Archive for the ‘A day in the life…’ Category

Being a coffee writer, a freelance journalist and “new” to Denver, I often find myself looking for a local coffee shop to work at and/or acquire some much-needed energy. Though Starbucks generally has the most reliable WiFi and a menu I’ve become extremely comfortable with, I more often opt for indie cafés with character and sometimes their own roasts.

Below are my personal thoughts on the ones I’ve visited thus far, ranging from coffee and food to atmosphere and customer service, as well as a five-star rating.

☆☆☆☆☆ You must go here!
☆☆☆☆  Worth a visit
☆☆☆  Does the job, but nothing to write home about
☆☆  If you’re desperate for coffee and short on time
☆  There are too many great spots to waste your money here

The Bardo Coffee House
238 S Broadway
Denver 80209
Score: ☆☆☆☆

This eclectic coffeeshop on South Broadway is a little rough around the edges – similar perhaps to the folks who frequent the bars just a few blocks down – with its furniture slightly tattered and its interior needing a facelift. But as they, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” because I had one of the most delicious lattes in my first visit here. It was frothy and tasty without being too sweet, and had the perfect coffee profile. Bardo uses beans from Kaladi Coffee Roasters, which I’ve seen at a lot of coffee shops throughout Denver.

The staff isn’t as warm as their coffee, but they know how to make a great coffee. There are other beverages on offer, as well as snacks and baked goods.

There are lots of options for seating in the large space, with cozy, albeit worn, couches and lounge chairs in the back, old-school diner booths in the middle and standard café tables in the front. If you don’t mind slightly dingy, tattered furniture, then settle right in! WiFi is free for two hours (via code) when you make a purchase.

Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters
1619 Reed St.
Lakewood 80214
Score: ☆☆☆

This roaster-coffee shop was named in Food & Wine magazine’s top coffee shops in each state, so of course I had to visit. I probably would have never known about it otherwise, because it’s definitely off the beaten path and very easy to miss.

I love walking into a coffee shop with fresh coffee beans being roasted in the big in-house roaster behind the counter. So when I went early one morning, I was welcomed into the spacious roastery-shop with the smell of roasting coffee.

Much of the space is dedicated to the commercial-sized roasting machinery and packaging operations, so it’s not a place I’d come back to work or relax with my coffee. And to be honest, neither the experience nor the coffee are anything I’d go out of my way for – remember, this place is out of the way.

They have a pretty minimalist menu, which I see a lot with indie coffee shops. It comes off a bit pretentious, and this place in particular doesn’t even have syrups or flavorings for its coffee beverages. I ordered a latte and was offered raw sugar as the only way to add flavor. Again, the coffee was OK.

Cafe Ole
3225 S Wadsworth Blvd.
Lakewood 80227
Score: ☆☆☆☆

This place has become one of my go-to coffee shops for working and a good latte, largely because it’s so close to my house but also because the coffee drinks are good and the customer service is exceptional.

It’s great to see an indie business thriving, and this place definitely is. The owner frequents the coffee shop and knows all the regulars, which are plentiful, and takes pride in his staff and business. The baristas are some of the friendliest, most attentive I’ve ever seen at a coffee shop.

They rotate roasts and only use organic, high-quality beans for their coffee drinks. The menu is pretty extensive, with both standard espresso drinks and specialty drinks like dulce de leche and horchata lattes. They also have a decent food menu, with breakfast burritos and empanadas. I love empanadas, so I always get one (or two) when I’m there to work. The Lomo Saltado (a traditional Peruvian dish) and the spinach cheese are my two favorites. They also have fruit empanadas; check in on Yelp and you can get one of these free! They also participate in the Fivestars Rewards program, so I often get discounts on specialty coffee beverages.

The space is cozy and spacious, with a variety of tables and couches for lounging or working. The decor is a bit hodge-podge and the space overall could use a make-over, but these are minor details in an otherwise great place.

Nixon’s Coffee House
871 Englewood Pkwy.
Englewood 80110
Score: ☆☆☆☆

This is my other go-to coffee shop, generally when I’m coming from the eastern part of town. It’s right off Hampden, near one of my gyms, and right off the Englewood light-rail station. The convenience, atmosphere, generally friendly baristas, and food and drink offerings keep me coming back.

It has lots of seating inside and out for relaxing or getting some work done – generally the latter for me. Free WiFi is always great. The only (minor) downside is that the floor-to-ceiling windows face west, so the setting afternoon sun gets really warm, even with the blinds down, and really heats up the space.

In those occasions, an iced coffee or kombucha are perfectly refreshing. Both are good, as are the hot espresso coffee drinks. They have a selection of baked goods, too. For hot coffee, the standard latte is good. But I especially love how they make a macchiato – just the way I like it! Note: It is not the traditional macchiato, with just espresso and foam. It’s made like an upside-down latte, the same way a big-name chain I dare not speak of makes it and how I learned to love it over the years. Nixon’s also uses Kaladi Coffee Roasters’ beans.

ink! Coffee
1590 Little Raven St.
Denver 80202
Score: ☆☆☆

I’ve seen these all over Denver, so even though it’s a small, local roaster – its roasting facility is downtown in the hip RiNo district – it can now technically be classified as a chain. That said, it’s an OK coffee shop for a chain: nothing special, but nothing negative either. They only have one size for iced drinks, which is weird. I usually stick with 12 oz coffee because I don’t like all the extra milk, so was disappointed to hear 20 oz was my only option. Who needs that much milk?! Fortunately they accommodated my request to not fill the glass to the top with milk. They also gave me a fourth shot of espresso for free, since I ordered three but the machine pours in doubles regardless. As such, I’d rank customer service alone with five stars.

