In 2010 and 2011 my husband and I backpacked from Guatemala to Argentina. Here are some excerpts from our journey.

End of the road...time to head home

posted Oct 1, 2015, 7:20 AM by Liz Miller   [ updated Oct 1, 2015, 7:35 AM ]

I wake up and turn on the morning news expecting more news of Libia or Japan only to view instead the funniest thing I've seen in months! The morning news anchor announces he will be interviewing Venezuela's president. Hugo Chavez walks out and waves at the camera in full military garb. Only this is not Chavez on the TV but someone dressed up as him complete with nixon-syle Chavez rubber mask. He sits down to be interviewed . The news anchor keeps a straight face. (How?) ¨Chavez¨ begins to tell how he believes there was, in fact, life on Mars but that its extinction was brought about by evil capitalism.(Chavez actually said this in a recent press conference. They played that first.) I laugh hysterically as the faux SNL-style interview proceeds with this Chavez prancing about, stomping his feet and continuing with a litany of other rants including the highlight, a new pregnancy test he's designed (he actually pulls out the stick) that has three possible results: blue-pregnant, yellow-maybe and white-capitalism killed your baby. This whole episode is made hilarious by the fact that it is airing on the national morning news program, not some late night comedy hour, basically the Today show. This was our first morning here and already I was liking the way they do things in Colombia!

Seeing how amazing Colombia is and the amount of progress they have made here in the last decade gives me hope for what is happening now in Mexico. We witnessed another example of incredible progress in the center of Quito. I studied abroad there nearly nine years ago and coming back to revisit old haunts was a cool experience to say the least. While living there then, the colonial heart of the capital city of Ecuador was run down and crime ridden. As adventurous as I may be, I only felt comfortable going to most areas of the center with my host father during the day. It was such a shame as you could see the hidden beauty all around you. Now, the area was a complete shock to me. Although Quito still has many issues to overcome as a city, the colonial heart is policed, renovated with money from UNESCO and safe. Chris and I stayed in a hostel there, something that was unimaginable a decade ago. The restorations are gorgeous and the city set in an incredibly verdant valley high up in the Andes begs one to wander its intriguing alleys. I really like Quito and that is saying a lot because large cities in general do not tend to enchant me in the way wild landscapes always will. It is a strange how certain places just click with you for many reasons and then again not really for any one in particular. Valparaiso, Chile was like that for me as well. While Santiago felt smoggy and disappointing, Valparaiso was fascinating. It has a rare corrupt beauty that is at times grungy and hard and at other times old-worldly. Filled with winding streets, cable cars, ancient hilltop elevators and a busy port it is a compelling place to simply observe life. The touristy hill neighborhoods are covered with brightly colored tin houses. They are worth a visit but the rest of Valpo was both more lively and strange in a good way. It is the best kind of city in which every turn of the corner provides another scene you want to linger with.

So it's hard to say why we get that extra spark for certain places and not for others. That thing we call a vibe. Places have all different kinds but I would argue that they are all personal and temporal. The bad vibe we experienced in Nicaragua or the good one here in Colombia have everything to do with our mood, expectations and individual experiences there. So where is the best vibe? Impossible to say, but the vibe here on this white sand beach in Parque Nacional Tayrona is sublime. The forested coastal sierra tumbles down to the turquoise Caribbean water like a green monster reaching for the sea. Between its two peaks there is a small triangle of white sand and coconut palms called Playa Brava. Is it paradise? Perhaps. Then again, I fell through the rotting floor of our tiki hut lodging this morning (bruised but fine)....hmmm...we'll keep looking:)

The road to Colombia was long. Leaving northern Chile and heading up toward and through southern Peru meant endless hours of busing through the desert. At times this provided us with surreal vistas of narrow, lush river valleys backed by giant sand dunes and desert mountains which were in turn backed by the snow capped volcanos in the distance. Layers of awe and things that should never occur together in the same camera frame. It questions what you know and gives you the sense that anything is possible. These same bus rides though provided hours on end of the same sandy scene that could make a person go crazy. (Especially a person who had their iPod stolen in Nicaragua!) Leaving the desert was much needed and other long bus rides were spent wathching the phenomenal scenery out the window and having the simple silence to truly enjoy it. Like a great mediatation, there is nothing else like it. You are a prisoner of Beauty and just as you would love a nap or to finish that novel, she is relentless in her need for your attention and appreciation.

