Living Among the Dinosaurs

On Saturday I found myself eating tiny coconuts and sipping water from tiny shoe-shaped flowers. It was like a miniature tea party!

In fact, one of my favorite memories from childhood was the tiny tea-set that my sister and I shared. Even for 10-year-old fingers, it was teensy. And we would always drink tap water and eat baby goldfish. At that point in my life, real tea was a very grown-up concept.

Now, thanks to my roommate Sav, who introduced me to this drink and the constant presence of tea at our evening meals in Chile, I’m addicted. And a warm cup of tea was exactly what I was craving after Saturday’s adventures.

Let me back up.

On Saturday, my study abroad program took an excursion to La Campana National Park. It’s a magical place just a bus ride away from Valparaiso, where the ecosystem changes suddenly to remind me of Jurassic times.

Doesn’t it seem like dinosaurs would live here? I kept expecting a pterodactyl to come swooping by. This mix of vegetation has been here for hundreds of thousands of years, and the palm trees, or palmeras, are a species unique to Chile. Their presence here has to do with the microclimate in the national park, which receives a lot of rain.

I learned all these things from our tour guides, who were an incredible source of knowledge about the national park. They pointed out tons of wildlife, patiently answering all my questions about rocks and woodpecker species.

The part about the rain, though, I picked up on pretty fast. It was raining all day, starting just after we unloaded the bus in the parking lot. By the time we got back, about 5 hours later, we were slipping and sliding down the muddy hills.

On the plus side, the rain made the waterfall that we went to see absolutely gorgeous! Our guides noted that there was more water rushing down it than they had ever seen.

The rain also allowed us to see some more secretive birds, a tarantula, and flowers that would have closed up otherwise. These adorable bell-shaped yellow flowers generally last about a day, but with the rain, they were filled up to the brim. And they were the perfect shape to take a little sip out of!

The tiny coconuts that made up the other half of my tea party were from the Chilean palmera. They’re about the size of a quarter. Our tour guide found one on the ground and split it open with a rock. They don’t have water inside, but the fleshy white part tastes just like any other coconut!

Overall, I had a wonderful time in the land of the dinosaurs! Despite the rain and the cold, it was an amazing place to visit. And on the way back, we stopped at an authentic Chilean restaurant to warm up with a cazuela (a typical brothy soup) and, of course, some tea.

Wonderful Limits

How do you find words to describe the Infinite? When I try to explain the beauty and majesty I saw this weekend, especially in Spanish, simplemente no hay palabras. I find myself struggling against my limits. And then the Voice inside me tells me to relax.

Tranquila,” it says. “We will have all eternity to discover that.” My mind is blown again.

I don’t understand the concept of eternity. But in my limits, I can wonder.

What I learned this weekend is that that’s enough.

Being in the most beautiful place we’d ever seen brought so much wonder to myself and my friends. The trip was filled with exclamations of “¡Guauu!“, “¡Mira!“, “¡Qué hermoso!“, “¡Es maravilloso!” and “¡No lo puedo creer!” We could only marvel at the beauty of the Atacama desert.

Take a look at my slideshow and marvel along with us! Fun fact: it’s the driest desert on earth.

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Being somewhere like this also makes you ponder deep questions like why we experience the sensation of beauty. My friend Erin had a very wise and interesting response.

“It’s the size of this place that makes us reflect on our own smallness and insignificance.” And that’s what wonder is.  It’s being surrounded by something that’s too big to understand. It’s recognizing our limits of size and understanding.

If we knew everything, nothing would amaze us. If we were bigger or stronger we might not be dwarfed by the majesty of mountains.

Riding around the valle on bikes made me realize how big that corner of the desert was. By the end of the day our butts were sore and legs were tired. I had pushed myself to the limit, for sure. But there was a lot of joy in recognizing my limit; it made room for appreciation of God’s creation.

