On Colombia, and Traveling Without Fear

Above: Fernando Botero’s “Birds of Peace” – there is another one exactly like it next to it. This one was used in a bombing in 1995 that killed 29, whose names are listed below it. They are both on display to represent the changes Medellin has undergone.

When my then-wife LeeAnne decided our next vacation would be to Colombia, a variety of friends and family gave us the same response: “Why?” Whether they had been hearing about the drug cartels and violence for the last 50 years or had just been watching too much Narcos, everyone seemed to believe we would be landing in a war zone.  I admit, as a seasoned traveler, I even let the nervousness get the best of me and had to have to good people of r/travel on Reddit cool me down.

The entire time, I should’ve just remembered my favorite travel quote: “No place is as savage as you think it is.”  I really wish I remembered who said this, because they deserve infinite credit.  Nowhere is ever as bad as you hear or think it is; and besides, isn’t traveling about getting out of your comfort zone a bit? Experience new things that may make you feel nervous or uncomfortable?  It brings to mind another favorite travel quote, this one from Anthony Bourdain:

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

And the marks that Colombia left were all beautiful.  The people were some of the nicest we’ve encountered in our travels, and most seemed genuinely happy to have outsiders experience their country which had been getting such a bad rep for so long.  Even Medellin—ground zero for the drug cartels and once known as the most dangerous city in the world—was a vibrant and lively city that was intensely walkable.

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A kitty cat mural on the mean streets of Bogota.

Bogota was no different.  The few warnings I had received revolved around the La Candelaria neighborhood (where we happened to be staying, unbeknownst to the people warning us) and being careful at night, but despite walking all over the city and specifically that area at all hours of the day and night, I never once got the creeping nervousness you sometimes get when your body feels you may have entered a dangerous situation.

It really all comes down to situational awareness.  Keep your eyes open to your surroundings, especially at night.  Don’t walk away from an ATM counting your money.  Don’t flash your iPhone all over the place to take pictures.  Keep any valuables—wallet or passport—in some kind of zippered or fastened pocket.  It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to rob you, but it makes it more difficult for pick-pockets.

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Night in a small square in Cartagena: breakdancing in the street.  Super dangerous people.

Over our 10 days in Colombia, only once (in Cartegena) was I propositioned to buy cocaine.  One time.  In Colombia.  And even in that heavily-touristed city, the type of city where petty crimes usually thrive, I didn’t feel ill-at-ease.

I don’t know if this post is more about traveling smart or about going to Colombia, but I will say you need to do both—be aware of your surroundings as you travel, and definitely go to Colombia.  See the cities, learn the history and what the people have been through, and watch Narcos if you haven’t just to see how drastically things have improved. Just don’t expect much from the food—its boringness is inversely proportional to the vibrancy of the cities and especially the people.

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One of the vibrant streets of Guatape.
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A street in the walled portion of Cartagena, where the most dangerous thing was the heat.

All photos courtesy LeeAnne Mullins.

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Food: Paris, 2008

When I think back on all the trips I’ve taken, I think Paris might be the first food-focused trip.  LeeAnne and I went for Valentine’s Day weekend in 2008 (only because Air Canada was offering a deal on flights out of Toronto). Everyone I knew thought it was going to be proposal time, since we’d been dating for a while—what could be more romantic than Valentine’s Day in Paris?—but I was more concerned with eating and, if we’re honest, paying my respects to Jim Morrison’s grave.  Now that is romantic.

While we did see all the tourist sites—The Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, The Louvre, Notre Dame, Shakespeare & Co bookstore, Père Lachaise cemetary, and the Eiffel Tower on actual Valentine’s Day (the line of nervous-looking men waiting to get to the top to propose kept us from getting in line to go up; well, that and my fear of heights)—the most important part, as it always is in France, was the food. Unfortunately (or fortunately) this trip pre-dated our obsession with taking pictures of everything we ate.

Le Timbre: French for “the stamp,” because the place is the size of a postage stamp, Le Timbre was one of the highlights of our trip.  The place has 24 seats and, when we were there, employed a single server and the chef.  The food was well worth the stop, and was very affordable at about 36 euros for the basic tasting menu.  I remember the mushroom soup being particularly good.

