Six months ago I arrived in Medellin, Colombia. Tomorrow I’m flying back to Canada.
Here’s my summary of 6 months abroad…
Before my trip, I had a huge admiration for backpackers.
Setting out with only a small backpack and visiting everywhere as cheaply as possible. It sounded so brave and adventurous.
For my trip, I wanted to visit as many countries as possible. The feeling was that the more places I visited, the more legitimate of a backpacker I would be.
I ended up choosing South America based on:
- Knowing very little about it.
- Knowing very few others who had been.
- Having lots of new countries to explore.
The plan was simple: Colombia -> Ecuador -> Peru -> Bolivia -> Chile -> Argentina -> Brazil
Budgeting for ~1 month per country made that all seemed do-able in 7 months.
After that I could fly to Portugal, make my way to Europe and visit any fine folks I had met in South America.
Easy. Peesy. Lemon. Squeezy. 🍋
I booked my ticket to Medellin, Colombia with no further research or planning. Spontaneous travel is the best travel 😉.
🇨🇴 Colombia 🇨🇴
My first few weeks in Medellin were interesting.
- I realized that the vast majority of people in Colombia don’t speak english. Spanish would need to be learned.
- My fantasy of eating delicious food from carts never materialized. Fast food and instant coffee were more the norm.
- Taking time to practice Spanish/read up on things in Medellin left me feeling guilty. Why was I sitting on my laptop? I should be out exploring the world!
- Stories of crime throughout the country left me on edge. Walking to a cafe with my laptop felt scary, let alone taking nights busses to other cities.
- Every decision felt critical:
- If I headed North, I would have to backtrack to go South.
- If I spent 5 days in X, I would only have 3 days to visit Y.
- Don’t waste money! Don’t waste time!
Relief came when I heard other people say they stayed longer then planned. I wasn’t a lazy traveller, I was just in a good city where EVERYONE gets stuck. I’m still normal. I left the city after two weeks of staying there. So much time! I would need to pick up the pace to get back on track.
I was on edge for my next few cities. On one hand I wanted to see all the things they had to offer. On the other hand, I wasn’t keeping up with my plan and “needed” to move faster.
- In Cartagena I skipped all the beaches.
- In Santa Marta I opted for a day-trip to Tayrona rather than camping. Palomino and other beaches were skipped.
- I had heard about an awesome hostel in Minca. Skipped that. “No time”.
In Bogota I finally slowed down the pace. My hostel was full of awesome people so I stayed for a WHOLE WEEK (Gutsy, I know!).
It was one city, but I was seeing a lot. A trip to the Salt Cathedral. A trip to Villa De Leyva.
After all the rushing I felt…gross. Stuff, stuff, stuff! See, see, see! Do, do, do!
But I had to keep going. If I wanted to stop moving, my best hope would be checking off all the boxes. Then my trip would be over and I could relax.
It wasn’t working though. Next thing you know I’m searching “Travel Fatigue”. The internet suggested taking a break, staying in one place and creating some routine.
So I went back to Medellin. I could stay there until friends caught up or I met other friends to continue travelling with. People were another thing I was beginning to really miss.
I went to a bunch of different hostels. I moved around trying to find a good neighborhood/vibe. This search lead to another realization.
I wasn’t interested in the majority of people.
Not that they weren’t interesting. We just didn’t have much in common. …That’s not true. We all had at least one thing in common. Travelling.
- Where have you been?
- Where are you going?
- How long is your trip?
- How much time do you have left?
- What’s been your favorite place?
The questions quickly got annoying. Not that they are annoying questions. I’m usually quite interested in the answers. But when you make your way through the list and have nothing else to talk about…that’s annoying.
I began to avoid people. Only perking up and talking people’s ears off when I overheard something of interest. I built a routine outside of the traveller sphere.
- Wake up.
- Eat breakfast.
- Go to one of a few amazing cafes.
- Practice Spanish on Duolingo
- Code (working on EpubPress)
- Write on Quora
- Play Chess.
- Grab lunch.
- Code. Spanish. Quora. Chess.
- Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
It was nice. 😊
On occasions, people in the hostel would catch on and question me about it:
“You’re always on your laptop. Do you ever go out?”
“Why are you working? You’re on vacation!”
