Ecuadorian Goat Milk – Hangover Cure!?

Ibarra, Ecuador is the first midsize town we came across after our nerve-racking border crossing from Colombia.  We only planned on staying a night to break up the trip to Quito, but the good, cheap food and laid-back vibes caused us to stay until the weekend.  Friday night rolled about and having seen a number of interesting watering holes for consuming drinks we decided to give Ecuadorian night-life a try.  Beginning with a bottle of Colombian Rum and some College drinking games we found ourselves out on the street asking young locals for good spots to go drinking, dancing and hopefully chatting with some pretty Ecuadorian chicas.  After clearing up some brief confusion with a local student who was trying to point us in the direction of a brothel rather than a local bar we found ourselves in a nice little club called Tsunamis. With our stomachs filled to the brim with liquid courage we approached the first two pretty Ecuadorian chicks by the bar and had a fun night of dancing and trying to chat them up in Spanish.

Bleary-eyed with a dry feeling in my brain I awoke the next morning to the realization that checkout time was soon, I still needed to pack my stuff up and I was soon about to sit in a bumpy bus to one of the largest markets in South America.  With a bad hangover, heavy backpack and sweating profusely I made my way to the bus station in search of anything that would cure my terrible hangover.  I stumbled upon some goats near a railroad who I thought might be able to help me.  Could my stomach handle the goats gift – watch this video and find out.

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The Most Difficult Hike of My Life – Volcano Purace

I normally consider myself a ‘Man of the Mountains’ having grown up literally at the foothills of the beautiful flatiron peaks in Boulder, Colorado. Unfortunately after climbing the tallest volcano in the Coconu range of Southern Colombia I feel like I may have lost a little bit of that manliness.  Volcano Purace resides at a massive 15,256 feet and took us over 5 hours to summit.  Walking at a snails pace through the alien looking landscape of strange volcanic rocks and craters we did manage to reach the top of the beast, but were breathing harder the finals of a Fat Camp jumping jack competition when we arrived.  As we began our descent exclaiming to each other that this was literally the most difficult physical challenge we have ever undertaken, a massive hail and rainstorm commenced.  To our disgruntled bewilderment the already mud path we made our way up had quite literally turned into a river.  Ill-equipped for cold weather and without even a waterproof jacket I waded through the freezing rain river for a teeth chattering 3 hour descent all the while knowing that if one of us slipped and twisted an ankle it could turn into an extremely dangerous situation.  We managed to survive the adventure, but will be more hesitant with the next massive volcano that challenges us!  Below is a video interview at the summit of the volcano with an exhausted Alexplorer…

The Most Northern Point in South America

ImageAnything containing the words “the most” in it is usually something that I’m interested in.  For example if you were to tell me of a place with “the most beautiful girls” or “the most delicious beer” I would most certainly take your advice seriously.  For this reason when a friendly Colombian girl told me about the Guajira Peninsula, a.k.a. the most northern point in South America I knew that it was a place that I must find.  Not only did the simple idea of being at the absolute northern point of a continent intrigue me, but the way in which I was given the advice on how to get there was equally as interesting.  We were given a series of small towns to travel to en route to this enchanting peninsula known for dry, red deserts that stretch out to a contrastingly blue sea.   We were told we needed to take varied forms of transport from buses, taxis and even sitting in the back of trucks with goats and the local Wayuu indigenous people.  With no real expectations we set off on an adventure of the purest nature.  My travel partner and I had a German girl (quite possibly the girl from the movie Run Lola Run) join us and we woke up early to catch the first bus.

ImageBright and early we set off from Santa Marta on what turned out to be a 10 hour journey.  After a taxi, bus and what seemed to be some random guy’s car we found ourselves on a straight dusty road alongside an old railroad track and a line of trees that looked like they had been decorated for Christmas they had so much trash clinging to their branches.  As we raced up behind a truck crammed full of locals and food, Anna (German Girl aka Lola) jokingly said that truck would probably be our next form of transportation.  Funny enough we actually pulled alongside the vehicle, stopped them, and our driver told us to squeeze into the truck bed, as this was the normal transport to get us to the peninsula.  We stopped in a local market to cram even more supplies and people into this small truck, while trying to enjoy a lunch of the local delicacy; fried goat meat.  After a few more bumpy, dusty and uncomfortable hours we made our way to Cabo de la Vela, a small town and strange landscape of desert shrubs and cacti leading right up to the ocean.

