When I initially arrived in Montanita, Ecuador I jumped out of the bus into some of the most humid weather I have ever experienced. Immediately sweating I went to grab the printed out map I had made earlier, but couldn’t find it. I had a vague map on my phone but it was coming up screwy so I had no idea which direction to head. After walking up and down streets in hope of running into the house, I found a hostel that would let me use their wifi. Of course after jumping on the wifi, I realized I had walked past my homestay 5+ times…but the doors all looked the same so I couldn’t determine which was the right one. Seeing as Montana is a tiny-town I picked one of the doors and walked in, saying “Hola Yolanda” in the hope that either Yolanda or someone that knew Yolanda would answer.
Fortunately the next-door neighbor heard me and directed me to Yolanda and Alejandro’s house, which was next door. As I entered the house I was greeted by Yolanda, an small Ecuadorian woman no taller than my ribs, with a “Hola William, Como Estas.” By the sound of her voice and the smile on her face I could tell immediately that Yolanda was going to be my mom away from home during my stay in Montanita. It was mid-day Sunday and a jump in the Ocean sounded amazing so I asked what time dinner would be served and let her know I’d return well before to ensure I didn’t miss it.
As I mentioned before, Montanita is a small costal town. To give you perspective the main town runs about 6 blocks in length and roughly 4 blocks up from the beach so small but perfect for a beach town. Even only being 24sq. blocks, there were plenty of food-options (Burritos, Isralei, Italian, traditional Ecuadorian, Burgers, Ceviche, Pizza and many more) and one of my favorite places is referred to as Cocktail Alley. It is where you have about 20 cocktail-stands where each of them make the same drinks with their own spin (more lime, condensed milk, extra booze, etc.). A friend, Melanie, introduced me to a stand where I tried the Pina Colada which others had raved about. It goes without saying that this stand had by far the best Pina Colada I have ever tried (tbh I hadn’t drank one in 10+ years so little to compare it to) but others had the same reaction. For the rest of the trip, everyone in my Spanish School visited this same stand to get their cocktails. At times it felt weird only going to this stand as the other’s would sit and watch as this lady would make 15+ drinks while they hadn’t seen a customer in quite some time but I kept going. After wandering the town and familiarizing myself with the area I headed home for dinner where I was served a traditional Ecuadorian meal: salad, cup of rice, fried plantains and a strip-steak. It was delicious and simple which I like. Shortly after eating I was ready for bed and wanted to get a good night sleep before starting school.
Without even thinking about it the morning of the first day of school I woke up early, took a shower, did my hair and put on my nicest clothes. Thinking about it, I hadn’t been to my "first day" of school since college but this felt different as I was at home and was having my breakfast made by what felt like my mom. It honestly felt like Elementary School/Jr. High/High School and I was going without knowing anyone so wanted to present myself the best I could. I thought I had read I needed to be at school at 7 to take an entry-test to see where I fell in terms of Spanish proficiency. I had the time wrong so ended up sitting on the steps of the school for a half-hour before anyone showed up. While waiting I started to experience what the mosquitos were going to be like the entire time I stayed in Montanita….terrible. I think within 15 minutes I had been bitten 20+ times and promised myself the next day I would carry my mosquito repellent with me everywhere.
Overall School Experience: The school was great! On my first day of class I got to know my classmates who were all nice and friendly and the teachers spoke mostly in Spanish but spoke at a speed you could dissect. I took 2.5 years of Spanish in HS and the spoken language had definitely faded, however I could do a pretty good job of deciphering the language if the person I was speaking with spoke slowly. In the two weeks I took classes I think the only thing that held me back was my memorization of verbs. I know how to conjugate and understand the sentence structure in Spanish however I constantly found myself frustrated b/c I couldn’t remember a verb. I plan to continue to educate myself back in the states so I don’t waste what I learned in school.
Surfing: I’d say for the two weeks I was there I did an ok job of picking up surfing. One highlight was catching 4 green-waves in one session which is where my bar is set now. Just to ensure I do not forget the basic tips I learned on the trip, I am going to outline them now.