I think often times we try to push our limits, or forget them. In the process, we lose sight of our place in the world. Truly, we are just one second in the span of history, smaller than one grain of sand in a desert.

We have a choice to recognize that insignificance, or not. Either we accept our place in the world or create a worldview that puts us in the very center. Though it takes a lot of humility to wonder, I can’t help but think it’s worth it.

I met two slightly unpleasant people on this trip. And I feel bad judging them on some short conversations, but I wanted to share what left a bad taste in my mouth– their lack of wonder. A Finnish boy and Australian girl were in one of the hostels I stayed at, and what both of them said was: “I’ve already seen something like that.  I didn’t think it was that cool.”

To me, who felt awestruck at the sights I saw this weekend, this attitude surprised me. Maybe I’m just less cultured and important than (they think) they are. But if that’s the price to recognize beauty and value in a place, I’m willing to pay it.

I’d much rather be like our Brazilian roommate, Sabrina, who told me, “pienso que cada lugar que visito es lo máximo”, or “I think that every place I see is the coolest.” I want her sense of wonder to see lo máximo everywhere I go.

Mountains or Water?

Important question: Mountains or Water? Which one most fits you? Which region would you choose to live?

This is one of the random icebreakers questions I liked to ask. My response in the past has usually been water. There is something about the sweet blue crashing waves that just makes my heart swell with peace and contentment. That’s while living in Holland, Michigan – the beach just being a run away – has been great. With that said – I have always been on the line with the question because mountains embody such majestic beauty and adventures.

So what’s my answer now?

My answer is Cape Town. Not only does Cape Town have beautiful mountains that have created me with amble opportunities to hike, but is also has the beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. So I choose both – I choose Cape Town.

Both these waters and these mountains have created many good adventures for me to hike, swim, and explore. Check out the photos below and Table Mountain Hike video here.

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Highlights of my time in Ecuador

Hola amigos, sadly my time in Ecuador has come to an end. However, for those of you who may be thinking about studying abroad (or just visiting Ecuador), I’ve compiled a list of highlights of my time abroad. If you visit Ecuador, some of these places should be on your list too!

  1. Amazonía – Tena & Misahuallí

  2. Baños
  3. Carnaval Weekend
  4. Centro Histórico de Quito
  5. Cotopaxi
  6. Enrique Iglesias Concert
  7. Mindo
  8. Mitad del Mundo
  9. Museos de Quito
  10. Quilotoa
  11. ¡Quito!

Things to do in and around Quito

¿Cómo están, mis amigos? Are you curious about what to do in Quito? I had no idea that there were so many possiblities for exploration and entertainment in Quito (or on the outskirts of the city). For all of those adventurers out there interested in delving into Ecuador’s beautiful capital city, here is a list of 10 things you can do:

  1. Take the TelefériQo up Pichincha and then go hiking. To do this, you’ll need: a waterproof jacket, layers, good hiking boots, sunscreen, snacks, and plenty of water. Also suggested: sunglasses, gloves, friendly companions, strong lungs, and an early morning visit (to avoid the clouds). Cost to ride the TelefériQo is $7.50 per person (tourist price).

    At the peak of Rucu Pichincha. Photo credit: Aimee Hoffman.
    At the peak of Rucu Pichincha. Photo credit: Aimee Hoffman.
  2. Visit El Centro Histórico. This is basically the old Quito, so it’s full of Spanish architecture, big churches, museums, parks, restaurants, and so much more! This is definitely a good place to visit if you like to roam around old places. Still, most of this part of town has been updated, so you’ll see a lot of modern things mixed in with the old. You can also visit El Panecillo, a hill with a giant statue of La Virgen del Panecillo.