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Open-Air Market: Being 10 years ago and not having a lot of pictures, all I can say is that we waltzed through an open-air market at one point and picked up some items for lunch in a park, which I would highly recommend if you ever find yourself in Paris.  Crusty bread, some pate, and fresh goat cheese were perfect for a cold February afternoon.  Until then I hadn’t liked goat cheese much, and this was the moment that it clicked for me.

Pierre Hermé: This was my first experience with macarons, and I guess waiting in line and getting them from the master probably ruined me on them, but these little guys were another eye-opening moment in Paris.  I remember white truffle standing out to me (as I was—and really still am—quite the truffle slut).

A La Biche Au Bois: As I will get around to writing about, I’ve been lucky enough to eat at a lot of great places in my life, some of them ranked among the best restaurants in the world (and one making #1 in 2017). Of all the fancy places I’ve eaten, and all the dives, and all the streetcorners, and all the bars, the coq au vin at A La Biche Au Bois stands out as the single best dish I’ve ever eaten.  It is my death row meal, the one I think about most, and a meal I would fly to Paris to eat and then fly immediately back. The stew was served in a dented-up old pot in a restaurant we were crowded into, but it was fucking amazing.  I can’t even describe the way it makes me feel, which may have to do with nostalgia and the time and place, but I fantasize about this meal.  I recommend it to everyone who ever goes to Paris, and I recommend it to you when you go.  Don’t skip the mashed potatoes, and I hear the chocolate mousse is to die for (I don’t like chocolate).  We stuffed ourselves so much LeeAnne couldn’t button her coat on the way out—in February.

But we still got a crêpe on the way back to the hotel.  Because that’s what you do in Paris.

The Inca Trail

To quote Jim Gaffigan, “I’m what you would call ‘indoorsy'”—but when my then-wife LeeAnne suggested we take a vacation to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I agreed instantly.  I’ve always had a thing for seeing historical sites, and Machu Picchu is right up there among the best of them.  The fact that we would have to hike for four days to get there just added to the allure of the place.

As the Inca Trail is well protected, there are a limited number of passes issued to hike the trail each day, and you must go with a registered guide.  We picked Intrepid Travel based on a friend’s recommendation, and they were great.  From our tour guide Elias to the unbelievable porters, the trip was made much better with them in it.

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We began with a day and a half in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude.  At the time, we were both smokers and had had almost no experience at altitude (we did all of our practice hikes outside Philadelphia), so the day and half was not enough.  But we made it work with plenty of altitude medication and coca tea.

The night before our trip, our guide dropped off the bags we were to give the porters with extra clothes, snacks, or whatever else we wanted during the hike as long as the bags were under 6 kg. We could also carry our own backpacks with whatever we wanted to have on us.  He went over the route and what we could expect from day to day, and then we were left to pack up.  The hotel we stayed at would be stashing most of our stuff while we were away, so we’d be bringing minimal gear with us.  From Intrepid, we were able to rent sleeping bags, a sleeping mat, and hiking poles.  Everything else, we had.

And then, just like that, it was time to embark.  The hotel let us in the breakfast room early so we could get some food before we left, and that’s when it hit me: diarrhea.  That’s right: I had felt fine the past few days, and then just as I was about to embark on a long trek where I’d be outside in the middle of nowhere for four days, I get hit with a bad case of the tummy struggles.  I went from excited anticipation to absolute dread.  Was it the nerves? The aji de gallina I’d had the night before? The alpaca burger? All the coca tea I’d been pounding? Who knows.  Who cares.  This was about to suck.

11134144_10153145221022209_2780531494105828084_nWe took a two-hour van ride with our guide to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for a more substantial breakfast, a few trips to the bathroom, and to meet up with the rest of our group.  There were eight of us total, and we’d be joining a group that was on a longer Intrepid trip.  They were nice enough people, but we didn’t end up spending much time with them outside of our camps each night.

We drove up to the trail entrance, had our passports stamped, and were underway. The first day was hot and arid, mostly uphill.  I made the mistake of trying to keep up with the more fit non-smokers on the trip and ended up getting winded pretty quickly, and the altitude (even though we were nowhere near as high as we would eventually go) was getting the best of me. It wasn’t long before I fell behind.  Luckily, LeeAnne was there to keep me going, because I almost immediately wanted to give up.  I absolutely hate the feeling that I am holding someone back, and I didn’t want to feel like that with a group of strangers the entire time.