The space isn’t super cozy and it lacks a bit of character, but that’s expected with a chain I suppose. There was ample seating, though, in the large interior space and out on a spacious patio with tables and umbrellas. I wouldn’t be opposed to working from here in the future if I happened to be in the area and needed free WiFi and some coffee.

Novo Coffee
217 S Holly St.
Denver 80246
Score: ☆

I had driven by Novo on Holly several times and wanted to check it out in my explorations of Denver indie coffee shops. Turns out there are several others around Denver, which surprises me considering I didn’t have a very good experience. It was actually quite the let down in many ways – so much that I left early and will definitely not be back to this location or any others.

Why?

  • The staff were not friendly and seemed annoyed by customers coming in. And for some reason, there were about five baristas working for very minimal traffic.
  • My coffee was not made correctly. The barista who was annoyed by having to work clearly didn’t listen to my order because I could tell it was off. (I will say the coffee itself was decent, though.)
  • There are no outlets for people to charge phones or computers. And the one extension cord they had available was pulled into the middle of the room, creating a trip hazard.
  • The temperature in the café was completely out of whack. When we arrived on a sunny winter day, the heat was blasting inside and everyone inside was visibly uncomfortable. Not long after we arrived and got settled, the AC kicked on and dropped the temp to an equally uncomfortable frigid level.

At one point during our short visit, the owner stopped by (I recognized him from his photo on the company website). To my surprise, he didn’t seem to notice or care about the issues with the excessive (and rude) staff or the uncomfortable, inconvenient setting.

St. Mark’s Coffee House
2019 E 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Score: ☆

The only positive about this place was the people watching. It’s an eclectic crowd and we happened to be lucky enough to sit next to a gal who called a meeting with a guy she has a crush on who is currently involved in a love triangle with her two friends. The awkward conversation that was going down between them kept me entertained and distracted from the horrible experience I was having at St. Marks.

The only barista working seemed incapable of actually doing his job and clearly hated that he was at work. I’m not sure if this is him every day, or if he was unsuccessfully recovering from a wild night.

I ordered a nonfat vanilla latte with just a little vanilla. It took quite a while to make, and once I got it I found it was poorly made and not the right drink. It had zero foam; I watched as he half-assed steamed the milk and slopped it into my glass. It also had zero vanilla; I never saw him put any in and I couldn’t taste any. When I brought it back up and asked him to add it in, he snapped that I didn’t order vanilla…. Umm, ok.

My sister attempted to order a breakfast sandwich but he struggled to understand what she wanted, and then made it very clear that he did not want to accommodate her simple request of no cheese. Frustrated, she just ordered a toasted bagel and cream cheese. Within 30 seconds, he managed to forget who she was and burn her bagel. “Do you need something?” he said, and so she reminded him of her bagel, which was burned by this point. Instead of accepting it, which he expected her to do, she just asked for a croissant.

The place is expansive, with lots of seating. What’s unfortunate is that not a single table had been wiped down that day – or dare I say that week? Even after wiping down the tables ourselves, they were still grimy. The floor was dirty too.

Corvus Coffee Roasters
1740 S Broadway
Denver 80210
Score: ☆☆

This place off Broadway has a great patio and beautiful signage on the wall that would have easily called me in off the street had I not already sought it out via Yelp.

Like Sweet Bloom above, the space smelled of freshly roasted beans because the space operates as a cafe and roastery. A barista and the cafe counter greeted me at the front and a roaster was hard at work in the back, perfecting the latest batch. High-top tables, chairs and bags of green coffee were intermingled (tightly) between the two spaces. While it’s definitely neat to be among “the action” of a roastery, the space was way too cramped; it’s just too small for all the seats they tried to fit in there. The only seat I could find available was the bar along the side, which basically required me to climb over coffee bags and bump a row of other patrons every time I needed to pass through. I’d recommend reducing the number of chairs and tables inside or find a way to store the green coffee elsewhere.

The barista was super friendly and helped me order when I stared at the minimalist menu with a confused look on my face. I ended up with my standard latte – it was good, but nothing to write home about. And unfortunately I ended up not getting to enjoy it and having to drink it very quickly because the café’s “free WiFi” wasn’t working. Aside from preferring indie roasters/cafés over chains, the WiFi is why I chose this place. So needless to say, it was super annoying to find out the WiFi didn’t actually work AFTER I ordered.

If the coffee was amazing, I’d probably go back, but it was pretty standard for a specialty roaster-café, so I won’t likely go back considering all the negatives with the actual setting.

2914 Coffee
2914 W 25th Ave.
Denver 80211
Score: ☆☆☆☆

This great little café is on a tiny business strip just off Federal near the Highland neighborhood. The café is cute and eclectic, with mismatched vintage-y furniture – even a barber’s chair! It also has a great patio out front with lots of seating for warm days.

Like many of the shops I’ve visited, 2914 uses Kaladi Roasters coffee beans. I haven’t had an espresso I didn’t like using Kaladi bean, so I can go into most cafés with their beans and feel confident I’ll like the coffee drinks. And as anticipated, I enjoyed my latte while eating a raspberry scone and working on the free WiFi. They also have a variety of paninis that sounded good.

Unfortunately I’m rarely in this part of town, particularly during the time of day when I would need a coffee or somewhere to work, so I don’t see myself frequenting the café. I highly recommend it for others in the area, though.

Coda Coffee Co.
5224 W 25th Ave.
Denver 80214
Score: ☆☆☆☆

Coda is technically in Edgewater, which is a little unincorporated township right off Sloan’s Lake. It’s a bright little coffee shop right on “main street.” Their other location is the roastery in North Denver. I’ve seen some of their coffee used at a couple local shops, but would love to see more because I really like it.

