Carnaval en la Punta de los Remedios, La Guajira, Colombia

The famous Carnaval de Barranquilla might take all of the attention in Colombia, but there is a little-known secret about a spectacular carnival experience near the Caribbean sea and beach in La Guajira. La Punta de los Remedios is a small pueblo village within the Dibulla municipality in La Guajira. This location is about 3 hours East of the city of Santa Marta along the Caribbean coast. From the plaza in La Punta, you can see the Sierra Nevada mountains on a clear day. The celebration is held annually on the Sunday before Mardi Gras.

27867904_10211485906044111_6980460315365090493_nLike all carnival celebrations in Colombia, you should expect to have flour, foam, and/or water not just thrown at you, but even smeared on your face. It’s all in good fun, and its done with genuine happiness, just prepare that it will happen no matter what. The more you fight it, the more people will want to target you for extra laughs at your expense. Just cover yourself with flour from the beginning in order to deter problems. Everyone wears bright colored outfits, very similar to what I exhibited in my article about the nearby Carnival celebrations in Dibulla, La Guajira. You will find plenty of musical acts, dance performances, and food & beverages. Sold all over are empanadas, skewers, sausage, fries, and more.

Attending the event with some local Peace Corps colleagues and playing with Dibulla kids like always:

I also got to perform Samba (before I got flour all over me) with the Fundación Carnaval from La Punta. It was an exhilarating presentation, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to perform in front of so many people and the first time with my new back-piece wings my husband helped me assemble:

 

 

Check out these videos from past Carnival celebrations in La Punta:

Another Reason Why Locals Dislike Expats

I decided to a share a story from my visit almost two years ago (March 2017) to Casa Elemento Hostel in Minca, Colombia – a breath-taking and popular hammock viewpoint hostel in the Sierra Nevada mountains just outside of Santa Marta. Though the view and the food were outstanding, I was really upset to see how I was treated by a bartender there. My objective with this article is to bring awareness to all of us as travelers in a foreign land, especially to increase our ability to see how our actions can appear imperialistic, a.k.a. toxic settler/colonizer mentality, or simply down-right rude.

I was loving the music being played at the hostel, which I should mention is owned by a North American woman. It was mostly U.S. American hip hop and rock tunes being played. I don’t know why I thought it would be fun to request a Latinx song to get the mostly European and U.S. American guests to start dancing and experience this very important part of the culture in Colombia. For those of you who know me, I’m always excited to get the dance party started. I went to ask the hostel staff about my music request, and the whole interaction went down like this:

Me: Can I please play a Salsa song?
Mexican Bartender #1: Sure! You’ll have to ask the owner if that’s okay though.
Me: *Confused* …ummm, okay

*I walk up the few hill stairs from the bar closer to the restaurant.**
Me: Hi are you the owner? I was told by the bartender to ask you if it’s okay to play Salsa music?
North-American Owner: Oh that’s so cool! Yes, everything is up to the discretion of the bartender. My rule is no electronic music. That’s so cool though, Salsa!

*I quickly walk back down the hill to the bar where I couldn’t find the first bartender I talked to, so I talked to the second.*
Me: Hi I just talked to the owner to get permission to request a Salsa song and she said it was okay.
British Bartender #2: Oh, well, I don’t have that kind of music.
Me: That’s okay, I have my phone we can plug in
Bartender #2: I’m sorry, but if you can’t tell, there are mostly British and [U.S.] Americans here, so we are playing music that most people want to hear.
Me: But, we are all visiting Colombia.
Bartender #2: *Smirks, shrugs, and walks away without a care in the world*

IMG_0692

Panoramic view from Casa Elemento Hostel


Not only was I appalled by this poor customer service but I was deeply disturbed by this insensitive way of treating a non-European, non-traditional U.S. American customer. I spoke to Bartender #2 in English as a Colombian-American, so I can’t imagine how local Colombian employees and/or guests are treated by this bartender. I told the only other Colombian guest I met at the hostel, and she was also deeply distraught by this treatment.

IMG_0681

Sunset view from Minca, Colombia


I was livid, but I appreciated that both Bartender #1 and the Colombian receptionist Jessica at least listened to my complaints. Ultimately, I do think Casa Elemento needs to talk to Bartender #2 about their insensitive comments because this will deter local Colombian or overall Latinx/Latin-American customers in the future.

Moral of the story: at least TRY to act like you are interested in the music, culture, and customs of the country you are visiting or living in. We are guests in that country short term or long term, so we need to show respect. In the future, I will try to avoid touristy places that don’t have mostly locals in order to avoid this kind of treatment.

Thank goodness for those breath-taking views, motorcycle rides through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the coffee tour we took, all of which made up for poor treatment at the hostel. Minca is one of the only areas along the Caribbean coast of Colombia that cultivates coffee, as it is rare in this region compared to the interior’s Coffee Triangle. I highly recommend checking out La Victoria Coffee Farms for a tour, and there is a craft brewery across the path from them called Nevada Cerveceria.

 

Aventurando en Chile

Don’t let the size and shape of this country deceive you. With a 2,700 mile coastline, Chile contains an immense variety of climates and geographies and deserves a spot on the top of any travel radar.

With bustling cities, internationally acclaimed vineyards, an incredibly varied landscape, adventure activities, archaeological elements, and a booming culinary scene, Chile is a country that has something for everyone.

What to do in Chile
It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the options for things to do and places to visit in this country, so meeting someone that can help you explore the best spots is a good way to start. Local guide Patricia has been doing exactly that for many years now, and it’s been a great way to combine her passion for wine and history with the love for her home country of Chile. Patricia, ultimately, narrowed down her choices to a tour through the Aconcagua valley which includes a trek to the petroglyphs, Chilean wine tasting and hanging out with penguins.

Her other favorite? A tour that visits the seaside cities of San Antonio and Cartagena where you can enjoy coastal views of the Pacific Ocean. After a city visit, the tour takes you to experience the art of Mapuche weavers, which is an exclusive textile technique by the Mapuche women. This creation of intricate and colorful textiles is one of the best-known arts of the Mapuche culture and incredible to see.

These tours, for Patricia, are her favorite because they combine the extraordinary Chilean nature, indigenous culture, local wine and are just an overall fun outing.

Food
One sensational way to immerse yourself in the Chilean culture is tasting the local food. From the traditional pastel de choclo to the ever popular completo sandwich, Chile is basking in the modern culinary scene.

The bustling city of Santiago is becoming densely populated with five-star restaurants and is experiencing its own “culinary renaissance”. Our food recommendations in Santiago that won’t break the bank? Try José Ramón 277 for some classic Chilean sandwiches or the hip Chipe Libre which has one of the best pisco sour and ceviche combos in town!

If you need more culinary options, check out Decanter’s list of the 10 best restaurants in Santiago.

Luxurious_Chilean_Lunch

History
If cultural history is more of a draw for you, Chile is brimming with ancient dwellings. If you want history, you can visit the Mapuche villages of Southern Chile, explore the streets of the historic port city of Valparaiso, or tour the intriguing moai statues on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the Pacific Ocean.

The Chug Chug geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert are the most important of their kind in Chile. Geoglyphs are “figures etched on the earth” and have been dated back to 900-1550 A.D. Because of the “favorable geological and climatic conditions” these fragile glyphs have been naturally maintained and kept in good condition. If you want to read more about the Chug Chug geoglyphs, the World Monument Fund has great information here.

The Mapuche are the largest indigenous culture in Chile and located in the southern regions of the country – especially the La Araucanía region – about 700 km south of Santiago. Mapuche, the name, actually encompasses many indigenous groups throughout Chile and Argentina, the majority are located in Chile’s south-central zone.

The traditional practice of natural medicine is one of the most prevalent and visible aspects of the Mapuche culture that can still be found in present-day Chile. Weaving is also a vital practice to the Mapuche women and the techniques and patterns have been passed down to younger generations for centuries.