Hostel Bro - “How old are you?”
Harold - “Ummm…24.”
Hostel Bro - “What are you doing? You have your whole life to work! It’s a Saturday night. COME OUT!”
Harold - “…No thanks…”
I switched out of party hostels. Went to the quietest, most low key places. Kept following my routine.
There was no exit plan. I would leave when I got bored. No more pressure.
In that whole one month period there were two occasions I met people I liked and who were headed in the same direction I wanted to go. I considered leaving with them, but it never happened. It was surprising to me because I had pictured my entire trip as meeting amazing people and travelling around with them. What was going on?
After one month I felt good about the state of all my work. I was ready to move on. But it was a different pace:
- 1 night in Jardin
- 1 week in Manizales
- 1 night in Santa Rosa
- 1 week in Salento
- 1 week in Buenavista
- 1 week in Cali
I found a good rhythm, but was still visiting as much as I could. Still afraid of skipping sights others had told me were unforgettable.
🇪🇨 Ecuador 🇪🇨
After 2.5 months in Colombia, I finally made it to Ecuador.
I stayed in Quito for a week. There wasn’t a lot to see there, but I just needed a break after endless busses between countries.
There were things I wanted to do but just didn’t seem as fun alone. (eg. Hiking the Quilotoa Loop.)
Next was Banos. People seemed pretty enthusiastic about it. I was somewhat disappointed.
At the start of my trip I resolved not to label things are “touristy”.
It’s used as a way to put a negative connotation on a place.
“Ugh. Don’t go there. It’s so touristy”.
But a place isn’t bad because there’s tourists there.
Yet when people used it, I felt like my good experiences in “touristy” places were less valid.
Instead I tried to figure out what I was really trying to express with “touristy” and describe those feelings instead.
“I didn’t like X. There were a lot of crowds and things were above my budget.”
“When I went to Y, everyone was trying to sell things to me and I couldn’t have normal conversations with people.”
The majority of the city was adventure companies and hotels. I was more interested in meeting people who do similar work to me. Sitting in cafes with people from the city. Feeling normal and not having tours shoved in my face at every corner.
At the same time, the list of things to do was very #FOMO inducing. ZIPLINES! RAFTING! HIKES! ADVENTURES!
…I just wasn’t interested though. I decided to stop trying to do everything. If I wasn’t feeling like something, it would be skipped. My new motto was that skipping things I wasn’t excited about was FOMO therapy 💊.
My time in Banos was pretty laid back. Met some interesting people, went on a hike, swung off the edge of the world. The basics.
Next stop was a hostel at the base of Cotopaxi. It was one of my favorite places, mainly because the people there were as silly as me 😜.
I went back to Banos to meet a friend in hopes of being able to travel together. After a few days I realized I wanted a big city though - so off to Cuenca!
More coding. More building the future. By far my favorite city in Ecuador.
Working alone was fun, but at the same time I was starting to miss collaboration. Having someone be able to point out my mistakes and nerd out with.
Some people got in touch about contracting for them. If I could work on paid projects and cover a few months of travel that sounded like a worthwhile investment. Lima seemed like the next place with stable internet where that could happen. I made my way into Peru with my eyes set on Lima.
🇵🇪 Peru 🇵🇪
Peru has a lot to see. Especially on the way to Lima. After so much coding I felt like a break was in order.
The main starting destination for Peru was Mancora. I had been avoiding beach towns, but after months in the mountain it seemed like a nice change of scenery.
Next I went to Huanchaco - another pretty beach town.
Finally I went to Huaraz where I got to experience my first overnight treks. Unfortunately I went cheaper then I should have and landed on a trek where 7/10 people got food poisoning on the first night (thankfully I was apart of the 3/10 who were spared).
Then it was time! Lima.
I knew people in the city when I arrived. I had friends. Within a week I moved into an international house full of friendly roommates.
It seemed like I had it all. And indeed it was a pretty good month. But some issues remained:
- All my friends were also international people. I was limited to that demographic.
- Many told me the city was unsafe. The only place I felt really comfortable working was my apartments dinning room table.
- The activities I loved back home (improv, coding meetups, mentoring workshops) were still few and far between.
- Contracting was fun, but at the end of the day it was still just me alone at my laptop. Debating problems over Slack wasn’t as rewarding as pairing at a computer.
