A Mexicana Goes South of the Border, Cuckolds Mexico for Chile

Quihubo, amigos!? Despite living in Ecuador, I’ve been working so much that La Güera hasn’t gotten many chances to stretch her legs, but good things are brewing so stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s a guest post from a very close friend, Michelle Plascencia. She and I met while working together at a hostel in San Francisco, and since then have gotten ourselves into many an adventure, from terrorizing the quiet redwoods of Big Sur to bar-hopping in San Francisco’s Mission District and everything in between. I even followed her through South America (or at least as far as Peru) without ever actually catching up to her. She’s a wanderlust soul sister to the fullest extent. 

On February 6th, 2014, I boarded a one-way flight for Bogotá, Colombia, with an open mind and heart, ready to let the spirit of travel guide me. I was an anxious twenty-something filled with wanderlust, but I was in many ways ready for this aimless journey.

Little did I know that I would have a love affair like none I had ever known — with Chile: its culture, its people, the landscapes, the lovers, friends, and connections that were so indescribable. You know that feeling when your stomach is filled with butterflies? Chile filled me with this unexpected fluttering for four months.

Cuenca, Ecuador

South America is filled with culture and beauty. Each country has its own spice and flavor. As I made my way south through Colombia,  I was fortunate enough to meet Elliott, in Popayán. I instantly felt a bond with Elliot, a connection that was refreshing to a solo female traveler. I was nervous about crossing the border alone into Ecuador, but Elliot — a male, Chilean, travel guru — held my hand as we stepped from one country into another.  He understood why I was traveling alone, but was also compassionate about my fear. We parted ways again in Quito, from which I continued on to Baños in the south. I was thankful for Elliott’s guidance and had faith that I would be blessed with more characters like him on my trip.

I made it to Baños, the moment I like to refer to as the pinnacle of my trip. This is when I first felt it — the loneliness of traveling, the excitement and hesitation, the frustrations felt at times when I didn’t know what to eat or where I would feel safe. Transylvania Hostel became my home for seven days. This is where I met my great friend Camila, my roommate in the dorm, and another solo twenty-something female. Camila, born and raised in Santiago, Chile, understood my love for travel. She also understood why I was doing so alone, why I wanted to be alone. The hostel was filled with solo travelers, groups of Chileans, dudes from Argentina, France, and the U.S., including sweet Alex from Indiana. We were a mixture of everywhere. We shared many moments together, surrounded by the mountains in Baños, but we all knew what every traveler knows: that the journey continues. Camila and I parted ways and exchanged information so we could keep in touch, but what does keeping in touch really mean?

I made my way down to Máncora, a beautiful coastal town in northern Peru, accompanied by Alex. After a few days of partying and lounging oceanside, it was time yet again to say goodbye. I parted ways with Alex and boarded my 17-hour bus ride from Máncora to Lima, Peru’s capital. The bus ride was filled with emotion, excitement, and loneliness, the latter of which overcame me when I realized I was saying goodbye to a lover that I would probably never see again. Sure, we can keep in touch, but will that spark, that bond that we once shared, be the same?


I stepped off the bus in Lima and was immediately bombarded by taxi drivers clamoring to take me here or there. I didn’t even have my backpack yet, but I already had 15 offers for cab rides. This is when I met Indira and Sebastián. When they noticed my overwhelmed facial expression, they immediately asked where I was going. It turned out we were going to the same hostel, so we walked away from the terminal and the gaggle of taxi drivers together. They were a vibrant, friendly Chilean couple. Indira was a calm spirit, while Sebastián was a louder, macho kind of guy.

I quickly became the third wheel while traveling with this kooky couple, but I felt more like a friend to these new companions who were on the same travel high as me. They would smooch on each other here and there but then they would get into screaming battles while I simply observed, simultaneously taking it in and losing myself in my own thoughts. Their relationship was close to home, as my parents are professionals at yelling battles and making up. Being around them was comforting. We traveled together to Arica, Chile, where they were taking a flight back to Santiago — the same place I was going, only on a thirty-hour bus ride. I was supposed to meet a dear friend of mine there. Indira and Seba walked me through everything: where to find reasonable bus tickets, what to do when I got there, etc. They gave me their addresses and phone numbers for when I arrived, before making sure that I got on the bus and waving goodbye from a distance. Indira and Sebastián… what a whirlwind of love they were.