If you are interested in the Mapuche culture, there are many opportunities to interact with them in an ethnotour. These tours make it possible to visit a traditional Mapuche ruka or house, learn their language, watch their weavers make exquisite textiles and just better understand their culture and beliefs.

Nature
The diverse landscape of Chile will have you exploring every corner of this country. From the north where the driest desert in the world is to the of the volcanoes of Patagonia (where 10% of the world’s active volcanoes are located), this country truly holds beauty for everyone.

Below you can find a summary of the best landscapes and views to see while visiting this fantastic country.

  • The Atacama Desert is located south of the Peruvian border and stretches 600 miles south along Chile and is known to be the driest place on earth.
  • If you keep traveling south from here you will hit the Central Valley which holds Chileans renowned wine regions. Our recommendation is to take the Pan-American Highways which takes you through lovely colonial villages contained adobe houses and rural areas that celebrate the Chilean cowboy culture.
  • From Central Valley, you can travel further south where you can experience the Araucanía Region where lakes, volcanoes, rainforests, and views of the Andes run rampant.
  • After this, you should find yourself in the immensely popular (and for good reason) Patagonia region. Glacial fjords, arid steppes, grasslands and the pinnacles of Fitz Roy are only some of the highlights that await you here.

If these scenic options don’t strike your fancy, you can check out the islands of Rapa Nui in Oceania where you are bound to get history, scenic views, and incredible experiences.

Exploring Chile like a local
As you can see, there are many ways to discover the true Chilean culture. Whether it’s tasting the famous culinary scene, learning from the indigenous population or traveling through Patagonia, you’ll be blown away by the beauty in every corner.

If we’ve convinced you of visiting Chile on your next vacation, take advantage of every minute there and let a local, like Patricia, show you around. After all, who better to help you make the best of the experience than someone who’s passionate about their country? And who knows, you may get more than a guide – you may make a friend.

 

Written by Ashley Winder

Travel Hasta La Raíz

by Elisa R. García

I am a young Latina, a nenita in her early 20s who is the first one in my family to go to university and the first one to have opportunities to study and travel freely. With Mexican-Chilean roots and a mother who is from Bolivia, I took full advantage of study abroad opportunities and my financial aid situation to go to all three of these places that have played roles in the histories of my families. I wanted to go hasta la raíz to really understand how we became to be who we are today. Reconnecting with my these histories, families, cultures, and language – all that I have found lost to me in these past two generations away from my countries of origin – has spiralled me onto an unexpected journey of solitude, soundness, and soul therapy. I imagine this kind of journey could do many of us good, though I understand that this is a very privileged opportunity that is not a possibility for many people. This journey was only made possible to me because I found myself in an ideal situation for it to occur as a college student with near full funding for my studies, who was ahead of credits, giving me the freedom to study abroad for about two years in total. If you are finding yourself in a situation where you can realize these homecomings and reconnection to your countries of origin, I highly suggest taking the opportunity. Though I will give a fair warning, this type of journey back to the homelands, learning about who we really are, where we come from, and why we are not ‘from’ there anymore can be a deeply intense and painful, but a beautiful process nonetheless. I was being called back to my roots, so I looked into the study abroad programs offered in these countries – Mexico and Chile. Then I went, and I took the opportunity to go to Bolivia too.

I participated in a field research program in Mexico offered by my university that allowed me to live there for four months. This was only my second time visiting and my first time returning in about fifteen years. I had gone for a month when I was about five years old and stayed with my family who lives in Guadalajara, Jalisco. I was placed for a month in Ciudad de México to study, then in Oaxaca for three months to conduct my field research, and I then visited my family in Guadalajara for a week at the end (where I was prohibited to visit during my program due to travel restrictions). Living in the country for those couple of months, I learned much about about the country, the people, myself, and our shared histories. The Spanish I had lost after having been fluent as a little girl developed so much with dedicated study, immersion, and dating a local. In Ciudad de México, I was introduced to the fast-paced Chilanga lifestyle and enjoyed all the street food. While in Oaxaca, I was given the freedom to design my own schedule, allowing me to realize more than just my research (that is to say that I also spent a lot of free time falling in love and on the back of my partner’s motorcyle getting to know the city and living my best life). Later in Guadalajara, when I was finally able to visit my family, I sat in my bisabuela’s house and tortería, eating all my favorite home-cooked foods and learning a little bit more about my personal family history. The memories of my childhood visit came back to me in Spanish, from when I was more fluent. At this time, I was still developing my Spanish and I started trying to converse with my family about topics I always wondered about – like how and why my grandmother left home as a teenager on her own to the U.S., for example. With time, practice, and use, my Spanish has improved immensely, and I am proud to say that I am now nearly fluent. This renewed skill has allowed me to communicate fully with my family, which has been the most important for me. I’m sad to only have been able to visit my family for such a short amount of time, but I am already planning a three-month return to just stay with them in Guadalajara to really get to know the whole family and our history.

The semester after my study abroad in Mexico, I started my year-long study abroad program in Santiago, Chile. Though the family I have here is mostly from the Valparaíso Region (which is about two hours away), being in Santiago was the closest opportunity available to me and I made frequent weekend visits. I didn’t know much of my Chilean family at first, but they definitely knew me, and showed me all the pictures and letters my grandmother had sent them throughout the years. Everyone welcomed me into their homes with open arms and it was during these initial visits that my search through my family history and the past grew more profound. They shared stories with me about my grandparents and about their childhoods. This led me to ask questions to which led to interesting stories and even more questions. Then I began taking notes, collect data, conduct informal interviews and search for more family members that were introduced to me for the first time in theses stories. I started reconstructing my family history and making a family tree, with the goal of meeting them all and sharing our histories with each other. I would travel to meet each person for the first time and each of them gave me a new perspective, new information, and put me in contact with even more family members I hadn’t previously known about. Así que, with each new person I met, the family and our complex history got bigger and bigger. All this was done in my free time when I wasn’t studying at the university in Santiago, partaking in my internships, or attending events with my exchange program. Balancing all of this work on top of trying to keep mentally, physically, and financially stable was a feat that sometimes I lost to, but am proud of myself for having been able to pull through by means of immense self care and seeking out the support I needed – but that is a whole other story.

19989417_1571183189618952_1488388246151097398_n (1)

Lisa at the Casa de Frida Khalo in Coyoácan, Ciudad de México

During the break between my two semesters here in Chile, I went to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia where I met up with my mom for her first time returning home in thirty-three years. I was there for only a short time and spent my time and energy there looking for the missing pieces to the my family history while trying to navigate its sensitive relationships and complicated dynamics. Here I sat down with my family members, trying to get them each alone so we could speak honestly one on one because I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to share the truth with one another. Some of my family members don’t have cell phones, What’sApp, or Facebook and live in remote regions so visiting them in person was truly the only way. Bolivia is where all the pieces began to come together of the history of my grandparents leaving Chile, building a new life in Bolivia, getting lost in the drug trade, brujería, and Evangelism, and the long and harsh journey that brought my grandmother and mother to the U.S after having been abandoned by my grandfather. After all this searching, I now became the family keeper of oral history, knowledge, and secrets that could have been very well forgotten – leaving my siblings and I, and the generations yet to come, less confused about where we come from and why and how our life became to be the way it is in the United States.

I think the most rich yielding from my study abroad experiences has been the reconnecting of my family and the healing process I have undergone in learning the roots of my family’s unresolved traumas and of my own personal traumas. We might not be able to undo whatever harm was done to our families along the way of leaving our countries of origin and starting anew, but we can come home and do some deep searching, honor our histories, and heal. If you are finding yourself in a time where you are able to and it’s safe for you to do so, I encourage you to take a wholesome look at the possibility of travelling to where we come from – para realmente conocerse hasta la raíz. It’s time to know our stories and to tell them now before they are forgotten.