I really just wanted to be home. To have the power to work with others and meet people on a whim.
But going home seemed out of the question. I had told everyone ALL OF SOUTH AMERICA. Getting to Peru had not been the plan. There was still so many boxes to check ✅!
Some things I considered:
- Skipping Bolivia and moving to more developed places like Chile, Argentina or Brazil.
- Flying to Thailand to meet with more remote workers.
- Attending a conference in Berlin for remote workers.
- Flying back home to work directly with people and spend time with friends.
- Flying back to Medellin where more people were working and I felt comfortable working from coffee shops.
- Applying to the Recurse Center in New York. A community of programmers I’d heard amazing things about.
I started applying to things and a bunch of these opportunities came closer to reality. One week later I had was accepted into the Recurse Center and the choice seemed obvious. From there, more choices:
- Accept a batch starting the next week and fly out immediately?
- Accept a batch starting in a month and power through the rest of Peru?
- Accept a batch starting in 2 months, see the rest of Peru and visit home?
After some back and forth I opted for the third option. I left Lima and put myself on the Gringo trail headed for Cusco.
In the last few weeks I’ve been to Ica, Arequipa, Puno and now Cusco. Having an exit plan has felt nice. I’ve felt more optimistic and at ease knowing an end is just around the corner.
Tomorrow I fly from Cusco to Vancouver. I’m excited 😎.
It’s been interesting being morphed by travel.
Starting starry-eyed and excited in Colombia to leaving jaded and confused.
Here’s been some of my takeaways:
1. Do what makes you happy 😃
- Do you like sitting in cafes and coding? Wicked!
- Are you more fulfilled moving to a different city every 10 minutes? Do it!
- Is your ideal life raising a family and staying in one place your whole life? Why not!?
Be open minded. Consider lots of options. But at the end of the day do what makes you happy.
You can visit every city in the world and still be boring and uninspired.
You can stay in one city your whole life and build the most incredible things.
There’s no best combination. Do what makes you happy.
2. Don’t rush it 🏃
“I need to be done in this city in 3 days so I can stay see X, Y, Z.”
“I need to start working now so that I can get to level X in my career.”
“I need to start saving so I can retire by 30.”
I’ve rushed cities. I’ve rushed work. I’ve rushed.
In reality I’m in the fortunate position where I don’t need to rush.
There will be more time to travel. There will be tons of time to work. Rushing has simply distracted me from enjoying what I’m doing in the moment.
3. People and community is important 👫👬👭
The majority of my favorite memories have been formed by the people I met.
- The trek to Machu Picchu wouldn’t have been the same without heart to hearts with fellow hikers.
- The long days of coding are made better by a fellow nerd hacking by my side.
- The days of travel fatigue are relieved by venting to someone who has already gone through it.
- Dinner cooked with friends at home is way nicer then the 5🌟 meal you ate alone.
When I make decisions about where to go/what to do - the outcome is very dependent on the other people who will be involved.
4. Everything is context dependent 🏙🌃
That dude who’s spent the last 4 days coding at the hostel?
- Maybe he’s a anti-social awkward nerd who needs to get out more.
- Maybe he’s working on something super exciting and he can’t step away.
The people in Cusco sitting in Starbucks?
- Maybe they are boring and only interested in doing the familiar.
- Maybe they have been to every local coffee shop in the city and Starbucks is the only one with decent WiFi.
The guys who have been out for the last 5 nights in a row?
- Maybe they are super fun and having a blast exploring the local night life.
- Maybe they are afraid of saying no to a night on the town and spend each of those nights drinking in silence and feeling awkward.
Your friend who’s posted about their support for some politician you really don’t like?
- Maybe they’re a racist bigot who’s totally uninformed.
- Maybe they have had really shitty experience that only that politician has spoken on.
You never know, so stop judging. If you really care, ask questions and empathize.
5. Life is a rollercoaster of highs and lows 🎢
There seems a lot of pressure to always be happy. That’s as unhealthy as always being sad.
Highs and lows are relative. Lows let you appreciate highs.
When I have shitty days, when I go two weeks without making a friend I try and think about this.
I’m in a low - and that means a high is on its way.
Keep riding that rollercoaster ❤️.