    The Virgen del Panecillo seen from the Historic Center of Quito.
    Walking through El Centro Histórico and seeing La Virgen del Panecillo.
  3. Go to a museum. To really learn about the history of Quito or Ecuador, you must visit a museum to experience the past. Two of my favorite museums in Quito (also located in El Centro Histórico) are Museo de la Ciudad and Museo El Alabado. The first has detailed exhibits of the effects of the Spanish Conquista and the second is full of Pre-Incan and Post-Incan art. Plus, they are only a few blocks away from each other!

    Ceramic artwork displaying the clothing of a shaman found at Museo El Alabado.
  4. Eat good food. It’s Ecuador, so the food here is delicious anyway. But since this is Quito, the capital, there are a variety of tasty restaurants from all over. If you want to try some Cuban, Spanish, Chinese, Mexican, or any other country’s food, you’ll likely find a restaurant for it in Quito. The restaurants are located all throughout the city. There is also street food (not recommended for travelers) sold all over Quito. Plus, if you’re craving good ol’ American food, there are tons of American chains here including Subway, Domino’s, Burger King, McDonald’s, and KFC (although their menus have some Ecuadorian twists to them!).
  5. Watch a play. There are always shows at La Casa de la Cultura and El Patio de las Comedias. I’m not much of a theater-geek, but I did enjoy watching a play with one of my friends at El Patio de las Comedias. It turned out to be a very popular show since it was a comedy about Cupid’s love life! My only recommendation is to buy a ticket in advance (online) or show up early to buy one (I almost didn’t get a seat).
  6. Visit a park. There are tons of parks to visit in Quito. So far I’ve only visited one, Parque La Carolina, since it’s large and close to my school. At La Carolina, there are lots of trees, places to play different sports, a skate park, and a playground. There are also free Zumba classes at La Carolina on Sunday mornings. Safety tip: never visit parks alone or after it gets dark.

    The botanical gardens in Quito are also found in La Carolina!
  7. Take a peek inside the churches. There are many churches in Quito since the city has a strong Catholic background. But I think the most beautiful churches are located in El Centro Histórico. Two churches that are a must-see are the Basílica del Voto Nacional which has so much beauty inside and out (and it’s HUGE), and the other is La Compañia de Jesús which is adorned with gold inside.

    The entire church was impossible for me to capture with my camera! This is La Basílica.
  8. Go to a fútbol game. This is still on my to-do list. A really popular place to watch professional soccer games is at El Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa located in the northern part of Quito. When I get the chance to attend a game, I’ll, of course, have to buy an Ecuadorian t-shirt to support my host country’s team!
  9. Attend a concert. It doesn’t have to be a big concert; Quito has tons of mini-concerts every week. Some places have jazz, rock, and Latin music. Most of the mini-concerts are found within local pubs or breweries. But, Quito also has big concerts! On March 3rd, I’ll be attending an Enrique Iglesias concert at El Coliseo General Rumiñahui! I’m so excited (I’ll mention it in a future blog, I’m sure)!
  10. Learn to dance. Or if you already know how to dance, then just find an awesome discoteca to go dancing. Like I mentioned before, there are free Zumba classes in the park. There are also a few places I’ve seen where they teach belly dancing! I haven’t personally tried those classes, but what I have done is learn to dance from a native. To do this, go to any club that plays Latin music (my favorite), start dancing with friends, and, sure enough, a native will want to dance with you!

So there’s a short list of a variety of activities to partake in when you visit Quito, and I hope you do! Till my next blog, ¡ciao, amigos!

Hiking and Carnaval Festivities

The beginning and ending place to our hiking adventure at El Altar.

Well, amigos, I finally had the opportunity to hike and camp on the top of a mountain (or close enough to the top). This weekend, three friends and I climbed El Altar which is close to the small town of Candelaria, Ecuador. To get to Candelaria, we first had to take a bus from Quito to Riobamba then from Riobamba to Candelaria. I thought the bus rides were gruesome because they took a few hours, but the hike was even more treacherous!

For any first time hikers out there, make sure you research the place you will be hiking beforehand. This tip was brought to you by Brenda, who didn’t pack enough warm clothes and underestimated how much it would rain and how cold it would be to sleep at a high altitude.