Conexión Latinx: Salento Workshop Recap

It took us 8 months to finally recap on our amazing trip experience in Salento, Colombia with Scarlet Macaw Trips, but better late than never! Our first and so far only TL workshop collaboration trip was both a learning experience and a success. The following is a summary of TL’s role in the trip.

Our main objectives: Womxn were brought together for networking, womxn supporting womxn, healing, connecting with ancestral roots, using the fertile earth of Salento as a metaphor, and goal-setting during this space while exploring a new area together.

IMG_9520

TL offered 3 workshops in order to complete objectives and build relationships:

  1. Yoga Improvisation: Cici, a yoga-certified instructor, was unable to join the trip in the end, so Alexandra replaced her. Ale has more dance teaching experience, but she does like to incorporate Meditation and Yoga with dance. She didn’t know the names of poses, but she did great with everyone’s help! The important part is that the yoga session most definitely flowed. Ale made sure to do a lot of heart openers, bringing awareness to the fertile land with physical grounding exercises while on our bare feet or while our hands touched the ground, and releasing tension from our hips.
  2. Ancestral and Meditation Exercise: Ale lead into the grounding exercise where everyone was organized in a circle in order to face each other, and also the ancestral altar was organized with everyone’s items together in the middle. First, she lead them to close their eyes and perform a grounding exercise with the group where we imagine energy replenishing us from Pachamama with roots coming out of the bottom of our bodies, energy from above, and then we increased interconnectedness by passing the energy around the circle several times and counterclockwise too. After that, we each introduced ourselves and introduced each of our ancestors we wanted to bring on our journey. It was surprising to see each and every person share very intimate stories, therefore it was was wonderful to see that people felt it was a safe space to be vulnerable with each other. Due to unforeseen circumstances in the land of some of the greatest quantities of exotic flowers, we couldn’t find any sold in Salento! Next time: flowers and other ofrenda are a MUST!
flower-mandala

Example of a flower ofrenda we can organize for the next Ancestors & Meditation excercise

****Major Observations From This Exercise****

  • Adriana brought homemade essential oils for each person attending, like palo santo or lavender.
  • Lorena pointed out that there was exactly 11 of us together on the trip in total, a very spiritual number!
  • Michelle brought zodiac astrology sign erasers to share with everyone.
  • Two white butterflies entered our circle and flew through the middle, a symbol of purity (or a clean slate) and transformation.
  • Coincidentally, a total of 4 people who were in attendance are Therapists/Psychologists

3. Speed-Dating, Elevator Speech, & Goal-Setting Workshops: it was inspiring to see what people’s passion projects and future entrepreneurial goals were. Everyone shared, and also provided feedback for each other. We invoked our Ancestors in order to help further our goals. Some people even came-up with ideas during the workshops, including the recent #Healing4Healers trip initiative. Saturday, March 31st, coincidentally a Full Moon, people had to start reflecting on and writing their goals for a specific goal-setting workshop the next day Sunday. The full moon is a time to reflect on things that are blocking you from your goals. The new moon is perfect for setting goals, while the full moon is best for letting things go.

img_8273

Saturday, March 31st Full Moon

~*Nature Observations*~: There were two white butterflies that entered our grounding meditation circle and flew through the middle. Later on during that trip, Ale saw a white dove flying over us in the Salento pueblo plaza, a bird she had never seen in real life. Coincidentally, we had a full moon the night we had to reflect on what goals we wanted to set, reminding us that we needed to focus on letting go of the blockages. A lot of rainfall was observed, which served as a metaphorical cleansing for the group, and then finally on the last full day together, Sunday, we had the most amount of sun out of all of the days. Sahara kept saying she wanted to see a hummingbird the whole trip, and we finally saw one at the finca coffee tour. It was magical!

Our trip was unforgettable. Between the hike at Valle de Cocora, the leather making workshop, the finca coffee tour, and much much more, we had a wonderful time! We hope to work with Scarlet Macaw Trips again in the future, and/or provide more workshop collaborations.

Testimonials:
Through this workshop I was able to dedicate 5 days to myself and to support other women, no help create a no-judgement space and to be comfortable speaking my passions, dreams, fears, out loud. The workshops and the conversations with all the women help me realize that I can achieve certain things that seem unrealistic and silly before. Since the trip, I’ve been more verbal and enthusiastic about my intentions to start a business in Colombia, and people have been more receptive to this idea.”

“It was wonderful to meet others with similarities in background and identity markers and who also shared similar values. I appreciated the chance to candidly share about my personal and professional journeys and receive support from a group who really “got” it. I’m taking away a greater sense of confidence after experiencing that kind of support.”

“I think there was a perfect balance of planned activities and free time. I appreciate your efforts to make it fun and yet fruitful. I think there is so much potential for future workshops and other traveling ideas. Ale and Sahara, I have so much faith in your projects and cannot wait to see them blossom, I admire your work, tenacity and dedication to your passions and projects. This trip and all of its fruits are thanks to you […] THANK YOU.”

“It was really affordable which is great, I hope that you also get to make so profit from future trips because you are putting A LOT of labor into in. But in general the experience and the relationships I built no tiene precio!”

“You’ll see me at some of your future trips 🙂 and I hope that we also get to meet in other countries for workshops 🙂 Thank you for making this trip a reality! That’s in itself an inspiration to see a passion project modelled!”

My Cuerpo de Paz Service Reflections

One of the proudest moments in my life was when I began Peace Corps training in August of 2016. I was still working on Travel Latina, however difficult it was to access the internet. I was ecstatic to share a very special article by Danica Liriano called My Narrative as an Afro-Latina Peace Corps Volunteer. Nothing could make me happier to publish and share this article on our blog and Instagram account. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I ran head-first into an unexpected comment made on her article that made me question everything I was doing. Name is changed to initials in order to protect identity:

“[DFV]: thanks for sharing this piece! i definitely validate the authors experiences, but i think their critique is incomplete, since they ultimately place faith and believe in the peace corps’ agenda. peace corps was a geopolitical tool designed by JFK and part of his alliance for progress to stifle anti-colonial revolution (following success of the cuban revolution) through reform that masked foreign, largely US, penetration of national economies and cultures across the third world, especially in latin america. i expect more of the author frankly. nameley, i expect them to expand their critique in order to indict the peace corps as a neocolonial, humanitarian, white saviour institution that inflicts violence on the countries and communities it interacts with. i believe we need to be more mindful of the need to center subaltern voices and stop believing the west can provide the answers, since it has only played, and continues to play, oppressor!”

I was floored. Not even 1 month into my service training, I questioned everything that I thought about my international development career, and everything that I thought about the Peace Corps (PC) ever since my Dad inspired me to do it. I began obsessing about the Saviour Complex, and how I could avoid any imperialistic, white supremacist, and/or neocolonial practices. I decided that I needed to try harder. To make sure to community organize and perform my work with integrity, with full support or in collaboration with the community, and with sustainability in mind. In international development, I truly believe that Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is the best, most sustainable way to work with communities. The ABCD approach “builds on the assets that are found in the community and mobilizes individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to realize and develop their strengths. This makes it different to a Deficit-Based approach that focuses on identifying and servicing needs” (Nurture Development 1). In addition to that, it’s necessary to implement effective impact evaluation to see if an international development service or aid is actually working, or in order to look at ways to improve it.

IMG_8893

Our Peace Corps site placement in Dibulla, La Guajira

Moreover, there were even more problematic PC stereotypes to work through. There was a comment made when I announced on Facebook that I was about to leave the country to begin the PC:

AJ: Felicitaciones! Sabes que lo dicen Cuerpo de Pasear 
Translation: “Congratulations! You know they call it Travel Corps ”

Peace Corps in Spanish is Cuerpo de Paz. Pasear means “to travel or take a promenade out on the town”, so the play on words turns Paz, or “Peace”, into Pasear. In other words, my FB friend was poking fun at the infamous way that PC volunteers use their time in their assigned host-country to travel rather than actually do work.

