Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul’s Highest Mountain

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

Though Seoul is more famous for its nightlife and culinary scene, this urban oasis is actually an incredible city for outdoor lovers. The city is ringed by mountains, with smaller hills popping up in almost every neighborhood. And every hill and mountain, no matter how tall or small, is covered in hiking trails. Though I lived in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

Even after living in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

View from Bukhansan

Bukhansan, located at the northern edge of Seoul, is both a national park and a mountain with three main peaks. The park has many different access points and mountains worth climbing, but in this post, I’m going to explain how to hike to the top of Bukhansan Mountain, the challenging Baegundae Peak. It’s a fairly tough 4km climb up, with several options for hiking back down.

How to Get to Bukhansan Mountain

Seoul has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, so getting to Bukhansan mountain is incredibly easy. From anywhere in the city, just get on the subway line 3 and take it all the way to Gupabal station. Take exit 1 then head to the bus stop just behind the exit. Take either bus 704 or bus 34 to the Bukhansan National Park stop.

If you’re confused, just follow the pack of older Koreans in brightly colored hiking gear. They know where to go.

hiking bukhansan trail markers

Get off the bus at Bukhansan National Park and follow the crowds up the hill towards the Ranger station. From there, you have access to several hiking trails that head up towards Baegundae Peak. Helpful signs point the way. I took the 4km trail, which follows a really nice river up the mountain.

Hiking Bukhansan Mountain to Baegundae Peak

The trail begins slowly. It follows a rather beautiful river as it tumbles down large rocks from the pine-covered peaks rising above you. After a short while, you’ll come to a road and a sort of open space. Keep walking around to the left to stay on the path for Baegundae peak.

Bukhansan Mountain Trail

After about 1.5km of walking, you’ll come to another fork in the path with two options for heading up to Baegundae. I chose to take the shorter of the two routes, heading towards Wonhyobong Peak. Further up, the trail splits again, one heading to Wonhyobong, and another (our track) heading directly towards Baegundae.

Climbing Bukhansan Mountain

You’ll pass a gate to a temple with Korean carvings all around. You can walk through the gate to visit the temple, but the trail to Baegundae continues up to the right. Not too long after that, you’ll come to the final fork and path to the peak.

Final Push up to Baegundae, Seoul’s Highest Point

The final half kilometer up to the peak of Bukhansan is classic Korean hiking at its finest. The trail, if you can call it that, cuts straight up the granite boulders. In some places, posts and metal rails are there to assist you in climbing. Cling onto these as you haul yourself bodily up the side of the mountain. Don’t forget to look up! Hikers will be descending by these same metal ropes, so be aware and try your best to avoid collisions.

Hiking in Korea

After some sweaty pulling and climbing, you’ll reach the top of the peak. You’ll know it’s the top because a) the trail stops and b) there is a Korean flag jutting proudly from the rock.

From the peak, you’ll get a great view of Insubong and Mangyeongdae, the two nearby, but slightly lower, peaks of Bukhansan. Mangyeongdae is covered in rocks and trees and the stairs leading up to it should be visible. Insubong is a smooth granite peak jutting up from the forest below. This peak is only reachable via rock climbing. On most pleasant days, you should see a few intrepid climbers scaling her steep sides.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

Baegundae Peak has plenty of smooth, flat spaces to stretch out for some well-earned rest. Not a bad idea to bring up some food and have a picnic alongside the Koreans. Just be careful how much Makkeolli you drink. You still have to get back down off the mountain.

View from Baegundae Peak

Hiking Back Down Bukhansan to Seoul

For the hike back down, you have essentially three options: go back the way you came (boring but quick), continue on the path to Mangyeongdae and then back to your starting point (rather long and challenging but also quite beautiful), or go down the other side of the mountain to the Baegundae Information Center.

Bukhansan trail markers

I chose to go down to the Baegundae Information Center, as the sign said it was only 1.6km away and I was out of water. It was a mistake and I don’t recommend taking this trail down unless you’ve got plenty of time on your hands and love exploring every last nook and cranny of Seoul.

The trail heads down steeply from the peak until you reach the Baek-Woon Mountain Hut. This is a sort of traditional Korean house that has been built and re-built over the years. Today, it serves as a shelter and a small shop where you can buy water, drinks, some candy bars, and perhaps some soup or kimchi. It also marks the starting point for the ascent of Insubong (I think).