ImageJust before the sun dipped below the horizon we managed to rent a tiny wooden shack to hang up our hammocks for the night.  We managed to find a local Wayuu woman’s restaurant nearby who was serving some shrimp and rice to a group of Colombian University students and teachers who had come to study the stars.  The food was not the greatest I’ve ever put in my body, but the astronomy teacher was jazzed to point out all the constellations with a crazy high powered laser for us after the meal.  Being in a desert with virtually no lights and so near to the equator that we could see constellations from both hemispheres made for quite an amazing place to gaze upon some stars.

ImageThe next morning we set out to trek across the desert to a small mountain and beach where we could hang out on the true end of the continent.  A hot, sweaty but amazing journey through a desert full of lizards, vultures, goats and some of the tiniest communities of people living on literally the most basic necessities of life I’ve ever come across.  Tiny shacks with nothing more than a couple wood logs to hang hammocks and a sheet to provide some shade from the abusive sun, these indigenous folks were some serious roughnecks living in the most unlivable landscape imaginable.  All the women had their faces painted black and did not want to be photographed.  After hours of trudging through sand amongst the goats we came across Pilon de Azucal, an incredible little mountain at the end of the world.  We quickly made our way up the mountain for one of the most unique views I’ve ever laid eyes on. Red sand cliffs slowly eroding into an aqua-marine sea that stretched on as far as the eye can see in both directions, the landscape was definitely worth the long and difficult journey.

ImageAfter quite some time enjoying life at the end of a continent we made our way to an amazing little secluded beach where it felt like we were the only people in the world.  As midday turned to afternoon we decided to trek back to our shack, but not before we bought some Venezuelan beers from some local Wayuu’s.  Sunburned skin, tired legs, but an amazing feeling of achievement for having experienced such an amazing place, I took a refreshing siesta in a hammock and awoke just in time for a nice sunset.  We bought some disgusting local homemade liquor (that we later found out is often used for cleaning supplies) from a child and her mom then had some dinner.  Fairly exhausted we headed back to our shack to lie in hammocks, wincing as we sipped the gross alcohol and talked about the differences between German and American dating culture.

The next morning a truck came to take us back to civilization at a bleary-eyed 5am.  Along with a couple other German backpackers and locals there was a man who when approaching our vehicle seemed to let out a blood curdling scream.  I was confused for a moment until I saw that he was lifting a live goat into our truck bed and that sound of a child being tortured was just the animal not the man.  As I tried to get comfortable smashed into a little corner of a truck with a goat at my feet speeding through an open desert I had a brief realization of how wild and awesome this adventure truly was….

Crossing Continents in a Speed Boat

Although North and South America are connected by land there is currently no road that spans between the two.  The border of Colombia and Panama is known as the Darien Gap and it contains one of the densest jungles in the world.  Not only does this natural mountainous jungle create an extremely difficult land crossing, but the region is prevalent with cocaine production and the groups partaking in the creation of partygoer’s nasal powder are known to eliminate anyone who stumbles upon their illegal activities.  So aside from the few crazy souls willing to subject themselves to considerable danger by hiking the notoriously treacherous Darien Gap, a boat or a plane is the only option to cross the continents.

Now in my opinion, flying in an airplane is one of the coolest things our species has ever invented.  To be able to get in a metal tube with wings, drink a few beers, watch a movie then land in a completely different country halfway across the world is an absolutely miraculous phenomenon.  That being said, I also sincerely appreciate overland or overwater travel and to be honest I think it is a more enriching experience.  When you simply take off from your capital city and land in another you miss everything in between.  These aren’t places you probably would choose to see or make an effort to get to once you are in a country, so the only way to experience them is to cross the border on land.