IMG_3476

A bird friend in Montes de María, Colombia

I’m not going to lie, some of the most necessary trips I took out of my site placement was our official PC “Weekend Aways” to the nearby cities once a month. Never have I stared my privilege so closely in the face, and been so ruefully aware of my U.S. born & raised, U.S. passport-holding, light-skin Latinx, privileged self. Never had I felt so disgustingly and embarrassingly fragile, with my time in the PC having the worst impact on my mental health, which I believe had a direct negative impact on my immune system. I am wary to admit that my trips away were not only to “pasear”, rather to attend to my mental health. So much so, that I didn’t even realize the extent of my poor mental health state until PC doctors demanded that I pack up and leave site on an official ‘Medical Evacuation’ just two months shy of finishing my 27 month service.

IMG_0691

The view on Santa Marta and the Caribbean sea from Minca, Colombia

Don’t get me wrong, I got to know my motherland in a way that was unforgettable, especially when visiting other volunteers in their assigned sites, and visiting my family in Bogotá. Unlike most other volunteers, I did not have the budget to visit the USA as often as they did (read: once in 2 years, while most PCVs visited 2-3 times), which did not bother me too much except for being 30 meant I missed a lot of weddings. Unfortunately, I did observe that many fellow People of Color in the program struggled with not being able to visit their family as often as non-POC. WOC, in my cohort particularly, dropped out more often than everyone else, which I think is a sad, yet clear, sign at how difficult it is to complete service with little means or support, along with poor treatment. At the end of the day, most locals at my site did not have the resources to travel in-country the way we did, or even access to certain medical or psychological treatment that we had, and many times I allowed it to eat me up inside. On the other hand, I had to remind myself that I was a volunteer with no real income, and furthermore, that I could not have the pretentious saviour complex.

IMG_9567

A coffee farm outside of Salento, Colombia

I’m far from perfect, the Peace Corps is far from perfect, the United States is far from perfect, no one is perfect and EVERYONE is problematic. I’m willing to get called out, receive constructive criticism, and become a better volunteer and overall person. I needed to make sure to work in the best way that *I* could in order to avoid the aforementioned issues. At the end of the day, I taught, I had important conversations, I facilitated, I empowered, I led, and I did everything I could to share what I hope is beneficial knowledge in Dibulla, La Guajira with the utmost mindfulness. There is no true way to measure whether I was successful in any way, or whether I was *woke* enough. However, I feel satisfied when I observe the way people in Dibulla talk about race more positively, seeing past stereotypes (i.e. how US citizens are supposed to be), increasing savings and personal money management awareness, less bullying among students, and overall more interest in entrepreneurship. If I did anything at all, at least I am satisfied to know that I created connections that will last a lifetime.

IMG_3477

Trekking to a cacao chocolate farm in Montes de María, Colombia

Do I recommend the PC? It’s not for everyone, in fact I wonder if it’s best for those who have money or their families have it. Perhaps, it’s better for the fresh college grad who’s use to living on a very meagre budget. I was neither of these, but the reality is that I want an international development career, and the jobs I desired weren’t hiring me because I needed at least 2 years of fieldwork experience. It was my only option, even if I had giant student loans to attend to, even if I put my physical and mental health at risk. I was determined to struggle through it all, while trying my hardest to stay “woke”. The BEST part of it all? I got to explore my ancestral roots in a way even my family couldn’t guide me through.

IMG_9348

My altar honoring my ancestral roots in Colombia

 

Under the Knife and Under the Sun: Plastic Surgery While Traveling

By Camila Luna

Travel and plastic surgery. Yes, I traveled to where it’s sunny and warm (and cheap) and  got plastic surgery. Phew! There, I said it.

Like many of you, I, too, have struggled with self- image. I have looked in the mirror, and despite my best efforts to love myself, have told myself that I don’t like X, Y, or Z about my appearance. And, like many of you, some of those “imperfections” I’ve changed with surgery  (you’d be surprised who has had work done), and other “imperfections” I’ve learned to accept.

For me personally, two of my biggest insecurities have always been my nose and my breasts.  Nose too big, and boobs too small. I have done the typical girl things to cover up these insecurities with contour, bras, and flattering clothing, but at the end of the day when you’re bare-faced and the clothes come off, you’re faced with reality.

So, you’re probably wondering: what work did I get done, and how did I plan for it?

Well, I’ll start with the latter question. Honestly, I did not really plan for my surgery. I was at the beginning of my two-month trip through 3 countries and 5 cities, and I suddenly got the idea that while I’m in Colombia, I might as well get the work done that I have always wanted. Mind you, at the time of my decision, I was in San Francisco and was planning on being in Colombia in about a weeks’ time. I had one week to find a surgeon and schedule the surgery.  I was planning to target my two major “imperfections”: boobs and nose .

Right away I started researching surgeons in Bogota, and even reached out to a few, but then I remembered my dear cousin, who has had quite a bit of work done (and looks gorg, btw). My cousin put me in contact with her surgeon, who wrote me into her busy schedule right away.

While all of this was going on, I was sharing my plan with my close friends and family. Of course, all of them were trying to dissuade me from surgery, and my mom, being a scientist, managed to find some really interesting research on breast implants that ultimately changed my mind about getting them.

Although breast augmentation is one of the most common plastic surgeries in the world, it also has the potential for the most complications. Namely, breast implants are NOT lifetime devices. Although those silicone (or saline) pouches have improved dramatically through the years, if you’re in your 20’s, you must plan and expect to have AT LEAST one more surgery down the line to have the implants replaced or removed. Every extra year that you have your implants, the risk for complications increases, and after every additional surgery to fix or replace your old implants, the risk for complications increases even more. Top that off with the fact that I have a tendency for skin allergies (large foreign object implanted in body= unhappy allergies),  and I realized that breast implants were not worth the risk for me.  The absolute best case scenario was that they’d be great, last me a good 30 years, and then I’d need to have them replaced at age 50 (and then again at 80?? Uhhh…), and the worst case scenario is that I’d have a reaction and have to have them removed in a few years (with no guarantee of the condition of my natural breast skin & tissue after removal). I was not down for either scenario, so I decided against the boob job.

Rhinoplasty, on the other hand, is one-and-done. I knew the risk was not liking my new nose, and the usual complications that go along with surgery, but I trusted the surgeon based on the work she had done on my cousin, so I decided to go for it.

While in Bogota, I got all of my hospital tests done, booked my Airbnb for where I was going to stay (I wanted to have my own space while I was recovering instead of staying with family), and even arranged for someone to take care of me post-surgery when my mom wasn’t around.

I met with my surgeon three times before my operation to discuss what I wanted, what was realistic, and possible complications, and even got to sneak in a super intense 4-day trip to Medellin right before the surgery (not sure if my doctor would have advised that, honestly). Then, exactly one week after I landed in Colombia, I found myself laying on the stretcher, with an IV in my arm, ready for surgery. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “This is a joke right now. Am I seriously doing this? Whoah this is crazy. Am I crazy? You’re kidding me right now”. Nevertheless, I went through with the surgery, and woke up 1.5 hours later groggy and with a big cast on my nose… but very happy nonetheless.

Buuut….as soon as I was able to look in the mirror after surgery, my heart sank. My nose was exactly the opposite of what I had wanted! 😱😱 It was upturned, and the space between my lip and nose looked huge. My lips looked thin. I looked like a cross between a chipmunk and a pig (pigmunk). I knew that the way my nose looked then was not going to be the final product and that my cheeks were all types of inflamed, but it was really hard to stay positive.

