaches and Caribbean culture for which Colombia is famous. After all the photos we’ve seen of this region, we are trying hard to manage our expectations.
  • Cartagena: This coastal city seems to be the stuff of Marquez novels – colorful, vibrant, steamy. Every time we mention Colombia to someone who has visited, they always seem to have a story of Cartagena, one that they relate with a tinge of emotion – eyes cast wistfully or a hand placed over the heart.
Tayrona National Park
Caribbean coastline inside Tayrona National Park.

Lost City Trek

We end our journey with the Lost City Trek, a five-day hike in the jungle of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains, with the goal of reaching “Ciudad Perdida Teyuna,” (Spanish for “Lost City of Teyuna”). Although no one knows for certain, it is believed that Teyuna was founded around 800 A.D., some 650 years earlier than Peru’s Machu Picchu. The city was a central hub of sorts for a group of villages inhabited by the Tairona (among the predecessors of today’s northern Colombian inhabitants). Teyuna is composed of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside. It is connected by roads and thousands of stone stairs and was abandoned in 1599 after it was attacked during the Spanish conquest.

Lost City Trek
Found: The Lost City in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Rumor has it that local Kogi, Arhuaco and Wiwas indigenous groups in the area knew of Teyuna, considered it a holy place, and thus kept it to themselves. It was “rediscovered” a little over 40 years ago and opened to trekkers in 2005. So while this isn’t an entirely new trek, it’s not especially well known…yet.

Along the way we’ll pass through farms and villages and meet with some of the indigenous communities to learn about local culture, history and life in the region. The trail carves its way through thick jungle and follows the Buritaca River, arriving each night at a campsite conveniently located near a natural swimming pool so that we may cool off from the day’s efforts.

Hike to The Lost City in the Sierra of Colombia
Sierra Nevada jungle layers unfold to the Lost City.

This is a new trek for G Adventures so we’re excited to experience it before they begin offering it to travelers from mid-June of this year.

Our Trip to Colombia: How You Can Help

If you’ve traveled to Colombia and been to any of the cities or areas mentioned above, we’d love to hear your advice on markets, food, and other great experiences you’ve had. Although some of our itinerary is fixed with the tour –- in particular the destination cities — this G Adventures trip provides quite a bit of independent time so we’d love to hear your suggestions!

Any other Colombia destinations or experiences, hidden or otherwise, that you feel warrant a look or a visit, please share. We may be able to pursue them in our free time. If we cannot, our readers are sure to appreciate and benefit from your advice.

Follow Our Colombia Adventure

You can follow our adventures in Colombia using the hashtags #GadvColombia on Twitter and Instagram. We will also share updates on our Facebook and Google Plus pages. We’re excited to have the opportunity to share our Colombia experience with you!

Photo Credits: G Adventures, Marcelo Druck, Katie Bordner

Disclosure: Our trip to Colombia is provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

The post Next Up: Exploring Colombia and Finding The Lost City appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Switzerland by Train: A Mother-Daughter Journeyhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/switzerland-by-train/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/switzerland-by-train/#comments Mon, 04 May 2015 12:33:21 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20478 By Audrey Scott

This is the story of why I went to Switzerland with my mom. It’s also a handy little Switzerland-by-train itinerary with recommendations and tips along the way. “Isn’t it hard to have your daughter so far away?” Angie, my mom’s friend from Basel, asked during our visit there. “Sure, but it’s kind of in the […]

The post Switzerland by Train: A Mother-Daughter Journey appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Swiss Train
This is the story of why I went to Switzerland with my mom. It’s also a handy little Switzerland-by-train itinerary with recommendations and tips along the way.

“Isn’t it hard to have your daughter so far away?” Angie, my mom’s friend from Basel, asked during our visit there.

“Sure, but it’s kind of in the family. It actually began with my grandmother. She was from Basel,” my mom responded.

The story dates back to 1911, when my great-grandmother, then a young woman, fell in love with and was engaged to a young man, my great grandfather. Instead of insisting on tying the knot in Switzerland — I’m still not quite sure why — my great-grandfather set off for Argentina in hopes of finding better job opportunities and creating a new life.

Months later, my great-grandmother received word and some money for travel to join him. As an unmarried woman, she made the journey by train, then by boat from Switzerland to Argentina all on her own.

Talk about being ahead of the curve on solo female travel.

After her safe arrival in Argentina, my great-grandparents married and the rest, as they say, is history. My family story continues with my grandmother, my mother and me each leaving home for someplace far away when we were young.

For my mom, she re-established a connection to Switzerland after her parents moved the family there when she was 10. They lived in Geneva eight years, until the time she graduated from high school, whereupon she took a boat to the United States to attend university.

Wanderlust, you see, runs deep in my family.

Mother and Daughter Train Journey Through Switzerland - Geneva
Mother and daughter, reconnecting on a sunny spring day in Geneva.

So while Dan went off to Malaysia for a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat (more on that soon), I hopped a train from Berlin to Switzerland with my mom so she could retrace a bit of her history. We spent ten days in Switzerland, beginning with the family roots in Basel, continuing with some of my mom’s favorite childhood spots and finishing with some new parts of the country, too. And we did it all on Switzerland’s fabulous — and prompt — train network, including a few of their famous Scenic Trains.

As we explored Switzerland, here’s what we found.

Bernina Express - Chur to Tirano, Switzerland
Inside the Bernina Express Panoramic Train, Tirano to Chur.

To skip ahead:

  1. A Photographic Journey of Switzerland by Train
  2. Tips for Traveling Switzerland by Train
  3. Using a Eurail Global Pass in Switzerland
  4. Switzerland Travel: Accommodation, Food, and Other Recommendations

A Photographic Journey Through Switzerland

Although I’d been to Switzerland before, this trip reinforced its essence: order, cleanliness, and plenty of mountains and lakes, all packaged in an often unbelievable fairytale backdrop. I was also amused to discover one of the supposed roots of the Swiss trademark promptness (which I somehow lost in the bloodline). It turns out that Calvinist churchgoers were fined for arriving late to church service. Hence, well-functioning public clocks were put in place to serve a holy purpose for the industrious.

Saint Bernard in Basel, Switzerland
A St. Bernard in Basel. So Swiss.

Switzerland may also not be known for its diversity, but that such a small country has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romanish) is remarkable. You can feel and hear the regional differences, the quick shifts from canton to canton, and in between.

But if I’m perfectly honest, when I consider our time in Switzerland, I think most often of the stunning mountain and lake landscapes, perfect flower displays, and almost wickedly well-kept alpine villages.

Springtime in Switzerland - Montreux, Switzerland
Springtime in Switzerland.

Note: The photos below are in chronological order of our train journey to give you a sense of our itinerary and trajectory.

Basel – Geneva – Montreux – Cheese Train – GoldenPass Classic – Lucerne – Chur – Bernina Express – Zurich

Basel's Town Hall - Switzerland
Old Town Hall, Basel Marktplatz.
Vineyards and Snow-Capped Mountains - Near Lausanne, Switzerland
En route, Basel to Geneva by train. Vineyards and snow-capped mountains near Lausanne.
Geneva's St. Pierre's Cathedral - Switzerland
A view from our balcony in Geneva: St. Pierre Cathedral.
Rainbow and Jet d'eau - Geneva, Switzerland
Jet d’eau and a rainbow, taken aboard a public transport boat across Lake Geneva.
A beautiful little walk along Lake Geneva on our way to the Montreux train station, aptly named "Chemin Fleuri" (flower path). This is Switzerland in full springtime glory. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1b1DGja
A walk on the Montreux lake path. Stop, breathe, enjoy.
Château de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva with snow-covered Rochers de Naye in the distance. Montreux, you are spoiling us. #switzerland via Instagram http://ift.tt/1Dt4Z0V
Château de Chillon, Montreux. Looks like a fairytale, right?
Early morning reflections over Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), view from our balcony. This is Montreux, Switzerland. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1aDbV0a
Early morning reflections over Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), the view from our balcony in Montreux.
Cheese Train Begins with Wine - Montreux, Switzerland
Cheese Train begins with wine at 10:30AM? So maybe I am a bad influence on my mother…
Cheese Train from Montreux to Chateau d'Oex - Switzerland
The Cheese Train carves the hills above Montreux and Lake Geneva.
How Cheese Gets Made, Chalet Bio - Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland
How beautiful rounds of Chalet Bio cheese get their start.
Cheese Fondue at Le Chalet - Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland
How that beautiful cheese ends up, melted with a bit of wine, as cheese fondue.
GoldenPass Classic, eating in style - Montreux, Switzerland
A meat plate, wine, and a view of the mountains on the GoldenPass Classic. Not a bad ride.
GoldenPass Classic - Montreux, Switzerland
Bernese Oberland mountain views from the GoldenPass Classic, en route from Montreux to Zweisimmen.
En Route to Lucerne by Train - Switzerland
Interlaken to Lucerne by train, turquoise glacier lakes set in wrap-around mountains.
Lucerne (Luzern) Old Town and Covered Bridge - Switzerland
Lucerne’s Water Tower (Wasserturm) and famous Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke).
Chur City View - Switzerland
Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, is our jumping off point for the Bernina Express train.
Arcas Square in Chur, Switzerland
Colorful Arcas Square, Old Town Chur.
Filisur Village, Bernina Express Train Views - Switzerland
Filisur Village, en route to the Bernina Pass.
Bernina Express Train Through the Mountians - Switzerland
Riding over the Bernina Pass (2,253m), Tirano to Chur.
Bernina Express Views, Mountains and Lake - Switzerland
More Bernina Express train views…
Frau Gerolds Garten in Zurich West - Switzerland
Frau Gerolds Garten in Zurich West – an urban space filled with art, pop-up cafes, restaurants, and good energy. Not exactly the traditional Zurich I had in mind.