Mountain House Bukhansan

From there, the trail continues downhill more gradually. Stone stairs feature prominently in the descent. After a short time, you’ll come to the Baegundae Information Center, characterized by a large parking lot and coffee shop.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

But lest you think you’re back into the city, you are not. No, from there it is a further 2km walk down a paved road with wooden sidewalk until you reach a bus stop. In my opinion, there are far more scenic ways to get off of Bukhansan Mountain. I really don’t recommend taking the Baegundae Information Center route.

Baegundae Information Center

If you do end up down here, just follow the road off the mountain until you come to town, then continue until you reach the main road. When I was there in September 2017, they looked to be building a new subway line but it was not yet operational. When it does become operational, the stop will be called Ui Bukhansan.

Seoul Streets near Bukhansan

For now, I hopped on the 120 bus and took it to Suyu station and back into central Seoul.


Like this post? Pin it!

Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea

5 Lessons Learned from 5 Years Abroad

Adventure Travel, Travel

As of July 28, 2017, I’ve been living abroad; working and traveling; for five years. It’s been five years of struggles, triumphs, tribulations, and ultimately, strength. I’ve lived and worked in three countries, I’ve traveled through 15, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I’ve cycled around Cambodia. And I’ve come through it all a more complete version of myself.

To mark this milestone in my life, I decided to compile a list of five hard-earned lessons I’ve learned in five years of living abroad.

Chinatown Incheon

Visiting Incheon’s Chinatown in South Korea 2012

1. Live Your Life By Your Own Rules

Don’t live your life according to other people’s rules. Don’t listen to the guilty voice in your head telling you what you “should” be doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Instead, do the things that give you purpose.

When I first moved to Korea I had all these ideas about what it meant to be an expat. I wanted to be a “real expat” and not a “fake expat”, whatever that meant. I ate only Korean food, I didn’t own a fork, I slept on a pallet bed, I tried (poorly) to learn the language. I rarely ate western food and tried to only go out places where Koreans were going out.

I looked down on people who spent all their time in the foreigner neighborhoods and scorned those who felt the need to eat bread instead of rice. And what did I get for all this superiority? Crushing culture shock and mental stress. It took me a little over six months to realize how much happier I was overall if I let myself enjoy some time in the foreigner neighborhood.

So, if I want to go spend money on a fancy American style meal, I’ll do it. If I want to go to the expat bar on Friday nights and hang out with other foreigners who speak English fluently, I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to living my life abroad, immersed in a foreign land.

The same thing applies to travel. I used to feel guilty if I spent a whole day doing nothing, lying about in hammocks. Or guilty that I went to Indonesia and spent the whole time climbing volcanoes instead of surfing or diving.

But this is my life and my trip. I get to do what I want to do with my time. I’m not beholden to other people’s bucket lists or preconceived notions about what “Travel” involves.

This lesson applies to so many things in life, how your spend your free time, what career you pursue, whether or not you attend university, who you spend your time with. In the end, we only live once, so it’s best to remember:

Your life is yours and yours alone, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.

Buying a Donkey in Peru

Meeting my donkey, Chana, for the first time, 2015

2. There is Happiness in Solitude

I’ve always been an introvert. But when I was younger I didn’t appreciate that side of myself. Not valuing my desire to spend time alone in bed with a good book, I thought this inclination toward nights in made me anti-social.

Life abroad has shown me the strength that comes from introversion. Because of this side of my personality, I’m comfortable doing things on my own. I’ll go to restaurants by myself, go to bars by myself, even go on 7-week long bike rides by myself.

Sometimes I wish I made more of an effort to find a partner in crime for all my adventuring. But that person will come along eventually. Or maybe they won’t. For now, I’m perfectly happy exploring the world solo.

If you are unafraid to experience life as a solo traveler, you’ll find so many more adventures are waiting for you.

Annapurna Circuit Manaslau Pass

Crossing the Highest Point of the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, 2014

3. When Facing Disaster: Stay Calm

I have a confession to make: I’m a panicker. Sometimes that panic comes in the form of sleepless nights spent agonizing over something left undone. Other times, it’s the kind of frenzied panic that takes over in the face of a disaster.

Travel, especially solo travel, has taught me the futility of panic. It seems like life is teaching me this lesson over and over again. Like on my first night in Korea, when I accidentally took a bus to the end of the line and had no idea where I was.

Or when I was walking across Peru with a donkey and I walked myself all the way to exhaustion. Facing a full day of climbing, I collapsed on the hillside in tears.