I first stopped in on my way to work and got a vanilla latte to go. It was one of the most delicious I had ever tasted! When I went back, the latte didn’t knock my socks off the second time, but it was still good. They also have good cold brew, and I believe they have kombucha on tap. They sell pastries and breakfast foods from local businesses.

Because Edgewater and its main street are small, the businesses are naturally small themselves. As such, the seating area in Coda leaves a bit to be desired. Seating is somewhat cramped in an odd-shaped, narrow space – not ideal for lounging or working. I don’t believe it’s air-conditioned either.

So needless to say, I probably wouldn’t go back with intentions of working there, but I definitely will go back for a great coffee beverage.

Fun side note: In writing about Probat, a German commercial coffee roaster manufacturer, for an article, I learned that Coda co-owner Tim Thwaites won a contest Probat put on at last year’s Specialty Coffee Expo to visit the company’s state-of-the-art headquarters in Emmerich, Germany.

Pigtrain Coffee
1701 Wynkoop St.
Denver 80202
Score: ☆☆☆

This is coffee shop is in the newly renovated Union Station in downtown Denver. Because it doesn’t really have any seating and, instead, relies on the train station’s seating in the Great Hall waiting area, it’s more of a coffee bar. Also because it’s in the train station, it’s a great place to pick up a coffee before your departure or on your return. As such, it’s a busy spot but the baristas are pretty good about keeping the line moving.

They have a decent selection of coffee and other drinks. I decided to go with a unique specialty latte with lavender, but unfortunately I wished I had stuck with my go-to vanilla latte. The lavender-espresso combination made it taste a bit like potpourri; the lavender just gave it a weird flowery taste. I can see it going well with tea, but not coffee. Now I know. Unfortunately I can’t comment on the other coffee beverages and I couldn’t even really tell if I liked the coffee itself.

I guess they also make coffee alcoholic beverages and cocktails, too, which I’m assuming are more popular with the evening crowd that flows through the Great Hall. They use coffee and espresso beans from locally owned Conscious Coffee.

SloHi Coffee Company
4436 W 29th Ave.
Denver 80212
Score: ☆☆

This coffee shop combines its operations with a bike shop, which is a bit of an odd combination and doesn’t make the coffee side ideal for relaxing or working. It’s better for people looking for a coffee to-go. I was in dire need of some caffeine on the go, so it worked perfectly for me. And because bikes flowed in an out of the space, the barista didn’t even bat an eye when I came in with a double-jogger stroller.

Come to think about it, he didn’t really show any emotion to me or any customers. The barista wasn’t very friendly.

I got a cold brew, which was good but pretty standard. They use beans/roasts from a few local roasters, which I always appreciate. One of those is Strava Coffee, a company I had the opportunity to interview and write about. They have a line of hemp-infused coffees (with CBD), so I thought that was a unique and interesting addition to the coffee shop’s menu. If I wasn’t on the clock, I might have considered trying it.

Copper Door
900 W. 1st Avenue #180
Denver 80223
Score: ☆☆☆

If a person didn’t intentionally seek out a nearby coffee shop or patronize one of the nearby businesses, this place could easily go unnoticed. It’s in this tiny little indie business district below Santa Fe called the Yard. I have no idea how the mish-mash of businesses in there came together, but it’s quirky and I like it.

Copper Door isn’t quirky, per se, but it’s a great coffee shop in what looks like it used to be an auto garage of sorts. For the first half hour I was there, the big garage bay was open, letting the nice spring weather into the large open space. The barista pulled the door down when it started raining.

I got a cold brew, which was good, but I resisted my temptation to get a pastry. They have quite the selection of yummy-looking baked goods. I think they also have some hot items, like breakfast sandwiches and burritos.

As I mentioned, the indoor space is large. It’s pretty minimalist and clean with some seating up front and the coffee bar in the center. In the back is the roaster; they roast all their beans, and I believe there are a couple other locations, including the original.

Advertisements

January 8, 2017

I’m sitting at the airport after my first flight, the first of two layovers and a stopover. Not the ideal flight itinerary considering how exhausted and sick I am. For the second time this trip, I’m sick with bronchitis. Fortunately – for that reason only – home is around the corner.

I land at LAX at 11:50 am tomorrow, Sunday, January 8. That’s four days later than my original flight itinerary, which had me leaving Rio on Wednesday and arriving to LAX that evening. A much better flight itinerary, yes, but it was too soon. I wasn’t ready to leave Rio, to end my trip, to head back to reality.

It would have meant only 3.5 days in Rio; I quickly learned that wasn’t enough to do and see everything in the incredible city. I’d originally booked four, which I knew wasn’t enough but was all I had “time” for. But when it came time to check in for my flight from Sao Paulo, where I think I had too many days, I realized that I had booked my flight to Rio for January 30 instead of December 30. A new flight – for $260 to $500 – wasn’t in my budget, so I booked an overnight bus. This meant I’d lost my evening and would be arriving to Rio a day later. I lost most if that day, too, because I’m one of few who can’t sleep in cars, buses or planes.

On top of that mishap, I also had a few days of bad luck trying to visit Christ the Redeemer due to weather and timing. So after just a couple days in the city, I knew I wanted to stay longer. Fortunately my flight was refundable and my boss was understanding. I got to see Christ the Redeemer and got some extra days at the beach – which are highly necessary for someone like me.

