Most long term travelers have in the back of their minds a fantasy of a place that they imagine they could find themselves getting stuck in. These fantasy scenarios often include opening up a hostel or some other small business to sustain a lifestyle abroad. As we travel through city after city we have come across a great number of people who have done just that and turned their fantasy into a reality. Travelers just like us who decided to pull the trigger and give it a shot. Would we, Jill and I, be capable of doing this? What typically comes quickly after one of us poses that question is admitting to ourselves that living that far away from home would be difficult to say the least. Nevertheless, no more than 48 hours into Peru and we found ourselves brainstorming about our fantasy with a significantly greater amount of earnestness.
We spent two days in and around the town of Salento just on the outskirts of the zona de café. The draw to Salento, aside from its charm, is the Valle de Cocora. The cocora are the world’s tallest wax palms and can crest over 200 feet. The valley is home to groves of these spindly trees that stand tall and proud compared to the short vegetation that surrounds them. After exploring some of the valley on foot we hopped back in the van and headed into the heart of coffee country. The plan was to find a coffee finca to park for the night, maybe on a hill with a view of the surrounding area, maybe with access to bathrooms, and maybe just maybe a place where we could buy a couple of pounds of fresh Colombian Arabica. It’s possible we were asking for a tall order, but if we didn’t set the bar high we would always end up settling in a gas station for the night and we have learned to love the fight. We have not only developed high expectations of where we camp but we have discovered that the act of finding that perfect place is itself a large part of our adventure.
While our car was making its way across the Caribbean to Colombia, it was up to us to find our own way. We could fly from Panama City, take a sail boat across the ocean or go for the cheapest option which involves a number of outboard motor boats followed by a series of long bus rides. The motor boat option had the added benefit of getting to see a number of additional small towns along the way and spending the most amount of time on the San Blas Islands, an archipelago just off the coast of Panama. Having logged our fair share of miles on public transportation during our lives a day of travel on even the worst of roads seemed a lot less intimidating than the 36 hours of open water sailing that we would have faced had we taken the sail boat. Of the sail boat option, we had heard a number of horror stories of incompetent captains, lack of food supplies and rampant sea sickness. However, we quickly realized our choice was just as susceptible to a bungling, inept crew as any other.
After our hike in El Imposible, we decided to stick together as a group a bit longer and visit the renowned feria gastronomica, or food festival, in the small mountain town of Juayua. I mean, who doesn’t crave some freshly grilled iguana after a long hike in the sweltering heat? We arrived in town just in time to watch the vendors pack away their culinary delights and soon found out the festival was wrapping up for the weekend due to the national election that was taking place the next day.
Our plan to make it to Parque Nacional El Imposible before dark seemed reasonable enough. Distance-wise, it wasn’t far and the border crossing into El Salvador went smoothly, leaving us plenty of daylight for the trek. Between the four of us we had three maps and a handheld GPS. The fact that the road to El Imposible was in a slightly different location on each map didn’t phase us at all. It wouldn’t be the first time we used a less than mediocre map (or, no map at all) to navigate Central American roads. We’re experts, we thought. Besides, even if we got lost we had twelve weeks of Spanish class between us – we could easily use our new skills to ask for directions from the locals.
We were both annoyed when our alarm went off at 4:50 am on our first Saturday in San Pedro. Sleep weighed heavy on our eyes and we wanted nothing more than to roll over and ignore the incessant beeping. Still groggy, I forced myself out of bed and began preparing our packs for the day. We had to hurry if we were to be on time meeting the rest of the group. Once Zach was up, we had a quick breakfast of corn flakes, which Rosario had set out for us the night before, and ran out the door. Pedro and the others were already waiting for us when we arrived.
One of the amazing things about Chiapas, that is, besides the mist-wrapped mountains and Caribbean-clear rivers, is its rich and vibrant indigenous culture. Of the 4.2 million people of Chiapas, more than 25% are indigenous groups, mostly Mayan. There are at least nine languages spoken and each ethnic group has its own beliefs, traditions and dress customs. Tzotzil and Tzetzil clothing, specifically, is the most varied and colorful in Mexico and often identifies the wearers’ village. One of the things we were most looking forward to during our stay in the state was visiting some of the smaller Mayan villages that surround San Cristóbal.
After over a month of city-hopping, we were more than ready to hit the famed Oaxacan countryside. The mist covered mountains in this region are dotted with dozens of indigenous villages, most of which are only accessible via remote dirt roads you won’t find on any map. We had our sights set on a small village by the name of San Jose del Pacifico, a three hour drive south on the region’s only highway. The windy mountain road provided ample mountain vistas and opportunities for viewing indigenous life.
Our night on the TMC ferry was uneventful to say the least. It’s more a cargo ferry than a passenger ferry, so with the exception of a few other small vehicles, we spent the night surrounded by 18 wheelers and dozens of truck drivers. We hung out for a couple hours on deck, watching the sunset over the La Paz harbor, reading and attempting to converse with some Mexican teenagers.