For this reason I decided to cross the Darien Gap in a boat.  Now most boats take about 3-4 days and the options are to either sail or take a speedboat.  Having already spent 3 weeks on a sailboat before I decided to try something new and spend four days island-hopping my way to South America.  The boat was appropriately named the Darien Gapster and we spent three nights and four days cruising through the surreal San Blas Islands going from Panama to Colombia.  These islands are nothing short of spectacular with white sand, crystal blue waters and some of them being so small you can literally walk the entire circumference of the island in 5 minutes.  They are owned by the Kuna Indians and the only buildings you will see if any will be bamboo huts with sand floors and hammocks.   The Kunas are a simple bunch who spend most of their time fishing and climbing palm trees for coconuts, which they have used as currency since they inhabited the islands.  Armed with hammocks, rum, snorkels and the mentality to chill we spent our nights on deserted islands or mingling amongst the Kuna.  Our time on the islands was fantastic, chilling with a small extremely diverse group of travelers sharing stories, rum and just being overwhelmed by the beauty of the area.  Combining rum with coconut water is one of the greater drinks around, but deceptively easy to drink and lead to the only serious negative aspect of the journey.

Playing “Never Have I Ever” until the wee hours of the morning and waking up reeking of rum and with a rotten stomach of a hangover DOES NOT go well with extended, bumpy speed boat travel.  One of the roughest parts of the Caribbean is between Panama and Colombia with surprisingly large swells almost all the time.On a small over-loaded speed boat, the rollercoaster size bumps for hours on end made me have to seriously concentrate so I wouldn’t paint the Swiss guy sitting next to me with a rum and coconut upchuck mixture.  Finally the trip ended in La Miel, Panama where we quite literally just walked up a mountain and across the border to Colombia.  Surprisingly it was THE most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever experienced in my life, as some of the group didn’t have shoes, shirts or even pants when crossing over to South America.

Climbed a Volcano then Experienced an Earthquake – Natural Disaster Day…

My Guatemalan Host Family

Missed my alarm…  However it was 6:05am so I still had a chance.  I was supposed to meet some local Guatemalan dude 5 minutes in the past to guide me up a volcano that morning.  As I threw some chips and water in a little backpack I raced down the stairs of Guatemalan host family’s house in hopes to catch him.  The moment I opened the door and exited my house a fairly poor looking local guy with a sparkling gold tooth walked up to me, pointed to the volcano looming over my town and asked me to pay him immediately.  Now I knew this was supposed to be a 6 hour trek so I was a little hesitant at first to fork over the 100 Quetzales (Guatemalan currency) thinking, “Why I do I need to pay him now?  Is he just some random dude who walks around at 6am and looks for gringos waiting for guides, collects the money and disappears?”  He sure didn’t look like a guide, but I went with it anyway and before I knew it we were chatting in Spanish making our way to the base of the big volcano.

I was up there! - San Pedro Volcano

The air was crisp and after telling the local that I grew up in the great Rocky Mountains of Colorado and was used to high altitude he set a vigorous pace for our ascent.  After a couple hours of chit chat, practicing my Spanish and walking through the dense forest I began to realize this was going to be more difficult than I had initially expected.  Although I fancy myself a fairly fit young lad, the trail was a very sharp incline and virtually the same steepness as climbing large stairs for hours on end.  Slightly regretting building myself up to be an “hombre de las montanas” (man of the mountains) as there was no way I could ask for a water break and keep my integrity, we kept the pace and began to climb higher and higher.  My guide ran into a local coffee farmer who was making his way up the volcano and they began to converse in the local language of the area.  What most people don’t realize about Guatemala is that Spanish is actually the second language in most areas of the country.  In the town of San Pedro La Laguna where I’ve been studying Spanish for the last 2 weeks, the first language of the people is called Tz’utujil.  This is one of the twenty some different dialects of Mayan language, and one of the most different sounding languages I’ve ever been exposed to.  Consisting of strange, exotic sounds in combination with these noises I can best describe as ‘clucks’ coming from deep within the throat, the language truly makes you feel like you are in another world.

