Month: August 2015

TOL: I Literally Almost Froze This Morning

“When someone tells me it is going to be cold, I ask, ‘How cold?’ you dumb-ass,” said my guide.

Tatio Geysers at sunrise

Tatio Geysers at sunrise

Ok, he did not call me a dumb-ass out loud, but I am sure he was thinking it since I was thinking it about myself at that moment.

People mentioned that the day trips from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, would be cold. It never occurred to me to ask for more specifics because it never, ever occurred to me that they could mean -10 C.

That is not a typo.


That is not “cold.” That is freezing. Actually, that is more than freezing.

And that was the temperature when we arrived at the Geiser del Tatio this morning before sunrise.

Not sure where things got lost in translation, or transmission between two different travel agencies and me, but lost they were and frozen I was.

Sun's up but I'm still freezing

Sun’s up but I’m still freezing

The geysers were kind of cool. Here’s a video of water from Tatio and another of mud in Bolivia, a few days later. And I was slightly resourceful. The area with the geysers also has a thermal pool, so I brought a swimsuit and towel with me. There was no way I was actually going into the pool. I wrapped the towel around me like a blanket; in the photo you can see it peaking out from under my coat.

I did think to ask how cold it is going to be in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, (the world’s largest salt flats) where I head tommorow.

Even colder.

Thank goodness this small town has an outdoors store and I have a credit card.

New acquisitions!

New acquisitions!

TOL: My First Time Seeking Medical Care

I am so appreciative of Argentina’s medical system right now. I have been sick seven different times during my five-month trip. Six of these times were stomach-related issues, and only one was severe enough to make me consider seeking medical attention (but I did not).

I also have developed a skill that I would like to undevelop—a knack for timing these illnesses with travel.

This sixth illness has been totally different. For three days, I have been fighting what I labeled a cold. Unfortunately, this did put a bit of a damper on the last two days of my dad’s visit as my energy and appetite diminshed.

I went to a pharmacy late Saturday and was told to see a doctor so I could get a prescription for antibiotics. But, I was smarter than that! At the advice of my fantastic nurse practitioner at home, I brought a bottle of Cipro with me to South America, so I started taking those. Also, I was nervous about figuing out where to find a doctor, how to navigate the system, etc, and happily avoided the uncomfortable situation by prescribing myself the medicine I already had (but missed an opportunity to work on original goal #1.)

The nature of my cold changed and I felt like I was improving slowly. However, on the third night, when the woman in whose guest room I am living came home at 1.30 am, I was noticeably worse. At her suggestion, we went to a clinic around the corner from the apartment.

As she noted, I had a 7.30 am flight but could not travel in my condition.

Samples to last seven days

Samples to last seven days

I had to pay $44 upfront to see the doctor. No argument from me. A mere 20 minutes later, I had been diagnosed as having a 38.3 F/100.9 C fever and a bacterial infection, informed Cipro is not the appropriate drug for treating it (no wonder I was not significantly better after three days), given a shot of the appropriate medicine, and handed a sufficient supply of free samples of the same medicine. The shot cost me about another $4.

The clinic reminded me of the urgent care centers and drugstore-based clinics that are proliferating in many parts the US. However, the fees here sure are better! I do not know if my insurance will reimburse the $48 (there’s probably a high deductible I have not met yet*), but even if not, it was money well spent!

And, just in case you were wondering, I am DONE being sick—every kind. I am tired of missing out on outings and meals because I am unable to leave the house. Enough already! Basta ya!

*For those of you who live in countries where the phrase “a high deductible I have not met yet” does not make sense, do not spend time trying to understand it. Just be thankful.

Cell Phones Should Not Cause Crying

Back to Colombia for a post…

One of the things that most confounded me about life in Colombia was the cell phone systems. Seriously, trying to figure it out drove me to tears one afternoon. It is the only thing that caused me to cry my entire 3.5 months there.

In the hopes of saving others from reaching the same levels of frustration, I’ve written this guide for anyone traveling to Colombia who plans to get a local cell phone or use a Colombian SIM card in their own phone. I believe the systems are similar in other countries too.

For the rest of you, I suggest a quick glance since you might find it amusing. Also, I have included some tips for how to save data (and battery) at the end.