Tips for Traveling Switzerland by Train

For such a small country, Switzerland features a vast rail system, including around 20,000 km worth of tracks that cut through mountains and over passes in a manner you think ought to be impossible. Not only can you get almost anywhere and everywhere in Switzerland by train, but you travel through absolutely stunning scenery as you do. There are usually frequent departures (e.g., hourly) for connections between main cities and towns, making it easy to remain flexible with your itinerary.

Finding Swiss Train Schedules: I found SBB’s website easy to use to check train schedules. The site will indicate if a specific train is expected to be busy, which proves useful in deciding which train to take and whether or not to make a reservation. I also used Eurail’s Rail Planner App for checking train times on my iPhone. This app does not require an internet connection, so it’s great for travelers who don’t happen to have mobile data (or wish to save their bandwidth for something else).

Getting Advice on Switzerland Train Itineraries: When we gave a talk on Haiti in London earlier in the year at the Destinations Show, I stopped by the Switzerland stand to ask for itinerary advice as I was worried about trying to squeeze in too much. I received advice on the spot from Switzerland Travel Centre (STC) that fortuitously flipped around my original plans. We continued the conversation on email to settle our final itinerary. STC is a sort of an all-Switzerland travel agency that advises on itineraries, books customized trips and sells Swiss train passes. STC takes care of transport logistics and accommodation, but in a way that allows customers to travel independently. Disclosure: STC kindly provided our train reservations on the GoldenPass Classic and Bernina Express, and organized our Cheese Train experience.

Storing luggage between seats: Unfortunately, we didn’t figure this trick out until the end of our journey. While some trains have storage racks at the front or end of the train wagon, many of the first class Swiss trains feature space between seats where you can slide your luggage on its side on the ground. Much easier than trying to lift it onto the racks above.

Affordable mobile data: If you have an unlocked smartphone, a mobile data plan in Switzerland is quick and easy. Swisscom offers a great deal where you pay 2Chf/day for unlimited mobile data (throttled after 2GB). Just buy a prepaid SIM card for 20Chf (you get that same amount in credit) and you’re good to go. Great coverage throughout the country, too.

Using a Eurail Pass in Switzerland

My mom and I each traveled with a 1st Class Eurail Global Pass in Switzerland (and Germany). This made it quite straightforward and easy to get around as reservations were not required for any of the regular (i.e., non-Scenic) trains we took. This provided lots of flexibility as we could decide on the fly when we wished to depart for our next destination, allowing us to shift plans as we went. For example, on my return I decided to stop off in Munich for the night to visit friends instead of heading straight to Berlin. Disclosure: Eurail kindly provided us with our Global Passes.

Choosing a Eurail Pass

There are endless options regarding which Eurail pass to choose. My advice is to figure out the general route you want to take and then see what the best option is for that route. For example, if you are only going to be in two or three countries, then one of the Regional Passes might be a more economical option for you than the Global Pass (28 countries). Eurail’s customer service is very responsive, especially on social media, so just ask for advice on what type of Eurail pass best matches your desired itinerary. Note: If you have a little flexibility with your budget, I can recommend that traveling in 1st class offers noticeable luxury and comfort: bigger seats, fewer people, and occasional free wifi.

Cost benefits of a Eurail Pass

Whether a Eurail Pass is cost-effective depends on your itinerary. If you plan only to take short trains in a limited area or region, then it might be less expensive to buy tickets directly. However, if you have some longer train journeys planned or you’re traveling in a country with expensive train routes (e.g., Switzerland) then it’s likely a Eurail Pass will prove cost effective.

To get a sense of whether a Eurail Pass makes sense from a cost standpoint, go to the website of the national railways service in the countries where you wish to travel and calculate the cost of your trip. Understand that some countries offer tickets that are cheap when purchased in advance, but nearly double in price when you buy them the day before or the day of the journey. Seat61 is an excellent resource for European train travel. Note: If the cost of buying tickets directly is similar to that of a Eurail Pass, go for the pass as it saves you the hassle of waiting in railway ticket lines and provides you with additional flexibility to change your plans as you go.

Understanding when reservations are required with a Eurail Pass

Here are the two easiest ways I found to obtain this information:

Eurail Timetable: Search for the route you want to take and the timetable will tell you whether a reservation is required, recommended, or not applicable at all. I used this to research our Berlin – Basel train and decided to make a reservation after seeing it was recommended. I was glad we purchased reservations and had assigned seats, as our train was full.

Eurail Rail Planner App: When you are searching for a train schedule within the app, select the option indicating “Trains without compulsory reservations.”

Using your Eurail Pass on Switzerland’s Scenic Trains

Switzerland features a collection of what they call “Scenic Trains” that occasionally require Eurail Pass holders to make separate reservations. You can find out the details of what is needed for each of the trains here.

Switzerland Travel: Accommodation, Food, Recommendations

Switzerland is not an inexpensive destination, especially after the government unpegged its currency, the Franc, from the Euro earlier this year. So it’s possible to travel more cheaply than we did, but when you travel with your mom, she gets to call the shots on budget and comfort level. Who was I to argue?

Geneva Practical Details

Accommodation: Hotel Bel’EspéranceRun by the Salvation Army, it would be hard to beat the location of this hotel. Rooms are simple, but very clean. Hint: bring food back to the hotel and eat dinner on the rooftop terrace as you watch the sun set over Lake Geneva.
Restaurants: Pizzeria da Paolo – We stumbled upon this restaurant our first night in Geneva and it is the real Italian deal – great pizza, roasted vegetables and salads. Super busy, so make a reservation or be prepared to take a drink at the bar until a table becomes available.
Geneva Public Transport Passes: Hotels often provide guests with public transport passes, so be sure to ask about this when you check in.

Montreux Practical Details

Accommodation: Hotel du Grand Lac ExcelsiorI chose this place because it mentioned “lake view” and boy, they weren’t lying (see below). From what we could tell, all rooms here face the lake (we were on the 3rd floor). It’s a bit of a walk from the Montreux train station, but the views are worth it. From the hotel it’s a 20 minute walk to Château de Chillon.

Balcony with a Lakeside & Mountain View - Montreux, Switzerland
My hotel choice in Montreux = mom approved.

Montreux Card: Your hotel will likely provide you with a Montreux Card, good for public transport and a discount for the Château de Chillon.

Cheese Train Practical Details

Tickets and Reservations: You can buy your tickets for the Cheese Train (runs December to April, Thursday to Sunday) at the Montreux Train Station. The price ranges from 39Chf to 89Chf depending on whether you have a Eurail Pass or Swiss Pass. Try to book in advance as the Cheese Train can fill up quickly.

In all honesty, we first hoped to take the Chocolate Train after seeing it listed as #1 on this list of top European Train Trips, but we were too early in the season (Chocolate Train departures begin in May). Chocolate Train meet bucket list.

Disclosure: The Cheese Train was organized and provided to us by Switzerland Travel Centre in London.

GoldenPass Classic Practical Details

GoldenPass Classic vs. Panoramic: Both of these trains take the same route. The Classic train has a rather cool, interior that harkens back to a bygone era while the Panoramic train features large, glass windows lending more visibility of the mountains around. The Cheese Train features wagons similar to the GoldenPass Classic, so if you’ve already take a GoldenPass Classic trip, then choose the Panoramic train for this segment.
Tickets and Reservations: While reservations were not needed for the GoldenPass Classic train that we were on, the conductor told us that during high season (summer months) reservations are essential. Even though they add extra wagons at that time, trains are often sold out for weeks in advance. We did not need reservations for the other two segments of the journey.
Food and drink: We were offered a smoked meat and cheese platter that was delicious. One would have been more than enough for the two of us. Given the high price of food in Switzerland, it’s actually a pretty good deal at 19Chf. Ideally, reserve one of these meat platters at the same time as you purchase your ticket or make your seat reservation.
Disclosure: Our reservation and meal on the GoldenPass Classic was organized and provided to us by Switzerland Travel Centre in London.