We stopped to see some ruins, and then we stopped for lunch.  I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I ate what I could in order to have as much energy as possible, and then took a quick nap in an adjacent field.  One of our follow hikers gave me some coca leaves to chew on. They weren’t as good as the tea, but they definitely helped.  Now, the coca leaf is indeed the raw material for cocaine, but the amount in a leaf is miniscule.  The leaf itself is a mild stimulant that combats thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue, but is nothing like cocaine.  Although I did become pretty addicted to coca candy while I was in Peru.

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Day two started with a great breakfast and I was feeling much better, but our guide sent us out with one of our companions a bit early so I could get a head start.  It wasn’t long before the rest of the group caught up with us, though, because we kept going higher and LeeAnne started developing some altitude sickness.  We were slowed immensely by this, and now it was she that needed the convincing not to turn back.  She stuck it out, though, despite having to stop every few meters on our climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which tops out at 4,215m/13,829ft above sea level, the highest I’d ever been outside of an airplane.

At some points, our guide had to make LeeAnne smell rubbing alcohol to keep her wits about her, and it took us way longer to get to the pass than everyone else.  It was also a complete climate change from day one, being freezing cold and windy at the top of the pass.  Having not prepared as well as I should have, our guide lent me his gloves.

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After a brief rest, we went down the other side of the pass to where we were supposed to stop for lunch.  Recognizing that we were struggling—as well as a few others in the group that had some problem—Elias made the decision to camp there for the rest of the night.  This did, however, mean that the porters who had gone on ahead to set up camp for dinner would have to break down the camp and come all the way back.

It should be noted that these porters are nearly superhuman.  They wear sandals for the entire trip and carry 50 kg of gear on their backs and practically run the trail in order to get to the next stop, set up camp, and cook the next meal.  And the meals were not your typical camping food—they were miles above what any reasonable person would expect on a trip like this.  Watching them get through the trail was awe-inspiring, and if you do it be sure to bring enough cash to tip them well.  They are amazing.

Day three, our guide had LeeAnne and I get up even earlier.  This time, we set out with a porter to accompany us and woke up while it was still dark and while everyone else was still asleep to get a 2-3 hour head start.  It was slow going, and we were able to meet pretty much everyone else on the trail with us because we had to stop so frequently and all the groups passed us, making sure we were okay.  Right before our lunch stop (which was supposed to be our dinner stop and camp the night before), the rest of our group caught up with us. Right after we stopped atop the high pass for the day for some yoga.

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Just kidding, we only watched other people do yoga. After lunch, Elias and a porter accompanied us once again as the rest of the group went on ahead. We were slow as cold molasses, but we made it through to camp eventually—tummy struggles, altitude sickness, and all.  Luckily, even though we were there right on the edge of rainy season, it didn’t rain at all.  The combination of being wet and miserable with being on slippery rocks next to some pretty heady cliffs (I’m afraid of heights) would have made the trek that much more nerve-wracking. We heard later from some folks who had experienced rain on the trip that it made everything excruciatingly worse.

On night three, we had one last group dinner and tipped out our porters, who would be leaving the next morning in order to get a train back to the city. That morning, we woke up early—probably around 3am—in order to get in line to get into the actual national park that includes all of the sites.  We climbed along cliffs, up higher, finally coming to the “gringo killer” stairs that lead up to the Sun Gate, which are so steep they basically need to be climbed like a ladder.

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It should be said that, with all the struggles we were having, I was pretty nonplussed by the idea of seeing Machu Picchu at this point.  I stopped caring and figured it would be anticlimactic at best.  At the Sun Gate, which looks down upon Machu Picchu, the clouds were still in and we could see nothing.  We stopped for a brief snack, and at one point the sun came out and the clouds parted and we could see it, and I was immediately enthralled.  The whole thing was so incredibly impressive, it was almost breathtaking.  Once I saw it, all the hard work and the talking myself out of leaving and the diarrhea and everything else suddenly became worth every minute.

We took the walk from the Sun Gate down to Machu Picchu, where we got some touristy pictures and proceeded down to tour the city.  I immediately hated all the people who had taken trains and buses to get there—the ones in jeans, wearing perfume or cologne, the ones who had clearly bathed in the last three days—they didn’t deserve this! They didn’t suffer for it! Jerks.

