Do you know the biggest mistake that first-time travelers make?
No, it’s not overpacking.
No, it’s not getting ripped off.
And surprisingly, it’s not forgetting to pack imodium for that delicious and questionably cheap street food, because let’s be honest, the consequences are totally worth it after a night of bar-hopping and drinking overpriced cocktails at the discoteca.
What’s the number one mistake? Seeing too much too fast.
Why do most people want to travel?
“To see the world.”
“To have a life-changing experience.”
How can you truly see the world and have life-changing experiences if you’re hopping from one city to the next, barely pausing to catch your breath?
A writer in Chile taught me how to travel meaningfully: slow down.
The world isn’t going anywhere.
(Well, it may get put on pause during a pandemic, but rest assured, it’s staying put. Everything and everyone is staying put.)
It’s when you slow down when you can start to have these life-changing experiences.
I lived in Villavicencio, Colombia for over three years. I didn’t start to travel throughout Colombia until two years in.
The experiences I had in these places not only have changed how I travel – they’ve changed how I experience life.
Sounds grandiose? Well, go to these 8 places yourself, travel s l o w l y. Really get to know them. And then you can come to me and tell me if I’m being grandiose or not. Even though in the end, the lessons are a result of your own experiences in a place.
Before, I was a traveler that would try to visit every city and landmark as if I were in Pokemon trying to catch them all. Now, I travel not for the landmarks (besides that scavenger hunt in Prague), but for meaningful and fulfilling experiences. Here’s how I got there.
Cota: Don’t judge a country by its reputation
My fellow volunteers and I spent our first three weeks of orientation at a country house in a town called Cota. It’s right outside of Bogota.
On our second day in Cota, we watched the World Cup downtown. After Colombia won the game, one of my fellow volunteers and I somehow ended up on a party bus. It drove us around the small downtown. People were cheering on the street; we were waving back at them.
When we got on an actual bus to return to the country house, we were so caught up in conversation that we missed our stop. So, we got off the bus as soon as we could, and walked a kilometer back to the country house, in the dark.
I wasn’t ever scared about going to Colombia until that moment. What if this is how we get kidnapped, I wondered as we walked back alone. Meanwhile, cars passed us by, no one giving us a second glance. Long story short, we got back fine.
How Cota redefined travel: Be safe, but don’t listen to all the hype. The world isn’t as dangerous as you think it is.
La Piedra de Peñol: Don’t be a dumbass when traveling alone
La Piedra de Peñol is the main attraction of Guatapé, a town an hour outside of Medellin.
This rock has 740 steps to its highest point. From there, you can see the little islands in the reservoir.
I wanted to see the views at sunset. My hostel was within walking distance to the Piedra de Peñol. After climbing those 740 steps (a harsh reminder that I don’t go to the gym), I got to take in these breathtaking views.
After sunset, I decided it would be a good time to head back to my hostel. Except I forgot how to get there. I asked a couple where the exit was, and they pointed to a random direction. I shouldn’t have believed them, but the next thing you know, I’m walking down the side of the mountain by myself. After sunset.
I was feeling fairly confident until I heard a dog bark. I turned around, and about 50 feet away are two dogs that do not look happy that I’m trespassing on their turf.
This story gets more ridiculous, just you wait.
To avoid the dogs, and avoid going further down the mountain, I ended up climbing over barbed wire, walking up a steep side of the mountain, and shouting for help, hoping someone at one of the restaurants above heard me. Thankfully, they did.
And then I found a taxi and begged him to take me to my hostel, which was less than 500 meters away.
How La Piedra de Peñol redefined travel: Take the taxi if it’s after sunset. Or leave with other travelers. Sometimes it’s best not to be alone.
Villavicencio: The best way to understand a place is to get involved in the community
I had to include the city where I lived for over three years, didn’t I?
Over those three years, I taught thousands of students. My colleagues and students taught me about the culture of Villavicencio: its food, its music, its folklore, and its literature. They introduced me to their families. They invited me to countless birthday parties. To this day, I consider them my family across the ocean.
They also taught me about the difficult history of Colombia: the internal displacement, stories of kidnappings, teenage pregnancies, and families losing everything due to conflict. And how resilient the people are; how these experiences are the reason why several of my students went into their careers.
That being said, most of my students had happy childhoods, from what they told me. But because of its history, there is a solidarity that I haven’t seen in other countries I’ve visited.
If I’d been traveling through Colombia alone, I probably would’ve only stayed in Villavicencio for a day or two. But, because I was involved in the community, and knew about its culture and history, the experience was so much more meaningful.
How Villavicencio redefined travel: Find a way to get involved in the community, even if it’s just talking to people. Knowing a place’s history, and people’s daily lives and aspirations, can make a place extraordinary.