Or when I was cycling around Cambodia and got lost for the 3rd time that day, I burst into tears and shouted “I can’t do this!” at the sky.

But over the years, these stressful experiences have taught me something: crying doesn’t get you anywhere. Panic is pretty useless. And 9 times out of 10, everything works out in the end. Take a few deep breaths, sit down, and look at the situation calmly. You’ll find a solution soon enough.

Touring in Kyoto Japan

First visit to Japan, 2013

4. Be Patient – Things Worth Having Take Time

This was probably the most difficult one for me to learn. I am not a patient person by nature. I like instant gratification and getting free stuff. But life doesn’t work like that and we don’t all get to live in fairy tales.

This lesson came to me recently, during my seven-week bike ride around Cambodia. I bought a bicycle in March 2017 and intended to get in shape then begin my epic bike tour in April. That plan was dashed when I ripped a tendon in my foot at the end of March. No more cycling. No activity at all. I spent all of April resting in my apartment.

Then May 1st came and I couldn’t wait anymore. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling. I was completely out of shape. I hadn’t ridden a single kilometer in over a month! On my first day, a 77km ride over some hills almost killed me.

But over the next 7 weeks of cycling, my body slowly started to change. 70km went from nearly impossible to easy. I was shocked, two weeks in, to find that a 93km passed by in a flash. By the end of the ride, I was tackling 140km days.

This strength didn’t happen overnight. It happened because I worked at it slowly and consistently.

This applies to just about everything in life. You want to travel for 6 months? Start saving now, little by little.

You want to work for the UN? Start working with smaller NGOs now. Build up your experiences and resume little by little.

Whatever your goals are, break them down into little bits to get there. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work out. There were days I thought I’d never be able to cycle around Cambodia. And yet by the end, I felt I could’ve done the whole thing again.

You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a little persistence.

Hiking the Alpamayo Circuit Solo

Hiking in the Alpamayo Circuit, Peru, 2015

5. If You Have A Passion: Chase It

Whatever makes your heart beat faster and your imagination soar, chase it. Not everyone is lucky enough to know what their passion is. Most of us have no idea. But if you do figure it out, get after it. Start now. Today.

Start small, what first baby step can you take to get there? Make a plan for yourself, and be willing to let that plan change.

For me, the dream has always been writing. I’ve known since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Narnia Chronicles that I wanted to be a writer. There were months, even years when I thought this would never be possible. I was a talentless fraud. Writing wasn’t really what I wanted. Writing is not a real career choice.

It took me a few years to get over all that negative self-talk and begin actively pursuing that dream. I’m not publishing novels yet, but I am working full time as a freelance writer and content creator. I’m on my way, and it feels right.

Five years ago, as I set off to teach English in South Korea, I thought I had no dreams. Being a writer seemed like a childish passion. But here I am, five years later, a professional content creator. People are paying me to write.

Three months ago I launched this blog, Into Foreign Lands. It’s not one of the top travel blogs on the web by any means but it’s mine, I’m dedicated to it, and I love every second that I get to work on it.

I’ve got further to go and more baby steps to take but this process of living abroad has shown me that I have the strength to get there.

My point is this: whatever your dream is, chase it. Even if it feels so far away you may never get there, start now. Start today. One year ago I was working a 40 hour/week job in Cambodia and coming home each night to work on writing and freelance assignments. It sucked and I was always tired but it means that now I can work freelance and make my own schedule. I have time for my creative pursuits.

If you feel that you have no dream, have no passions, if you’re feeling lost and listless, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I felt that way before I left for Korea. I’ve felt it since then in moments of self-doubt.

But think of it like this: because you don’t know where you want to go, you can go anywhere! Start trying different things, anything that you get the opportunity to try. Start running, take boxing classes, sign up for a book club, apply for a job that sounds interesting but you’re not qualified for. (Worst thing they can do is say no!). Start traveling. You never know what will trigger your imagination and set your heart soaring.


Before I sign off sounding like I’ve got everything figured out, let me just add as a caveat: I’m often re-learning each of these lessons. As soon as I think I’ve learned “don’t panic” for the final time, I end up in some bad situation, bursting into tears and trying not to panic.

BIke Tour Through the Cambodian rice fields

Cycling through the rice fields outside Battambang, Cambodia, 2017

Travel isn’t necessary to experience this kind of self-growth. It just happened to be what triggered it for me. This is what travel has taught me and I’m so thankful to be on the path that I’m walking. If you’re not on the right path for your life, I can’t encourage you enough to start making small changes today. Even if that means adding a second job. Even if it means taking a massive risk.