My Current Home - San Pedro La Laguna

Listening to the bizarre clucks of the Mayan language, with my heart pounding in my chest and legs feeling like burning rubber, minutes turned to hours as we trekked up the 6,060 ft volcano.  Rather than trying to take my mind away from the pain in my body I just embraced the moment, felt my muscles straining, heart working overtime and brain being overwhelmed by all my senses from the sights and sounds of a forest like none I’d ever seen.  Our first real break was only 20 minutes from the summit where the guide showed me a flat area where some people come up and camp.  As I sat down on an enormous log and tried to replenish the large amount of water that I had sweated out, I had a nice little moment of peace.  Unable to see anything but thick, lush forest, I felt like I was in a scene from the movie Avatar watching birds play in the huge moss covered trees and immensely green fauna all around me.  Eventually we made our way up the last steep bit to the summit of the volcano, and the moment the forest opened up to the view below I remembered why I liked to climb things.

               With quite literally a bird’s eye view of a large, spectacularly blue lake surrounded by perfectly shaped volcanoes protruding violently from the earth, the landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful.  High above the clouds, I rested on a rock and let my eyes smile for a while.  As I tried to snap many photos of the ridiculous view, I was affected by what is known as the ‘Alaska Effect.’  This phenomenon is when you attempt to photograph something that is so huge and beautiful it is virtually impossible to accurately portray in a simple photo.  Eventually my desire to see something beautiful had been fulfilled and we began our descent conversing about international soccer, food and poverty.  What’s interesting about many people from other countries is that they have absolutely no idea that the US has poor people in it.  They often assume that everyone in the US is rich because the only Americans they meet are tourists with enough money to travel, and as MTV is hugely popular abroad shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘My Super Sweet 16’ brainwash them into thinking this is what normal life is like in America.  This creates somewhat of a problem as many people in other countries idolize the United States and center their whole lives on trying to get there for a better life.  It could be said that this contributes to our immigration problem and what’s sad is that many of these poor folks risk everything to go north only to end up in our country in just as bad poverty as they had back home.

Hombre de Los Volcanes

My guide was very cool, open and told me all about his life.  Among other things he brought tourists up the volcano 4 times a week (at age 45 that’s a lot of strenuous work) for just a few dollars each time.  He came from a huge family in a small town in the south and had come to San Pedro in hopes to make enough money to feed his large family with the help of tourist dollars.  Two of his younger brothers had been murdered in Guatemala City and although he was very kind and nice I could tell that this man was struggling.  He kept talking to me about drinking beer and thinking we were getting along pretty well I offered to treat him to a beer to celebrate climbing the volcano.  He obliged, but instead of taking me to a bar we went to a little convenience store in the center of town.  I took two cans of Gallo (my least favorite of the local beers) out of the refrigerator and before I even had time to pay for them he had chugged his entire beer.  Quickly afterwards he thanked me and took off, leaving me to awkwardly drink my beer as quickly as possibly alone in the store while people shopped and looked at this strange gringo who was choking down beer and covered in sweat just before noon.

Where I Read Books - From the Roof of my House

Eventually I returned to my house and sprawled out exhaustedly on my bed.  My leg muscles were slightly shaking from the over exertion of summiting the volcano, but I was tired enough that I closed my eyes and almost instantly feel asleep.  I awoke to a feeling like I’ve never experience in my life.  My bed began trembling and over the course of about a minute continued until it was shaky fairly hard.  As I gripped the sheets, terrified watching the furniture in my room jump up and down for a while I had absolutely no idea what was going on.  Wondering to myself if I was experiencing an earthquake or perhaps ironically the volcano that I had climbed earlier was erupting, I just sat there too tired and confused to move.  Eventually the shaking stopped, but I was too tired to do anything and all the walls in my room seemed to be in tact so I fell back asleep.  An hour or so later I awoke and thought to myself, “What the hell happened a little while ago?”  Not quite sure if I had experienced a natural disaster or just a dream I went to ask one of my housemates if he noticed the same thing.  Luckily I hadn’t gone crazy and he had experienced the same frightening experience.  We checked the internet and discovered there had been a pretty sizable earthquake near the border of Mexico and Guatemala.  We had only felt a tremor of it, but I can tell you that having the ground beneath you shake is quite an unnatural and unnerving experience! Having climbed my first volcano and experienced my first earthquake in the same day, I will forever remember January 21st as Natural Disaster Day. 