1. Waves come in 3’s (don’t always take the first wave that looks good…b/c if you don’t ride it you’ll get tossed and rather than having one or no waves do duck under you are stuck with the remaining two waves which can be brutal)
2. Get up quick: This goes without saying but in order to accomplish this you mush have good upper-body strength. Also important is to push up off the board with flat-palms and not by grabbing onto the sides of the board.
3. When standing up, take your back food and while laying down bring it up to “flamingo” position before pushing up off the board with your hands. When you go to pop-up having this foot already in place helps the action of "jumping" into place
4. Feet need to be horizontal/pointed forward and centered over the board
5. Slight squatting position with front leg taking almost all of the weight to ensure you are carrying your momentum forward through the wave. The back leg is to swing the back of the board around but should only carry ~10-20% of the load
6. Depending on the wave, if you are practicing white-wash paddle until the white-wash hits your feet. At that point count to three then pop-up.
7. If you are going to ride a green-wave the idea is to paddle hard and when you stand up having that front-foot with your weight centered on it to ensure you go down the face of the wave
Isla De La Plata (aka "Poor Mans Galapagos”): Taking a short 40-minute bus ride to a town north of Montanita we were able to catch our tour-boat out to Isla De La Plata. Right before we left I realized I needed to grab actual shoes as I was only wearing flip-flops…which in turn made me come back to everyone being gone. Luckily I caught the next bus with my friend Justin and we were able to catch-up to the others.
Once you board the boat it is an hr. ride out to the island, where one of the first things you notice is the sheer amount of birds flying over the islands. At the time we went it was mating/birthing season so there were plenty of young birds on the island with their parents out hunting for food to bring back. When we first got off the boat, and out of the shade from the boat, you could feel the heat of the sun. It must have been 90-degrees plus, so most of us had shirts over our head/constantly were applying sun-screen. We decided to take the harder of the short hikes, around 1.5 hours and 500 ft. gain, which ended up not being that bad. Along the way we ran into young birds on the side of the path as well as parents coming back and feeding their young which was pretty cool. The hike was up to a point and we returned the same way we came so most of us walked pretty fast to get back to the beach/boats for lunch and snorkeling.
As we boarded back on the boat we were informed we would eat lunch and go feed some turtles to get our first sight of them. It ended up being a very close-encounter with 3 large turtles being fed off the side of the boat. After we hung out for a bit we drove 10 minutes to our dive-location and a number of us put on the gear and got into the water, myself being the first as I had seen a turtle at the bow of the boat when we pulled up. Immediately I told one other of the sighting and we swam around to find a turtle within 3-feet of us. Unfortunately they are much faster so trying to keep up with it was a battle, however it was fun to swim with a turtle. Seeing a few other fish and wildlife we swam for a few hours before returning to the boat and back to the mainland.
Overall a great trip with a good amount of wildlife. I’d imagine the actual Galapagos is much more fruitful with wildlife and sea-life but this was a good day-trip for $70.
Las Tunas: Just north of Montanita 20 minutes by car you’ll find Las Tunas, a small locals town with little to no business/market. However there is a beach where you’ll find a restaurant and a few canopy’s with hammocks. Usually with the beach to yourself, this location is great to take groups of people to avoid the crowded tourist-sites and with waves that rival those at point-break in Montanita it is a surfers paradise with no competition to catch the next wave.
Isla De La Plata, Ecuador
After a super long day of traveling (6am-5am) I made it to the border of Colombia. Ipiales is a small town on the boarder of Colombia/Ecuador with not a ton to do, but it was perfect after traveling for an entire day.
I made a last-minute reservation at a hotel before I hopped on my busride from Cali-->Ipiales and when I arrived at 5:00am they said my room wouldn't be ready till 2:00. I was dying to lay in a bed and be on my back so I said "do you have anything available." The employee looked up and said the suite was available but it was meant for 8 people...I said I don't care, "what is the price?"