Your life is your own, and you only get one.

Like this article? Pin it!

5 Lessons Learned from a Life spent living abroad, working abroad, and traveling across 15 countries

The Complete Guide to the Sacred Valley of the Inca in Peru

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

No trip to Peru is complete without a visit to the verdant Sacred Valley of the Incas. Located in between Cusco and Machu Picchu, most tourists only spend a day or two here before heading off to take on the Inca Trail. But take it from someone who lived there for a year, you may want to reorganize your trip to make more room for this tucked away paradise.

The Sacred Valley of the Inca is unlike anywhere else on earth. In a single day of exploration, visitors can take in sweeping vistas of snow capped peaks while enjoying an organic locally grown feast. With just a few days, the adventurous tourist can hike to waterfalls, visit ancient Incan ruins, and learn about a vibrant indigenous culture that still carries on today despite many hardships and obstacles.

There is so much to love about Peru’s Sacred Valley. It is one of my favorite places in the world and I’m delighted to share with you my complete guide to visiting the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Chicon Glacier Hike

Understanding Life in the Valley

As with any visit to a foreign land, you cannot expect to fully understand the depth and complexity of life there in just a few weeks or months. But there are a few things you can learn that will help you understand the culture of life in the valley.

This valley was once very near to the center of Incan society. And those Incan ancestors left behind more than just ruins.

Much of the population are Quechua people, an indigenous group descended from the Incans. These people speak the Quechua language and some don’t speak Spanish. Though most are Catholics today, their ties to their ancient culture are still evident.

Pachamama, a mother earth figure, features heavily in local folklore. Hikes and other journeys often begin with a ritual offering of 3 coca leaves to Pachamama.

Many who live there still talk of the ancient Incan understanding of the three-part world: hana pacha, the upper world, signified by a Condor; Kay Pacha, the middle world, signified by a panther; and Uku Pacha, the lower world, signified by a serpent.

Today, the Sacred Valley is an agricultural area. The high Andean villages make up some of the last pastoral communities in the world.

Sacred Valley

Overall, Peru is still considered a developing country and had a poverty rate of 25.8% in 2011, according to the UN. Clean water is difficult to come by and illiteracy is still commonplace.

Yet poverty isn’t the story in Peru. The modern culture in the Sacred Valley is vibrant, unique, and bursting with pride. In general, the Peruvians (I met) who live there are welcoming, accepting of tourists, and willing to educate outsiders about their culture and way of life.

Before you go, make sure you purchase a 10-day Boleto Turístico in Cusco. This pass will give you access to most (but not all) of the major tourist attractions in the Sacred Valley.

The Three Main Towns

There are many small villages running through the Sacred Valley. These vary in size and each one has its own flavor and secrets. That being said, here are the five main towns that every visit to the Sacred Valley should include:

Pisac

Pisac is the second most famous town in the valley and home to the largest population of foreigners in the valley. The town is dominated by a massive set of Incan ruins climbing up the mountain above town.

There are two ways to visit these ruins. For the adventurous, the ruins can be reached by hiking up a long Incan staircase, just head uphill from the market until you find the gateway. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can take a taxi up the mountain behind town and walk across to the ruins from there.

Entrance to the ruin is included in the Boleto Turistico.

After you finish exploring the ruins, spend some time walking around the market in the main square. This is one of the most touristic markets in all of the Sacred Valley. It’s a great opportunity to see what kind of handicrafts and trinkets are on offer, but there are less expensive markets selling most of the same products. If you see something truly special, get it! Otherwise, wait till you get to Urubamba.

Ollantaytambo Free Ruins

Pisac also has a whole host of opportunities for yoga workshops, retreats, vegan food, and plant medicine retreats. Many restaurants in town offer Ayahuasca diet menus, and there are shamans all over town offering their services. Just – do your research before booking! Some of these are great experiences, while others can turn into nightmares.

For workshops and yoga retreats, I can personally recommend Nidra Wasi. I took a yogic cooking workshop there in 2014 that was worth every penny.

Ollantaytambo

The gem in the crown of the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo is the most beautiful and iconic town on this list. Called the “Living Incan City” this town is unlike any other in the world. Built by the Inca over 500 years ago, today the town lives on, with Quechua people still living in the structures built by their Incan ancestors.

Rio Urubamba

What to do in Ollantaytambo

The main highlight of Ollantaytambo is the majestic ruin rising up above the town. You’ll catch your first glimpse of it from the main square. Just walk down the hill to reach the entrance. The entrance fee is covered by the boleto turistico.