Having traveled a few weeks in Peru about 5 years ago, our time there this trip was brief but long enough to fall in love with alluring Arequipa and even feel our first earthquake tremors there. We sped up the coast bypassing Lima to arrive in Trujillo. Its brilliant polychrome plaza has been restored in a way that will make any gringo stop, stare and wish that we could use colors like that at home. From there we crossed from the coast back into the heart of the Andes for our wildest and most fun border crossing into Ecuador.

After several bus and colectivo rides through tiny towns we arrived at what is apparently the least used
border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. The crossing is in a wide spot on a two track dirt road. We climb out of the colectivo and some locals point us over to the migraciones building which appears to be open but vacated.We stand there for a bit before finally the migration officer posing as the town drunk (or vice versa...) is interrupted from his coffee at a nearby restaurant. He wanders over and asks us to sit down in his office and states how incredibly tired he is. He looks quite hung over to me, but who was I to judge. He seemed a bit confused as to if we were coming or going. Then he asked me about the tourist visa card. Did I know where the number was and the date? He was having trouble finding it on a square of paper that measured about 2 x 3 inches. Hmmm.. Nice
enough guy. So then we clambor across the small bridge to the other side and the cop informs us that Ecuador's migracion guy doesn't come to stamp passports until 11 and the only truck to the next town leaves at 12 30. It was 10 am. So, back across and more waiting. We cross to Ecuador finally and  hop on a truck that has been rigged up with benches in the back for a 1.5 hr ride on the coolest, scariest road through the Andes. Think a gravel driveway as a road a the top of a string of giant mountains.... The locals stare at me (the hair) but I'm used to this by now. We get to Zumba, Ecuador where we have to run to catch the bus to Vilcabamba (5 hrs). Our reward? A darling town way up in the emerald Andes mountains that first made me fall in love with Latin America. Vilcabamba was one of our favorites. While there we did a hike that takes you literally along the ridgeline around the valley. The path at times was no more than a foot wide with steep slopes on either side, providing the feeling that you're on top of the world and the views to match. 

Our other fantastic hike experience happened traveling around what is known as the Quilotoa loop in Ecuador. Taking a bus from Latacunga you can head to the tiny indigenous village of Saquisili on market day and then from there hike around the loop to other tiny indigenous villages that see few tourists. When I say tiny, I mean a few houses and some farms. Getting lost hiking the 5 hours between Isinlivi and Chugchilan, we were helped by amazingly friendly locals and even invited into the workshop of a local artistan. When we came out of a trail beside his home he offered advice on which way to head next. After some more chatting he invited us in to see the furniture he builds and sells locally. This area is definitely worth a visit. The people, the views, the hikes...just be willing to freeze a bit at night. It gets really cold! 

From Quito we arrived here in Colombia. If you are thinking of exploring Latin America in the near future, come here and come here now before the growing tourism changes it as it surely will. It is safe, gorgeous and varied. The people here are so friendly you feel bad for sometimes asking yourself if they can really be THAT friendly and gregarious....but they are. Just having arrived at the bus station in Bogota we met a couple waiting in line for a taxi and were invited to spend Sunday siteseeing with them around the city. In the bathroom at a jazz concert in Bogota, the girl next to me in line and I chatted for over ten minutes. In the bathroom! Everyone you meet offers you their email or cell number in case you need anything and they are genuinely curious to hear what you think of their country. It's sometimes too much. Sitting one morning in a cafe in Popayan (did I mention that the coffee is as good as you've heard?) I noticed a white-haired professorial gentlemen wearing a navy beret and black-rimmed glasses reading a Marquez novel. I felt as though I was in a commercial and that at any minute some vallenato music would start up and a strange voice would oblige us to Visit Colombia! :)