$55 dollars later I had a suite with more beds than I could imagine...but fortunately there was the master suite, a full-size bed, a TV and light-blocking shades. Before I jumped into bed to get a couple hours of sleep I went into another one of the rooms and literally jumped back and forth between the beds like I was Lloyd in Dumb&Dumber after breaking open the briefcase. If the employee hadn't already left and the room hadn't been paid for I would have also said "Well take it" but I dreamt that happened while I jumped back and forth.
After I fell asleep for a couple of hours I woke up and tried to decide if I should just go to Quito as it was 9am but after remembering I had a suite for $55 dollars I set-out to tour around Ipiales. Luckily there were a few things to see in town, including the Las Lajas Sanctuary which was an amazing church built in a valley 20 minutes outside of town. Hiking around the church ended up being pretty fun, getting different views as you can hike all around the valley surrounding the church. Rather than walking out the same way I came in, I decided to hop on the Cable Car. The view of the valley below was amazing and I was able to capture a few photos out of the small windows Cable-Cars have for fresh-air.
Before I boarded the Cable Car the employee asked if I wanted a cab to be available when I got to the top. As I got to the top I saw the cab waiting for me so I hopped in and rode into town. Being the idiot sometimes am, I was taking some Instagram videos on the cab-ride into town and like I do in my own car I put the phone on sleep and tucked it between my legs. Driving into town I saw an apple store and dreamt of getting a HDMI-micro USB cable so I could watch a movie on the big-screen back at the hotel. I paid the cab driver when we got to square in town and hopped out of the car to trek back to the Apple store.
As I approached the apple store I saw a sign for iPhone7 and I thought to myself "oh I have one of those" and at that same time realized I didn't feel my phone in any of my pockets...I had left it on the seat in the cab and without thinking I ran back towards the park where I was dropped off and tried to think of where he might have driven. Sprinting through streets @ 9,000ft. elevation I became winded quickly and locals started to look at me funny. I stopped a few times to try to explain what had happened to some locals, but being winded and having rough Spanish I quickly realized I was making no sense and the locals were going to be of no help.
With a last ditch effort, I ran back to the exact spot I had been dropped off and crossed my fingers hoping the driver was a decent person and maybe he'd notice the phone in the back-seat. Without even 2 minutes passing I saw a cab that looked like the one I was in circling the park...as he took a right and headed towards me my stomach dropped with the thought that this cab was just another cab. To my surprise, it was him and I GOT MY PHONE BACK. Cant explain how lucky I was. After thanking the driver maybe too-much, I promised myself to never tuck my phone in the same spot again.
Running through the streets gave me a cough as there is a fair amount of smog in the city and trucks/cars emit a lot of exhaust so I went to get a water-bottle to try to soothe my throat and next door to the market was a pizza shop. After traveling the entire day prior and having just gone through the experience of almost losing my phone I walked into the pizza shop and looked over the menu. During this trip I have developed an affinity for Hawaiian Pizza so I looked at the employee and said I'd like to order an entire Large Hawaiian Pizza + a six-pack of Aguila beer. He said "Nice, having a little party" and I quickly explained to him that I was going to single-handedly consume everything I was buying (this isnt the first time I've been asked if I was having a party when picking up food). With a look of concern he took my money and flagged his pizza man to whip up a fresh Hawaiian.
Long-story short I finished the entire pizza, never got the HDMI cable and ended up streaming the #5 Ducks vs. #10 UCLA college-basketball game. When I awoke the next morning to make my way to Colombia I looked around my room and had flash-backs to my fraternity college days. Beer bottles all over the room..pizza crust on multiple napkins on the bed-side table and the TV still turned on. I cleaned up quickly before leaving so the maids didn't develop the idea that all americans blow their $ on suites and on top of that are filthy-animals.
Valley de Cocora, Colombia
Hostel: Mundo Nuevo
Review: Amazing to say the least….the hostel includes a permaculture farm on-site with plenty of other vegetation that provide the food you eat while crashing at the hostel. Each meal is vegetarian (which is a nice change of speed from the meat/fried food you get in the cities) and was so tasty it made me think about going full-vegetarian. At night the weather cools and the sunsets are some that you’ll never forget.