All that explanation was basically to say I wasn’t ready to head home. But now as I sit here at the airport, I wonder how ready I am now. Put aside the bronchitis and this dreadful flight itinerary ahead of me, and could I stay longer? Not necessarily in Rio, but in South America, on the road? Could I keep traveling? Am I ready to go back home?

I’m ready to do some laundry (my way) and wear some different clothes. I’m ready to sleep in my own bed and actually sleep in because I won’t have any noisy dorm mates or any sites to get up early for the next day. I’m ready to start working out again and eating better. (I’ve definitely put on some LBs during this trip – lots of carbs, booze and sweets.) I’m ready to pare down my spending and pay off the debt I’ve incurred. (Despite traveling by bus and staying at hostels at times, all the travel and food and activities are expensive. I don’t even want to try to tally up how much I’ve spent.)

But I’m not ready to go back to the real world, the reality where I have to work every day and re-accumulate vacation days and justify taking time off.

It’s this weird dichotomy, where I’m ready to have my routine back for the stability but I’m also not looking forward to the monotony and lack of daily adventure in a routine . I also have no problems with my job; I love the company, my boss is great and I’m freshly in a new position. It’s more that I’m dreading work itself. People spend so many hours, days, years of their lives working, and some people never even get to see the fruits of their labors.

I’ve traveled quite a bit, but this trip has only confirmed how much this world has to offer. There is so much to see and do, and I’ve only experienced a small portion. Heck, some people have never left their hometowns or crossed their state lines. While that will never be a reality for me, I hate to think that I’m headed back into a daily routine that involves working in an office eight hours a day. I haven’t lived that life in 64 days! Going back is going to be quite an adjustment, and I foresee myself struggling for motivation in the early days.

I’m not looking for sympathy or a pity party. And I definitely don’t want my boss to question letting me take this trip in the first place. I just don’t know how long it will take before I’m “ready” to be back. By the time I’m ready, I’ll probably have already planned my next trip 😉

Disclaimer: I recognize that I’ve slacked in my blogging. I’ll admit I slowed down, but I do have some posts to put up from the past few weeks that are saved elsewhere. I’ll also add some photos to previous blogs. In the meantime, I’ve added all photos to my open Google album here: https://goo.gl/photos/Q9CEN7Vmi4UcFFoU8

P.S.  Thanks for reading!

20161231_172744

December 25, 2016

As long as I can remember I swore I would never miss a Christmas with my family at home in Colorado.

But, here I am, at a hostel in Sao Paulo, Brazil, after a long day of traveling from Iguazu Falls. It’s Christmas Day.

When I was a kid, the thought of being away from my family on Christmas never crossed my mind because I was obviously living at home. But even when I went out of state for four years of college and then moved to California for a job, I knew I’d always be going home for the holidays. And even when i had a serious boyfriend of 2.5 years, there was still no question that I would be with my family at Christmastime.

I grew up with a tradition of celebrating on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas Eve was what my siblings and I looked forward to the most because it meant “party hopping” until church, finger foods and snacks for dinner, presents!, staying up late and slumber party at grams and gramps’ house. We even got to open presents from Santa that night. Christmas day meant sleeping in, playing with the toys we received, a proper christmas “dinner” at 2ish and board games into the evening.

Our tradition was largely built from the fact that my dad didn’t have living parents to spend the holiday with and my mom’s only married sibling devoted Christmas Day to his in laws. Our annual tradition just worked for our small family, and us kids loved it. I never wanted it to change.

But as is often the case, things started to change. One year in high school, my dad proposed that we start going to the 5:00 service instead of our normal 7:00. We had pared down the number of friends we visited before church and my new cousins (from the married uncle) didnt need to be up late the night before going to visit the other side of the family. It just made sense to go  to church earlier. I, on the other hand, was livid. I can’t honestly tell you why, though, aside from the fact that it was change. It disrupted our beloved annual tradition. “Thats not how we do it,” I cried. I probably even told my dad i hated him.

I eventually got over it, but I still blamed my dad for ruining Christmas that year.  Meanwhile, everyone else (i.e. the adults) was very happy with the change.

20161218_195348In college, Christmas changed because my dad had started drinking (though we didnt know it at first). I came home for the holidays a couple years to someone who was not my dad: he was acting weird, being especially argumentative, experiencing odd health issues and even falling. I remember calling my boyfriend and crying to him that dad had ruined Christmas again.

Dad was in and out of the picture at Christmas in the decade following as he often opted for the bottle over his family. During his sober stints, grams would invite him to join, but it was incredibly awkward. We all refrained from drinking, which had become part of the tradition as we all came of age, and we watched his every move to make sure he wasn’t sneaking alcohol from my grandpa’s well-stocked  cupboard in the kitchen.

After moving to California, I still looked forward to going home for Christmas, even when I had zero vacation days having started a new job just two months earlier. I bought an overpriced plane ticket and went home for a long weekend.

Not too long after that, though, drama in other corners of the family started boiling over. My mom, her siblings and the wife who married in would go through bouts of fighting, jealousy and shit-talking behind backs. At one point my aunt in law didn’t like our family (maybe she still doesn’t). Then my blood aunt started getting sickly jealous of my mom. And all the while mental problems plagued at least two of them.

I know every family has its disfunction, but ours has gotten bad and the sibling drama has really started affecting the rest of the family.

Last year, was the first time I was confronted with the idea of not spending Christmas with the whole family. My sister and brother brought it up in a group text message. I immediately felt the same way I had 15 years early when my dad proposed changing Christmas. I hated that they were putting me in this position. I didnt want anything to change. As my eyes welled up, I shot them down and then excused myself from the conversation.