I finally arrived in Santiago and felt like I was home. I stayed with Camila (my roomie from Baños) and was as welcome as if we had been friends for years!

I later met up with Indira and Seba, and it was as if we were on foreign lands together again. They welcomed me into their homes where  we ate almuerzos, laughed, and later smoked a porro (joint) in Barrio Brasil.

Keeping in touch had a new meaning to me now. It was a real thing. We actually did and still do keep in touch.

As always, the journey continued, and I soon found myself in Punta Arenas, Chile, very unprepared to trek Torres del Paine. Full of ambition, I went to the well-known Erratic Rock to get some pointers for the hike. I was fortunate to cross paths with Osvaldo and Keko, two Chileans who were also prepping for the big hike.

“¿Vas sola?” they asked.

“Yes,” I responded hesitantly, “I am going to rent some gear.”

“Ven con nosotros, po!”

“¿En serio?”

“¡Claro! Nomás vamos nosotros dos y tenemos todo. Nomás traete tu comida. Aquí nos vemos a las 6 a.m. mañana.”

Torres del Paine

Five days later, we returned with endless stories, laughs, memories, and experiences that the three of us would always share: the moments we trekked in the rain, wind, snow, and sunshine and even rotated who would sleep in the middle to keep warm. The memories that created the kinship I instantly felt with them. The hike wouldn’t have been the same alone. As I hiked eight hours a day with Osvaldo and Keko, I imagined doing it alone. The magical moments of the breathtaking landscape would have been the same, but the happiness I felt as we approached Glacier Grey wouldn’t have been as magical if I had been alone. Sharing these moments with strangers felt wholesome. Once we got back, I headed back up north while they continued south into Argentina. As always we urged each other, “Keep in touch!” We embraced and parted ways.

I was finally heading out of Chile and into Bolivia. I stopped in Pisco Elqui, Valle de Elqui, Chile, a small town tucked away in the Andes. I attended a yoga class at Centro Tierra Pura, a holistic healing center, and was mesmerized by the energy there. I felt as though every moment prior to my arrival had been aligned to guide me to Pisco Elqui. After gushing about my instant love of Pisco to Loto, the owner, she immediately offered me a room to stay in in exchange for helping her while she traveled for work. I was a solo female wanderer, no plan or itinerary, and everything that I had experienced in Chile had brought me here, so I said yes. I was able to participate in meditation ceremonies, yoga, and other holistic healing practices.

The times spent in Pisco Elqui enriched my relationship with myself and opened my mind to the encounters that life has to offer if you’re paying attention. I learned to embrace the present moment and understand that every moment, happy or sorrowful, is a gift. Sulking in what ifs, would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves tend to bring regret and cause us to forget to live in the present, creating a domino effect that takes away from the enjoyment of the now.

valle de elqui

These few encounters that I’ve mentioned here are only a handful of the Chilean people that made me feel at home, made me feel like I could always go back to Chile and be welcome. All these encounters led me to my home in Pisco Elqui at a time and place that I cherish deep within my heart, remembering the moments as if they were dreams.

A surfer in Pichilemu, Chile, told me that there is no such thing as one soulmate. As humans, we are fascinated by the connection we share with an individual. Whether it’s for an hour, a day, or a month, sometimes you feel a connection and sharing those moments together are far more meaningful than waiting and longing for ONE soulmate.

Throughout my trip I came across many soulmates, individuals that enlightened me with their spirit and who allowed my presence to enlighten theirs. We shared special moments and conversations, stared at the breathtaking landscapes of Chile, ate together, drank, hugged, laughed, or simply sat in pleasant silence. Although I don’t keep in touch with all of them, they are all part of the person I have become. They are part of the love affair I had, and will forever have, with Chile.

Michelle is a full-time wanderer and film enthusiast who’s almost always simultaneously training for a long-distance run. After working various film festivals and supporting arts education in San Francisco, California, for five years, she decided to take a leave of absence from her routine lifestyle in the States. Her recent trip to South America sparked a new and unexpected interest — to teach English abroad. Low and behold you can now find her in Incheon, South Korea, teaching energetic preschoolers. It has been a whirlwind of cultural differences and adjustments, but that’s part of the thrill of living abroad, especially in a country that rarely sees a brown-skinned woman. The students, of course, never hesitate to ask why her skin is darker than theirs.