Beginning the journey...

posted Oct 1, 2015, 6:50 AM by Liz Miller   [ updated Oct 1, 2015, 7:36 AM ]

Chris and I have now been in Guatemala for almost two months. We are leaving tomorrow for Copán, Honduras. We started out our trip here on the Pacific Coast in Monterrico for 4 days. The beaches there are black volcanic sand and the waves and riptide are so huge that swimming is not possible (unless you are totally nuts!) However you can wade out a bit and try to stay standing as the nearly 12 ft. waves crash into the shore. We saw where they grow and harvest loofah in the fields along the beaches. It was also very cool to talk to the fishermen when they came in with their catch which included hammerhead sharks.  It was a very laid back place and a cool spot to start the trip before we headed to our housesitting gig.  

We´ve been staying in the village of Santa Cruz la Laguna on Lake Atitlán for almost the entire time. This is my third time at the lake and Chris´s second. We were originally supposed to housesit for an expat couple, Lee and Elaine, for these two months but Elaine ended up having some health problems and so they had to put off their trip to the states. Thus, they housed us in their adorable lake houses that they rent and we got to just enjoy our time there without any duties!  We got VERY lucky and are very thankful for the freedom it afforded us to explore the area. I´m sad to leave such a beautiful place, but very excited about all the new unknown adventures ahead. This morning I got up at 5:30 and hiked up the mountain behind our house to take a last few photos of the sunrise.  I was truly sad to be leaving, even as I heard the maniacal screeching of the owl who lives around our house and has kept us up nights with his crazed chatter. Even he can grow on you here!

Being near the lake encompasses you with a kind of blissful enchantment, something everyone we´ve met here seems to agree on. The soaring greeen mountains and volcanos that surround it leave very little, if any, shore as their slopes rise right out of the water. The first time I saw Lake Atitlan three years ago, I fell in love and the enchantment has not worn off. It must be the most beautiful lake in the world and I truly encourage you to visit. Since that first visit, I´ve wanted to know what it would be like to actually live here along its shores for a bit and it has been incredible.  There are no roads that reach the village of Santa Cruz, so you must get there by boat (15-20 minutes) from another bigger lakeside village, Panajachel. Boats are the major source of transportation between the indigenous Mayan villages that surround the lake.  During our time here we´ve gotten to know some of the local indigenous community for whom Spanish is their second language. They must be the friendliest people on earth, always ready with such warm smiles and conversation.  From Bartolo the local lancha driver to the elderly fisherman who visits our house most days to see what Chris is catching and show off his own from his wooden cayuco, the community is friendly, sincere and warm-hearted. We´ve learned so much just by being able to observe and interact here with daily life. 

In May, the lake was hit incredibly hard by storm Agatha and many people lost their homes to landslides. Unfortunately the rain never really let up until the end of September meaning endless landslides, flooding, closed roads and lost paths. Although it did not effect the natural beauty of the area, it definitely made life more difficult for the people. It one village we visited, I spoke with several of the local women who explained that 25 people in their village alone were buried in the slide and that some were never found. Homes were still buried in the mud. Overall, they estimate that the lake has risen anywhere from 12-15 feet since May. During September we experienced the effects of the heavy rains as we periodically lost electricity, water and were effectively sealed off from the outside world when the road into Panajachel would close. One day while the roads were closed and our electricity at home was out, Chris and I went by boat to Pana to get cash and food as we were running low.  All the ATMs were out of cash because if the cash trucks can´t get into the town, there is no money.  Luckily, we had enough for the boat home. Overall, not a bad place to be ¨trapped¨.  Also, the path to our house from the boat dock kept falling away more and more each day. Some days we would think we would wake up and the path would simply be gone, cutting us off from walking to the village.  However, Lee assured us that in Guatemala, there is always a way and he was right. Whatever would happen, whatever would go wrong, the locals always found a solution and a way to keep on going. The path would be rigged in different ways from day to day and it was still there when we left, although it now consists of several roughly constructed bridges. Luckily the month of October brought a wealth of sunny days which gave everyone a break from ¨dealing with¨ the effects of the rain.