Later my mom brought it up, sensitively proposing that we try something different. I wasn’t happy about it, but finally accepted that I was outnumbered and it didn’t make sense to force people to be with each other on Christmas when they didn’t want to be. I reached out to my friend whose family has an annual party on the 24th and invited myself there. I told her the family might be in tow.

In the days before Christmas Eve I ended up finding out through a sibling that my mom had chickened out on her own plans to skip the annual Christmas tradition and would actually be there Christmas Eve. What’s more, it had been communicated to everyone, including the grandparents and cousins I adore, that “Lindsay won’t be here for Christmas because she’s going to a party.”

Once again, I was livid at Christmastime. I didn’t want to change plans to begin with but felt cornered and had decided it was for the greater good.

In the end I went to my party, with siblings in tow, and recorded that as the first Christmas (Eve) that I wasn’t with my (whole) family.

Looking back, maybe that was the transition away from my beloved holiday tradition that I needed considering I didn’t spend Christmas Eve or Day with my family this year. Or maybe I subconsciously planned my international sabbatical over the holidays on purpose because of how unconfortable and drama-filled Christmas had become.

Aside from missing my family, I’m not too bummed to have missed being home for the holidays. The fam went back to the tradition and all the aunts and uncles were pleasant in my brief FaceTime chats with them on Christmas Eve. It all seemed to go off without a hitch this year, which I’m sure makes my stressed grandma happy. She had all her family under one roof for the holidays again, except me.1482628068508

Last night I was at a hostel in Foz de Iguazu (my first night in Brazil). It’s summer, so I was dripping sweat in the under-air conditioned lounge. I had walked to the main part of town and treated myself to a steak dinner and bottle of wine. Other Christmas Eve dinner options included sushi or Pizza Hut.

This morning I visited the Brazilian side of Iguazu Halls. I had toured the Argentinian side yesterday, but today’s views were equally magnificent.

There were a lot of people there – away from their families for the holiday – and the summery, tropical weather did not evoke any wintry, festive feelings. It did not feel like Christmas. In fact, it hasn’t really felt like Christmas at all this year.

I have been traveling for nearly two months and have hardly seen any holiday decorations. No houses were decked in lights, no stores appeared to be having holiday specials and Christmas music was nowhere to be heard. The exception was a fancy malls in Buenos Aires. A three-story tree sponsored by Carolina Herrera stood in the middle surrounded by other decorations and a “picture with Santa” station. These were the only indication that Christmas was around the corner.

It was good to be reminded that it’s Christmastime and experience a little festivity, but it also reminded me that it was all I had this year. Yeah, it rarely feels like Christmas in warm SoCal, but I always had my family and snowy Colorado to go home to.

This year, Christmas was a Spanish-speaking Santa at the mall, a Brazilian steak dinner by myself, a day-trip to the amazing Iguazu Falls and a FaceTime chat with my family. Sure it’s not the Christmas I imagined as a kid and it’s far from the tradition that I tried to hold onto so tightly, but it’s a Christmas I’ll remember and cherish forever. I’ll probably never have another Christmas like it.

unknown

December 13, 2016

It’s been 10 days since I’ve written, but funny enough I’m still at Rado Boutique Hostel in Santiago, where I was when writing my last blog.

In those 10 days, I’ve stayed in six different lodges, trekked/walked/climbed 157,651 steps and seen some of the most beautiful scenery. December 6 was the first day of my trek in Southern Patagonia, in Torres del Paine National Park.

I booked with an agency called Chile Nativo and was added to a preexisting group of two – third wheel to what I expected was a couple. When I arrived for the 11 am briefing, though, I learned there would be four of us and that we were all single women. Two of them were coworkers who had tacked on a Patagonia trek to the end of their work trip to Santiago. The other gal was a Massachusetts native-turned San Francisco resident, who was traveling by herself. She’s normally inclined to make long international trips like mine, but this time she only had a quick break for the trek and a couple days in Santiago.

All these girls were big travelers actually, and my passport – with nearly 15 different countries stamped in it – palled in comparison. The coworkers, Eva from Slovenia via Albania and Lucy from England, were in a line of work for a nonprofit that had them traveling quite a bit, mostly to war-torn, third-world countries. Erica, who would be my bunk mate for the duration of the trip, once took a 10-month trip around the world, picking up an Irish boyfriend along the way who joined her in her travels.

These ladies were legit! And after getting to know their lively, easy-going personalities, I was even happier to be matched up with them.

Day One
After the briefing, we were set free in Puerto Natales to get lunch before we set off by private van to Torres del Paine National Park, about 2 hours north. Once there, we set off on an easy hour hike with our day packs to the first Refugio where our big packs were waiting. We saw heaps of guanácos (in the alpaca family), royal blue Lago Sarmiento and hieroglyphics. This was the easy day, and was by no means preparing us for the couple tough days to follow. The only difficulty we encountered was the insane wind that made walking the flat trail slower.

After settling in, we cheers’d Pisco Sours to the adventure ahead, chatted over dinner and waited for the sun to set at 10 pm before going to bed.

20161207_122831Day Two
Our energetic guide, Chuma, warned us that this day would probably be the most difficult. Although we would only be bringing our day packs, the trek was uphill for the first half of the day. We climbed to 880 vertical feet to the base of Los Torres – paltry compared to what I saw on the Inca Trail – passing dry valleys, dense forests and rock ravines.

Once there, the view was a worthwhile reward: The three towers loomed in the distance, with a beautiful aqua-colored lagoon of glacial slurry below. We sat for nearly an hour, taking it all in and eating our soggy salmon sandwiches. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to making the trip back, which was a bit quicker but not necessarily easier.