Lucerne Travel: Practical Details

Accommodation: Waldstaetterhof Hotel, Lucerne – If you are looking for a place near the train station (as we were), this is a good choice. Convenient location, comfy rooms and good breakfast included in the price of the room.
Lucerne Walking Path: We followed the Lucerne Tourism Office’s walking path of old town that is marked in red on their official maps. It’s a great walk that took us to the ramparts above the city, as well as into all the little squares and alleys through the medieval old town. Recommended.
Eating and Drinking: There are endless eating and drinking options along the Rathausquai where you can sit outside and gaze at the river. For something different we can recommend the vegetarian curries at Kanchi Indian Restaurant.

Chur Travel: Practical Details

Accommodation: Hotel Drei KönigeThis hotel serves as a convenient base for taking the Bernina Express train. It is about a 5-10 minute walk from the train station and on the edge of Chur old town. Our room was not especially large, but I believe there are other options.
Restaurants: We enjoyed a really lovely meal at Malena Empanaderia, a little restaurant run by an outrageously friendly Argentine family. Empanadas are the real deal, as is the homemade dulce de leche. Good salads and selection of Argentine wines as well. Da Mamma offers a good and affordable lunch deal.

Bernina Express Practical Details

Bernina Express Reservations: You can use your Eurail pass for the Bernina Express, but you need to get a seat reservation in advance if you want to sit in one of the panoramic cars (both 1st and 2nd class). We highly recommend this – the views with the wide windows are just fantastic.
Round-trip journey: We took the Berinina Express from Chur to Tirano (2 hour stop) and back to Chur. The round-trip journey was ideal. It makes for a 10-hour day, but it doesn’t feel that long. Also, as the light and angles are different each way it doesn’t really feel as though you are repeating the same territory. If you take the train only one way, then you would take a bus from Tirano to Lugano (separate seat reservation needed).
Taking photos from the Bernina Express: While the panoramic windows offer a great view, they don’t always make for the best photos because of glare and reflections. At the end of some of the panoramic cars there is a place whose windows can be adjusted and drawn. Several photographers shared the window to get clearer shots of the landscape and train.
Lunch in Tirano, Italy: It’s a nice bonus that you get to have lunch in Italy as part of the Bernina Express train experience. There are several restaurants right by the train station, but they looked a little too touristy for us so we walked into old town Tirano and had a wonderful lunch at Tratoria Gagin (Piazza Cavour 7, Tirano). It was full of locals. Food was good and prices reasonable.

Zurich Travel: Practical Details

Accommodation: 25hours Hotel Zurich West: We would never have discovered Zurich West — the tech, startup, artistic, and hip part of Zurich had we not stayed at 25hours Hotel Zurich. The hotel’s design and approach is just fun, from clever signage to thoughtful details in our room and in common areas. Just about everything features some sort of meaning or symbolism. After a week of cheese, smoked meats and heavy foods we also appreciated the light Israeli-inspired cuisine at the restaurant. Disclosure: Our night at 25hours Hotel Zurich West was kindly provided to us.

Relaxing in Lounge at 25Hours Hotel in Zurich West - Switzerland
Got a little too comfortable at 25hours Hotel lobby in Zurich and almost missed my train.

Exploring Zurich West: Even if you don’t stay in Zurich West, it’s worth taking the tram there to get a feel for “new” Zurich and to witness how a former industrial area became known for artists, creativity, and startups. Take a walk to the Viadukt and enjoy the big market hall and other shops and restaurants built under the train tracks. Then continue to the Freitag Tower, fashioned from old shipping containers, and finish your exploration with a visit to Frau Gerolds Garten. A very cool vibe.

Note: For the most part we booked the hotels above via Expedia (no, we do not have any affiliation with them) just a few days before we’d arrive in a destination. Employing this approach, we found the prices cheaper than booking directly with the hotel. Tip: always check both — direct booking and online travel sites — to see which option yields the best price. Note: We took our trip in the shoulder season. If you are traveling during the high season, you ought to consider booking further in advance than we did.

A big thanks goes to Eurail, Switzerland Travel Centre and 25hours Hotel Zurich West for supporting our train journey and experience through Switzerland.

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A Train Too Far? A Day Trip to Polandhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/szczecin-poland-day-trip-berlin/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/szczecin-poland-day-trip-berlin/#comments Tue, 07 Apr 2015 14:58:12 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20385 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about going to Poland for the day, and the joy of deliberately infusing adventures into our everyday lives. Two large Tyskie beers kept us company as we waited for pierogies, savory Polish dumplings, to arrive at our table at a brewery restaurant in Szczecin, a town near the Polish-German border. Only […]

The post A Train Too Far? A Day Trip to Poland appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

This is a story about going to Poland for the day, and the joy of deliberately infusing adventures into our everyday lives.

Berlin in a Manhole Cover
Starting our adventure, morning in Berlin.

Two large Tyskie beers kept us company as we waited for pierogies, savory Polish dumplings, to arrive at our table at a brewery restaurant in Szczecin, a town near the Polish-German border. Only hours before, we had been having breakfast in what was once West Berlin.

I considered the history of this region. For decades, freedom of movement in this part of the world simply wasn’t a concept. Borders not only existed, but they were also deliberate, apparent and imposing — all to deter people from crossing. Permissions were usually needed, if they were ever granted at all. Heck, in Berlin an elaborate wall existed to keep people out or in, depending upon how you looked at it and which side of the thing you happened to be on.

Across the whole of what is broad-brush referred to as Eastern Europe, this really wasn’t very long ago. The recent history of the region — from its World Wars to its Cold War — stands as a cautionary tale of the devastating effects of the blind rage of man, as well as testament to her ability to pick up the pieces and move on. Evidence as to how real change, even amidst seemingly impenetrable darkness, remains possible.

Countries, places, people, citizens — are not static.

From the consideration of great shared struggle and the friction-free invisible border between Germany and Poland that I’d passed only shortly before, I took another sip of Polish beer and settled back down to something personal. I reflected on how, even without physical borders, we humans are often tempted to draw barriers in our minds — barriers that prevent us from seeing and realizing new possibilities.

I reflect on my own situation — how lately I’ve felt as though I’ve been making excuses, putting things off. “When there’s more time, I’ll do it,” I say to myself. “When there’s a better time…” I rationalize. The problem is that this sort of deferment sometimes has a habit of becoming permanent. So it remains up to me to create the time — even when life feels “busy” — to do the things that need doing, the things I want to do. And then act on that. Otherwise, I run the risk of looking back and wondering ‘What if?‘ That’s not something I wanted for my life.

Szczecin on an early spring day - Poland
Szczecin’s old town on an early spring day.

In fact, just a few days before, when Dan suggested going to Poland for the day, my initial response was, “Isn’t that kinda far to go for one day?”

Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, isn’t “Why not?” a better starting point in the art of possibility?

To ask that question, to flip the orientation – it takes a re-framing to imagine what’s possible. Once I have made a decision and chosen to act, my life has proven time and again that the rest follows.

And so there we were: two hours and two trains later, in Poland, waiting for plates of pierogies. Going to Poland for the day was a decision pit against a never-ending list of things that “needed” doing. But it felt right to head out on a wee journey for the day and to reflect on where we are and understand a little better this part of the world. Berlin to Western Poland, a stretch that witnessed devastation, then isolation, and most recently rebuilding and creation anew.

Beautiful Plate of Pierogies in Szczecin, Poland
A delicious plate of homemade pierogies. Alone, worth the train journey.

“We’re in Poland!!” I did a little dance in my chair, shuffling my hands and feet — to Dan’s surprise…or perhaps chagrin. Ah, the little things.

Walking the Red Line

Szczecin, the subject of our day trip, was completely new to us. We had little idea what we would find. But that is adventure, after all.

When people ask us for travel advice on how to explore a new city, our first suggestion is to walk. Driving just isn’t the same. It’s too quick, too distant from the tactile, sensory interaction with one’s surroundings. Walking yields a quite literal on-the-ground feel of a place – not only what it is now, but often echoes of where it’s been and also where it hopes to go.

Audrey Photographs the Pomeranian Dukes' Castle in Szczecin, Poland
Photographing the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle in Szczecin. Sporting a pair of Rockport Welded T-Toe Sneakers, comfortable for walking streets old and new.