I had heard Minca was a beautiful place but was unsure of what that meant until I started to drive up into the mountains. As you go around bends in the road, the forest gets thicker and thicker and the temperature starts to cool minute by minute. The trees start to provide much needed shade and the sight of fresh water coming out of the mountains gives you reason to believe you are going to get to swim in really refreshing pools of water (one of my favorite past-times).
After being in big cities most of the trip it was a great feeling to know the nights were going to cool down and the sunsets were going to be amazing. When you arrive in Minca you are greeted by a number of locals asking if you need taxis as they know why gringos come to Minca. One piece of advice I had heard before leaving Santa Marta was to bring a day bag with everything I needed rather than my big pack and the day bag. The main reason was because when you are dropped off by the bus in in Minca, the better hostels (Casa Elemento & Mundo Nuevo) are in the hills above Minca and to get there you either hike or hop on the back of a motorbike and get a ride up the hill. Hiking is usually my thing…but when it is 3:00 in the afternoon, 75-degrees with 100% humidity and the taxi ride a mile up-hill is $20,000 pesos (equivalent of $7-8 U.S. dollars) it was a pretty easy decision to get a ride to the top.
(Side note: I am much larger than a lot of the locals so getting on the bike with my camera gear/computer/Spanish flash cards/hard-drive/toiletries/etc. really tested the shocks/springs on this motorbike. There were a few times on the ride up where I had to get off the bike and walk 100 meters because the incline was too steep for the bike to make it up.)
Once I made it up to Mundo Nuevo I quickly became more relaxed than maybe I’ve ever been. Everyone seemed to be there for the same reason and with the sounds of animals, running water, wind brushing through trees and lap-cats roaming the property it is hard to not become relaxed. For me it was perfect as I had been on the road for a few weeks and was constantly moving in each city so the thought of being able to edit my photos, practice my Spanish and maybe take 2 or 3 naps/day was very exciting to me. I initially had one night booked in Minca and within 24 hours I had booked 3 additional nights to make sure I didn’t rush in and out of such an amazing place.
Pozo Azul: One of the cooler places to go swimming I have gone so far on this trip. From Mundo Nuevo it was a 1.5 hour trek downhill. After swimming in the pools and jumping off the cliff into the water at the second waterfall it is a short 30-40 minute walk back into Minca.
Marinka Waterfall: From downtown this waterfall is a short hour trek. I didn’t make it to the waterfall because I was wiped out by the afternoon heat, but I was told it was another great place to go swimming if you have time.
La Candelabra Coffee and Chocolate Farm: From Mundo Nuevo if you hike 20-30 minutes downhill you will come across this farm where reservations for a tour are not necessary. If you have a group of 2+ people, show up earlier in the day and they will walk you around the property and tell you about the history of the farm and what they grow.
Santa Marta, Colombia
Stayed @: La Villana Hostel
Review: Great, relaxing hostel in the heart of town. Biggest advantage was the wifi and its speed as well as close-vicinity to a number of food options.
Stayed @: The Dreamer Hostel
Review: Having a pool was great and the food was good/made onsite. Downside was it being mainly a party hostel so sleep was not optimal.
Overall Santa Marta is a coastal town with a not so exciting beach. The partying, especially at La Brisa loca (friends of Buckley, Shuval and Craig Beveridge own this hostel) is pretty fun and there is always something going on at night, but due to the nature of my stay there I didn't go out for much nightlife. The food in Santa Marta was the best I have had on the trip so far....burrito from "mexicana" and the pizza from around the corner @ La Brisa Loca were both awesome.