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Though I don’t have much hard going to compare this to—running a marathon probably comes the closest—hiking the Inca Trail was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  With everything we had to deal with on top of the altitude, it was a struggle to say the least.  But the struggle paid off with one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  If only to prove that I could do it a little quicker.

After leaving Machu Picchu, we grabbed lunch in Aguas Calientes, the town below, and then hopped a train back to Ollantaytambo where a van drove us back to Cusco.  Back at our hotel, it was immediate showers, followed by devouring two massive Peruvian pizzas and a long, hard sleep.  By morning, of course, my tummy struggles had ended—but not my love of coca tea.

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All photos taken by LeeAnne.

Eating in Northern Vietnam

Visiting Vietnam in the spring of 2016 was a dream come true.  We began in the north, going from Hanoi to Sa Pa on an overnight train for a two-day trek, then back to Hanoi on another (much bumpier) overnight train, then a van to Ha Long Bay for an overnight junkboat tour through the Cat Ba Bay, and finally back to Hanoi for a final meal before yet another overnight train to Hue.  Despite having limited time there, I fell in love with Hanoi and have ached to go back since.

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Bún Chả Đắc Kim*:  I’d had plenty of pho in Philly, but our first stop in Vietnam would be a dish we were unfamiliar with outside of other peoples’ descriptions—bun cha—and it was the perfect primer.  Pork patties grilled streetside, combined with fresh noodles, a tangy fish sauce-based dipping sauce, and a plate piled high with lettuces and herbs I hadn’t seen before welcomed us to the country, as did a few bottles of local cheap-ass lager.

Phở Kiều Chuyên Bò: For dinner, Hanoi offered us our first bowl of beef pho and a wonderful plate of spicy beef stir fry at a small, standard cubbyhole of a restaurant. In a place packed to the gills with tiny family-run restaurants, we followed the first rule of eating on the road when you don’t have a place already picked out: eat where the locals eat.  And the tiny plastic stools outside were filled with locals.  They didn’t steer us wrong.

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Homestay in Sa Pa: The homestay mom cooked us a full meal in a kitchen that was little more than an open fire with a few pots and pans, teaching us to roll spring rolls before serving them along with tofu with tomatoes, chicken with vegetables and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice.  It was way too much food for the five of us staying there (including the homestay mom), but I tried my damnedest to make sure there were no leftovers.  We were all rewarded with “happy water” shots for our troubles.

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Quán Phở Thìn: After Ha Long, we were dropped off at the Hanoi Hilton (sorry) in the French Quarter and walked to Pho Thin.  I’d just read Graham Holliday’s Eating Vietnam, and amidst all the names and food descriptions he threw out, this was one that stuck in my head, and damn I’m glad it did.  We took a seat at one of the communal tables, bright orange chili sauce waiting next to us, and were each brought a bowl of beef pho absolutely loaded with green onions and other vegetal goodies.  The beef, rather than simply cooking in the hot broth, was grilled and added a smoky flavor to the soup.  It was—and still is—the absolute best bowl of pho I’ve ever had.  As a fellow traveler told us as he was leaving, “After this, everything else is just water.”

After coming back to Philly and trying to search out as perfect a bowl of pho as we had at Pho Thin, I believe him.

*Be careful with this one – there are two bun cha places right next to each other, and as we learned too late, we ate at the wrong one.  Next to the famous bun cha place, an imposter popped up to target unknowing tourists, which we were. Don’t eat at the one directly on the corner—though it was delicious—eat at the one next to it with the yellow sign.

All pictures other than the Pho Thin picture were taken by LeeAnne Mullins.

What I Pack

If there’s one thing I hate when traveling, it’s lugging around a ton of unnecessary shit.  A typical vacation is usually trying to hit multiple cities in a short span, and oftentimes staying at two different hotels in said cities in order to be close to the next transit option, so we’re moving around a lot.  I don’t want to be carrying six pairs of shoes with me the whole time just in case I might use them.

Now, I am by no means an expert packer, and I’m sure I still bring too much or even bring the wrong things.  But here’s a look into the kinds of things I take with me on each trip to try to pack as lightly and economically as possible.

Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Pack: I used to have a 60+ liter pack, but it got to be a little much after hauling it around Vietnam for two weeks.  The 40 liter Farpoint has just enough room for everything I need, with a bunch of convenient compartments for the smaller things. Putting my little bag of toiletries in the top front pocket is especially convenient, because the bag is carry-on size. It can even fit under the seat in front of you in a pinch.  And remember: there are two kinds of luggage – carry-on and lost.

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Packing cubes: Since the bag has one main compartment for clothes, packing cubes have become one of my biggest necessities when traveling.  I can split up my clothes, keep them folded and neat at all times, and be able to easily dig out something that may otherwise be buried on the bottom of my bag.  For convenience, these things cannot be beat.

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Hiking boots and Smartwool socks: These are the perfect combo to keep your feet happy the entire trip, no matter what kind of terrain you’re on, or whether you’re wearing long pants or shorts. Bonus, the socks can go a few wears before they start to feel weird, so you’ll have to wash them much less, if at all.

Hiking pants: When you pack light, your clothes have to be versatile.  I love my LL Bean Cresta pants, which tick all the boxes: light, moisture wicking, abrasion-resistant, and UPF 40+, but they also look nice so you can wear them on a hike or wear them to a nice restaurant. I also pack a pair of North Face Paramount convertible pants: water-repellant, UPF 50, durable, and they can zip off into shorts so I can get two bottoms for the space of one.  This was very handy on the Inca Trail, where we walked through hot desert and cold mountaintop.  One of each of these pairs of pants should keep you covered your entire trip.

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Reversible shirt: Recently, I discovered the magic of the reversible shirt, and it’s changed my packing for the better.  I only have one at the moment, but I’m definitely going to invest in more.  I can get two shirts packed for the space of one? It’s a dream come true.  The one I currently have is a moisture-wicking long-sleeved button-up, so it can be used in almost any situation.

Folder for documents: We always have a folder for our travel documents.  It’s kind of old school, but if your phone runs out of battery or you can’t get onto the internet, it comes in handy.  We put our flight itinerary in there, our travel insurance, and a calendar list of places we want to go with addresses and days we want to get there.  The spreadsheet also has our other travel information—bus numbers and times, etc.

Quick dry towel: LeeAnne brought one of these on our trip to Iceland and it was the envy of our group.  You’re not always going to need something like this if you’re staying in hotels, but when you do need it, you will find it irreplaceable.

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Collapsible small backpack:  I’ve got a tiny backpack that folds up into itself that is great for day trips when I want to leave my larger pack behind, and also great for having on the plane with whatever I’ll need for the flight if for some ungodly reason I need to check my main bag, or even if I just don’t want to get up to the overhead compartment every time I need something.  Also works for filling with souvenirs on your way home.

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Collapsible rain jacket: Anything you’re not going to need constantly should be able to fold into itself to save space, and a rain jacket is one of those things.  The one I have is much more condensible than a bulky umbrella.  It also functions as a lighter spring jacket if necessary.

Kindle Paperwhite: I don’t always have a lot of time to read on a vacation, and often when I have downtime I want to be sleeping.  This doesn’t allow me to justify carrying around a big book for a long time, so I bought a Kindle.  It takes up no room and weighs almost nothing, and as long as you have a WiFi connection, you can pick up new books almost instantly if you need to.

Melatonin: I recently realized the miracle of melatonin chewables when I had to take a redeye from San Fran to Philly and go straight to work.  I sat down in my window seat, chewed two melatonin gummies, and put on the Sleep playlist on Spotify.  I’ve never slept better on a plane, and was actually ready to go to work after I landed.  That’s never happened to me before.

Those are pretty much my only requirements.  Of course, I bring other clothes, but you can pick and choose what you’ll need. A few t-shirts (making sure one can double as an undershirt for something nicer if need be), and underwear—but not too much.  For longer trips, you can always do some sink laundry if necessary.  Sometimes, I’ll also try to bring an extra pair of shoes, but nothing too clunky; either a pair of Toms or some flip-flops will do for when I want something I can quickly slip on or off.

Hopefully this can help, or give you a little insight into your own packing habits. Everything I think about packing, I ask myself how often I would use it and if I really have to be carrying it around for a week (or more).  The answer is almost always no.  Always remember: you’re not going to see any less of the places you go if you don’t bring your 12 favorite shirts.

Pack light!