In the first few days after surgery, I think it’s safe to say I was depressed. Surprisingly, my nose did not hurt at all during the entire recovery process (although my doctor had cut both bone and cartilage), but emotionally, I was not in a good place. My face still looked like a pigmunk, my cast looked crooked, I couldn’t sleep because my nose was so stuffy, and now I was starting to get bruising under my eyes. I was terrified that I was going to have the nose of my nightmares.

I am generally a person who is positive and in a good mood. Even if I’m having a hard time at work or if I get my heart broken, I just cry it out, read some books on inner peace, and then I bounce right back to my normal, happy-go-lucky self (yeah, for my exes reading this… even if you screwed me over, I was SO over you in just a few days 💁💁💁😂) . But post-surgery, there were some days when I just wanted to lay in bed all day and feel sorry for myself. It was a kind of sadness/emotional numbness I hadn’t felt before.

Thoughts whirled in my head. Was I succumbing to unrealistic European beauty standards that weren’t even for me?  Was I minimizing my African and Muisca roots? Was I betraying everything I stood for? Do I love myself? Can I love myself and still risk my health by unnecessarily going under the knife???? And if I don’t love myself… will I ever be able to truly, deeply love anyone else??????

I didn’t want to see anyone, or even walk around the block as my doctor had instructed. I just wanted to lay in bed and think about how bad I looked and then judge myself for being so vain (talk about vortex of self-pity😩) Regardless, I had promised myself that even if I didn’t like my new nose and looked like a pigmunk for the rest of my life, I was not going to get revision rhinoplasty and would just accept myself the way I was. I had PROMISED myself that my nose job was one-and-done.

One week after my surgery, when the highlight of my day was being  able to breathe out of one nostril, I had my first follow-up appointment with my doctor. She removed my cast and immediately I started smiling- under the ugly cast and the tape holding up the tip of my nose, I saw my dream nose! It was smaller, had no bump, and still had the characteristics of my old nose that I liked: it was still long, like my Muisca ancestors, and still round at the tip, like my African ancestors. My new nose was perfect for me, and I knew that through the recovery it was going to look even better!

My doctor put on a new, smaller plastic cast on my nose, and for the first time in a week, I put on some lipstick, dressed up in my cute clothes and even left my house to socialize with family and close friends. Finally I was feeling like myself again!

IMG_20180830_191233PicsArt_08-30-06.50.06

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before the procedure I had told myself that my surgery was going to be top secret. I felt ashamed, felt like a huge hypocrite (body- positive feminists don’t get plastic surgery?? 😰), and matter of fact, my biggest fear was returning to Shanghai (where I currently live) and having people realize that I had had my nose done. But with time, I found myself telling almost everyone around me. I told almost everyone except for my three best friends in New York who I would see in two weeks. These girls, who have known me for about a decade, were going to be the test reaction of my nose job. I was excited and nervous.

When I finally arrived to New York about two weeks after my surgery, no one noticed a thing. When I told my friends, all I heard was … *crickets*…. “wait, really?” “but where?” “but what was wrong with your nose?” “did it hurt?”. No one noticed a thing. My family joked that I had wasted my money since the difference was unnoticeable to others.

Despite this extremely anticlimactic reaction from my friends, I am very happy with my surgery and don’t regret it at all. When I look in the mirror, my nose is exactly the way I want, and I can absolutely notice the difference. I still contour my nose, but now it looks just the way I want when I take off my makeup. The difference is very subtle and natural, and I feel much prettier.

Now, for the big question many of you may be wondering about: how much did my surgery cost? The surgeon fee cost the equivalent of about $1,300, but with the hospital fees, anesthesia, medicine, etc, I would say the whole surgery cost about $2,000. This is freaking cheap AF. I paid it in USD, which probably thrilled my doctor.

I have decided to be open about my surgery because honestly, surgery is serious, it was as much an emotional journey as a physical one, and it is an experience that has changed me both inside and out. I know there is a lot of stigma and judgment around people who get work done, especially in the US. But honestly, I feel more comfortable and free when I’m open with others- even if they disapprove. I don’t want to normalize plastic surgery, but I want those of us who have chosen to go under the knife to be included in the self-love dialogue, just like everyone else. If you’re reading this and thinking terrible things about me (or even feeling “concern”/ “pity” for me), it’s ok, I honestly don’t mind- maybe you also secretly want to get some work done… hahaha 👀🙊.  Also, I understand it can be hard to wrap your mind around the fact that someone would get surgery just for vanity.

Either way I’m still me, and even though I changed one “imperfection” with surgery, I’m still on the journey of learning to tolerate/love my body. Will I have more invasive plastic surgery in the future? Honestly, I hope not. I’m happy with what I’ve done and don’t want more. Will I get little things like fillers or Botox? Honestly…. that’s a definite yes.

Mostly, I want to continue this journey of body acceptance/enhancement/modification with a prayer for myself and everyone reading this:

 “Universe, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”

 

Oh, and one last thing. If you’re considering surgery while traveling, here’s what you should know:

10 things to know before getting plastic surgery while traveling:

  1. Unresolvable cognitive dissonance. But… but…I’m a body- positive, intersectional feminist who barely shaves her legs… how can I get plastic surgery??????
  2. No flying for at least 10 days after surgery. Nope, ya can’t leave right away! And if you’re in a mountainous place like Bogota, you need to be in the city at least three days before surgery while your body adjusts to the altitude.
  3. No sun. I know, the title is misleading. No matter how beautiful the beach is near you, after surgery, you need to stay out of the sun to prevent swelling and possibly permanent discoloration.
  4. You will probably feel depressed. This was big for me. You will probably be in your room, in pain/uncomfortable, questioning your life choices/ beauty standards/mental health/sanity, and feeling ugly as hell for at least a week after surgeryThis can be quite isolating, and you might be thinking of all the cool things you could be doing if you weren’t suffering from your own vanity.
  5. Kissing will hurt, and you need to curb the hanky-panky and any other form of exercise. Sometimes flings & things happen while traveling, so tell your new amiguito to chill because you just had surgery and can’t get too crazy with any type of physical activity.
  6. With your cast on in Latin America, people will assume you got a nose job. With your cast on in the US, people will assume you had an accident… LOL
  7. You will think people are judging you, and they probably are, but guuurl (or boy or they/them)….. do you anyways.
  8. No alcohol in the days before and no alcohol for at least two weeks after surgery. Yep, gotta curb the fiesta.
  9. You should definitely speak the local language, or find a doctor who speaks excellent English. Clear communication with your surgeon is SO important to get the results you want.
  10. RESULTS ARE NOT GUARANTEED!! There is a possibility you will not like your results or that there will be complications. Be sure you are very, VERY aware of this and be emotionally prepared to deal with this kind of situation if it happens.
PicsArt_08-30-07.08.42

When I posted this photo from my room in Bogota, no one would have guessed I was laying in bed with a cast on my nose.

Check out more of Camila’s articles on the Travel Latina website, and check out her travel blog in photographs at @camila.lunaaaaa on Instagram!

 

My First Solo Trip

Why does being single, going out to dinner alone, or a movie by yourself seem so taboo? Is this just generational thinking in our society? I suppose it took me a while to be OK with things like that, but traveling alone was something I had yet to explore. With no real preparation, it sort of just happened one day on what started as a week vacation to Jaco, Costa Rica. I had recently broken up with my partner of 5 years so I was ready to get away for a bit.

IMG_20171010_105630_373

Jaco Beach by our Hotel

We had a blast in Costa Rica. We went on a boat tour to visit come crocs with the Crocodile Man Tour.

14883421_10154036303717544_5461498531309217121_o

Playing with the giant crocs

We went to visit the Arenal Volcano.

Manuel Antonio Park and Beaches

ATV Riding

Deep Sea Fishing – Stung by a jelly fish but still enjoyed beer.