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll

Am I Doing What a 26 Year Old Should Be Doing?

Buenos Noches

Today marks the day of my 26th birthday in this beautiful, strange and awesome world.  As I write these words I am watching the sun set behind a volcano over the surreal Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  If someone told me as a kid that this is where I would be spending the 26th anniversary of my birth, I would have been very confused and wondered how and why this was going to happen.  Funny enough, I am still pondering those same questions, how did I end up here?  What factors in my life influenced me to become infatuated with traveling to strange lands, meeting new people and exposing myself to different things on a daily basis?  Am I doing what I should be for a typical 26 year old American male?

What are some of the things that people consider to be important for someone my age?

  1. Career – Well simply put I don’t have one of these.  In fact I’m currently unemployed besides doing a little travel writing on the web for small amounts of cash.
  2. Relationship – I find it hard to stay in the same city for more than 6 months without craving new adventures, try explaining that to a significant other….
  3. Possessions- Everything I currently own is probably worth less than the computer you are reading this on and if I can’t fit it into my backpack I don’t really need it.
  4. Education- I have a bachelor’s degree in Business, but my last job was teaching foreign kids English in Panama.  However, I can honestly tell you that I’ve learned more from traveling than I did in my 4 years of University.
  5. Experiences- Well I’ve traveled to 43 countries, have friends all over the world and should probably write a book I have so many stories.

So Alex let me get this straight, you’ve got no job, no girlfriend, a backpack full of cheap crap and smelly clothes, you aren’t using your expensive college degree and you justify this because you’ve traveled a bit…  Is it really worth it?

This is WHY I Travel!

I remember an activity I did in elementary school with my class where we had to create a timeline of what we thought our life was going to be like in the future.  My timeline and the majority of my classmates consisted of your typical, college – job – marriage – house – kids – retire.  No one mentioned things such as visit a new continent or learn a new language or climb a mountain.  Why is that?  What would the teacher have done if my timeline had looked something more like this:

College – Boring Office Job – Teach English in Thailand – Travel SE Asia – Bartend in a Brewery – Travel Eastern Europe – Start a Hangover Helping Business – Teach English in Panama – Go to Spanish School in Guatemala – Travel South America – ?????

Mornin’ Lake Atitlan

In all honesty the teacher would have probably handed back the assignment and told the student to be a little more realistic.  This is what frustrates me about the expectations placed on young people in the USA these days.  There’s this unnecessary pressure to jump into a career as quickly as possible before we even really know who we are or what we want to do.  Deciding what we want to do for THE REST OF OUR LIVES is an extremely important decision and not to be taken lightly.  Why not try a variety of things, travel around a bit, see different ways of life and experience the world before taking a decision on what to dedicate life to?

To answer the question of whether this lifestyle is worth it, my simple response is HELL YES it’s worth it.  The single most important reason why is because for this brief period in my life I am truly experiencing ultimate freedom.  While FREEDOM is a frequently used term in our great “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” take a step back and analyze your life to see how free you actually are.  Ask yourself this question.  If your best friend offered you a one-way ticket to a country half way round the world tomorrow to go live for an indeterminate amount of time with them, could you accept their invitation?  The answer is probably no.  There are a number of factors that would inhibit your ability to just leave this world tomorrow for an adventure.  The most obvious reason is your job.  Even if you have money in the bank, you can’t risk losing your job in an economy like this one.  You probably have an apartment or a house that you need to sell or sublet.  That house is probably full of furniture, a TV, and lots of other things that you don’t really need.  You may have car payments, credit card debt, student loans that need to be paid off.  A spouse or girlfriend wouldn’t be too happy if you just took off one day… Maybe you have a dog, cat or even children that need to be taken care of.  Beyond material things what about expectation from your parents, peers or even yourself?