By walking, you notice the unevenness of a medieval cobblestone street or the broken sidewalk under your feet. Moving slowly on foot allows you to better absorb, to take in the street art hiding in a corner, the smell of sweet poppy seed pastries emerging from an oven at the local bakery, the brightness of newly placed roof tiles amidst the old, and the pace at which local people move about you to and from work or school.

We were prepared to walk and explore for hours and hours, as we were testing out new Rockport Shoes for this adventure. Not only did they hold up to our tough usage, but they were well suited for the freak April storms by drying quickly and being light. And trust me, comfortable and dry feet do really matter. A lot.

Smoking Rat - Street Art in Szczecin, Poland
The smoking rat. Clever street art in Szczecin’s old town.

We are notorious for getting lost, even in places where everyone tells us it’s impossible to do so. Fortunately, the town of Szczecin is made for people like us: there is a red line literally painted on the ground to follow around the contours of its old town.

Peter and Paul Church - Szczecin, Poland
Peter and Paul Church in a moment of sunshine.

Szczecin Along the Oder River, Poland
Along the Oder River, hints of Brick Gothic meets industrial architecture.

So we walked the red line. We traced it, jagging in to catch a glimpse of a 13th century city wall or 15th century church, and then cutting back out again on the main road to follow the Oder River, taking the more than occasional detour along the way. For us, it’s all about the scavenger hunt: around corners, through courtyards, down cobbled alleys, to the foot of a castle wall.

Sites, sights, and the everyday.

Exploration without expectations can be liberating. To just go and see for ourselves and find where our feet — and perhaps even more importantly, our minds — might take us. This is how we gather experience and form who we are and our view of the world. We steal bite-sized experiential pieces of the world around us and commit them to our sense of the greater shape of things…and our place in them.

Dan catches snowflakes on his tongue - Szczecin, Poland
When Mother Nature gives you a freak snow storm in April, respond accordingly by eating “snow peas.”

Local Dinner, Broader Perspective

With just a few minutes to spare, after a dash to catch a photo of a bridge and a couple of last looks on the train platform, we hopped the train back to Berlin. The idea: to arrive just in time for dinner at our favorite little Italian bistro in the neighborhood. We caught the last empty table before the dinner rush, after which reservations would become a must.

We sat at a table in the corner and watched the theatre of a small, family-run restaurant unfold before us. Two waiters flitted between tightly-arranged tables — balancing wide bowls of pasta on the palms of their hands in one pass, carrying healthy carafes of wine on the next.

Amidst the managed chaos, our waiter, a dead ringer for a young Freddie Mercury, offered us complimentary shots of grappa at the end of our meal. “Please sit and enjoy this. Take your time,” he insisted, as a wall of hungry people stood waiting at the door.

From little shot glasses, we sipped our grappa, a perfect finish after a rich meal of homemade pasta with wild duck ragout and grilled polenta with salsiccia. As the warmth of the grappa consumed me, I reflected on the decision to go to Poland, a place that once seemed too far out of reach for just one day.

It only took a shift in mindset to realize that it really wasn’t that far after all. Distance is all too often in the mind.

Waiting for the Train in Szczecin, Poland
Have train pass, will travel. Rockport Washable Oxfords, light and comfy. Good in rain, too.

“But I don’t have a country two hours away from me by train,” you object.

You don’t need one. You just need a place, a new place, a place unknown to you that your mind assumes is just out of reach. A literal place, maybe a figurative place. A place that may even be in your hometown or just nearby, but a place that you know you want to experience nonetheless.

So grab a map. Choose a direction. Go. See what you find. Open yourself up. Walk the streets. Notice the details. Then, get a bit lost. Reflect. And when you do, reserve some space for the expected, the unexpected and a healthy does of gratitude, regardless of what you’ve found.

We tell ourselves that there’s not enough time — oh, the precious, limited resource that it is. However, when we challenge that assumption, we reward ourselves with possibility, the possibility of a mini adventure for one day, and also for life.

So that was my day trip to Poland, book-ended by Berlin, wrapped in a web of history that leaves my mind always wondering, sometimes wandering. Racing. And even though my trip to Poland this time was short, I’m grateful for the experience, and prefer it to never having had it at all.

Have you ever done something that perhaps sounded crazy at first, but then you thought: why not?


We’d like to thank the folks at Rockport Shoes for asking us to think about the role of adventure in our daily lives and to share one of our days as part of their #MyDailyAdventure series and campaign, of which this article is a part.

You can also take part in the fun and have a chance to win weekly prizes! Share your own daily adventure by uploading a photo and story to Instagram using the hashtags #MyDailyAdventure and #Contest. Be sure to tag @RockportShoes to ensure that you are automatically entered into the prize drawing. Make sure you submit your entries by midnight on May 14, 2015. You can see all Terms & Conditions here.

Additionally, we have a special Rockport Shoes discount code for our readers. Just go to the online shop and use discount code ROCKUNCORNEREDMARKET25 when you check out to receive your 25% discount! Fine print: sale items excluded.

Disclosure: We were compensated by Rockport Shoes to write this article as part of the #MyDailyAdventure campaign. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

The post A Train Too Far? A Day Trip to Poland appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Haiti Trekking: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/haiti-trekking/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/haiti-trekking/#comments Mon, 30 Mar 2015 12:04:26 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20353 By Audrey Scott

The sounds of konpa, Haiti’s version of merengue meets jazz, floated from the kitchen to our spot on the front porch. We sat around a large wooden dining table, fleece jackets zipped up, our hands cupped around mugs of Haitian hot chocolate flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and Haitian bergamot lime rind. It was impossible […]

The post Haiti Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

View from Pic Cabayo in Parc Nacional la Visite - Haiti
Pic Cabayo, towards a slice of Haiti’s Caribbean Sea.

The sounds of konpa, Haiti’s version of merengue meets jazz, floated from the kitchen to our spot on the front porch. We sat around a large wooden dining table, fleece jackets zipped up, our hands cupped around mugs of Haitian hot chocolate flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and Haitian bergamot lime rind. It was impossible not to be caught up in the unexpected moment. The crackling musical improvisations hearkened to a bygone era and punctuated the cool, dark stillness around us.

The men in the kitchen called it “ball” music – as in ballrooms where men and women dance close, and the woman who don’t want to dance close use special elbow moves to keep the men at bay. The music looped and time slowed, just as our sensations had throughout our four-day hike in the mountains just above the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

When I had imagined traveling in Haiti, this was not what I had envisioned. But when we reflect on our journey in the country, it’s this moment — the quiet punctuated by crackling tunes, the crispness of the air and the stillness of a Haitian night in the mountains – that really sticks with me.

Perhaps you ask, just as we did before our trip: is trekking in Haiti even a thing?

Yes, it is. And it probably ought to be for more travelers. But it takes a little effort to organize.

Here’s why it’s worth it, plus all you need to know to plan a trek in Haiti.

Why trek in Haiti? (Hint: It’s not just about the mountain scenery)

Mountain trekking in Haiti? In retrospect, this should not have come as a surprise considering the country takes its name from the indigenous Taino Ayiti, meaning “land of mountains.” Haiti is covered with layers of mountains, within which exist networks of walking paths intended to get locals from home to markets, schools and nearby villages.

Haiti, Trekking in the Mountains
Homes on top of the hills, family farms and trails mark the Haitian countryside.

Trekking in Haiti is not just about the landscape, but an unexpected natural beauty grounded by culture and complemented by people who live amidst it. Whether you’re en route in a truck or on foot in the hills, you have a chance to meet and engage with people — kids on their way home from school, market-goers, farmers working the fields, women washing herbal tea in the streams.

Haitian Schoolgirl in the Mountains - Haiti
A Haitian schoolgirl on her way home through the hills.

In contrast to that of its cities, Haiti’s mountain pace slows considerably. Open space and details emerge, like the color and texture of the hills, forest aromas, treetop winds, and the briskness of air. After spending time in the bustle of population centers like Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien, we welcomed the change and began to better process and reflect on all that we had experienced.

The challenge with trekking in Haiti is that information regarding routes and logistics can be difficult to find. In fact, when we searched on Google before our trip, we almost gave up on the idea as the photos and articles were neither inspiring nor useful. Additionally, limited road and accommodation infrastructure can make it relatively expensive. If you have more time and flexibility, you’ll find that you have more options.

So that’s why we are writing this. To share with you what we did, how we did it, and the various considerations and practical details. In other words: all that we had wanted to know about trekking in Haiti before our trip.