20171204_164820

Deep Sea Fishing

There was one day in particular that made me question all of my life’s decisions. In Manuel Antonio, there is a small secluded beach called Playa Hemelas and I was sitting there looking out into the gorgeous blue ocean, listening to the waves crashing, I had my epiphany. It hit me hard, and I knew it just felt right. I knew at that moment that I just couldn’t go back to my old boring office job and that lifestyle. I had experienced freedom like I had never known and I wanted more.

My life wasn’t horrible back home, but I wasn’t fully satisfied either. So it was then I made my decision to quit my job and stay in Costa Rica for a while longer. It was crazy I know. But it felt so right. I didn’t really care about my boring job, I was single, I had some savings and I was already in Central America. It felt like perfect timing. I had dreamt about just quitting my job and escaping somewhere far but until then I didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

IMG_20171226_092812_985[1]

Jaco Beach

It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I had never traveled alone to a foreign country. I would never be the same after this experience and I was excited and terrified all at the same time. Was I out of my mind? I basically quit my whole life as I knew it to start something new, something I had dreamt about my whole life.

IMG_20180112_074414_614[1]

Exploring Playa Hermosa

I enjoyed just exploring on my own, no real plan, just getting know the area and the locals.

I was finally happy! Super 100% without a doubt, genuinely happy!

IMG_20171012_131653_776

Playa Hemelas

After spending a couple of weeks in Costa Rica, I decided I still wasn’t ready to go back home. This new found freedom was addicting.

IMG_20161110_135210

Deep Sea Fishing

Next country was Belize. I made my way along the “Gringo Trail” in Central America. No longer afraid to be alone, completely dependent on me, myself and I, and the freedom to come and go on my schedule, I was hungry to visit as many places as I could.

 

15110962_10154073420977544_1591210544360100050_o

Xunantunich Ruins entrance

I planned on visiting some of the ancient ruins near by. I had to take a bus and walk to the draw bridge that was the entrance to Xunantunich Ruins.

15129453_10154073425827544_4364384883209577119_o

Lost in thought at the ruins

I realized I was on a journey of self discovery.

I spent several months backpacking around Central America visiting BelizeGuatemala and Mexico. There is no experience like traveling alone in a foreign country, completely dependent on yourself. I highly recommend it at least once. It changes you. You really learn about yourself. I kind of felt invincible.

Let me know about your solo travel experiences.

Source article at rgreatescape.com

Back to the Motherland

I haven’t been back to México in many years, since I was a preteen. The following is my account of happily exploring and learning more about my history and culture.

STARTING OFF IN THE YUCATAN:

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

Playa Del Carmen is located in the Yucatan Peninsula, pretty close to Cancun. The ocean waters tend to be much warmer on this side of Mexico since it’s near the Caribbean, and on my second day I took a group Catamaran snorkeling tour to visit Isla Mujeres. The small city itself is touristy but the beach is pretty.

15129069_10154085154422544_5072883153930660482_o

Snorkeling in Playa Del Carmen

The water is unimaginably bright blue! It was a bit cool in the morning but I felt wonderful in the hot sun. I stayed in a very affordable hostel in the center part of town, just a few minutes walk from the beach.

It’s a great place to sunbathe and lounge with a margarita, but if you are feeling adventurous you can windsurf, jet ski, kayak, or go diving. (If you’re into diving, check out the Underwater Art Museum!) 

Full day, bus group tours are available to the nearby  Chichen Itza, the famous site of Mayan ruins that’s a UNESCO site.  Seeing it in person was a dream come true for me because the ancient legends of perfectly aligned temples built by ancient aliens has always been fascinating. If you want something really unique, you can even swim with Whale Sharks nearby!

MERIDA

15289241_10154114259762544_5462671662687454606_o

Cathedral de Guadalupe

Merida surprised the heck out of me. I honestly hadn’t heard much about this town before going to visit and all I knew was that it had some ancient ruins. Naturally, I added it to my list as I made my way inland.

It’s a small town probably best known for the Mayan city of Uxmal. The ruins at Uxmal are an UNESCO-listed archaeological site in Yucanta, and you can take tours to the city during the day.

I had barely done much research before going to see Uxmal, and was in awe of this spectacular and HUGE place. It took all day to see the city of ruins. So glad I had comfy walking shoes with me.

Merida has an old world European feel and is often said to be the safest city in Mexico. Check out the Great Museum of the Mayan World for a massive collection of Mayan artifacts, or watch players reenact a Mayan Ball Game live in front of the Cathedral and Plaza Grande. The Pok Ta Pok, as it’s called, event in Merida is free and begins at 8 PM. If you enjoy leisure people watching, hang out at the Plaza Grande, a giant park in the middle of the square, where the city offers free wifi!

Local Dishes:

Cochinita Pibil – the most notable Yucatecan dish, this tender slow-cooked pork is marinated in sour-orange, achiote, and other spices. There is also a chicken version called pollo pibil.

Sopa de lima – a hearty soup loaded with shredded turkey in a deliciously tangy broth with lime juice.

PUEBLA

Being my mother’s hometown, I felt it was my duty to put this on the list of cities I passed through on my journey. It’s a colonial town with a rich culinary history. Well known for the Cathedral de Guadalupe, legend has it that after the construction of the Cathedral, engineers and architects wondered how to carry a bell of 8000 kilos. One morning, residents awoke to the news that it was already at the top. This legend is responsible for this beautiful city being called Puebla to los Angeles. I highly recommend a day trip to the nearby city of Cholula to visit all of the ancient churches in the city.

15288695_10154097693847544_7941352171616559865_o

Main square in Puebla

**TIP**

A great souvenir to pick up will be the famous Talavera tiles. I recommend supporting the small local street vendors, but be wary that your tiles are authentic by taking a coin and firmly striking the tile, if it’s legit it won’t break or scratch it.

LOCAL DISHES:

The MUST TRY local dish is definitely the Mole Poblano!

15289286_10154104597437544_8046448895344022809_o

Mole and mango con chili

Mole is a sauce made up of different spices and CHOCOLATE. It’s a fusion of Indigenous and European cultures. Mole is a time consuming and labor intensive dish to prepare that requires many ingredients such as different chiles, tomatoes, bread, tortilla, onion, garlic, chocolate, chicken stock, banana, lard, almonds, sesame seeds, salt and spices such as pepper, clove and anise.

Chiles en nogada is another popular dish which has a poblano chili pepper filled with “picadillo” and local ingredients such as “manzana panochera” and “pera de leche”. The chili is then dunked in egg batter and fried. Finally topped off with a creamy walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds and parsley. The dish’s three elements generate the colors of the Mexican flag: the green parsley, the white walnut sauce, and the red pomegranate seeds.

For a tasty street food try the Chalupas, lightly fried corn tortillas that are topped with salsa, onion and shredded chicken or beef. Typically an order comes with four chalupas.

MEXICO CITY

By now it’s been a couple weeks into my journey through Mexico and I have been traveling by bus with many stretches being over 20 hours long. Thankfully the buses are modern and well equipped with comfy seats and TVs.

La Ciudad is a wonderfully diverse and huge city with so much to see and EAT! My first couple of days there I stayed at an Airbnb near the central part of the city near transportation. The couple I stayed with provided a nice private room with a balcony in a local neighborhood. I spent my first night walking around the area and exploring where to find some yummy food and there happened to be a local outdoor market nearby with all kinds of goodies. They were mostly selling holiday decorations since it was the beginning of December, but they also had plenty of street food. I could smell the carne asada being grilled for tacos and the sweet smells of baked bread and my personal fav, churros.

Walking through the city brought back so many wonderful memories from my childhood. I was fortunate enough to have my older cousin meet me for a fun day of sightseeing.

We took a bus to the main square, the Zocalo. It was used as a ceremonial center in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Today, it’s formal name is Plaza de la Constitucion. This morning, it was packed with tourists from all over the world and locals wandering around taking photos. Then we walked to begin our tour of some of the biggest museums in the area.