Genocide and Slavery: Pitstops on the Road to El Dorado

[To reach El Dorado] they crossed swamps and lands that steamed in the sun. When they reached the banks of the river, not one of the thousands of naked Indians who were brought along to carry the guns and bread and salt remained alive. As there were no longer any slaves to hunt down and catch, they threw the dogs into vats of boiling water… (Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, p. 99)


Of the multitude that followed him, one hundred and sixty exhausted Europeans and not one Indian remain. Leveler of cities, founder of cities, Benalcázar has left behind him a trail of ashes and blood and new worlds born from the point of his sword (100).


They left Peru months ago in search of the lake where according to legend there are solid gold idols as big as boys, and now they want to return to Peru on a war footing. They won’t spend another day in pursuit of the promised land, because they realize that they already found it and are sick of cursing their bad luck. They will sail the Amazon, emerge into the ocean, occupy Margarita Island, invade Venezuela and Panama… (133-4)


…the Taironas, bled white by so many years of tribute and slavery, scatter in defeat. Extermination by fire….– everything burns. How many worlds do these fires illuminate? The one that was and was seen, the one that was and was not seen…. the Taironas flee into the mountains…. Far up there the invaders have expelled them, seizing their lands and uprooting their memory, so that in their remote isolation oblivion may descend upon the songs they sang when they lived together, a federation of free peoples… so that they should never again remember that their grandparents were jaguars. Behind them they leave ruins and graves (170-71).

DSC_0133Gold escudos in hard cash, doubloons, double doubloons, big-shot gold and little-shot gold, gold jewelry and dishes, gold from chalices and crowns of virgins and saints: Filled with gold are the arriving galleons of Jean-Baptiste Ducasse, governor of Haiti and chief of the French freebooters in the Antilles…. To France goes the gold of the sacked Spanish colony. From Versailles, Ducasse receives the title of admiral and a bushy wig of snow-white rolls worthy of the king. 

Before becoming governor of Haiti and admiral of the royal fleet, Ducasse operated on his own, stealing blacks from Dutch slave ships and treasure from galleons of the Spanish fleet. Since 1691, he has been working for Louis XIV (277-8).DSC_0138[Fray Bartolomé de las Casas] addresses himself directly to the Holy See. He asks Pius V to order the wars against the Indians stopped and to halt the plunder that uses the cross as an excuse (143).

DSC_0139Antonio de Montesinos, Dominican friar… denounces the extermination:

“By what rights and by what justice do you hold the Indians in such cruel and horrible bondage? Aren’t they dying, or better said, aren’t you killing them, to get gold every day? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves? Don’t you understand this, don’t you feel it?”

…. A murmur of fury swells up. They didn’t bargain for this, these peasants from Estremadura and shepherds from Andalusia who have repudiated their names and histories and, with rusty arquebuses slung over their shoulders, left at random in search of mountains of gold and the nude princesses on this side of the ocean. A Mass of pardon and consolation was what was needed by these adventurers bought with promises…. (57-8).
DSC_0145St. Augustine authorizes war against those who abuse their liberty, because their liberty would make them dangerous if they were not tamed….

Before they start the rush for the gold, for nuggets possibly as big as eggs, [the Spanish lawyer Martín Fernández de Enciso] slowly and meticulously summons the Indians to leave these lands since they don’t belong to them, and if they want to stay to pay their highnesses tribute in gold in token of obedience.

The two chiefs listen… to the odd character who announces to them that in case of refusal or delay he will make war on them, turn them into slaves along with their women and children, and sell and dispose of them as such and that the deaths and damages of that just war will not be the Spaniards’ responsibility.

The chiefs reply… that the holy father has indeed been generous with others’ property but must have been drunk to dispose of what was not his and that the king of Castile is impertinent to come threatening folks he does not know.

Then the blood flows (59-60).


The lake at the heart of the El Dorado legend, outside of Guatavitá, Colombia.