These ruins, called Temple Hill colloquially, are unfinished, having been abandoned before completion over 600 years ago. Still, there are many structures and monoliths that are astounding to witness in person. The Temple of the Sun, located at the top of a long stair climb, features some of the remarkable stonework that makes the Inca famous. The many gardens, fountains, and foundations that run along the bottom of the mountainside will have you dreaming of what life was like before the Spanish arrived. This temple deserves at least a whole morning just for exploration.

If you have extra energy and time in Ollantay, smaller, less majestic ruins cling to the opposite side of the valley. Entrance to these ruins is free, if you can find it. Walk down the last alleyway in town and then look for a small path leading up the hill. These ruins were the storage houses for potatoes, grains and other foodstuffs.

Where to Eat in Ollantaytambo

Once you’ve finished exploring Ollantaytambo’s impressive ruins, it’s time for a snack. My personal favorite place to eat in Ollantay is Heart’s Cafe. This social enterprise cafe uses its proceeds to provide healthy meals and support to women and children living in high Andean communities. They have some of the most delicious food in Ollantay with vegan and vegetarian options.

Urubamba

Urubamba is situated right smack in the center of the Sacred Valley. This town is often overlooked by tourists because it lacks the quaint charm and stunning ruins of Pisac or Ollantaytambo. But in truth, you cannot fully understand life in the Sacred Valley without a visit to Urubamba.

A visit to Urubamba provides the opportunity to look behind the tourist performance and see what life is really like for the local Quechua people and Peruvian transplants that populate the Sacred Valley.

Urubamba is a hidden gem of the Sacred Valley, especially for those who love good food. The market at Urubamba is a gathering place for local farmers from all across the valley and up in the mountains. There are a few days a week when it explodes into a hive of activity. I’ll talk more about that in the event section of this article.

Urubamba Streets

Streets of Urubamba

Where to Eat in Urubamba

There are many restaurants in Urubamba worth checking out. The top choices serve the increasingly popular Novo Andino cuisine, while other cafe’s tend to focus on organic vegetarian meals.

El Huacatay serves up Novo Andino classics like Trucha (trout) or Alpaca meat. The restaurant is cash only and reservations are recommended in the high season. 30-40 soles per plate.

Paca Paca sits a bit uphill from town but is well worth the walk or moto ride. The restaurant offers a funky artistic vibe with wood oven pizzas and a good wine selection. Pastas are also recommended. 30 – 40 soles per plate

Kaia is my last and highest restaurant recommendation. It isn’t the most expensive or sought after restaurant in town but it is the most charming. They offer organic food prepared with love. Kaia also often has music performances or other artistic events. I recommend the chai tea with almond milk! 15-25 soles/plate

What to Do in Urubamba

Other than a visit to the market, what else does Urubamba have to offer?

The Plaza de Armas has a lovely traditional church with a view of the mountains behind. Get some ice cream from one of the heladerias or carts situated on the square.

Visit Urubamba’s modest ruins, the Palacio de Hyuana Capac – a humble remains of a once proud fortress. May only be interesting to true archaeology nerds like myself. From there, you can check out Urubamba’s Cemetery to get a sense of how Peru honor their dead, or walk down a true Inca trail as it winds out of town.

Urubamba is also quietly becoming an artistic hub of the valley. To find more information about this, the best places in town to visit are Kaia Cafe or El Arte Sano. Both have artistic performances, events, and workshops every month.

Lastly, Urubamba is a great town to use as a jumping off point for some epic hikes. I’ll talk about the best one, hiking up to Chicón, further down in the hiking section of this article. On top of that, a walk through the dirt roads that lead uphill out of town will often lead to small pathways winding up into the foothills of the Andes. You never know what you might find.

There is a short hike that goes up to the cross above town, providing a great outlook over Urubamba towards Cusco. To get there, head uphill on the main road, Yanaconas Chicón, until you see a zig zagging path going uphill on your left. Follow that trail all the way up to the cross. The top is a great spot for a picnic.

Urubamba Hike to the Cross

View from the Cross above Urubamba

Chinchero

Though not technically in the Sacred Valley, Chinchero is usually included in most Sacred Valley tours and it’s a town worth visiting for it’s impressive ruins, local market, and gorgeous countryside.