Tempo Mayor, according to Aztec legend, was considered the center of the universe, so naturally it was our next stop. A UNESCO site, the construction of this main temple first began in 1325 and it was rebuilt six times before being destroyed in the Spanish conquest. This site was thought to be the exact spot where the ancient god gave the Mexica people his sign that they had reached the promised land: an eagle on a nopal cactus with a snake in its mouth. The museum itself has a vast collection of artifacts for viewing. They also do short reenactments of certain ceremonies throughout the day.

The rest of my time in la ciudad, was spent visiting my cousins and telling them all about my travel adventures.

PUERTO VALLARTA

15540758_10154140005922544_2861664568887227818_o

Malecon in Puerto Vallarta

After all that culture and history I now wanted some more ocean views in my life so I headed to the port city of Puerto Vallarta. Time for some sun bathing and relaxation!

The beautiful beaches on the Pacific coast are less crowded than the Yucatan and there is nice mile long boardwalk to stroll down. It’s called the Malecon and it’s filled with lots of stores, restaurants and street performers. P.V. is well known to the LGBT community to be welcoming and feel at home to party. I certainly did.

Originally I planned a week long stay but I really felt at home there so I ended up renting an apartment, just a few minutes walk from the beach, for a month. I enjoyed the beach and has one of THE MOST BREATHTAKING SUNSETS I’d seen in a long time, but there were plenty of other things to do as well…

15392946_10154136620072544_8423733675981359430_o

Sunset in Puerto Vallarta

Whale watching, tequila tours, surfing, boat tours, snorkeling, shopping, festivals, and of course – day drinking.

I happened to arrive in P.V. on the week of a major holiday celebration – Guadalupe processions is a 12 day long event. On the 12th of December, “Guadalupe Day”, is when it all culminates and all those around the city walk in the parade to the main Cathedral de Guadalupe. There’s dancing and music and lots of celebrating.

Whale watching season is from December to Mid-March and I had the pleasure of going on my first whale watching tour. We saw about 7 different whales that day, it was amazing because we were close enough to not need binoculars.

15585436_10154166641372544_7699594814273317274_o

Whale watching in Puerto Vallarta

You mustn’t miss the shows! Even if you’re not a big fan of musicals or drag shows, just stop in for one show, I promise they won’t disappoint! If you are a fan of the gay culture, then you might even get to see a celebrity like Jay Rodriguez!

15799860_10154190758362544_6198359926387992925_o

Drag shows in P.V.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For an even less crowded and hippy feel, check out the tiny surfer town of Sayulita. You can take a bus from the mall in P.V. it’s about an hour ride to the beach town. Tell the driver where you want to stop and he will announce it once the bus arrives. It’s about a 10 minute walk to the center of the town, just follow the crowd and the smell of the ocean.

 

I had a blast getting in touch with my roots, drinking tequila, and gorging on all the fantastic local dishes. Have you been to México yet?

 

Featured photo credits to discoveryvallarta.com

An Immersive Summer in Mexico

Because my husband works from home, we decided to spend some of last summer away from the blistering heat of Austin. We figured as long as we had Wi-Fi, we’d be able to connect as if we had never left. In July, we picked up the family and set off for San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico.  

Summers in Austin are really hot, with daytime temperatures above 100 degrees. This past year, we decided we wanted a milder climate – and the experience of exploring a new city. We settled on San Miguel de Allende, a city located in central Mexico’s Guanajuato State. Surrounded by rolling hills, temperatures in the city are cool in the morning and rise throughout the day during the summer. And while July is the wettest month, we figured an occasional afternoon shower was still preferable to Austin’s high temperatures.

San Miguel has seen a boom in tourism recently, in part due to coverage in magazines like Travel + Leisure, which named San Miguel The World’s Best City in 2017. Its popularity can be traced back to the 1940s, when two art schools were established, Bellas Artes and Instituto Allende, which brought well-known artists and writers to the area. With a mild climate, a comparatively low cost of living, and a small-town feel, a large expat community now calls the city home. The colonial architecture is beautiful, and San Miguel is unique in its relative lack of streetlights. The narrow cobblestone streets, colorful doorways, and hidden courtyards make walking through town a pleasant daily activity.

So how did I prepare my kids for our big summer adventure? I didn’t! I told them we were going – and that was it! They’re young enough to have a limited concept of time, and I’ve discovered that if I don’t make a big deal out of something, neither will they. I did do some preliminary research into available camps (more on that below), but decided I didn’t want to make a final decision until we got there. We were winging it!

Housing and Costs

I was anxious about finding a place to rent, but locating a property through Airbnb was easy. The reviews, photos, and direct communication with property owners made the process smooth and pleasant. Once we made our reservation, our host was very helpful in recommending which airport to fly into, and she even recommended camps for my kids. I was really excited about staying in an authentic Mexican home – though I wondered how I would do without a dishwasher!

You may be wondering how we made our summer away possible from a financial perspective. I started by making a list of all of our monthly expenses, outside of our mortgage and monthly utilities, and compared the cost of one month in Austin to the cost of one month spent in Mexico. Because life in Mexico is simply much cheaper than in the United States, I realized we would actually come out ahead. Of course, if you want to offset some of your mortgage costs, there are also house swaps to consider, or renting out your home on Airbnb.

I can hear you asking, “But what about airfare?” We used our air miles for flights. If you’re able to plan ahead, there are definitely deals to be found on Frontier, Southwest, and Interjet. And because San Miguel is served by two regional airports, Del Bajio (BJX) and Queretaro (QRO), you also have more flight options.

 

 Traveling In and Around Mexico

Travel websites, the US consulate, and various blogs try to dissuade travelers from driving in Mexico. Lots of not-so-safe activities do occur, and driving between cities carries a risk. Since we decided that driving wouldn’t be part of our plan, I took to Facebook to try to learn the best way to get from Queretaro Airport to San Miguel de Allende.

I found two Facebook groups that were particularly helpful in planning our arrival and life in San Miguel: San Miguel de Allende Friends and San Miguel de Allende Kids. These groups suggested BajioGo as an airport shuttle service, but I was also connected to local drivers, and discovered the price difference was nominal. We paid $45 dollars for transit from the airport to San Miguel, with a driver who was both punctual and professional, and we were able to use our kids’ booster seats.

I also learned that the two most highly regarded bus lines in Mexico are Primer Plus and ETN. My sister-in-law, who lives in Mexico City, used Primer Plus when she came to visit us in San Miguel. (The bus lines are a good option if you’re traveling from city to city, but neither operates service to San Miguel directly from the airport.) She reported that the bus service, which ran about $30 per person for the four-hour ride, was comfortable, spacious, and even included a light snack.

When my cousin visited from the States, she elected to use BajioGo. The shuttle service picked her up from the airport (with a name sign), and brought her directly to my home in San Miguel de Allende. Because she was riding alone, the fare came to $100. (The company also provides tours and car rentals, and they operate a local office in San Miguel de Allende.) If you’re interested in BajioGo, I suggest calling them directly.

Communications

We didn’t set up a separate data plan for Mexico, which was rarely a problem, given that every coffee shop, store, and restaurant has free Wi-Fi. Tip: Be sure to learn to say, “¿Tienes Wi-Fi?” “¿Cual es la contraseña?” (Do you have Wi-Fi? What’s the password?) Those phrases will come in handy.

I highly recommend using WhatsApp as your primary means of communication on your smartphone. The phone and messaging app is the way most people communicate internationally because it doesn’t use data, and it’s the easiest way to message over Wi-Fi. (You can also create chat groups so that you can keep everyone back home updated on your vacation!)

Kids’ Camps in San Miguel

Those Facebook groups I mentioned were also instrumental in helping me find kids’ camp options in San Miguel. Two of the city’s largest hotels, the Rosewood and Real de Minas, operate kids’ camps. They also offer day passes for pool usage if you need some R&R.