The Museo de Oro (Museum of Gold) in Bogotá is one of the main tourist attractions, even meriting its own metro stop. The gold was beautiful. The jewelry and figurines and ceremonial objects were created with a level of workmanship and attention to detail that was breathtaking. And yet, if the horrors caused by the Europeans’ covetousness of this gold was mentioned once, it was only in passing and never the focus. But that was all I could think about: the immeasurable amount of blood that was spilt, lives taken or enslaved, worlds annihilated… because this gold was so precious to this continent’s conquerors, more precious than the lives of children and women and men. Gold to which they felt entitled because of the color of their skin and the power of their God.

It makes me think about the kinds of things today’s conquerors covet, the kinds of resources that make death and exploitation into “necessary evils”.  I’m sitting here, in Medellín, Colombia, thinking to myself: Has anything changed at all?

The Benefits of Travel-Induced Fear

What is it about life that defies all expectations? I started this trip thinking I didn’t have any expectations, but now I think it’s absolutely impossible to go into any situation without subconsciously forming an idea of what will happen. Each day that has gone by, each step I have taken, has surprised me. I can already feel my travels hardening and strengthening me, breaking the mold I had created up until now. Traditionally speaking, I am homeless, and carrying all my belongings on my back has taken some of the softness from my body, a body whose favorite pastime had been sleeping in its own bed. Waking up each day with no plan or at best a very loosely-defined one has made me more adaptable and flexible. Finding myself alone in a big, big world has kicked the door wide open to what I am capable of. And yet I’ve also been reminded that I am not invincible, that as a woman and an obvious tourist some people see me as vulnerable and an easy target.

The feeling of belonging is one which is easily taken for granted. It’s not until you find yourself suddenly an obvious other that you are reminded of how comfortable belonging really is. But being an other is immensely important. It gives you perspective into the lives of people who are always other, like immigrants or minorities, it gives you compassion and empathy. Now I don’t personally think I’m ever really the sort to blend in with a crowd, but being a tall, white, blond woman in Colombia is like being a flamingo among sea gulls. We’re all birds but the outsider is obvious from a mile away. It’s enough to make one miss home, and I do, but missing home and wanting to go home are two very different feelings.

My time with Jessica and Adri is over now and suddenly I’m in a country where no one knows my name. The day they left was the first day that I felt something close to fear. Alone? On a continent to which the only connection I have is a hard-won language? It’s hard to explain this quasi-fear and why it’s not enough to deter me. I could say that I pride myself on facing my fears, and I do, but that seems trite and barely scratches the surface of why I’m doing what I’m doing. To be completely honest, I don’t know what keeps me going most days, and that’s not meant to be bleak. What is it in me that has made this possible? Why am I not content with my own bed and people who know me and love me and protect me? Why must I go out and find fear in the big world? Perhaps it comes down to this: I know there are things out in the world worthy of my fear, but there are also things that make risking that fear worthwhile, and for me, that knowledge is enough.

To illustrate the kinds of things I think worth braving fear for, let me share some of the things we all did together before my girls left.

For scale: Jess in front of La Piedra de Peñol in Guatapé, 2 hours outside of Medellín.

For scale: Jess in front of La Piedra de Peñol in Guatapé, 2 hours outside of Medellín.

We climbed 675 steps to the top, in spite of being in the end phases of a three day guaro (local word for aguardiente)-induced hangover.

We climbed 675 steps to the top, in spite of being in the end phases of a three day guaro (local word for aguardiente)-induced hangover.

But the reward was worth the work.

But the reward was worth the work.

The town of Guatapé: a reminder of one reason why I love Latin America. The colors!

The town of Guatapé: a reminder of one reason why I love Latin America. The colors!

Adri on an impromptu climb towards La Virgen in Santa Fe de Antioquia.

Adri on an impromptu climb towards La Virgen in Santa Fe de Antioquia.

La Virgen and I overlooking the Río Cauca.

La Virgen and I overlooking the Río Cauca.

Jess and Adri deep within the Zipaquirá salt mines in the Salt Cathedral... being irreverent, of course.

Jess and Adri deep within the Zipaquirá salt mines in the Salt Cathedral… being irreverent, of course.