Steamin’ in a Volcano

Now in no way am I saying that having these things is a negative thing and to be honest, besides the debt, I intend to have all of these things eventually.  Just not right now…  In the brief window where you are old enough to take care of yourself, but young enough not to have a lot of the things mentioned above this is a time when you can experience this ultimate freedom.  Not until you journey across the ocean and cut yourself loose to truly experience what the world has to offer doing absolutely WHATEVER you want free from expectations, judgments and responsibilities can you really get to know who you are as a person.  Slowly the closet full of clothes, TV, car and shoe collection become unimportant and your realize you only need a few bare essentials to survive.  This is a humbling lesson in our materialistic world and one that you will never learn in a book, lecture or movie.  As I reflect on my mere 26 years of life I am astounded where my journey has taken me.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have foreseen the wild adventures, awesome friends and strong lessons I have learned in this crazy life.  Thanks world for a hell of a ride, I’m stoked to be 26, what will this next year bring???

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll

I’m 63 years old and have 5 girlfriends in their twenties… Christmas Day in Panama

X-MAS in the Tropics

After a nice Christmas eve dinner with heaps of ham, cornbread, chicken, rice and scotch with the company of some friends and a kind Colombian family I woke up in my empty apartment on Christmas morning.  As Christmas is a family holiday its not the easiest day to just ring up a friend to hang out.  Eating by yourself on Christmas morning isn’t the most awesome time I’ve ever had in my life.  Although a heaping plate of bacon and eggs drenched in smoldering Panamanian hot sauce always puts a smile on my face, something about it just doesn’t feel right.  When your eating alone you tend to observe a lot more than when your in the company of others.  What’s going on at the surrounding tables, the abilities of your waiters and the decorations of the restaurant become more apparent than usual.  On this unbearably humid and hot morning I watched as families drank and ate together happily.  As I wondered to myself what my own family was doing at that time, who was opening a present or if they had eaten yet, a gorgeous specimen of a woman walked by my table.  Wishing she was some sort of Christmas gift from god to me, she cruised on by and sat down with an old, fat man in his mid to late sixties.  Now this girl couldn’t be far from 20 years old, but I could tell by their greeting that she was this man’s girlfriend. After a brief interaction in horrible spanglish the old man got out an Ipad and played an obnoxiously loud racecar game on it throughout the remainder of their meal.  Literally giggling with joy over his game, it was hard to look away from such a strange little scenario.

Having lived in Thailand for some time and now Panama I am well aware of the phenomenon of older men from the US and Canada coming to poorer countries with a bit of money and having many beautiful, young girlfriends very easily.  Watching this gorgeous woman’s bored face sitting with her old boyfriend who would rather play Ipad than speak to her made me feel bad for this girl, but is that what I should be feeling?  On the one hand it is gross and morally wrong for an elderly man to have a girlfriend barely older than a teenager.  On the other hand this man is probably supporting this girl and her entire family financially so if the girl is willing and wants to then who am I to cast judgement upon the situation.   Some could see this man as a sicko and others could see his as a legend with multiple hot girlfriends 40 years younger.  One of the first questions older men from the States and Canada that I meet down here ask me is how many girlfriends I have.  Just yesterday while watching a football game in a casino an older man struck up a conversation with me and before even telling me his name he told me he was 63 years old and had 5 girlfriends my age in Costa Rica and Panama.  Now even if all 5 of those girls are down with the situation, I just can’t help but judge this old mans character.  In Thailand I hated watching young girls walking down the beach holding hands with men old enough to be their grandfather, but as prostitution is the worlds oldest profession it is clearly something that will never change.

This question is often an easier one to ignore and look the other way than address, but what do you think?

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll