After almost six months of travel, we are headed back to the United States. Our trip isn’t exactly finished. We are still in the process of moving from Washington DC to Portland, Oregon. The plan is to drive from Baltimore to Portland in the next few of weeks. We are still without a home and will be staying with friends along the way so the trip continues! However, our South American leg that took us from Bogota, Colombia to Lima, Peru will finish tonight as we fly back to Baltimore, Maryland.
Some of our lessons learned after a six-month trip came as a bit of a surprise.
Six Months of Travel Is A Lot
While we both love traveling, six months is a long time. We have found the last month and half that we are no longer living in the moment. Of course, real life always invades on any long trip. Even without a mortgage or rent to pay, we have responsibilities back home. We have to file taxes, to vote, and to keep track of our bank account! But as this trip winds down, I find myself thinking more about househunting than which museum I want to visit tomorrow. It’s time for us to return and put our post-military life in order.
Lesson Learned: Our next long trip will likely be three to four months, not half a year.
It’s Not a Deployment But…
My husband pointed out on our way back into
Here’s why. We lived out of suitcases for 6 months. Although we unpacked in a few places, they were hostels and hotels, not homes. We rarely cooked our own food and survived off restaurant meals. In some places, meal selection was pretty limited. Contact with home was via WhatsApp, Facebook, and Skype, depending on the tech ability of the loved one we were talking too. We drank more than we would at home (pisco sours, anyone?) and did not eat enough vegetables. Working out was complicated. I learned to love large hotel rooms where I could spread out my yoga towel. I also mastered downward dog up against a wall (okay, that sounds really bad but when you need to stretch out sore shoulder and back muscles, you do what you have to do.)
Lesson learned: Flexibility is key in both military and civilian life.
Travel Partners Don’t Always Agree
Let me tell you that traveling with my best friend was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Our first weeks on the road were honeymoon-like. And that’s understandable. We were embarking on a new life together, not unlike when we first took our wedding vows.
I am proud to say that after six months, we are still best friends. It wasn’t always easy. When one of us was in a crappy mood, we tried to give the other one a little space.
We also had to learn when to give. Each of us ended up on trips that the other wasn’t excited about. When I wanted to try out a portion of the Ecuadorian Inca Trail, my husband actually rode a horse, something I know he did not want to do. I returned to Vilcabamba for almost two weeks even though I knew it had little to offer beyond a plethora of expat restaurants and an ideal climate. But Scott didn’t know the place and was intrigued after a one-night stay while we were on the road in the south. He needed to experience it for himself and I got that.
Lesson Learned: Communication is key to having a great relationship with your travel partner.
I have not written about my MS diagnosis up to this point. In fact, I sort of hoped my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis late last year would fade into the past. It had already forced us to postpone leaving for our trip by more than a month while I adjusted to a new medication.
Let me tell you that while I want to ignore my MS, it does not want to ignore me. Hot or humid weather or stressful conditions can send my body into a tailspin of symptoms that make travel tough. The right side of my body can reverberate with tingling, numbness, or just achy pain. It can take days to recover from a single rough event. What I hate most is that MS leaves me without energy. I do best in cool weather and with a light travel schedule. We learned to head out early in the day to take advantage of my highest energy levels and to rest in the afternoons. However, travel like that isn’t always possible.
MS forced us to make some decisions that I didn’t like. For example, we ended up flying to Lima in part because record-setting temperatures hit Northern Peru just as we would be traveling through. Between my lack of energy in the heat and the heavy rains, it made more sense to fly direct. We are looking forward to enjoying Northern Peru in a more temperate season, like August or September. But damn my MS because otherwise, we would have enjoyed a Peruvian summer along there marvelous Pacific Coast.
Lesson Learned: MS cannot be ignored but can be managed.
Sometimes There Is Only One Option For A Budget Traveler
The hardest decisions were those that involved money. We undertook this trip as budget travelers. We expected to splurge now and again but did not have money to burn. So when we wanted to visit the archeology ruins of San Agustin, Colombia and could only afford to arrive by local bus, we sucked it up. I think we were lucky to arrive unscathed. It was one of the worst bus rides of my life and that’s saying something. Our driver seemed chained to the rhythm of the music coming across his radio. Let me just say that there isn’t a lot of slow, romantic music on Colombian radio. But we wanted to see the ruins more than we wanted to avoid the bus trip.