Day Three
We checked out of our Refugio and set off with our full packs nearly six hours (disclaimer: which included two cat nap spots at mirador salons the route). We were headed west toward the French Valley, one of the park’s other popular sites that help make up the W. We ended at a small Refugio tucked away on the hill with views of Lago Nordensjkold and Los Cuernos, the mountain peaks of the lodge’s namesake.

Chuma said this would also be an easy day, and considering we should have made the trek in less than four hours, we definitely turned it into an easier one. Otherwise, there were some hills to conquer and we were carrying our full packs for the rest of the trip. The day’s trek didn’t end at a breathtaking destination the way the previous day’s had, but we all agreed that the scenery along the way was equally beautiful, just different.

20161208_150629

We arrived to Refugio Los Cuernos in the late afternoon and checked into our upgraded private cabins that I immediately fell in love with. They were super adorable with a front door and porch that looked out over the massive aqua-blue lake. It was from that point, though, that everything went downhill. The water kept coming disconnected from our private bathrooms, the showers didn’t get hot or drain, the comedor was way too small and way too stuffy, and the wind got so bad at night I was afraid our little cabin’s roof would blow off. By the next morning Erica and I were eager to get out of that place.

Day Four
Needless to say, I was in a bit of a funk on this day. Adding to my mood was the fact that instead of continuing west along the W and up into the French Valley, we had to backtrack the route from the day before and wouldn’t get to see the French Valley. Just three days before we set out on this trip, an essential bridge connecting the east side of the W with the west, just below the French Valley, broke. Word on the street was that a small boat was taxiing people from one side to the other on the lake at the mouth of the river. But, over the course of the first few days we learned that this boat was not only unreliable – some people waited just to have it never show up – but also not equipped to handle the volume – hundreds of people cross that point each day, but the boat fits only 12.

Basically, this bridge situation meant that people attempting the W west to east could not get across to ascend into the French Valley and people going east to west (like us) couldn’t cross after descending the French Valley. Both sides would have to backtrack and take a bus-boat combo to get to the other side at the farthest points of the W.

After all the planning and money and time and excitement, we would not be able to officially complete the W and we would miss out on the French Valley, one of the most amazing sites of the region. Sensing our disappointment, Chuma and the folks at Chile Nativo came up with a plan the night before for us to forge the river by foot on Day Four. If we were willing, we would carry our packs (over our heads if it got too deep) and wade through the icy cold glacial river. Though Chuma didn’t have anything but guesses to the river’s depth and current, I was elated. We would get to see the French Valley!

Unfortunately Chuma’s lack of info (research) concerned one of the others so much that she managed to talk the other two down from their excitement (she did have some valid points). Radioed reports back from the river claimed it was a bit deeper and stronger than Chuma’s initial guesses, so majority voted against the idea. While I would have still forged the river, I wasn’t comfortable putting the others’ safety at risk.

20161209_135059A silver lining to the frustrating situation was our rare opportunity to spot a puma while making the drive to the other side. We got out of the van for quite some time and watched it before it finally crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the hills.

Day Five
This was technically the last day of our excursion with Chile Nativo and the last leg of the W. We left Refugio Paine Grande and headed north to Lago Gray and Refugio Grey, both named after the glacier that fed the lake. We walked at a steady clip, despite hills to climb and very strong winds pushing against our fronts. Because it was our last day, we were on a time crunch to arrive before 1 pm. The gals had tickets to the boat that would take them in front of the glacier and then down the lake to where the private van would pick them up and take them back to Puerto Natales. I had a separate 1 pm reservation to kayak in front of the glacier; it meant I would forgo the boat and have one more night in a refugio before trekking back down the previous day’s route to get to the boat-bus combo back to Puerto Natales.

After saying bye to Chuma and the girls, I joined 9 other people to kayak. We got decked out in neoprene suits and gear and awkwardly set out in double kayaks as if we had just learned right from left for the first time. Before we could even go 50 meters, though, the less-than friendly Polish guide at the front cancelled the journey due to winds that had just picked up and abruptly changed direction.

Instead of waiting to kayak the following morning, I joined a group leaving for a glacier hike. And perfectly, my German friend from a previous refugio was going on it by herself. The excursion ended up being really cool, allowing us to see the glacier from a boat as well as on top. We saw some amazing ice formations, tunnels and streams while on top of Glacier Grey. It’s just incredible to think something like that exists (I might try to dedicate a blog to that later).

Day Six
A night at Refugio Grey was included with my glacier package, so I had to make my way back down the left side of the W from Grey to catch the transport from Refugio Paine Grande. I had no problem making the 3-4 hour trek myself; it was only semi-strenuous and the route was very clear. Chile Nativo provided me with all the instruction and tickets I needed.

Instead, the problem was that “heavy rain” was in the forecast. My pack wasn’t waterproof and despite having sprayed my jacket before the trip, I wasn’t confident it was waterproof. Hiking while wet can be pretty miserable.

After breakfast I quickly hiked further up the trail to a couple miradors of the glacier and hanging bridges. I made good time and made it back to the lodge to eat lunch and get my big pack. That’s when the rain started… Needless to say, I was not motivated to leave my cozy spot in the lodge and start making the trek.

Fast forward three hours: I was soaked, cold and not stoked that it would be another five hours before I arrived at my hotel back in Puerto Natales. It was 5 pm, the boat left at 6:30, and the bus left after 7, arriving in Puerto Natales at 10 pm.