Our Haiti Trekking Itinerary and Route

Day 1: Jacmel to Mare Rouge by 4×4
Day 2: Climb to Pic la Selle, drive to Seguin in Parc National la Visite
Day 3: Climb Pic Cabayo and visit nearby waterfalls
Day 4: Walk from Seguin to outside of Port-au-Prince

Note: It’s also possible to take this route in the opposite direction, from outside Port-au-Prince to Seguin to Mare Rouge and then to Jacmel (or back to Port-au-Prince). We took the approach above as we’d come from Jacmel and wished to end up in Port-au-Prince without having to backtrack.

Truck in the Hills of Haiti
Colorful trucks and buses in Haiti provide artistic inspiration and comic relief.

Jacmel to Mare Rouge

For most of our first day, we were in a jeep, climbing from the seaside at Jacmel into the mountains. We made stops in small villages and on random hillsides to enjoy the scenery and details — the drawings on a family gravesite, the stone walls built up on farms to prevent landslides, or the way the sun came through the occasional dark raincloud that passed. Roads were rough and we felt as though we were covering ground seen by few visitors.

Scenes from a Haitian burial ground. Tombs in rural Haiti include symbolic references to Vodou spirits known as Loa/Lwa and a even a few hints of the modern influence of Christianity on the local ritual. Taken en route to the mountain village of Mare Rouge from coastal Jacmel. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1zkF8mR
Tombs in rural Haiti include symbolic references to both Vodou and Christianity.

We also noticed jagged rocks poking out of the ground across the hillsides we scaled. Thinking they were some sort of special geological rock formations, we asked what they were. They are called “dentelles”, jagged teeth in the local Crèole, and are the unfortunate manifestation of logging, deforestation and erosion. Indeed, those rock formations are a unique are part of the earth, but they really ought to be deep below the soil. Instead, they reveal themselves as scars born of human activity.

Rock Formations and Erosion - Haiti
A Haitian hillside full of jagged teeth.

Once we reached our resting place for the night, Mare Rouge, we bundled up and took a walk out to a nearby hillside to lay in the grass and watch the sun set. Peace and serenity driven by the winds in treetops and interrupted only by the occasional voice from a distant farm.

Sunset at Mare Rouge, Haiti
We close our day with a sunset at Mare Rouge.

Practical Details:

Getting there: The roads go from “not great” leaving Jacmel to almost non-existent on this route. You need a really sturdy 4×4 jeep or ATV (all-terrain vehicle) and an experienced driver, as we had. Alternatively, you could do this on the back of a motorbike (i.e., hire a motorbike driver), but make certain your rear-end is steel-reinforced as the road contours make for a bouncy, lively ride.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Helvetas/MARNDR NGO guesthouse, the Mare Rouge forestry center that was built to accommodate park rangers and staff. They occasionally have extra room for travelers. You or your tour company will need to contact them in advance to determine if there is space available. Cost: $40/person including room and 3 meals. Note that you’ll also need to pay this fee for your guide and/or driver.

Pic la Selle

Pic la Selle is Haiti’s highest peak at 2,680m (8,793ft), and is located in Forêts des Pins (literally “pine forest”). From Helvetas, the hike to the peak takes a couple of hours at a leisurely pace from a drop off point in the forest. As you make your way up in elevation, you’ll register subtle changes in landscape and vegetation. The surprising smell of fresh pine might motivate you to question whether you are actually in the Caribbean.

Dan on his way to Pic la Selle - Haiti
Dan, on the way up to Pic la Selle. The vegetation changes with altitude.

As with any trek, it’s worth moving slowly, taking time to hop off the trail for views that will cut right across Haiti to the coast. Look away from the coast and you’ll take in even more mountains in the direction of the Dominican Republic. Set off early in the day to avoid haze.

Haiti's Mountains - View from Pic La Selle
A view from Pic la Selle to Parc National la Visite.
Pic la Selle Forest Ranger and Guide - Haiti
Dieusel, a park ranger and our guide, takes out the guest book at the top of Pic la Selle.

Practical Details:

Pic la Selle logistics: The head of the forestry district drove us to a drop off spot (a sort of makeshift trail head) to begin our climb to Pic la Selle. We also had a park ranger with us as a guide. He simultaneously kept an eye on the forest and phoned in information regarding locals chopping at the trunks of trees to harvest sap-heavy wood chips used to start cooking fires. Cost: $45/group for the transport and guide.

Mare Rouge to Seguin transport: This is another route with a rough road so you’ll need a sturdy 4×4, ATV or strong motorbike. If you’re not pressed for time, you can also walk this route. We spoke with one of the park rangers who walks the route in three or four hours. For ordinary folks looking to take in the scenery, plan on approximately six to seven hours.

Pic Cabayo and Parc National la Visite

The day we walked from Auberge La Visite to Pic Cabayo in the national park proved our favorite day of trekking. The clear skies certainly had something to do with it. Regardless, we were blown away by the expansive, breath-taking views at the top of Pic Cabayo. Mountainous layers that roll for as far as the eye can see. This is a Haiti we certainly never knew.

Hiking to Pic Cabayo - Parc National la Visite, Haiti
En route to the Pic Cabayo overlook.
At the top of Pic Cabayo, Looking Out Over Haiti
Dan attempts to capture all of Haiti’s mountain layers on camera, at once.
Haitian Farmhouse in the Hills
Passing farmhouses and small villages on our trek in and around Seguin.

Practical Details:

Accommodation: In Seguin, we stayed at Auberge La Visite, a small bed and breakfast with a large porch, rocking chairs and a very relaxed vibe. The food is all made from local ingredients, including an incredible salad sourced from locally grown vegetables, edible flowers and watercress from the base of one of the waterfalls we visited. There are only a couple of rooms available so try to email or call ahead. Cost: $80/person for a room, including 3 meals. It’s also possible to sleep in an air mattress-outfitted tent in the garden, but you’ll have to check on the price of this yourself. Disclosure: We received a 50% press discount during our stay.

Breakfast at Auberge la Visite - Seguin, Haiti
Breakfast at Auberge La Visite, plentiful and relaxing.

Trekking logistics: Although you can probably find your own way around the national park, we asked one of the staff at Auberge La Visite to be our guide to Pic Cabayo and the nearby waterfalls. Along the way, we harvested watercress and went chanterelle forest mushroom hunting. It’s an absolutely terrific day out, provided the weather cooperates. Cost: Around $25 for the group

Seguin to Port-au-Prince Area

“Are you sure we can’t get lost?” we asked, knowing our propensity to lose our way just about everywhere. Our final day in Haiti’s mountains involved walking, guide free, on our own towards Port-au-Prince.

“Don’t worry, there’s only one road to Port-au-Prince. Even you can’t get lost. You’ll know you’re close to the pickup point because there will be one last BIG hill,” our guide, Cyril, advised us before leaving Seguin the day before.

Famous last words.

We did find the one path leading from Seguin to Port-au-Prince and followed the steady stream of people walking in both directions. Many women, on their way to and from the market, balanced baskets full of vegetables or fruit on their heads. The road was rubbled, inconsistent and steep, making their posture and ability all the more impressive.

Women Balance Goods on Head - Haiti
An amazing balancing act, women carry goods to and from market on mountain paths.

Together with Barbara, a German journalist trekking with us, we challenged ourselves to greet everyone we saw with a “bon jou!” and polite nod. Often, people would smile and laugh, amused to see three white people wandering randomly along this road in the middle of nowhere Haiti.

The day’s most memorable reaction was courtesy of a little girl of about five years old who decided to have a dance-off with Dan. She would shake her hips and jump around in front of her house, and Dan would copy her — dancing his way up and down hill as we continued our walk. This lasted for about three to four hills until we were out of sight, but we could still hear her giggles echoing across the hilltops long after we could no longer see her. Oh, if only you could include experiences like this on an itinerary.

Haitian Houses on the Hillside - Seguin, Haiti
Haitian houses and farms on a hillside.

After several hours of up and down, passing homes and villages perched on the top of hills, breaking sweats across steep terraced farmlands, we were certain we must be close. A big hill appeared, so big that the local municipality had built cement steps to help people navigate it, especially in the rain.

“The big hill. Finally, we’re here,” we thought.

Proud of our efforts, we turned the corner expecting to see the jeep waiting for us. Instead, there was another big hill, perhaps even more imposing than the first.

We remembered the Haitian proverb:

“Dèyè mon gen mon.” Behind the mountain, there are mountains.

That’s trekking in Haiti for you.

Mountainous Haiti, en route to Port-au-Prince
Green hills at the end of the rainy season in Haiti.

Practical Details:

You will need to arrange a pickup on the side of the road near one of the villages on the approach to Port-au-Prince, as we did. Alternatively, find a motorbike driver that can take you to the nearest town to hop on a bus or tap-tap to take you into Port-au-Prince.