Tayrona Park, Colombia
Tayrona Park: I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the last day the park was open before it shut down for a month. This park is about an hour outside of Santa Marta on the coast/in the jungle. Going with a friend who spoke much better Spanish than myself made it easy as we decided to take the public bus up to the park rather than sign up for a tour. Once inside the park, there was one path for 90% of the trek in..along the way there were fresh coconuts being sold (by mogeley from the Jungle Book) as well as other snacks along the way. The most interesting part of this hike to me was running into massive colonies of leaf-cutting ants. With the ability to live 10x their body weight, getting a minute to capture a short video of the colony doing work was amazing (comparison would be close to a human just biting a car they walk by and carrying it home to the wife). Once inside the park, the temperature stays the same in the shade however it gets bloody hot on the coast. Luckily the water was a perfect temp, we had a wonderful beach and I was able to find a few cervasas for cheap.
Stayed @: Makaka Chill Out Hostel
Review: Great spot to lay-low and avoid late-night partying, AC in the rooms and close to the city-center
Stayed @: El viajero hostel
Review: Great spot to meet others and go out on the town if you are looking to have a fun night. Free salsa dancing lessons, AC in the rooms and close to the city-center
Overall Cartagena is a great coastal town with great history and up and coming areas. Flew in to meet up with Hillary and Lauren who were on a 2-week tour. While we were there there were a number of americans who called it the Miami of Colombia...which was pretty true.
Playa Blanca: The first real moment on the trip where I have realized that knowing Spanish would have led to a much better experience. We should have gotten off of the boat as soon as it got us to the island, but we decided we would stay because when we were shown the trip itinereary they said we would go out to another island first before going to Playa Blanca. Long story short, we wasted 2 hours sitting on the boat wondering what the heck was going on. Finally when we made it back to tthe island, we jumped off the boad and were immediately hounded by people asking for our food tickets. Ended up getting pretty pissed off forthe first time, partly because Hillary was too, but after sitting us down in seats and giving us the food we had already paid for, these guys asked us to pay for the seats we were sitting in @ a cost that was well above what the meal itself cost (lets be honest, it was $10 for the three of us) but in reality we felt like they had taken advantage of us so we put up a verbal fight. He started walking us towards the police and I decided I had had enough and got all of our $ together to pay for the seats.
Scuba Diving: ended up diving with Lauren for a day which was a lot of fun. She is a more experienced diver than I am but we both said let’s do it so we did. After doing our initial checks on the equipment we were in the water and down about 40-50 feet. After swimming for 20-30 minutes we were hanging out at the bottom and I looked at the PSI of my tank which was alarmingly low...communicated this to the dive-master who paired me up with their assistant to take me up. We had to sit at 15 feet below the surface to acclimatize before surfacing and in that time my tank went completely empty...thus making it necessary to get the assistant guides secondary respirator to breathe. Unfortunately this cut my first dive in half but it was my fault for not double checking the pressure. Both dives were pretty good. The first one was through a few sunken ships that had coral starting to form on it while the second was a bit more easy going as we just followed the reef and observed fish and other wildlife.
Walking Tour: Starting out you could tell this was not going to be as good as the one in Medellin was. The host couldn’t project her voice as well and her English was not very good. About halfway through the tour, we had learned a few good things, but both Lauren and I looked at eachother and we decided to dip out of the tour and not finish it. We went on a search to find good food and good drinks and it was very successful. Got some great Tapas dishes as well as interesting cocktails.
Guatape: On the morning of the day I visited Guatape I was too hungover to go on my Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin but man was I happy that happened. I was walking home from getting food after waking up late and ran into Francois and Kanchan....with their bags packed and getting ready to head to the metro I asked if I could join and with a "if you can get ready quick" I ran back to the hostel and grabbed my stuff. Luckily I had my bag already packed and I grabbed my tablet and ran back to meet up with them. A two hour bus ride from Medellin takes you to an absolute oasis in the mountains behind Medellin. Picturesque and rich in history, the town of Guatape is a place where honeymooners and locals go to eat, swim, and partake in almost any activity I can think of (swimming, hiking, biking, climbing). Going back I would try to stay the night in Guatape as it is a perfect small town to relax, read a book and catch up on much needed rest.