Fear is an incredibly important emotion. Sometimes it tells us when we’re in danger and need to be cautious. It reminds us that we are not infallible, not superheroes. It reminds us that there are people out there who can and will hurt us for personal gain or, even scarier, for no reason at all. But it can also be a useless emotion when it only serves to keep us from doing things. Comfort might be going to sleep in my own bed, surrounded by my things, near to people I love, in a city I know like an old friend, but it also means giving up seeing things, wonderful things, that can only be reached through a veil of fear. Fear can even keep us from meeting amazing people. I was a little anxious about my first Couchsurfing experience in Medellín, staying with a stranger and all, but by moving through it, we had the privilege of meeting and befriending the best host anyone could ask for. So yes, fear is ugly and I resent the way it can make me mistrust people I’ve never met or interacted with, but what you can find on the other side of fear is sometimes unutterably beautiful, so for now, I’ll take fear over comfort, and run with it.

Our host in Medellín, Esneider, and his hilarious friend Carlos.

Our host in Medellín, Esneider, and his hilarious friend Carlos.

No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection. -Patrick Rothfuss, A Wise Man’s Fear

Mountaintop Musings

It’s been thirteen days since my feet left American soil and I placed them firmly onto the tarmac in Cartagena, Colombia, but I swear to you, that could have been a lifetime ago. Those same feet have walked further and endured more in less than a fortnight than I ever expected they could. I’m sitting here now on the rooftop terrace of my hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia, my legs a constellation of bug bites (I just now pulled some kind of biting bug out of the soft flesh behind my knee), scrapes, and bruises, my feet blistered and swollen, my skin damp and flushed, and I’m still me and yet another me, too. There was a Kaelyn who flirted with bartenders and was reminded that her heart wasn’t quite as inaccessible as she pretended. A Kaelyn who danced and sang and writhed with the electricity she created within herself. A Kaelyn who was more joyous than any of the selves that came before. That woman is still here. But she’s evolving again.

Never has shedding a skin been so instantaneous. Traveling does that to me. Nothing is so painfully pleasurable as travel, there is no touch so rough or so gentle, no master as demanding and generous. I’m using sexual imagery here because travel is a power play, and I’ll tell you what, travel usually comes out on top, but boy do you benefit from being the bottom.  It turns you over and shakes you out. Suddenly, some assumptions you’ve held for who knows how long show their true, ridiculous colors, suddenly you are completely humbled, suddenly you find this amazing strength in yourself and find that you have given yourself a broader, more generous view of the world and the people in it. But enough with the abstract.

I won’t give you a play-by-play of my time here; the general idea will suffice. My time in Cartagena flew by. I have characteristically and whole-heartedly devoured my first shot of aguardiente (the local liquor which tastes like black licorice and goes down altogether too easily), a patacón con salsa (a king among street foods everywhere), mojarra frita (a fried fish which just might be one of my new favorite foods), various arepas and empanadas, probably too many Águila and Club Colombia beers, and a hot dog to put all other sausages to shame. I’ve found weightlessness and hilarity in a mud pit at the bottom of a volcano called El Totumo. I’ve partied from 5 to 5  (actually, 8) at a Colombian wedding only to literally fall asleep on the bride’s doorstep. You see, Colombia has already begun the process of  changing the girl who left home.


Jess and I on our balcony in Cartagena.


The remains of my mojarra frita… and moments before a hungry man snatched the head, spine and all, and ran out the door.


El Totumo: we had to climb down a ladder into the mud.


Jessica and I in the mud bath.

Note: this photo is not staged.

Note: this photo is not staged.

Five days is not nearly enough time to get to know any place well and I hope to be able to give Cartagena a second look some time in the near future. For now, I’ll carry with me a picture of narrow streets with vines hanging from balconies, heat that softens your skin and frizzes your hair, and some pretty unbeatable street food.

We left Cartagena on Monday for Santa Marta, as we were scheduled to begin a hike to La Ciudad Perdida the next morning. The feeling of anticipation I had was not quite dread, but neither was I looking forward to it. For those of you that know me, you know as a child I would have rather sat in front of the TV and eaten a loaf of Wonder Bread than gone to play in the park across the street. As an adult, I’m a little better. I love soccer and yoga and surfing, but I have never been one for endurance sports, including hiking. And this was no ordinary hike and I was in no way, either physically or mentally, prepared for it.