We´ve been doing a lot of hiking to surrounding lakeside villages including: Jaibalito, Tzununá, San Marcos, San Pablo, San Juan, Santiago, Santa Catarina, San Antonio, Sololá and Panajachel.  We´ve also done several kayaking and hiking trips with Lee who leads many different excursions around the lake. We made a side trip to Quetzaltenango and the surrounding areas.  We save money taking local buses, known as chicken buses to tourists and camionetas to locals.  They are old Blue Bird school buses from the U.S. shipped down to Central America and repainted in glaring crazy designs. It brings back memories of being in elementary school, only then you didn´t have three adults to a seat!  Overall it is a very cheap, organized and efficient way to travel although it may appear chaotic. An average ride is 50 cents or a dollar.  They throw our packs on top and you hop in the back as the bus rolls away.  Another common transport is in the back of pickup trucks where they´ve installed benches and handlebars. You just flag one down and hop in for around 50 cents to the next village.  A testament to the honesty of the people here is that I once got out of the truck paying 4Q each (50 cents=) for Chris and I, what I assumed to be the price. The guy called me back to the truck as I walked away saying I had paid too much and handed me back my 2 Q.  

Many locals here are curious about foreigners unless you are somewhere like Panajachel where there are many and the ugly effects of mass tourism have changed the village. One morning near Quetzaltenango, Chris and I were coming back down the volcano from a hike we had just done up to the crater lake Laguna Chicabal.  A woman and her family stopped Chris and I and asked for a photo. Since she was holding a camera, I assumed she wanted us to take a family photo for them. Instead, she handed me her baby girl and asked Chris to stand beside me and smile. Then she took about a minute trying to get the baby girl to look at the camera as I held her and snapped the photo. She showed us the photo and was very excited about it. We were sort of like, ¨Did that just happen?¨ Nice to have the tables turned for once:)  She thanked us and walking away Chris said, ¨What do you think the baby album caption will be? Baby´s First Gringo?  Another funny experience was trying to explain to 19 year-old Magdalena (works for Lee and Elaine) how it could be that Chris and I have been married for 10 years but have zero children. It was really quite funny that she just couldn´t believe that it could be true. (Guatemala has the highest birth rate in Central America.)  She kept asking if maybe a baby had passed away or we had health problems, etc.  

Despite the fact that everyday life is so much more difficult and time-consuming here, people are always patient and calm.  To get groceries from our house, we walked about 10 minutes down the path to the village, got on a boat for 15-20 minutes to Panajachel, walked another 15 minutes to the market, carrying our full backpacks then from the market back to the boat and home. Some villagers from Santa Cruz shop in the same way, but the majority are subsistence farmers living off what they harvest.  They cultivate beans, corn and squash simultaneously in the same plot, with the bean vines using the corn stalks as their trellis. Imagining how they would plant, let alone harvest, these crops on the wickedly steep mountainsides is difficult. When I think about how unimaginably easy it is at home to obtain almost any food, ready to eat in 20 minutes or less, it seems like a different planet instead of a different country.  

We´ll really miss this place. The amazing people, vistas, lifestyle and experiences. We will not miss the giant spiders and scorpions that have shared our house with us these last 7 weeks. (Chris got stung by a scorpion and reports that a bee sting is worse!)  Adios, Guatemala.  Te quiero. 