Is doing this necessary? It depends. Your cell phone will work on wi-fi without a local SIM card. Some restaurants in Bogotá have free wi-fi, but many do not. In Cartagena on the other hand, every place I went offered wi-fi and it is available in many public parks as well. If I was in Colombia for a vacation and spending my time with my traveling companions, I would not bother. For a quick phone call or two, there are always people on the street selling minutos (minutes). These vendors have a slew of cell phones for all of the major carriers and you pay a few pennies for each minute you use the phone. Colombians use these all of the time. (Note that this makes it hard to screen calls because it is common to get a phone call from an unknown number.) It seems minutes are not as common in other countries.

I used my phone a lot while out and about to look up directions and public transportation routes and to be in touch with people I was meeting. The student community at my Spanish school was great and there were often Friday or Saturday night plans that involved a lot of communication outside of school hours. Finally, as a safety measure, I just felt comfort knowing I could communicate with others anytime I wanted.

Get WhatsApp: No matter what else you do, get WhatsApp. It is a free texting and telephoning and app that everyone in South America uses. And that’s not an exaggeration. Both actual phone calls and messages sent through texting apps are expensive. WhatsApp sends messages over the internet, so it uses data, which is much cheaper. You will need WhatsApp to communicate with any locals you meet and probably with other travelers you meet, especially those from countries other than the US. Ask your friends and family in the US who you want to keeping texting with to get it too.

FaceTime: For communicating face to face between Apple devices, FaceTime worked better than Skype. A fair amount of the time we had to do audio-only calls because one of us did not have enough bandwidth for a consistent video connection, but it was still easier to use FaceTime in these situations.

While in the US: As of February 2015, all US phones and tablets have to be able to be unlocked, so make sure you check whether yours is, and if not, that you contact your carrier in enough time to get it done before you leave. (My iPhone 5c, purchased in November 2013, was already unlocked but I did not know this until I called Verizon.) I assume you can call and get your phone unlocked once you arrive in Colombia, but did not try it so I can not promise it will work.


The theory of prepago (prepaid): This underlying theory is what no one could explain clearly to me and caused the tears of frustration. You need a balance on your phone in order to buy a paquette (package) of minutes, texts and data. Going through the process of trying to buy a paquette tells you how much money to put in your balance through the recarga (recharge) process (you are recharging your balance, not your phone’s battery).

Rates witout a paquette

Rates witout a paquette

You want to buy a paquette because the prices are much better. I was curious to see the difference so once put a COP 21,000 balance on my phone, which would have bought a seven-day paquette. It lasted three. The image shows a text I received with the non-paquette pricing. I don’t understand it either.

The pricing information also is available on the carrier’s websites, but finding it is hard because the websites are more focused on customers with plans or people trying to buy a phone. Following the steps below to find the prices on your phone at the moment you are going to create a balance is a guaranteed way to be sure you have current information.

Almost all extranjeros (foreigners) use prepago because you can only get a cell phone plan if you have a Colombian ID card (Cédula de Ciudadanía), or someone with a card to vouch for you. I watched a Colombian woman spend an hour trying to cancel her plan because she was moving to another country. Given her challenges, even if I wanted a plan, witnessing that would have been enough to change my mind. But using prepago is not just for extranjeros. Many Colombians use prepago because when cell phones and plans were first introduced, many people got stuck with exorbitant bills because it was easy to go over the limits that came with the plans.

The actual steps:

1. First, you need to buy a SIM card from one of the phone companies. I found the prepago pricing to be similar between them. I had both Movistar and Claro during my time and found they worked (or did not work) equally well in Bogotá. You can look at other information online, such as national coverage, to see which you want. You may be able to buy your first paquette at the same place you buy your SIM card, in which case, read the rest of this for when you need to buy your next one.

TIP: You can choose your phone number. Ask to see the ones that are available if this matters to you. (I like to have double digits or a pattern if possible.)

NOTE: The plastic casing around the SIM cards was too big for my iPhone. I let the companies trim it down. I didn’t want responsibility for that.

I originally bought a Tigo SIM card which did fit into my phone without needing to trim the plastic, but would not work. Never figured out why, even after an hour of online help from Verizon. If you try a SIM card and it does not work, try another company.