El Nevado Santa Isabel: Seeing climate change with my own eyes
“In about eight years, this glacier will be gone.”
It had been a long morning.
A van picked me up at 4am with a Colombian couple and a tour guide. Our plan was to visit El Parque Nacional Los Nevados, and walk 4000+ meters above sea level (13,000+ feet) to see a glacier on the mountain Santa Isabel.
As we got closer to the top, our guide was talking to us about the surrounding vegetation. “These plants weren’t here several years before,” she was telling us. “They’ve started to grow as a result of climate change.”
Arriving at the top was a relief. You try hiking at a high altitude after waking up at 4am. And then our tour guide tells us on the way down that the glacier may not exist in eight years.
Would that be the last time I saw that glacier? Is climate change inevitable? Is there anything we can do?
When you see something so massive like a glacier, you feel quite insignificant. One person recycling, saving electricity, biking instead of driving, it feels insignificant in the long run. But maybe if you make yourself an example, more people will join, and those actions will add up to something.
How el Nevado Santa Isabel redefined travel: Beautiful places may disappear in a short amount of time unless we change the way we live.
El Santuario de Las Lajas: I didn’t find God in a church
I grew up going to church every Sunday morning until I was 18. I don’t have a problem with religion, but I couldn’t connect with this higher power in a man-made building, listening to sermons that put me to sleep.
(I also enjoy sleeping in on Sunday mornings.)
Las Lajas is a church that’s near the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. The pictures do not do this place justice. It is BREATHTAKING, and not only because of the beautiful church itself.
The whole area around the church feels sacred. There are trails you can hike around and get a birds-eye view of the church. You can also go below the church. And it was there that I began to connect with God in a way that’s happened few times in my life. It was just me and my journal and my thoughts.
In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho says “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
Let’s say that the universe brought me what I wanted, and more.
How Las Lajas redefined travel: If you want to find God, they and the answers you need are in the natural world around you.
La Isla de San Andrés: Paradise won’t solve your problems, but it looks good on Instagram
I spent my 26th birthday swimming in the Caribbean.
Go ahead, be jealous.
But don’t be jealous of how stressed I was at my job, and that my stress did not go away when I returned. Don’t be jealous of my relationship that was hanging by a thread. Paradise can only do so much.
Even though my 26th birthday was my most aesthetically pleasing birthday, I can’t say it was my favorite (but I’m still grateful that I got to go).
How la Isla de San Andrés redefined travel: Go ahead and jet set off to paradise. Just don’t expect your problems to wash away in the crystal-clear waves.
Santa Marta: I should have known better
I’ve gotten robbed once, and only once. It was my last week in Colombia.
Before the theft, I’d spent all day at the beach. As one does in Santa Marta.
When I got back, I decided to walk around the downtown and get dinner. I figured I’d be back in an hour.
Not even 20 minutes after I’d left, some kids sneaked in the hostel. They claimed they made a reservation and wanted to look around. They never made a reservation. They’d been waiting for the door to be open for them to walk inside and take people’s stuff.
Including my backpack.
I’ve seen people leave their backpacks on their beds, and even charge their laptops while they were out. But that doesn’t mean someone from outside won’t come in. It’s unlikely, but it can happen.
The hostel was kind enough to provide some reimbursement, but it wasn’t how I intended to leave Santa Marta.
How Santa Marta redefined travel: Always lock up your things.
El Valle de Cocora: Always bring an umbrella
El Valle de Cocora is home to some of the tallest palm trees in the world.
I’d been wanting to go for years. I was so excited to finally get to see these huge palm trees – so excited that I almost left with the wrong footwear.
“You’re going in those shoes?” the hostel receptionist asked, eyebrows raised. I was wearing sandals. Because when I think of palm trees, I think of the beach.
This is the landscape of Cocora Valley:
No sandals. (Though it wouldn’t be the first time I showed up inappropriately dressed to a place.)
I also hadn’t anticipated rain. When you’ve been waiting for years to visit a place, you tend to overlook these things.
My fellow traveler and I tried to stick out the rain for as long as we could, but then they wanted to head back. I joined them; this was a few weeks after the dog experience at la Piedra de Peñol, and I was still spooked.
I wish I would have said, “No, let’s keep going. It’s only sprinkling.” I wish I would have convinced them to stick out the rain. Well, there’s always a reason to go back.
How el Valle de Cocora redefined travel: Stick out the rain if you can.
Travel is one of the best teachers
If you travel slowly, and learn to understand the people, culture, and history of the places you see, you’ll have a much more enriching experience.
I’m not saying that jumping from city to city as if you were bar-hopping won’t give you good memories. But in my case, the ones that stick are the ones that I learned from.
Let travel teach you. Let travel open your mind and heart, and change your life.
What place has redefined the way you travel? What’s the biggest lesson travel has taught you? Let me know below!