Stayed @: Black Sheep Hostel (10 minute walk from El Poblado)
Review: Amazing hostel with plenty of areas to kick it/relax as well as very communal making it easy to meet people. Food was pretty nearby with only a few options but all of them were different/were tasty.
Overall Medellin is a must-visit destination while in Colombia. Its culture, good food, many things to do and people are what make it a wonderful place. Many people may thing of Pablo and what happened in medellin in the past, but it is a very different place now. Safe and quiet in the streets during the night (for the most part) the only time I heard someone having a run-in with cops was an Aussie who was piss drunk and stumbling home at 4 in the morning.
Things I did in Medellin:
- Went on the walking tour: a must do as you traveel throughout Colombia. Some are better than others...this one was great.
- Went on the Graffiti Tour: I was invited by a friend in the hostel to join his universities tour group as they went on the Graffiti Tour: This tour went through the favelas in Medellin and 5 years ago you would not dare step foot in the neighborhood. The graffiti showed a budding market and happier times as well as took us on the electric escalators that the government installed for the favelas. The escalators + gondolas were put in place to give the lower class a way to travel home at the end of the day without spending hours walking. Before these were installed, if you lived high in the hills, far away from the downtown area, it would take some 3-4 hours to walk to work, meaning they would spend a half day walking to go work for a full-day then walk half of the day home.
- Taking the gondola to Parque Arvi: Meh....the park was pointless but it is worth taking the tram all the way to the top as the view gives you a sense of how big the city itself is.
- Visited and walked around El Poblado: If you want to see an area of Medellin where business is booming, construction is going on everywhere and investors are moving and and improving housing/vacation stays this is the place. With bars/restaurants/street food and beautiful women the area is a hotspot at night in the city as well. Staying up all night is very common in this area and as you could imagine what keeps folks up all night is extremely easy to find in this area.
During the middle of June '16 a group consisting of a friend from Switzerland, my brother-in-law and his twin brother, and a nephew went on a trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Most people I had spoken to before embarking on the journey had said it was fairly easy and there wasn't a way we weren't going to make it to the top. Although I handled the elevation ok, the hike was both physically and mentally draining. Climbing vertically 18,500 (many more with the ups and downs) is tough, but thankfully we all did make it to the top to celebrate such an accomplishment. Here are a few of the photos from the experience, including our guides and porters whom really are the true hero's in this story.
In October of 2016 I was given the chance to do my first product/lifestyle shoot for a company out of Portland, OR called PushFins. They needed a few photographers to travel the coast and take photos of ambassadors using the product as well as capture photos in the shop to use for Marketing Purposes.
A little bit of background on Pushfins: The company was founded on the principle of taking broken skate-boards and using the wood to cut out surfboard fins that are used from recycled material. The fins are more pliable due to the manufacturing process of the skateboards, thus making the lifespan longer and more sustainable.
I was very fortunate to have gotten this gig and hope that in the future I can do similar work for other companies in any industry.
Mt. Tamalpais State Park
One of my favorite places to shoot outside of San Francisco is Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Within an hour you can be in what feels like a different world where its not the buildings that make you feel small, but the landscape itself.
Before I took my most-recent job, I went on a road trip through big-sur by myself for a week. Along the way I read a number of books, visited my favorite places in the southern part of the park and was able to prepare for the upcoming change. I will always cherish the times I have had to travel alone, as you have the chance to reflect in ways you cannot when you're surrounded by what makes you comfortable.
Lock Leven Lakes
Just outside Truckee, Ca there are a number of alpine lakes. The lakes in that we visited were a 4.5 mi. backpacking hike in which to me is the perfect length for hiking in with enough food/beer for two nights. It's a fairly grueling hike but the minute you hit the first lake you've realized why you hiked in with the supplies that you brought.
Tennessee Valley Trail
Just outside San Francisco is a hike called Tennessee Valley Trail. There are a few hikes you have access to once on the trail, with some taking you to the beach and other taking you down the valley and back up to points that have great views.