At one point during the hike I contemplated staying in the park an extra night to try to hike to the French Valley – I would cross that river myself dammit! But at this point, I just wanted to add a night so I could take a hot shower, dry my clothes and climb under warm covers. So that’s what I did. Fortunately Refugio Paine Grande had a bed available in a six-bed mixed dorm. I had to rent a sleeping bag (mine was back in Pueto Natalas, because we didn’t need it during the trek) and share a room with four smelly boys and another gal. The shower never got warm, let alone hot, and I couldn’t seem to warm up, but curled up inside my sleeping bag in one of the lounges was way better than wet on a long bus ride.

Day Seven
Torres del Paine, you are amazing and glorious and wonderful, but I am ready to get outta here!

After checking out, I retired my beloved Brooks trail runners. I had actually planned to leave them behind after my last trek; they had seen plenty of miles and I needed to unload some weight. They were still soaked from the day before, so they were definitely not coming with me.

I caught the 11:35 boat and the following bus, and that was it. Thank you for the past week Patagonia! Even though I didn’t officially complete the W, I’d like to go to some of the other places in Patagonia in the future before returning to Torres del Paine. The region is so massive and spectacular that I’d want to see other infamous spots like Fitzroy, El Chaltan, Calafate and the lakes district first.

Chile

Posted: 9.30.2011 in A day in the life..., hollowayfarer

December 4, 2016

I started writing a blog post after I returned from the jungle and arrived in Chile, the second country of my South American tour. But it went neglected and now a week has passed. In that time I’ve been exploring central Chile, with three days in capital city Santiago, an afternoon in Casablanca Valley (wine country), two days in artsy Valparaiso and an afternoon in beach town Viña del Mar.

While I definitely crammed in a lot during that week, I wasn’t super impressed – hence, nothing inspiring to write about. Santiago was a nice change after gritty Iquitos and the muggy jungle, but you could have swapped it with any American city and never known the difference. I liked that because it was familiar, comfortable, safe. But it also meant little history, culture and sightseeing. Sure, I picked out a bunch of hip restaurants to try, but again, they were similar to those I could find in LA. Two days were plenty in Santiago: I did a city walking tour, explored the fine arts and contemporary arts museums, watched the sun set from the top of the tallest skyscraper in South America and hiked in the hills outside the city.

20161129_201441

All the girls in my hostel dorm room – my first shared room at a hostel – were headed to Valparaiso at some point over the next week. We all knew it was a destination, but none of us could really say why. I thought it was an artsy beach town with different neighborhoods in each of its cerros (hills). I imagined something like Laguna Beach.

I was way wrong. Like Iquitos, it was gritty and didn’t feel super safe; I felt completely out of my element again. The aforementioned artsy component was the street art covering nearly every free wall space throughout the city. I learned on the city walking tour that Valparaiso was never intended to be a city. It was a port town, called Port of Santiago, for central Chile before the Panama Canal opened. Because the only way around South America was in the far south of the continent, the port was a key way to move goods. A church was built in the port town, and around it a city grew.

I learned on the street art walking tour that despite how much graffiti there is on buildings and even houses, it’s still illegal if you don’t have permission from the owner. There was a lot of beautiful, illegal art throughout the city, but there was also a lot of beautiful street art that was granted permission or even commissioned. You could truly get lost in the hills chasing the amazing talent (especially considering the bizarre streets and passageways the city is built on). You might even see some in progress.

Considering that it’s a port town, there are no beaches, and in my two days there, I never saw sun. Despite its stark contrast from Santiago, there wasn’t much to do here either. Viña del Mar was just a quick escape from the city for lunch, but there wasn’t sun there either, to at least enjoy its beaches.

Today was dedicated to travel. I took an early bus back to Santiago to catch my flight to super southern Chile for my Patagonia trek in a couple days. I am really looking forward to it, but I am also sad that today marks the halfway mark to my trip. One month down, one month to go.

November 30, 2016

“Are you here for ayahuasca?” I was asked on multiple occasions during my visit to Iquitos. Despite being called “The Gateway to the Amazon,” many young tourists only know Iquitos for the popular brew that comes out of the nearby jungle. I, on the other hand, had only briefly heard of ayahuasca and was there 100% for the Amazon. I didn’t know much about ayahuasca, but the couple horror stories I had heard were enough to turn me off.

Ayahuasca is a tea made of a particular root and leaves by shamen who use it as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia. The name comes from the Quechua language spoken in the Andes, where it’s been used among tribes for more than 5,000 years.

From the little I had heard, it gave people an intense high, a sense of euphoria. “It’ll change your life,” hippies and punks on the streets of Iquitos would say.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe as well as deep insight into how to be the best person they possibly can. This is viewed by many as a spiritual awakening and what is often described as a rebirth. In addition, it is often reported that individuals feel they gain access to higher spiritual dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who can act as guides or healers.”

Ok, so that doesn’t sound too bad, right? Almost sounds pretty wonderful, so you’re probably wondering what deterred me.

Here’s what the next paragraph in Wikipedia says: “Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion… Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress… ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interact with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants.”

This is consistent with what I heard that immediately deterred me. The thought of a group of people vomiting in a room together sounds absolutely horrendous. And not actually being one of the high vomiters could be worse, because then you’re stuck listening, watching and smelling it all during the lengthy ceremony (several hours to 2 days). If the brew doesn’t work its “magic” on you, then you’re just a spectator to this literal shit show.

Despite, people come in droves for the experience. So much that centers are popping up throughout the region and prices are skyrocketing. Like any “it” drug, ayahuasca has become a global craze. This has indigenous tribes worried about the dilution and monetization of their tradition, especially as unqualified people start conducting the ceremonies.

It has me thinking about the people who do ayahuasca. I’m not going to judge their character or try to say my thoughts and observations apply to everyone who’s tried it. I just couldn’t help but form some opinions about the people who approached me about it on the street or those who never left Iquitos because of how it’s “changed their life.”