Sometimes we spent too much money because there was only one choice. Point in fact: the Polylepis Lodge near Tulcan, Ecuador. I learned a hard lesson about Ecuadorian shorthand in hotel speak after our bill came back twice as high as expected. Rather than per room, we paid per person. This isn’t uncommon in Ecuador but it was something I missed in the email communication. Honestly, the place was not worth the cost. We are currently on the hunt for alternate lodging near the El Angel Reserve. In the meantime, we suggest our clients stay in Ibarra, about an hour a half away.
Lesson Learned: Plan for surprises in your travel budget.
Not All Tourism Experiences Are Created Equal
Sometimes we went on tours where our expectations went unmet. The promise of the tour just didn’t match the final outcome. Honestly, they are the hardest articles to write. Sometimes it was a lack of communication. It started with our pre-conceived notion and ended with something completely unexpected. Sometimes it was just a poorly concieved model that needed more work.
For example, let’s look at the Inca Trail. We wanted to hike the best-preserved portion of the Inca Trail in all of Ecuador. Conveniently, we had an idea of what the Inca Trail should look like as we hiked the four-day trail near Cusco, Peru. We knew that any preserved portion in Ecuador would be in a bad state. Based on the description from our guide, we expected a flat trail for the majority of the valley. We found a cow path at best. At worst, we hiked cross country through knobby hummocks well-hidden by tall grass, across boggy landscapes pocked with cow pies, and on a destroyed Inca Trail. Furthermore, we rarely hiked on the flat. It ended up being one of the most challenging two-day hikes of my life.
Lesson Learned: Ask pointed questions of your guide to include actual distances and conditions of the trail.
Sometimes The Catch Is Not Worth The Chase
We had a long list of places to see and enjoy. Many of them were locations in Southern Ecuador that we wanted to explore to tell our readers how to best enjoy each location. I really didn’t expect to learn that some of these places are just not worth your time. While all of them have tourism potential, many are in need of serious intervention.
Puerto Bolivar comes immediately to mind. We went in hopes to visit the newest national park in Ecuador, Isla de los Muertos. Problem number one: trips to the island only take place during Whale Season, approximately June through September. Problem number two: the port is disgusting. The so-called coastline is littered with trash and smells like a sewer, probably because the city of Machala uses it to dispose of wastewater. Yet this is the only point of access to the Jambeli Archipelago and the new national park. In truth, Puerto Bolivar should be an embarrassment to the Ministry of Tourism and all tourism promotion should stop until the city can clean up its beach.
Lesson Learned: Our tourism work has to include telling the truth, even when it’s hard to hear.
Reaching Out To Local Guides Was Not Always Easy
If you read the article about starting this trip, you know a large part of our goal was to meet local guides. We succeeded in most places. We hired more than a few! But we did not meet as many as we hoped. And we did not convince every guide we hired to sign up on our website.
The good news is that we have tripled our guide database and plan to more than double that within the next couple of months. We have a much better understanding of how guiding services are legally operated in Ecuador. Our business plan is spot on and many local guides are excited by the prospects of using our tools.
Lesson Learned: Networking in Ecuador is a little different than in the US but not impossible.
There is Never Enough Time For Work
We promised daily photos. It didn’t happen. We didn’t write anywhere near enough. In fact, we have enough photos and material to spend the next year writing without ever needing to take another trip. We gathered far more information than was easy to share in the same six months. Flashback to the conversation above and a three-month trip looks more manageable for this reason as well. Our first three months, we lived up to expectation, posting far more often and getting articles published on time.
Lesson Learned: Scheduled time to process photos and write articles is key to a successful work trip.
Government Bureaucracy Sucks
Before we even started our trip, we hoped to establish a legal, branch office in Quito, Ecuador. The paperwork did not come back in time to finish the process in Washington DC. In fact, people in charge waited until the last minute to decide that we could even attempt to finish the process in Washington DC. We hoped that we might bring the paperwork to Quito and finish it with the help of our lawyer in Ecuador. No such luck. We will have to visit the Ecuadorian Consulate in Los Angeles to complete this process. We have decided to wait until after we have taken care of a few other items, like buying our future home, before starting up the bureaucratic process yet again.
Lesson Learned: Working with any government takes lots of patience. Expect frustration.
Quito Is Still My Favorite City in South America
Last but definitely not least, Quito is still my favorite city in South America. I fell in love with Bogota, Colombia and hope to return. I enjoyed Lima, Peru and could visit again but would likely stray further out of the city for other experiences. But Quito I could return to again and again. Maybe its because I called it home for three years. More likely, it is the combination of wonderful people, unique Andean culture, and my comfort level with exploring little known corners of the historic center.
I love Quito. I hope to return sometime soon!
Lesson learned: We made the right choice starting our business in Quito, Ecuador. Our future looks bright!