Trekking in Haiti: Other Considerations

Other treks in Haiti

To expand your trekking options in the hills above Port-au-Prince, ask your guide or tour company about trails around Furcy or Kenscoff. You can also do the route that we did from Port-au-Prince to Seguin to Mare Rouge by foot. If you have your own camping gear, the options become even greater for the routes you can take.

Additionally, the Bradt Guide to Haiti by Paul Clammer has advice on different trekking routes and options around the country. It’s also just a great guide for general travel in Haiti.

Best time to trek in Haiti

While trekking in Haiti is technically possible year-round, the best times are December to March when there is no rain. We trekked in late November and lucked out on weather, but a colleague took a similar route the week before and had to cut back some of his plans because of downpours. We have also been advised that July to August can also be good.

Haiti’s deforestation problems

When we mention trekking in Haiti, we’re often asked about the environmental situation. Many people have seen this dramatic aerial photo showing the border between Haiti and Dominican Republic.

Sadly, deforestation is a real and significant problem. Its history began with French colonists who cleared land for plantations. The problem has worsened in the last century due to a growing population needing to feed itself and that uses charcoal to cook. The accommodation providers we used on this trip all work in some capacity to reforest and educate local communities on the benefits of planting trees and using alternative cooking fuels. So the money you spend with them and on official local guides supports programs attempting to address these environmental problems.

What to bring with you

To avoid repetition, we suggest you check out our Ultimate Trekking Packing List for suggestions of what to bring with you. As food and shelter is provided everywhere in the route we cover above, you don’t need to pack much outside of good hiking shoes, some cold weather gear (e.g., fleece, waterproof/windproof jacket, hat), refillable water bottle, sunscreen, and snacks.

Note: During the time of year we hiked it gets chilly in the mountains, especially at night. So it’s worth carrying a few layers to ensure you are comfortable.

Trekking in Haiti independently or with a guide?

Trekking in Haiti, because of road infrastructure, infrequency of public transport in outlying areas, and limited accommodation options, is not something you just pick up and do on a whim. Unless, that is, you carry your own camping gear, have unlimited time on your hands and fluently speak the local language, Créole.

We met some Haitian people and long-term expats living in Haiti who opted to trek without a guide. However, if you are just visiting Haiti for a short time, we recommend you consider very seriously having a Créole-speaking guide so you can ask questions, engage in meaningful conversations with local people, have context regarding what you are seeing and experiencing, and avoid getting lost.

We coordinated our trek with Jean Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haiti, a local tour operator that also works with G Adventures. Cyril is quite passionate about Haiti in general, and especially about trekking in the country. We also used local guides at Mare Rouge and Seguin.

Tour Haiti also provided us with the 4×4 transport we needed to get from Jacmel to Mare Rouge to Seguin. This isn’t inexpensive, so it helps to pull in other travelers to help share the cost.

For more photos from our trekking in Haiti, check out our photo essay.

Any other questions about trekking in Haiti, just ask below in the comments!


Disclosure: The trekking experiences above were organized and paid by us. However, our flights to Haiti (and other Haiti travel experiences) were provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program.

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How Street Food is the Ultimate Travel Guide: 40 Favorite Street Food Disheshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/40-favorite-street-foods-from-around-the-world/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/40-favorite-street-foods-from-around-the-world/#comments Wed, 11 Mar 2015 21:41:56 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20091 By Audrey Scott

If it’s only food porn you seek, go here. Otherwise, if you enjoy elaborate threads linking travel satisfaction and street eats, read on. Food and travel, one of life’s great experience intersections. Although we enjoy our share of refined cuisine and elaborate meals at restaurants, it’s often our street food quests — raw on-the-ground journeys […]

The post How Street Food is the Ultimate Travel Guide: 40 Favorite Street Food Dishes appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

Lady Selling Curries - Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand, our first street food love.

If it’s only food porn you seek, go here. Otherwise, if you enjoy elaborate threads linking travel satisfaction and street eats, read on.

Food and travel, one of life’s great experience intersections. Although we enjoy our share of refined cuisine and elaborate meals at restaurants, it’s often our street food quests — raw on-the-ground journeys that convey authenticity — that yield some of life’s most revealing moments and enlighten us in unexpected ways.

Food generally serves as a natural gateway to a more profound understanding of culture and history, people and place. Street food draws us naturally to explore, to press further afield than we otherwise might, allowing us to make greater personal discoveries not only about the flavor of local foods, but also the essence of the cultures they represent.

To those of you who agree, we preach to the culinary choir. But for others, food might be less a priority, a matter of sustenance. To you, we make the case that the active search for street food and novel street level culinary experiences not only fills the bowl, but also feeds the soul.

Here’s how.

Note: Street food aficionados, we use the term “street food” as shorthand for local, authentic culinary experiences. So bear with us as several of the examples in the 40 experiences below are taken from hole-in-wall restaurants, hawker food courts and fresh markets around the world.

5 Ways Street Food Quests Serve as a Tool for Exploration

1. They take your further

Use the street food dish you seek as the final destination. Many of the world’s most fascinating markets and remarkable street food stalls are found in areas well away from tourist centers and popular neighborhoods. The process of seeking out street food often creates a “mission” that takes you across town to and through neighborhoods you might otherwise not visit.

Whether you walk or use public transport, your quest for the ultimate dumpling, bean soup, taco or curry becomes an adventure in itself, with the meal as the goal, but the journey as the unexpected payoff.

2. They take you deeper

Street food is remarkably democratic, for we all need to eat. One of the best ways to meet and engage with ordinary, local people and land the holy grail of authentic local interaction (i.e., outside of tourism and service professionals) is by sharing a plastic table, communal condiments, and a bit of conversation.

If spoken language isn’t an issue we’ll often begin by asking questions about local food, which can lead to topics such as family, culture, and politics. If there is no common spoken language, we’ll practice our charade skills to inquire as to which condiments to use or how to properly tackle what we’re eating.

In any event, we find that almost everyone enjoys sharing their local cuisine with visitors.

3. They help you explore your boundaries

I may not be as intrepid or adventurous a street food eater as Dan, but the search for street food definitely helps build my culinary courage. If I can’t easily identify the food in front of me (e.g., it has come from a part of an animal I’m not accustomed to eating), I often shy away. But when I find myself in a street food setting where people are excited for visitors to try their food, it’s difficult for me to say no. I often find that my fears about the food were unfounded, and I enjoy it much to my surprise.

4. They help you exercise your language skills

If you are looking to exercise your linguistic chops, there’s no better place than over a shared meal with random strangers. And if you’re accompanying your meal with a cold beer, language inhibitions seem to fall away even quicker.

5. They teach you how simple it is to cook

Since you are so close to the action, street food lays it all bare. Street food chefs offer the opportunity — language skills permitting — for you to get a firsthand sense of the flow and preparation of your favorite local dishes as you admire the culinary magic up close. After you witness a beautiful dish emerge from a tiny gas stove and a kitchen equipped with only basic tools, you begin to understand the great lessons in limitation.

40 Favorite Street Food Eats from Around the World

The following is only the tip of the street food iceberg of possibilities, in alphabetical order so we don’t get into arguments as to whose is better. We include some traditional dishes as well as a few unusual suspects.

If you’re concerned about eating street food for fear of getting sick, read our tips for eating local and staying healthy: How to Travel Without Hugging the Bowl


Although empanadas (stuffed pastries, usually savory) can be found throughout Argentina, the best ones are from the Salta region in the northwestern part of the country. It is also the only region where hot sauce is common. Hurrah!!

Market Empanadas in Tilcara, Argentina
Market empanadas in Tilcara, a village in Argentina’s Salta region.
More on Argentine food.


Although kebabs — grilled ground or chunked meat on a skewer — are not unique to Armenia, we did find that when we wanted a quick and easy snack, a kebab wrapped in lavash (flat bread) was the street food of choice.

Kebab Vendor - Yerevan, Armenia
Kebabs wrapped in lavash (flat bread) – Yerevan, Armenia.

More on Armenian food.


Singara are spiced potato and vegetable mixture pockets wrapped in a thin dough and fried. What distinguishes a good singara is how flaky the texture is. Some are so flaky, as if they’re made with savory pie crust. Singara are ubiquitous and inexpensive (as cheap as 24 for $1).

Street Food in Srimongal Market - Bangladesh
Singara at the market in Srimongal, Bangladesh.

More on Bangladeshi food.