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El Altar is beautiful with its glacier-covered mountains and mint-colored lakes. Its tranquil paths up to the camping place above the lake were only interrupted by the sound of birds, horses, dogs, and the occasional back-packer. I felt a little more at ease knowing that there were others out there venturing just like us.

Since this was my first time hiking up mountains, my lungs and corazón were having a hard time keeping up. My legs didn’t even hurt, but my lungs were killing me as we went up the steep trails. I fell only a little behind, yet my friends would wait and encourage me even more. It felt really good being praised for my efforts; their words kept me going. After nine hours (from 8:30 AM till 5:30 PM), we made it to our camping site overlooking the lake.

¡Hasta luego, El Altar!

The rain and cold temperatures made sleeping difficult since I was up for most of the night trying to stay warm. When we woke up the next day however, the sun greeted us with its warmth. I decided to stay dry and not jump into the freezing lake, but I took pictures of my travel buddies as they did. It took us only about five hours to hike back down to the town of Candelaria, where we first witnessed some of the Ecuadorian Carnaval traditions.

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To really experience Carnaval, we figured we would travel to one of the best Carnaval towns in Ecuador: Guaranda. To begin, I must define a few key words regarding the festival and its celebrations.

Carnaval – A religious festival that occurs before the Lent season. A big celebration is in Rio de Janiero, Brazil; Guaranda’s Carnaval is not as big, but it’s big in the sense that the whole town comes together to celebrate. And how do they celebrate? By spraying carioca all over each other.

Carioca – White or colored foam in aerosol cans that is used to spray on random people on the streets. Foam wars will ensue. Young children will spray you in the eyes and you will most likely retaliate by spraying carioca all over their faces or the backs of their heads as they run away. This was probably the most fun part of the whole festival because my competitive side came out; if the Guarandans messed with one of my friends, they messed with us all. I got sprayed in the eyes a couple of times which only hurt because of the pressure of the foam and momentarily blinded me. I also did not like getting sprayed in the ears because the whole world became muted and I could only hear the sound of tiny foam bubbles bursting in my ear canals.

Polvo – Powder. Powder that goes on your face/hair. This is often white powder but can also come in an assortment of colors such as red blue, yellow, and green. I was blue-faced for a while after I was attacked with polvo from a stranger. I couldn’t just let it happen… I had to do it too! I bought a small bag of polvo for 50 cents and smeared it on people’s faces all during the night. It was awesome!! Plus, the people who got powdered by me all cheered afterwards and gave me free stuff. They really enjoyed seeing my foreign group partake in all of the Carnaval traditions, so they just laughed and sprayed us with some more carioca.

The night ended with some great Latin Pop music at a concert in the center of town. It rained and we were sore from the hiking, but with all of the positive vibes from Guaranda (and the awesome music) we ended up dancing all night long! This festival is one that I think everyone should go to at least once. Would recommend 10/10.

I’ll say this was one of my best weekends in Ecuador so far! One tiresome hike followed by a huge, small-town party!! I’m excited for what other wonders Ecuador has in store for me, but until then: ¡cuídense, amigos! ¡Ciao!

Top of the Mountain & Tropical Mindo

¡Hola a todos! Classes have begun and I’m looking forward to learning a whole new wealth of information about my host country! However, to celebrate the end of our first week of classes, I decided to take a few trips to different places around Ecuador.

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First of all, I took advantage of Friday by joining three of my new friends to the top of Mt. Pichincha here in Quito. I can see the mountain every morning from my bedroom window, so I really wanted to explore the top of the mountain. It would have been a long time to hike up there, so we took the cable car (TelefériQo). I didn’t imagine that it would be so scary going up to the top, but I realized that the cable car was going to be like an amusement park ride; I don’t enjoy amusement parks.