La Ciudad Perdida, or Teyuna, is located in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was the sacred city of the now extinct Tairona Indians. It takes two days to get there, and two days to get back. I don’t know what I expected. I thought that my natural physical strength would carry me through, that five days wasn’t so long, that the brochure didn’t mention any level of difficulty so it couldn’t be too bad… I was so, so wrong. About an hour into the hike, after jumping into the river and thinking to myself “OK, this is cool”, we started going up a hill. That hill didn’t end for an hour. A half-naked man with a gold chain riding a horse came down the hill and I thought I was hallucinating, so exhausted was I already. That’s when I knew: this is the real thing, and it’s about to kick my ass. By the time we got to the first camp, I was feeling the beginnings of what would turn out to be some very serious blisters and nursing the bruised pride that came from acknowledging that I was not in the kind of shape that makes trudging up and down huge hills with a 25-pound backpack easy. I was done, agotada, and it was only the first day. Also, there was no toilet paper. Someone forgot to add that to the list of things we needed to bring. Some creativity ensued, but I won’t go into that. We slept in hammocks the first night, with toads the size of my foot hopping wetly beneath me, creating a chorus that did anything but send me to sleep. Think sleeping in a hammock is idyllic? In reality, it involves less blissful slumber and more sore necks and fear of flipping over. Add into the mixture the kind of hallucinogenic dreams that malaria pills deliver and you’re in for one wild night.

It was the second day that pushed me further than I’ve ever been pushed. By the time we stopped for lunch, the baby blisters on my heels had developed into full-blown sores and new ones were forming on each of my big toes. After a quick swim and some lunch, it was time to set off again, as there were still four more hours of hiking to go before we reached the base camp below Teyuna. Almost immediately, we started up another hill. Within ten minutes, I knew it was a hill to make every other hill I’d ever encountered laughable. In half an hour, I was convinced that every time I went around a bend, somehow I’d arrived back where I’d started because each bend was identical to the one before it. An hour in, I was sure that I’d somehow died and this was hell. Drenched in sweat, I was on the verge of tears when I practically fell onto the hill’s zenith. Never, never did I expect to subject myself to such extreme (for me) physical duress. Voluntarily, no less!

The next morning, after 1,263 worn, mossy stairs, we finally arrived at Teyuna and it was, of course, impressive. But as self-involved as it may sound, I was much more impressed with myself. Part of me knew that I was only halfway, that I still had to go all the way back to the beginning, up and down and up and up and down again to get there, but still, I had made it further than I would have thought possible. My friends and I agreed: something had changed. Some self-imposed limitation we had set for ourselves had just been completely annihilated, and it felt wonderful. The way back was pretty horrific in terms of the pain my blisters caused me (I now understand on a deeper level how the little mermaid felt when the price she paid for feet was to feel as though she were dancing on knives every time she took a step) but somehow that made the success even greater when I arrived back at the beginning. Whatever old Kaelyn had been capable of, this new one could do so much more.

This should give you some idea of what I was dealing with.

This should give you some idea of what I was dealing with.

This isn't even the worst of it.

This isn’t even the worst of it.

The view from La Ciudad Perdida, or Teyuna.

The view from La Ciudad Perdida, or Teyuna.

As a closing note, for me the ruins were not the highlight of the trip in terms of things seen. It was something else, something simple and half-remembered. I woke up in a cold sweat after a particularly horrible Malarone-nightmare involving an ex-boss who I found out (in the dream, at least) was a serial killer of women and had me trapped in an elevator. All around me, swathed in mosquito netting, were my fellow hikers, but the dream had left a film of clenching fear on me, so I got up and walked outside and then, I looked up. Never had I seen the stars as I saw them in that moment. There was no electricity for miles. I was in the middle of the Colombian jungle. The stars were shining as they had never shone for me. The Milky Way looked tangible, like I could reach up and wrap it around myself, like a shawl. Orion was on the horizon to my right, and that warrior-god always reminds me of my dad, who first pointed out the three stars that make up his belt, and it was this reminder that chased away the evil vestiges of my nightmare. The world is enormous, but it is also small, and the people we love are with us always.

Knowing this, I went back inside and fell asleep.