Bali (Indonesia)

Nasi campur is essentially a Balinese mixed plate served with rice. Most restaurants will make the choice for you, but at warungs, the more local food outlets on Bali, the nasi campur selection is up to you. You can choose from delectables such as sate lilit, spicy tempeh, chopped vegetables, spice-rubbed meat, chicken, and tofu.

Plate of Nasi Campur - Sanur, Bali
A plate of nasi campur at the night market in Sanur, Bali.

More on Bali food.


Salteñas are empanada-like pockets filled with chicken or meat and finished with a distinctive slightly sweet, baked crust. The salteñas pictured below were filled with both chicken and ground beef, a boiled egg, herbs, and an olive. Spice options include fiery, hot, normal and sweet. Something for everyone.

Saltenas, a Favorite Bolivian Snack
Salteñas fresh from the oven in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Walk through downtown Sarajevo and it’s hard not to be gripped by the smell of ćevapi, the Bosnian national dish of grilled meat. Ćevapi is often served in installments of five or ten minced meat logs tucked into a round of flat bread. Our preference is with onions and a side of kajmak (thick cream). You won’t need to eat for days after one of these meals.

5 Cevapi in Bread at Zeljo Cevabdzinica - Sarajevo, Bosnia
Ćevapi with kajmak and onions at Zeljo Cevabdzinica in Sarajevo.


We found our tuk-tuk driver having breakfast with other drivers when we exited the temples at Banteay Srei. He invited us to join him and he introduced us to a fantastic morning soup. It consisted of a subtle yellow curry fish broth with fresh rice noodles, paper-thin chopped banana blossom, cucumber, and cabbage — all topped off with a spoonful of dark sweet sauce. A bowl of bitter herbs and long beans circulated our table for the final touch.

Cambodian Morning Soup (Num Banh Choc) - Angkor, Cambodia
Cambodian Morning Soup (Num Banh Choc), breakfast at the Angkor temples.


When we arrived in Chile, we were on a mission to eat a proper completo (hot dog). Although we usually practice hot dog avoidance, these beauties were hard to resist. The one pictured here merges avocado, tomato and mayonnaise in the flag-like completo italiano.

Completo Italiano - Santiago, Chile
The completo italiano in all its glory. La Vega market in Santiago, Chile.


Selecting just one street food dish from China borders on the impossible, but we’ll go with the crowd favorite Chinese dumplings. Of the hundreds of dumplings we sampled in China these pork, shrimp and leek dumplings at Da Yu dumpling joint near the No. 6 bathing area in Qingdao stick out. Fresh, delicious and perfectly steamed.

Da Yu Dumplings - Qingdao, China
Pork, shrimp and leek dumplings at Da Yu — Qingdao, China.

More Chinese food photos.


It seems like each country in Latin America serves its own unique style of ceviche, so we found it necessary to try it in each country we visited. While we have to admit that Peruvian ceviche is our favorite (see below), this bowl of shrimp ceviche with from the Central Market in Quito ran a close second with its fresh shrimp, plentiful herbs, and bits of tomato. Oh, and we were big fans of the popcorn as a side.

Ecuadorian Shrimp Ceviche - Quito
Ecuadorian style shrimp ceviche served with a side of popcorn at Quito Central Market.


The first time we visited Cairo, Egypt was in December 2011 when demonstrations were still taking place on Tahrir Square and news channels around the world were lit up with scenes of violence and protest. But our experience in the almost 8-million person city was filled with encounters like this one, with a friendly sugar cane juice master of Old Cairo. And in case you’re wondering, we did not get sick.

Sugar Cane Juice on Streets of Cairo, Egypt
The sugar cane juice master of Old Cairo, Egypt.

El Salvador

Pupusas (stuffed corn tortillas) are the go-to street food of choice throughout El Salvador. Filled with refried red beans, cheese and a dash of chicharron (salty pork rinds), the pupusas below from a simple street stand east of central park in Juayua were the best we had eaten anywhere. Top with pickled vegetables and chili peppers. Delicious!

The Best Pupusas - Juayua, El Salvador
Pupusas on the griddle — Juayua, El Salvador.
More on Central American food.


A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony will likely take at least twenty minutes from start to finish for the first cup of coffee, but it is absolutely well worth the wait. You need to sample a few, and perhaps only then will you begin to fully comprehend how important coffee is to Ethiopia, the purported birthplace of the stuff.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Aksum, Ethiopia
Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with frankincense, in Aksum, Ethiopia.
More on Ethiopian food.

Georgia (Republic of)

Khachapuri, the ubiquitous signature Georgian cheese-stuffed bread oozes gooey goodness. A common site on the Georgian table — at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Because the cheese inside is mildly brined, it’s salty goodness is like a diet-demolishing siren call.

Khachapuri - Mtskheta, Georgia
Cheese-stuffed khachapuri. Comfort food at its best.
More on Georgian food.

Germany (Berlin)

Everyone knows about döner kebabs in Berlin. But Mustafa’s is not your typical döner. Rather than flakes of beef or veal, shavings of chicken pressed with roasted vegetables fall from Mustafa’s spindle and are served with a fabulous mélange of potatoes, sweet potatoes, salad, cheese and mystery sauce. If you are vegetarian, you can also opt for pure veg. You’ll know you’ve arrived at Mustafa’s when you see the long line snaking down the street.

Berlin's Urban Food Log at Mustafa's - Kreuzberg, Berlin
Audrey doesn’t waste any time diving in.
More on Central Berlin cheap eats.

Greece (Crete)

On the Greek island of Crete, it sometimes seemed as though all we did was eat. In the island’s main city of Heraklion, just prior to our departure, we were recommended to try bugatsa, a pastry filled with cream and/or cheese, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The most famous bugatsa is served at Kipkop, a bakery founded in 1922 by Armenian immigrants whose descendants dish the same original recipe to this day.

Bougatsa at Kipkop - Heraklion, Crete
Cheese and cream-filled bugatsa at Kipkop in Heraklion, Crete.
More on Crete food.


Guatemala served as our first stop in Central America. We took to street food in Antigua almost straight away. This, a chuchito (similar to a Mexican tamale – shredded meat and vegetables stuffed in a mass of boiled, ground corn), was smothered in fresh guacamole, salsa and cabbage.

Guatemalan Food, Chuchito - Antigua, Guatemala
A street-side chuchito for lunch in Antigua, Guatemala.
More on Central American food.


Lots of street food in Haiti is fried — plantains, pork, other meat bits, potatoes, etc. But if you’re looking for a hearty meal for just a couple dollars, this dish of cornmeal, beans and vegetable stew (mayi moulen kole ak legim) is where it’s at. The cornmeal consistency is somewhere between polenta and cream-of-wheat (or cream-of-cornmeal, as it were).

Haitian Street Food Stand in Jacmel, Haiti
Morning stop for cornmeal, beans and vegetable stew in Jacmel, Haiti.

More on Haitian food.


While the rest of Central America is all about the corn, Honduras’ staple street food dish — the baleada — is made with wheat flour. And honestly, this was a relief after three months of maize. Stuffed with combinations of cheese, beans, eggs, and various meats, baleadas quickly became our Honduran comfort food.

Honduran Food, Papusa and Baleadas - La Esperanza, Honduras
Breakfast of champions: bean stuffed pupusa and bean and egg baleadas (right) in La Esperanza, Honduras.
More on Central American food.


How can anyone resist fried bread smothered in sour cream? That is why the Hungarian langos is an easy favorite. Make your way into just about any market in Hungary and you are sure to find langos, if the signature aroma of it doesn’t find you first. Try garlic langos and you’ll be vampire-free — and probably friendless for a few hours.

Langos Goodness - Budapest, Hungary
Our favorite fried bread from the Langos Centrum at Lehel market in Budapest, Hungary.


There is so much street food goodness in India, but we’ll have to go with this aloo tikki (spiced potato snacks) stand in Varanasi as one of our favorites. The aloo tikki was good, but the charismatic vendor who roped me in to cook for him is what made the experience. Note: if you do venture to eat street food in India, stick to the cooked products and be wary of fresh herb and vegetable toppings that may have been washed in unclean water.

Indian Street Food - Varanasi, India
I learn to cook aloo tikki on the ghats of Varanasi, India.
More Indian food photos.


After all the kebabs and meats in Iran, we were thankful to find this vendor selling a big pile of steamed, spiced fava beans in the mountains near Kermanshah. Delicious with a dash of vinegar and red pepper. I think he found our vegetable-deprived group a bit odd as we kept coming back for additional servings.

Steamed and Spiced Fava Beans - Kermanshah, Iran
Large piles of steamed, spiced fava beans in the mountains near Kermanshah.
More on Iranian food.