But once I got to the top… the view was amazing! It was such a different environment than the city (which I could see clearly from the top of Pichincha). My friends and I hiked around and stood in silence for a while. SILENCE! There is no such thing in Quito since it’s such a busy city. It felt wonderful being away for a while and enjoying nature.

Roaming and observing the surrounding mountains.

We even observed some wild cows roaming the land. I did not pet the cows because I am also afraid of getting bit by wild animals. Instead, I just observed some of my friends getting licked by the cows and photographed them.

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We noticed that there were horse rides that would take us to the crater of Pichincha which would let us see inside the volcano (!). However, since we didn’t bring enough money for anything other than the taxi rides, cable car, and food, we didn’t ride the horses. ¡Pero eso será para la próxima vez!

Leaving our mark on the dirt path on Pichincha.

As if I didn’t already experience enough adventure, the next two days I went to the cloudy forest in Mindo. I stayed in my first hostel and ended up traveling with a large group of IES students from Quito and Cumbayá.

I think the bus ride took about 3 hours, and we dropped more than 1,000 meters in altitude. That means warmer weather and lots of bugs! We were all supposed to go tubing down one of the rapids as soon as we got there, but right before I got on I got very sick and had to sit out. 🙁 I think it was the bus and taxi rides with all of the curvy and bumpy roads.

The view from our hostel’s second floor.

Thankfully, I felt much better after eating lunch! A small group of us decided to hike around the rapids before we took a chocolate tour near our hostel. The tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we were able to see how chocolate is grown and made in Mindo. Plus, we got to sample a lot of cacao beans, stevia leaves, and dark chocolate! Fun fact: the only other place they produce Mindo chocolate outside of Mindo is in Dexter, Michigan; what a small world!

The next day was packed with adventure as we took a cable car (even scarier than the TelefériQo) across the cloud-forest to a trail that led us to different waterfalls. The arduous hike became somewhat dangerous after it rained and the trails became slippery with mud. The rain also made it a little colder, but I felt like I was in a rainforest! I walked around with wet feet for a majority of the hike.

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When we returned to the small town after the hike, I ate my lunch quickly and hopped onto the bus to return to Quito before dark. ¡Fué una aventura maravillosa! I hope to return to Mindo to explore more of the town and to go tubing. So until my next adventure, ¡cuídense mucho mis amigos! ¡Nos vemos!


Split Apples, Tramping, Dolphins, and Sunsets – Another Week Living Life Kiwi

To celebrate the completion of our first course, two girls and I decided to take a road trip to Abel Tasman National Park.  Rental car (aka The Jellybean) packed, leftovers for food, and no road map, we were in for an adventure.  We eventually arrived after a wrong turn or two…or five, but nonetheless we made it.  As we drove in, we were amazed at the number of boats just resting on sand with an anchor and buoy tied to them.  We were even more amazed the next morning when we saw the boats floating in water. Come to find out, Abel Tasman has the greatest tidal variance in all of New Zealand.  Within 6 hours, the tide changes a depth of 4 meters, about 13 feet!

Split Apple Rock…because it looks like a split apple, get it?

We decided we’d spend Saturday hiking the national park.  A water taxi took us up to Torrent Bay and dropped us off where we were to hike 8.5 miles to Onetahuti where we would then be picked up and brought back to the hostel in Manahau.  Everywhere you looked, it seemed like you were the Caribbean.  Unfortunately, the cool air quickly reminded me I wasn’t.