Southern Cone

posted Oct 1, 2015, 6:42 AM by Liz Miller   [ updated Oct 1, 2015, 7:37 AM ]

We´ve exited Argentina, entered Chile, driven 3 hours on a one-lane gravel road through dry grasslands (la pampa) inhabited by only sheep, guanaco (llama´s cousin) and a few random ostrich and fox, crossed the Strait of Magellan on a ferry, exited Chile, re-entered Argentina and driven a few more hours back into the mountains to get here. We are nearly 7000 miles from home. We are in the southernmost city in the world. We are in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina...and we`ve given ourselves 3 months to make it home:)

The first time I heard about Ushuaia, it sparked my interest immediately. It was alluring for reasons I can´t really explain. I knew not one person who had been there. We had to go. It is literally and 'ends of the earth' destination with a setting that could not be more scenic. Standing on the deck of a boat we took into the Beagle Channel left me looking back on Ushuaia as I stood between South America and Antarctica, some 600 miles to the south. Here the Andes end crashing into the sea. The sun shines on the green, pine-covered peaks to the left as the rocky ones in the background and to the right brood under their snowy caps. Signs all over town proclaim Ushuaia 'Fin del Mundo,' End of the World. One even jokingly refers to it as the 'Culo del Mundo.' For us though, this end is really the beginning of the long journey home. Buying our flight home from Cartagena, Colombia here at the furthest point away just felt right and provided the challenge of traversing all of South America in 3 months. We will be back in Michigan in May.

After leaving Uruguay we crossed into Argentina and headed north to Iguazú Falls, the second largest in the world. At our second bus station on the way there I saw my first real live guacho complete with boots, belt and beret. I was ecstatic and did not keep my cool but rather in a loud touristy way kept saying 'Oh my god, it´s a gaucho!!' Luckily he was spared this by being outside the bus. Seeing an iconic figure as a real person is a bit difficult sometimes. The falls were awe-inspiring but also oppressively crowded with visitors. After leaving, we hopped on a 20 hour bus to Buenos Aires, practically choking at the price of bus tickets after spending so many months in Central America.

Buenos Aires was another world entirely. It is as dynamic and interesting as its porteño residents proudly claim. There we met up with Katie Dunlop, a friend who graduated with me from the School of Education at U of M. She moved here six years ago and started her own business and is now engaged to a charming Argentine named Marcos. For me, visiting large cities is always more meaningful with a local guide and Katie was a huge help. In this capital you visit world class museums, eat great food (noting always the many Italian immigrants' influence with pasta, gnocci and pizza on every menu), see professional dog-walkers looking like they just stepped out of a movie with 12 different pups in tow and cross one of the widest avenues in the world, 9 de Julio with its 8 lanes plus another 4 on each side considered side streets. The experiences that are possible are endless and fulfilling. Our first day, we wandered around and stumbled upon a huge used book shop run by a charming elderly couple. The stacks and shelves of books were overwhelming, but I found a 50 year old copy of Neruda´s 20 Poemas de Amor that I purchased as the wife insisted on knowing all about Chris and I, offering her best travel advice before we left. Priceless experience. While having dinner at Katie´s apartment we discussed the things we all miss most from home. For her foods like mac n cheese and Starbuck´s. She admitted that the megachain´s recent move into Buenos Aires was a godsend. This might be surprising but we´re finding that it is the everyday things like coffee that you want to be like they were at home. (Did I mention that at a few moments ago I was googling Starbuck´s in Santiago de Chile?!) In Buenos Aires, we stood in the same spot where Evita waved to the crowds in the Casa Rosada and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo held their protests and those are meaningful experiences no matter how touristy they may be today.

From Buenos Aires we hopped on a 21 hour bus to Bariloche in the northern Patagonian Andes. Patagonia is a very 'it' destination these days and when you get there, you know it´s not for hype. When I awoke on the bus in the morning on Route 40 in Patagonia, it was like awakening in another world. As the only one awake on the bus, I peered through the curtains for quite awhile before seeing anything but pampa and some small hills and fenceposts. Che Guevara chose this route for his famed Motorcycle Diaries. It is obvious why. It naturally lends itself to reflection. They sky looks enormous as there are no trees on the horizon. You see only a few guanacos standing as furry sentinels watching over the landscape as they have for thousands of years. I suddenly saw 2 lone gauchos repairing a fence post. They looked up and, without thinking, I waved and to my shock they smiled and enthusiastically waved back. I looked around the bus. Still no one was awake. A precious moment for me alone...