 During the summer of 2017, the Rosewood hotel offered an art camp called Little Picasso (10-2pm). Real de Minas had an all day camp (9am-2pm) that offered a mix of arts and crafts, games, sports, and songs, and which included swim time.

Because my goal for our summer was for my children to use as much Spanish as possible, I decided to enroll them at Real de Minas when we discovered there would be more local kiddos in attendance. The hotel was also within walking distance from our house. My children enjoyed their three weeks there, and they definitely came away speaking more Spanish – and singing “Despacito,” which became the song of our summer!

I also highly recommend the art camp at Fabrica de Aurora, led by Hiru ArteStudios. (They also offer workshops for adults, which we didn’t take part in, but which looked amazing.) My children enjoyed their daily art classes (three hours/day), where they created clay sculptures, among other activities.

We selected camps based on the distance from our San Miguel “home,” daily duration, and cost. But there were many other camps that also looked fantastic, including Coyote Canyon, Gravityworks, Instituto de Arte y Español, Josefina School, and Luby Camp.

Getting Around San Miguel

Getting around in San Miguel de Allende is very easy: You either walk (Free!); ride the bus (7 pesos/person, children age 6 and under are free); or take a taxi (40 pesos anywhere inside San Miguel de Allende). Green taxis are easy to flag down during the day, though a little harder to hail in the evening. Streets are safe to walk even in the evenings, though as with anywhere, I recommend staying on well-lit streets. If you don’t want to walk and you can’t find a cab, Uber is also available. We used Uber for a few evenings out on the town, but most of the time we walked where we needed to go, or hailed a taxi from the main avenue.

Road Trips around San Miguel

There were times during our visit when we wanted to get out of the city and explore the outskirts of town. There are hot springs frequented by locals about 15 minutes outside of San Miguel, and we found that both Escondido Place and La Gruta were really nice. (Though the water at La Gruta was warmer.)

It’s possible to take a bus to the springs, but getting back can be a hassle. My recommendation is to book a round trip taxi ride for $15-$20. Our driver, Mara, was amazing.

I also recommend a visit to Santuario de Atotonilco, about 30 minutes outside of San Miguel by bus. If you want to go to Guanajuato City, which is about 1.5 hours away, you can book a tour with BajioGo or take a bus service to the city. Guanajuato City is very walkable, and all the main sites are close together. The only one you may have to take a taxi to is the Museum of Mummies – which we didn’t visit because my children freaked out when I mentioned it! We chose to use a driver to visit Guanajuato City, which ran about $200. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would consider either BajioGo or a bus ($15/person).

Canine Concerns

I knew spending a summer in a developing country would be eye-opening and likely give rise to a lot of questions from my kids. My children live in their comfy bubble here in the States, unaware of many of the harsher realities of the broader world. Their first surprise on arriving in Mexico was the number of dogs roaming the streets. They couldn’t understand why there were dogs out walking alone, or why I would tell them not to touch them. The reality is, the culture in Mexico is different from the U.S. when it comes to caring for pets. One big issue is the lack of sterilization. Even dogs with owners are free to roam, and they inevitably reproduce. There is a large effort to control the dog population, and sterilization services are offered at only 15 pesos (less than $1), but it has yet to become common practice.

However, even this issue had an upside for us during our stay. There was a dog in our neighborhood named Lucas. He was very friendly and spent his day walking up and down the main street. A couple of homes gave him regular handouts, and restaurants didn’t seem to mind his presence. Local diners knew him by name and would drop scraps for him on the floor, but when evening came, Lucas would head home. Even though he represented part of what we perceived as a problem, Lucas became a positive part of our experience.

Unfortunately, dog fights are still legal in Mexico, and many dogs are abused. You don’t often see people playing with dogs here; instead, they’re often perceived as a nuisance and shooed away. Being dog people, we decided to connect with a couple of canine rescue operations in San Miguel, and we got a glimpse of the ugly reality. I also joined a Facebook group of advocates and volunteers, Adopciones Perrunas SMA, who are addressing the issue. More support, education, and change is needed in Mexico to help these animals.

Privilege and Poverty

When living abroad, some challenges are greater than others. For our family, one of the biggest was seeing mothers and young, malnourished children begging for a couple of pesos in the streets. Poverty and lack of access to education are serious problems in Mexico, and we often felt that these women and children were entirely overlooked, as we watched people pass by without acknowledging them. While the United States has its own significant issues, this put into perspective how many of our seemingly important concerns are “first-world” problems.

When walking in the plaza one day, we encountered a young girl selling hand-crafted goods with her baby brother in tow. I invited her for an ice cream and later purchased a woven heart from her. When we sat down to chat, she told me she lived in Queretaro, where she did in fact go to school. She said she spent her summers in San Miguel, selling goods with her mom and taking care of her brother. This little girl didn’t have soccer practice or dance lessons on her schedule. Her job was to do her part to help her family survive.

Sometimes, it’s easy to look away and ignore what’s in front of you. But what do we teach our children when we do? I want my kids to appreciate everything they have – but also to learn humility. I want them to understand that we are all more alike than different, and that while some of us are more “fortunate” than others, we all deserve food, shelter, love, and an education. I hope to show – and inspire – acts of kindness, so that my kids might do the same, even if it’s simply in the form of an ice cream and a few minutes of conversation.

The People of San Miguel

I cannot say enough good things about the people of San Miguel de Allende. “¡Buen dia!” is the greeting people use when passing on the street. When you see the same person daily, you naturally develop a relationship. We stayed four blocks away from San Miguel’s main avenue, Ancha de San Antonio. But instead of a 10-minute walk from our house, it took 45 minutes to get there, because my children had developed relationships with everyone along the way.

Our mornings began with a stop at the bakery down the street, La Hogaza (off of Sterling Dickinson), which had the best almond croissants. My son would hand over his 20 pesos and take a croissant to go while we chatted with the owner. The next stop was the organic fruit stand where my daughter would ask to buy a banana. Next to that was the carpenter, a nice older man who always stopped to say hello, then the vet’s office, where we would greet the dogs.

Thirty minutes in, and we would still be a block away from the main avenue. The last block would go quickly, unless there were people gathered outside the yoga studio – which inevitably there were – and my daughter would start up a conversation. Our last stop was always El Mercado Sano, where we would purchase organic produce and a green shake to go. With their famous farmers’ market filled with great food, music, and authentic goods, El Mercado Sano is a great place to visit on the weekends.

Reflections on Community

In San Miguel, there were no self-checkouts and no drive-thrus. Instead, our one-on-one interactions allowed us to develop relationships within the community. And those daily interactions gave us so many opportunities to demonstrate to our children how to talk to adults with respect, and how to greet people and be polite.

While Mexico can be perceived as unsafe in certain ways – when there are four riders to one motorcycle, for example, or a mom holding three kids in the front seat of a car – we also saw another side to it: When an older gentleman offered to hold my kids while I tried to balance myself on the bus. Or when a man took off his belt to create a makeshift seatbelt for my child. And when a woman reached out to stop my daughter as she tried to run out of the museum. The authentic human interaction we experienced was perhaps the most important aspect of our trip.

Rules and regulations, modernization, and technological advancements can be great, but when they compromise human interaction, individuals and societies suffer. Since returning to the States, I’ve thought a lot about how we can take action to be more connected and develop our tribu – our tribe – right here at home. As a family, we’re working at it daily, one interaction at a time.

 

Did you enjoy this post? If so, subscribe to our newsletter! Receive information, tips, and product reviews you can use to learn Spanish and raise bilingual kids!

Be sure to like our MamaLingua Facebook page, join the MyMamaLingua Facebook community group, follow us on MyMamaLingua Instagram and get the MamaLingua Spanish app for iPhone or Android!