Bark Bay, Abel Tasman National Park. Golden beaches and sparking blue water? Yes, please.
Bark Bay, Abel Tasman National Park. Golden beaches and sparking blue water? Yes, please.
Falls River Suspension Bridge

Okay, and so here’s the thing: New Zealand isn’t very good at marking trails with signs or arrows or anything that helps 3 directionally challenged girls figure out where they’re supposed to go.  So, we walked about a mile the wrong way before we realized something wasn’t right and turned around.  And so, our 8.5 mile tramp turned into a 10.5 mile tramp.  I like to just think of it as taking a detour to enjoy some new scenery.  No one has really bought that idea yet.. We stopped several times during the tramp, mostly for pictures but occasionally to catch our breath after a series of uphill switchbacks.                             It was so incredible how you could be walking in dense bush (forest) and then come to a clearing with an immaculate view of golden beaches and sparkling blue waters.  New Zealand is just pretty rad like that, though.

Bottlenosed this real life?!
Some dolphins thought they’d start showing off for us!

On our boat ride back, we stumbled upon a pod of 30-50 large bottlenose dolphins.  Two weekends in a row! I feel like a dolphin whisperer or something.  But seriously, it was another magical NZ experience.  They were swimming alongside, underneath and all around the boat.  I really wanted to reach out and touch one, but I didn’t think the captain would appreciate retrieving a soggy American from the icy waters.  Some of the dolphins decided to put on a little show and started jumping for us.  If this is New Zealand life, I don’t ever want to leave.

We packed up Sunday morning to head back to Kaikoura.  Before we left though, the office manager, Lothar (aka The Grinch…office’s nickname, not mine), came up to the three of us and gave us postcards and a free t-shirt.  He said he “didn’t normally like people, but for some reason he like us.”  Good enough for me. On the way home, we stopped in Nelson (only got lost like 3 times this time) and hiked up to the “Centre of New Zealand” for panoramic views of the city.

Life is good.
Life is good.
Sunsets in Kaikoura are pretty special.
Sunsets in Kaikoura are pretty special.
I still can't believe this is my backyard.
I still can’t believe this is my backyard.

We returned to the Old Convent with plenty of stories to share.  I’m constantly reminded of the beauty in my backyard here.  From beach sunrises to backyard sunsets, beauty abounds everywhere. New Zealand, you are treating me well.

Up for an Adventure

2014-11-22 07.49.30I am taking a class called Introduction to Mountaineering and this past weekend I had an amazing opportunity to go on the class field trip. It has been a challenging class, but also quite fun and clearly unlike anything I could take at Hope. And part of the fun was that the majority of my classmates are Chilean, and not a lot exchange students. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve loved hanging with other exchange students, but it was fun to do something outside of the norm.

For our final, we took a weekend trip to the Andes Mountains to hike and see all the geographical phenomena that we had studied in class. We stayed in a refugio, which is similar to a hostel except it is actually the owner’s home as well. The drive there wasn’t too bad. We took a bus to Santiago, then got picked up by the National Park people to drive us the rest of the way. The journey was amazing, just seeing all the lovely mountains, the roaming horses and cows, and the rapids making their journey to the ocean. We got to the refugio and got to relax the first night. But no amount of relaxing could have prepared me for the next day. We hiked to a glacier, which was about 9 km total, at an altitude of about 4,000 meters above sea level. Needless to say, it was beautiful, but also hot and difficult. I got slightly sunburned despite putting sunscreen on four times, I was super tired, and my feet were covered in blisters, but I am so glad I went and I’m so glad I didn’t give up. It was gorgeous.

I slept pretty much right when we got back to past dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. I finally went and got some tea and woke up a bit and got to hang out with all the Chilean students, who are hilarious and love having a good time. People were drinking wine and playing cards and bonding. All the people are in the same year, all about to finish up their schooling, so they all know each other pretty well. It was fun getting to know them a bit.

Sunday we thought we were just going to go on a nice walk, but instead we climbed up what seemed to be a landslide of sorts. Turns out it was massive amounts of Gypsum, which was pretty cool. From there we returned back to the refugio to eat (the owner made us lunch; how sweet of her!) and relax until the van came for us at 5. It was back to Valparaiso after a really great weekend!

It will be awhile before my feet recover, but I know the rest of me will never be the same. Hiking in the Andes—how amazing is that!