Six Months in South America: Natalie’s Story

John and I after a long four day trek to Machu Picchu

Natalie left her 9-5 job in February of 2014 to travel for six months in South America with her boyfriend John. We went to the same high school but connected when I stumbled upon her Instagram and blog while she was on her big trip. On her journey she visited five countries, worked at a hostel, volunteered, and took language classes along the way. You can visit her blog Peace, Love and a Backpack for more incredible stories.

What inspired you to quit your regular 9-5 job to travel for six months?

Backpacking has always been a dream of mine, but I honestly never thought this dream would become a reality. At first, it sounded crazy to me. Leave my JOB!? Move out of my apartment? There is no way! I liked working in public relations and was really happy living in San Francisco. But as time went on, I had the travel itch like never before, I was lacking inspiration in my everyday routine, and the timing began to seem more and more right. Luckily for me, my boyfriend John felt the same way. We would often make comments about leaving to go explore for a few months, and over time the comments led to conversations and the conversations became more real as we started to save and make initial plans. I’ll never forget the moment when we were sitting in my apartment and he was looking up flights to Lima, Peru. He started asking me “February or March… February or March?!” and I finally responded, “February!” with a terrified look on my face. I then asked him about 15 times, “Are we REALLY doing this?” I hadn’t even told my family or employer yet, but the decision was made and a few months later, we would embark on the most incredible adventure. I had no idea what to expect and I would be lying if I said I never questioned if it was the right thing for me to do. As the time approached to leave for South America, any feeling of doubt or uncertainty quickly faded into excitement. After I arrived, I quickly began to realize that this would be a journey that I would never regret.

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At over 16,000ft of elevation after hiking up Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador

Why did you pick South America and the specific countries you visited?

I had learned great things about South America from friends who had traveled there before, which initially peaked my interest in going to Peru. After researching, I knew it would be the perfect place for adventure, culture, and beauty. It’s also one of the best places for backpackers and budget travelers alike. We knew our money could go a long way, and a one way flight at the time to Lima from San Francisco was fairly cheap. We knew we would start in Peru, but we really didn’t make a plan after that. We had an idea of a couple countries that we wanted to visit including Ecuador and Argentina, but I didn’t really start thinking about it until we got there. Right away, I loved meeting new people and hearing about their travel experiences. It was interesting to hear about places they had been and incredible things they had seen. Choosing our path once we got there was completely easy and exciting.

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Salt Flats in Bolivia

How did you plan for you big trip? Did you use any online resources or blogs?

We planned to go to Lima and we had already booked a Machu Picchu trip. We didn’t plan much beyond that before we left. This was hard for me because I am a total planner, but looking back, I really wouldn’t have it any other way. It was empowering to let go and plan as we went instead of over scheduling, which was very different from my life back in San Francisco! This gave us so much flexibility that led us to some really beautiful adventures. I would always do a little research as we traveled from place to place by checking out some travel blogs and and websites here and there, but some of the best recommendations I would receive was by word of mouth advice from our fellow travelers and friendly locals!

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El Peñon de Guatape, Colombia

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Fresh seafood on the way to Playa Blanca in Cartegena, Colombia

What was one of your favorite places you visited on your trip?

A constant theme from people we met at the start of our trip was that Colombia was the place to be. I never thought about traveling there before coming to South America, but when I heard over and over again from other travelers, “You HAVE to go to Colombia!”, it really began to peak my interest. I’m glad it did because it is now absolutely one of my favorite countries. I have a connection to each country that I visited for completely different reasons, but there was something about Colombia that really has a piece of my heart. The people of Colombia are some of the most welcoming, friendliest, warm individuals I have ever met and there are endless things to see and do in this beautiful country. I fell in love with the culture and especially salsa dancing. Colombia is a great place to learn to salsa dance and soon after my first lesson, I couldn’t get enough!  Overall, Colombia left me feeling happy, inspired, and thankful.

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Riding along the Andes – Mendoza, Argentina

Did you come across any challenges while on the road? If so, what were they?

During the course of the entire trip, I felt pretty safe. Thankfully I didn’t come across big challenges in that aspect, which really is the most important. I think that when you’re traveling and away from home for a long period of time, you will always face challenges, big or small. For me, this trip really taught me to be more flexible and to not stress out when things don’t always go according to plan. When I would run into small speed bumps, whether that was getting lost in the middle of nowhere, being overly exhausted from endless hours of buses, missing family and friends,  getting ripped off by a vendor, or paying too much money for a tour that was completely awful, I really had to make sure to stay calm, keep positive, and laugh it off. At the end of the day, most of these things make for some pretty epic stories to look back on!

I also think it can be a bit challenging at times to travel with your partner. As much as John and I really do get along and as much as this whole experience made us a million times closer, there are always going to be moments when you need your own space. And there is very little of that when traveling with someone else. So even if it could be slightly overwhelming at times, the challenge was finding that balance communication and patience. It makes all the difference and makes you appreciate your time together that much more. It’s most important to keep an open communication when traveling with someone else. I think by the end of the trip, we had improved on this dramatically and before we left, I didn’t even realize this was something that we needed to improve upon. It was an important growing experience for myself and for us.

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Swinging off the cliff at La casa del arbol in Baños, Ecuador

Is there anything you discovered that you wish you would have known before starting your trip?

I think it’s safe to say that I have no regrets and am so thankful for the way my journey turned out. That said, I really wish that I learned more Spanish before leaving for South America. Thankfully, John understands and speaks Spanish pretty well, but I knew only the basics when I l left. I did of course learn along the way and ended up taking some Spanish classes in Bolivia, which really helped. In the end, this trip has inspired me to continue learning Spanish so when I return, I will be able to communicate with more locals. Communicating and making connections with locals while abroad can greatly change your experience for the better.

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Tayrona National Natural Park on the coast of Colombia

What kind of advice would you offer others looking to take a big trip abroad?

For others traveling on a long trip, I would say go for it! I am incredibly thankful that I took this leap of faith and embarked on this journey. You will never regret traveling and exploring more of this beautiful world that we live in. Know that people are generally good, but it’s also important to be on guard in any other country. It’s essential to go with an open mind, a good attitude, and be up for whatever experiences come your way. This openness will allow you to be inspired and discover new  interests. Look into volunteering opportunities, work at a hostel to save money, travel with new friends along the way, do something out of your comfort zone! All these things will change the course of your trip for the better.  The most special thing you will take away from a big trip is all of the amazing friendships that you’ll leave with. So be open to people and put yourself out there. You won’t regret it!

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Baños, Ecuador

What’s next for you?

So this is a question that freaks me out just a little bit! But when it comes down to it, I’m actually excited to be back home and I am now looking for new job opportunities. I’ve really missed San Francisco! I’m feeling optimistic about a new path and I am excited to see where the next road will take me. I know I will take a lot of what I learned from this trip into my journey ahead. One thing is for sure, and that is South America will definitely not be my last adventure. My want to travel and learn more about different cultures and the world around me has intensified like never before. Even though it was bittersweet that my journey in South America came to an end, I am so incredibly thankful and I know I’ll be back probably sooner rather than later to explore even more. Most of all, I’m excited about other future trips that are already brewing in the back of my mind!

 

 Disclaimer: All photos are by Natalie C.

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