Upon arriving to Bariloche, we were greeted with a pretty town that could be a strange mix of Mackinaw City and Switzerland. Stop laughing, I´m not kidding:) It is in the Lakes District of Patagonia surrounded by crystal clear trout-filled streams, lakes and towering mountains. Bariloche is touristy with chocolate and souvenir shops everywhere. From there we visited Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi and all its stunning landscapes including two different ski lifts that take you up to panoramic views. There are endless hiking and trekking opportunities. I wanted to get up to the snow we could see on the peaks in the distance but it seemed impossible for unexperienced climbers. Not so. At Club Andino in town, they informed us that we could easily climb to the top of Cerro Lopez in a day and that it had a refugio at the top for climbers if we decided not to come back down that same day. The club was founded in the 30´s by an adventurous group of outdoorsmen and they have great black and white photos of their exploits in the area. The climb was difficult but we made it up to the snow and the amazing view from the top!!

Next we headed to the small town of El Bolsón in a fertile valley whose unique climate awards it the advantage of orchards offering up apples, peaches, cherries and raspberries. They even have a twice-weekly fair where local growers can sell their goods including hot foods like pies, empanadas, etc. and also fresh fruit and crafts. The Italian influence stays everywhere you visit here as the ice cream shops abound with a product that much more resembles gelato. We may have consumed 2 pounds of chocolate almond and raspberry mascarpone at Jauja in El Bolson, but luckily there is no proof so I deny everything.

On to Rio Gallegos on the southern Atlantic coast and then south to Ushuaia, 34 bus-hours later. It was still light when we arrived at 10:15 at night! While in Ushuaia, we hiked around 9 miles through Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego through meadows, lakes and mountain vistas that, honestly, look fake they´re so beautiful. On the journey back from the tip of the world, we had to ferry across the Strait of Magellan again but this time were rewarded by an entourage of Commerson´s dolphins. They are small and black and white like a cow but otherwise look like a dolphin. They swam almost all the way across with our boat, constantly jumping and flipping in small groups. It was incredible. Better than a trip to Sea World!

From there the journey lead to El Calafate near Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We went to see the Perito Moreno Glaciar, one of few advancing (i.e. not melting!) glaciars left in the world. I was thinking, ok, a glaciar, 'that will be new and cool.'  It was mind-boggling!! Huge!! Giant and, frankly, again, unbelievable. Its enormous mass flows down over the mountains and runs into Lake Argentina, colored bright aqua by the elements in the ice. We stood both on the boat that takes you up to its surface and on the boardwalks above and think, 'Is this for real?'  It rises up from the surface of the lake to the size of a six-story building and extends back further than the eye can see. Patagonia is a wonderland of glimmering golden grasslands, desert and barren steppe that form its heart and mountains that edge it in. All this against a bright blue sky painted with ever-changing clouds.

Next we passed through Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast before heading another thousand hours by bus to wine country in the central northwest. In Puerto Madryn, our hostel owner recommended a hike along the ocean which ended up being a 10 mile hike through the desert. Let´s just say that we stopped taking his recommendations... Our last stop, Mendoza was a charming city, but that´s not why you visit. The vineyards are only a short bus ride from town and while there we visited the Maipú and Luján de Cuyo regions, touring some of the wineries both small and large and learning the process from vine to bottle. One even let us pick and eat the Malbec grapes off the vine!! 

'Breathtakingly beautiful' is an expression invented for Argentina and it´s not sufficient. Enough said.

And now? We are in Santiago, Chile aftering having crossed literally through the heart of the Andes in tunnels and serpentine roads. After spending a little over a month in Argentina, we are still in awe, but are ready for Chile, ready for the journey...

In case you´re actually still reading at this point, a little laugh. Quotes from the road:

Liz: I feel like I´ve been wearing this shirt everyday for five months.
Chris: You have.

Chris (coming back from the hostel game shelf): They have a game just like UNO, but they call it Dos.

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