Octopus balls? Yes, please. Takoyaki are fluffy hot rounds of chopped octopus in herbed dough. All part of the experience: watching the masters quickly turn their takoyaki with long toothpicks in something that looks like a cupcake pan, so that the balls cook evenly on all sides. Takoyaki is often topped with a sweet sauce, oregano, and ample helpings of hanakatsuo (dried bonito fish flakes).

Takoyaki on Streets of Osaka, Japan
Takoyaki on the streets of Osaka, Japan.
More on Japanese food.


Street food doesn’t always have to be savory. Knafeh is a decadent Middle Eastern dessert made from a gooey, white cheese base with semolina bits baked on top and covered in sweet syrup. Though we take every opportunity we get to eat the stuff, we have yet to find a knafeh better than what is served up at Habibeh (Habiba) in downtown Amman, Jordan. Every person we’ve spoken to who has visited Amman mentions this knafeh with a longing sigh.

Large Trays of Knafeh at Habiba - Jordan
Whopping trays of knafeh at Habibeh in downtown Amman, Jordan.
More on Jordan food.


Steamed manti, meat-filled dumplings. This is a staple of street food stalls, fresh markets and hillside animal markets across Kyrgyzstan. Be careful though, the Kyrgyz can be quite, um, efficient in their manti production. Sometimes, it tastes like the whole animal might have fallen into the meat grinder.

Steamed Manti (Dumplings) - Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Steamed manti at the fresh market in Osh.
More on Central Asian food.


It’s possible to visit Luang Prabang and be tricked into thinking you’re eating Lao food, as many restaurants pimp Thai curries as Lao food. After asking around we finally found Or Lam, a spicy stew with mushrooms, eggplant, meat, lemongrass and chillies. In the back is khai paen (spiced, dried river weed) and jaew bawng (a Lao dipping sauce). All of this goes perfectly with a cold Beer Lao.

Or Lam and Purple Sticky Rice - Luang Prabang, Laos
Or lam and munchies at the Luang Prabang market.
More on Lao food.


It’s worth traveling to Malaysia, if only for the cuisine. Malaysian street food is a delightful melange, drawing influence from China and from across Southeast Asia. And that doesn’t even touch the country’s Indian food scene. Many street food stands specialize in just one dish, and it’s not uncommon to find that multiple generations have worked together to perfect their recipe.

Malaysian Food, Squid and Fava Beans - Penang, Malaysia
Squid and fava beans in roasted chili, served on a banana leaf. Georgetown, Penang.
More on Malaysian food.

Mexico (Oaxaca)

When we decided where to spend two months in Mexico, we choose Oaxaca primarily because of its cuisine and street food scene. One of our favorite street food or market snacks was the tlayuda, a large semi-dried tortilla, sometimes glazed with a thin layer of unrefined pork lard called asiento, and topped with refried beans (frijol), tomatoes, avocadoes, and some variation of meat (chorizo, tasajo or cencilla, or shredded chicken tinga). It can either be served open, or when it’s cooked on a charcoal grill, folded in half. One is often enough to feed two people.

Tlayuda with Chorizo - Oaxaca, Mexico
Tlayuda chorizo at the 20 de Noviembre market in Oaxaca, Mexico.
More on Oaxaca food.

Myanmar (Burma)

Geographically, Myanmar sits at the intersection of South Asian (Indian), East Asian (Chinese), and Southeast Asian (Thai). Culinarily, it does too. This was a pleasant surprise for us and Burmese food exceeded our expectations.

Burmese Food, Spicy Noodles - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
Noodles doused in spicy sauce, fresh herbs, and crushed nuts. Taken on the streets of Yangon.
More on Myanmar food.


It’s hard for me to resist dumplings anywhere, and Nepal’s momos were no exception. Served steamed or occasionally fried, momos are a staple in and around the areas of the Tibetan plateau, including all over Nepal.

Steamed Dumplings (Momos) - Bakhtapur, Nepal
Steamed momos on the streets of Bakhtapur, Nepal.


When it’s brutally hot and humid and you’re waiting hours for the bus, a shot of tereré, the national drink (nay, the national sport) of Paraguay, definitely helps. Tereré looks like yerba mate, but it is served cold and can be enjoyed for hours.

This is Tereré - Paraguay
Cooling off with tereré at the Encarnacion bus station in Paraguay.


Peru was the culinary highlight of our travels through Latin America. The cevicheria at the Surquillo market in Lima bustles with people, especially on the weekend. A huge plate of mixed seafood ceviche runs about $4-$5. Discussions about Peruvian family life and politics are free of charge.

Mixed Seafood Ceviche at Surquillo Market - Lima, Peru
Mixed seafood ceviche — Surquillo Market in Lima, Peru.
More on Peruvian food.


Hainanese chicken rice is a culinary specialty unique to Singapore. The description may sound unremarkable, but its flavor delights. The dish consists of chicken broth, slices of roasted (or steamed) chicken served with cucumbers and herbs, hot sauce, sweet soy sauce, and a light chicken stock soup with vegetables. Delicious in its subtlety.

Hainanese Chicken Rice - Singapore
Hainanese Chicken Rice at the hawker center between Waterloo Street and Bugis Street, Singapore.
More on Singaporean food.

South Africa

Bunny chow is essentially a hollowed out piece of plain, white sandwich bread stuffed with curry (or masala, if you like). Rumors have it that it was designed this way to make it easy for plantation workers to take their lunch to the fields. Bunny chow serves as culinary evidence of South Asian influence in South Africa, and more specifically in the city of Durban.

Ultimate Bunny Chow! 5-layer vegetarian via Little Gujarat resto in Durban #SouthAfrica #awesomesauce
5-Layer Bunny Chow in Durban, South Africa
More on Bunny Chow.


Thailand is where our love affair with street food really took off. Thailand is one of those places worth visiting, if only for the street food. So while we know that Thai street food goes well beyond curries, a beautiful plate of shrimp red curry covered with fresh Thai basil was the dish got it started all those years ago on our first visit to Bangkok.

Thai Red Shrimp Curry - Bangkok, Thailand
Shrimp red curry on the streets of Bangkok for around $1.
More on Thai food and street food in Bangkok.


There’s a lot of bad and soggy borek (stuffed thin pastry) in the world. During our visit to Istanbul en route to Iran, we became regulars for this man’s crispy cheese-stuffed borek. Convenient, too, as his shop was right across the street from our flat in Beyoğlu.

Borek Man of Beyoğlu - Istanbul, Turkey
The borek man of Beyoğlu – Istanbul, Turkey


If you ever find yourself hungry in Kampala, head to the Mengo Market for some kikomando. Kikomando is a filling dish made of beans mixed with slices of chapati. It is said that if you eat a lot of it you will be strong like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Commando. Not sure about that, but a plate of it will stuff you for the rest of the day.

Kikomando, Filling Ugandan Street Food - Kampala, Uganda
Hearty plate of kikomando at Mengo Market in Kampala, Uganda.


Plov is the Uzbek national dish. Think rice pilaf with fried julienned carrots, red pepper, caraway seeds, and chunks of meat. Plov is so ubiquitous throughout the region that self-described local connoisseurs can discern differences that are imperceptible to foreigners, much like the relationship Americans have with pizza and chili. We’ll keep our radar tuned for the first Central Asian plov cook-off.

Simmering Plov (Rice Dish) - Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Street-side plov in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
More on Central Asian food.


Vietnam is another incredible destination for street food lovers. During our winter visit we tried cha ca which is a distinct hot pot meal of fish, turmeric, dill, coriander and other greens served with noodles, peanuts, vinegar and chilies. As with many meals in Vietnam, you’ll be served piles of greens, noodles, spices, and other tasty bits to tune your dish to the precise flavor profile you seek.

Hanoi Fish with Tumeric and Dill - Hanoi, Vietnam
Cha Ca, fish and turmeric hot pot, in Hanoi.
More on eating in Hanoi and in Saigon.

Xinjiang (China)

We place Xinjiang street food in its own category as the region is a distinct ethnic blend of Turkic and Mongolian. So although Xinjiang cuisine shows some hints of what one might call “traditional” Chinese influence, its dishes are often quite different from mainstream Chinese food. One of our favorites was pulled noodles, or laghman, which we enjoyed not only for the taste, but also for the flair of its preparation. Pulled noodles are tossed, beaten and pulled to ensure the right consistency before being dunked in soups and suoman, a blend of noodles, vegetables and meat.

Xinjiang Food: Laghman Noodle Making - Kashgar, China
Laghman noodle master at the animal market in Kashgar, Xinjiang (China)
More on Xinjiang food.

Now it’s your turn. Which street food quests have led you on an adventure?

The post How Street Food is the Ultimate Travel Guide: 40 Favorite Street Food Dishes appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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