2. Ideally, you will do the rest of this at the place where you are going to pay to recarga (recharge) your phone: grocery and Exito stores, lottery stores, and many seemingly random corner kiosks/carts. If not, do it where you have wi-fi or a computer connection and then go through the process the same day.

There are companies not related to the phone carriers that have websites offering to recarga your phone. There are so many places in Bogotá and most cities to recarga at all hours of the day that I never tried these sites, nor do I know anyone who did.

Start by going through the steps to (try to) buy a paquette. You use the telephone feature to send messages, not the texting app. Makes no sense, but trust me. “Dial” the appropriate numbers, * and #, and then hit the “send” or “call” button on your phone:

Claro: *103#

Movistar and Tigo: *611#

3. You will get a response that looks like this. For future reference, “2:Consulta de Saldo” means check your balance. Right now, you want “6:Recarga.”

Initial screen

Initial screen

You actually select option 6 by hitting the black Reply button and then typing just the number 6 into the text box, which is right above the keyboard in the screen shot below. To “send” this message, hit the blue word Reply in the upper right corner (hard to read in this image).

Selecting 6 from the menu

Selecting 6 from the menu

4. Next, you will go through a series of menus to select what you want to purchase (telephone, SMS, datos (data) and if you want a paquette. There are paquettes for different time periods such as an hour, a day, 7 days, 15 days, or 30 days. Select which paquette you want. As shown below, you will see a screen telling how much this paquette costs. Go ahead and reply with “1:Confirmar” to try to purchase it. You will get a message telling you that you have an insufficient saldo (balance). You can select different paquettes through this process to see the various prices.

Remember how much the paquette you want costs.

Screen showing selected packet and price

Screen showing selected packet and price

5. If you are not there already, go to a location where you can pay to recarga your phone. You will tell the clerk you want to recarga and which company you have. They will then ask for your telephone number.

STRONG TIP: Write down your number or have it displayed on your phone and hand your phone to the clerk. Otherwise, there might be a mistake and you might spend 30 minutes while many store employees figure out how to undo the COP 21,000 they just put on someone else’s phone.

You should get a receipt showing how much you paid and your phone number. You also should receive a text (actual text, not the pseudo-texting you did to figure out what paquette you want) confirming how much money in your saldo. I was told this text could take time to arrive, but I never waited more than a minute.

6. Immediately, and I mean immediately, go through the process of purchasing a paquette again and this time, actually buy it. If you delay, you might start drawing down your balance and then you will not have enough to pay to for the paquette. Smart phones use a lot of data in the background, even when you think every app is closed. I waited about 10 minutes once and had to go back and add more money to my saldo.

7. You should receive a confirmation screen at the end of the process that looks like this.

Confirming the purchase

Confirming the purchase

That should be it, until your paquette runs out, either because it expired or you used up your data allotment. So, here are a few tips to make your data last longer.


Connect to wi-fi: Whenever possible, connect to wi-fi instead of using your data. Self explanatory.

Close apps: When not using an app, close it. Also self explanatory.

Airplane mode: When you are not in a location where you are connected to wi-fi, put your phone in airplane mode. If you pull out your phone to use it, put it back in airplane mode when you finish. One likely time you will “waste” data is when traveling between locations (and if you are on TransMilenio, you probably should not be pulling out your phone, even if everyone around you is).

Location services: I am surprised that many people do not know that smart phones have a GPS function which you can turn off. Unless I am using a transportation app, I always have Location Services turned off: Settings > Privacy > Location Services. You will be asked to confirm that you want to turn off Location Services, so make sure you do so before exiting Settings.

When it is enabled, Location Services is sending information constantly about where you are to any app that has permission to know your location. You set the permissions here: Settings > Privacy > Location Services (must be switched on to go further) > Share My Location. You will see a list of all of your apps that want to know your location. Some apps offer only an Always or Never option, while others have the more preferable While Using option. It makes sense that transportation apps need to know your location, but does the App Store or the dictionary? Take a few minutes to go through all of your apps and select the setting that makes the most sense.