Before visiting Iquitos, I had obviously done research about the best places to visit the Amazon jungle. I read in Lonely Planet – my go-to travel resource, in print of course – that a lot of expats ended up settling in Iquitos. I took this to mean that a lot of foreigners liked the city; thus, it must have a lot to offer and there must be a decent number of English-speakers there. So in my planning, I set aside two days to explore the city.

That ended up being a mistake. I realized very quickly after stepping foot outside my hotel on the first day of exploring that there wasn’t actually much to do or see in the city. All the sites and sounds and activities were outside the city, in the jungle (duh!). So really all I did on that first day was eat and drink, while leveraging the WiFi at the respective eateries.

While having a beer at one of those eateries I met a rattled Australian woman about twice my age. She had just arrived to Iquitos to both a hostel and a city that were much different than what she saw online. She too had understood the city to be worth visiting, just to be gravely disappointed. Aside from needing a drink to ease the day’s stress, she was also “looking for the first boat out of town.”

So why were foreigners like us being caught off guard by the gritty, underwhelming city, while others love it so much they go so far as to establish roots?

That question was later answered while I was eating at the popular expat restaurant, Dawn on the Amazon Cafe. An American at a table nearby started chatting with me about my travels. “I came for the ayahuasca seven years ago and never left.” After she left, a group of “artists” sat her table and also started chatting with me. “Are you here for the ayahuasca?” I shook my head no. “You should try it; it’ll change your life.”

The chatty guy’s (much older) friend was nursing a fresh juice, still hungover from the night before. When I told them I was from LA, their eyes lit up and they started trying to sell me other drugs. Lovely. Because I was a foreigner, I must be there for the ayahuasca, and because I was from LA, I must be into partying and drugs. I wasn’t offended by the LA assumption – I’m obviously not originally from there and, instead, choose to personify with my native state. But the assumption about ayahuasca was annoying because it means that foreigners looking for the experience are in such abundance now that everyone is just thrown in the same pot. It’s assumed that all the nonnatives are here for the ayahuasca, rather than the amazing experience right across the river that the city used to be known for: the Amazon. Even locals like the party boys at the restaurant quickly dismissed it for the region’s new main attraction.

Though I am disappointed, I am not surprised. That’s the way it works everywhere. Monetization and globalization of ayahuasca is inevitable. Heck, the native state I proudly hail from has gone through its own evolution. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado has already caused quite an uproar – both positive and negative – and it has already given back millions to state schools in the form of tax dollars. But the price that comes with it, is the assumption that if you’re from Colorado you must be a pothead. I am not, but it has given me a perspective for viewing the situation in Iquitos.

Still, I’ll take the humidity and bugs of the jungle any day. And so that was what the Australian and I did.

20161123_093303

Today is Thanksgiving, which generally means a few things for the average American: Be thankful, spend time with friends and family, and overindulge on food.

For me, that’s about how it goes, with exception to being with my family. I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in more than a decade. Instead, I normally spend it with friends and their families.

Last year was the first year that I didn’t go anywhere for a feast with friends. I didn’t have a car, so my roommate and I tried to volunteer with the local veteran’s center – tried being the operative word. By the time we arrived for the afternoon shift, the nonprofit had run out of the main food and none of us arriving volunteers knew what to do.

I ended up feeling pretty depressed that day, so I vowed never to skip Thanksgiving with friends and food again. Now, a year later, I’m thousands of miles away from those friends – from anyone I know, actually. I’m even more “alone” this Thanksgiving than last year.

The holiday landed during the four-day jungle excursion I booked; today is the first day. I’ve been in Iquitos (“Gateway to the Amazon”) for the past couple days with no signs of the upcoming holiday to remind me that I wouldn’t be celebrating it this year. Correction: that I wouldn’t be with friends and family and gorging on the day’s staples. I’m still very thankful, though. In fact, this entire trip is one that has me especially thankful. Every morning I wake up remembering that I’m in a different country on the trip of a lifetime. I’m so thankful for all the many powers that helped make it happen!

20161124_120448

My awesome guide with Otorongo Expeditions, Roberto, picked me up at my hotel at 10 am and we set off by tuk-tuk and then speed boat to the lodge tucked into the jungle along the Amazon river. We arrived just in time for lunch and I was pleased to see that there are two other groups here. They’ve been here for several days already and seen and done a lot.

20161124_202520Just in the first day, Roberto took me to a sugarcane rum distillery along the river where I got to press my own sugarcane to extract the juice. After lunch, we saw two breeds of dart frogs, a leaf toad, macaws, a toucan, various other birds and butterflies, and three families of pigmy marmosets (leoncita).

During our night jungle walk, we saw two other breeds of frogs, wild Guinea pig, dragon fish, an owl, a long-legged scorpion, and more spiders and tarantulas than I’d care to think or know about. No matter how many times I jumped at insects and shadows and how hard my guide laughed at me, it was very cool to be so vulnerable deep in the jungle. It’s amazing to know this kind of nature and be so far from what is comfortable, familiar, civilized… Even though I’m missing out on Thanksgiving festivities again, it’s refreshing in a way to be so far from it all.

The two groups are from the states, so it’s nice to have a little bit of “home” and not have to “feast” by myself. Everyone seemed too exhausted to remember or even care about what day it is, but their faces briefly lit up when I shared “Happy Thanksgiving.” Our ground beef and rice casserole was tasty, but I sure could have gone for grams’ butternut squash topped with marshmallow and a can of gelatinous cranberry sauce.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting and joining this journey with me.

20161125_153348