Limit background data: A big data drain can be is background syncing, which is when an app like Facebook grabs an update, or your phone checks to see if there are any new emails. You can reduce the frequency of push notifications, set apps to update manually so they only download new items when you actually open them, and set app updates to happen only when connected to wi-fi.

In iOS, you can also go to Settings > Cellular and scroll down to see a list of apps under Use cellular data for. Toggle off everything that is not essential.

In Android, take a look under Settings > Wireless & Networks > Data usage and tap on an app to find the option to Restrict app background data.

Disable auto-play videos in Facebook: Facebook has a feature that automatically plays videos in your newsfeed as you scroll past them. You can change this setting within the app to avoid unintentionally downloading these videos: More > Account Settings > Videos and Photos > Auto-Play videos on wi-fi only.

Save maps: I never know I could save an area in Google Maps for offline use. This feature is not available in some countries (like Colombia) as of this writing. Hopefully it will be in the future. But, for people in countries where it is an option, here are the details.

Open the Google Maps app when you are connected to wi-fi and select the area you want to save. Then tap Menu > Make available offline or go to Maps > My Places > Offline and tap New offline map before selecting the area you want. You can also review your offline maps via Maps > My Places > Offline. Unfortunately, you cannot get directions when offline.

TOL: When An Airport Crowd Is As Jubilant As A Fútbol Crowd

Cultural practice observed: a crowd at the airport can cheer as loudly as the crowd at a fútbol match. I have been on airplanes where people cheer when we land safely; I have never been in a terminal where the crowd cheers after an announcement that a flight will soon board.

And this was not just a little clapping or a little cheering. This was full-on rhythmic clapping followed by cheering for over 1.5 minutes. I missed the clapping-only part in the video.

What earned this?  A typical (for many frequent travelers) not-so-fun airline experience.

Buenos Aires experienced torrential downpours Wednesday night and Thursday morning. All of the early morning flights were canceled, but my 11.10 am flight kept its “on time” status all the way up to, and past, 11.10 am. We did not even have a gate assignment until 11.45. (I still do not understand why airplane/train/bus terminals only post gates at the last minute—I find it hard to believe they do not know which gate each flight/train/bus is going to use until 20 minutes before it leaves.)

Even after the storms dissipated, we had to wait because it was dangerous (or had been too dangerous) to fuel the planes. After a two-delay, we took a bus out to the aircraft and climbed into a very hot airplane.

After everyone was seated, the captain announced that the crew had exceeded their allowable work hours so we had to wait for the buses to come back, deplane, and wait two more hours in the terminal.

Excuse me?!? I fully support limiting the number of hours airline crews work for safety reasons. But, really?!? How did they not know this when they started the boarding process? Or, if there was a chance that we could take off if all of the passengers were on the plane before a certain time, why didn’t they tell us so everyone could move a little more quickly? After waiting around for a few hours—which many people spent sitting on the floor—I am sure everyone would have hustled a little if they knew that there was a deadline.

In a nice gesture, LAN issued vouchers for lunch. In a poor execution of this nice gesture, people swarmed the two gate agents who had to go through the time-consuming process of filling out three lines of information on each voucher. For 168 passengers. The ensuing mad house defied the stereotype that Argentines like to line up; it was chaos. I then used my hard-won voucher to purchase the absolute worst meal I have eaten in my five weeks here.

The two-hour delay turned into more than three. When they finally announced that we would be boarding soon, the applause and cheering broke out.

BTW, it was another 20 minutes before they started clearing us to board the buses again. Those of us who had printed boarding passes at home no longer had them since the they kept them when we boarded the first time. Other people did not have their boarding pass stubs handy. So everyone pulled out an ID. One gate agent read names off the IDs while another crossed names off a paper list—that I am pretty sure was organized by seat number. It took an hour to get everyone out to the plane.

On the bright side, I was not in a hurry—my tours of Iguazu Falls did not begin until the next day, so I was not missing anything. I was not traveling with multiple cranky children by myself. I had a lot of articles and a new book to read. We were treated to a beautiful sunset during the flight. And the snacks were much better than in the US: cheese crackers. lemon-filled cookie sandwich, and chocolate alfajores, the Argentine national dessert.

LAN snacks in Argentina

LAN snacks in Argentina

Sunset from the plane

Sunset from the plane

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