Chinchero is the highest town on this list, sitting even higher than Cusco at 3,700m (12,100ft), so make sure to spend some time in either the Sacred Valley or Cusco before heading to explore Chinchero. The headaches and nausea that accompany altitude sickness don’t make for a great day of exploration.

The highlight of a visit to Chinchero is the set of ancient Incan ruins and Spanish missionary church that dominate the town. At the ruins, you’ll find well maintained terraces and a few large boulders with Incan engravings and carvings.

But the true state of the ruins stands as testament to the tumultuous history that created modern Peru. Above the ruins, where once the main temple of the Incan ruin soon, it has been replaced with a Spanish cathedral, built by the conquering Spaniards to subdue the local people. It’s lovely to look inside, but the juxtaposition of Incan and Spanish will make you stop and think about colonialism both past and present.

Chincero also boasts a fairly popular market selling tourist goods as well as local wares. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best days for the market, but it will probably be somewhat open most days of the week.

If you are particularly lucky, you’ll stumbled into Chinchero on a festival day. These days, the main square comes alive in a frenzy of colorful activity. If you find yourself in a Chinchero festival, remember to be respectful first and foremost. Ask before photographing women, stand at the back, and be respectful of local traditions. You’re witnessing a genuine part of the Quechua indigenous culture that is alive and well.

view from Maras village

The Streets of Maras

Maras/Moray

A visit to Maras, Moray, and the Salineras Salt Mines are a must if spending time in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The sites can be visited by a combination of hiking, biking, and taxis. I suggest beginning with a walk to the salt mines, which I outline below in the hikes section, then head up to Maras, where you can easily find a taxi to drive you out to Moray.

More commonly, people hire taxis from either Cusco or the Valley to take them on a full tour of the salt mines and Moray. Moray entrance fee is included on the Boleto Turístico. Salineras is not included, but it’s only $3 extra.

The salt mines are a work of terracing that dates back to the Incan empire. Built much like the green terraces found elsewhere, these are used to harvest salt. The flats are flooded and then the water slowly evaporates, leaving behind pure salt.

The Peruvians who work on the salt flats are part of a co-op system that dates back to Incan times. Everyone shares in the work and benefit from the harvests. Anyone can have access to the salt flats – as long as they are willing to pull their own weight.

Moray is the site of the famous circular Incan terraces. These were used, perhaps, to experiment with different crops. In truth, however, archaeologists cannot say for certain why the Incan build a circular pit of terraces here and not elsewhere. Whatever they were built for, they are a beautiful and mysterious spot to spend an afternoon.

Best Hikes in the Sacred Valley

Most tourists visit the Sacred Valley for it’s villages and markets, but there is more to be explored in this sun-drenched land. Indeed, the Sacred Valley is perhaps one of the most accessible and unexplored hiking locations in all of Peru. If you’re comfortable in Alpine environments and a very serious outdoors enthusiast, you can choose any valley and start hiking upwards to see what happens. As always, be respectful of any indigenous people you meet, ask permission before camping, and use caution.

If choosing a random trail and seeing where it goes seems a little too high risk for you, here are a selection of my favorite single-day and multi-day hikes in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.

Lares Trek

Though less popular than it’s more famous siblings; the Inca Trail and Salkantay trek, this two or three day Trek a stunning alternative to those heavily trafficked trails. The Lares Trek has three variations . Each begins at a different village in the valley, runs up and over the Andes, and finishes up at the Lares Hot Springs. Each route has it’s own benefit and, having personally hiked two of them, I believe that all three routes are equal in beauty.

sacred valley views peru

Sacred Valley Views

Option 1: Beginning from Huarán

This hike begins from a small village just outside of Huarán, following a well trodden footpath up into the high Andes. After several hours of hiking, you’ll come across the rural Quechua village of Cancha Cancha.

The people of Cancha Cancha are used to seeing tourists passing through but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want you walking around in their church or school. Be respectful and ask village elders for permission before wandering willy-nilly through their village taking photos. Not many villagers speak Spanish but simple sign language usually does the trick.

Continuing on from the village, you’ll soon reach a large, black Andean lake, the perfect spot for your first campsite. Day two you’ll hike up and over the ridge then down to the main road. Follow the main road until you reach Lares.

Option 2: Beginning from Urubamba

You’ll hike up out of town towards Pumahuanca, an absolutely stunning ecological area. You’ll be following a river and the path is actually a road for much of the beginning. Eventually it becomes a footpath that will lead you up and over the Andes.

On the way you’ll pass through a rural village, pastoral farmland, an ancient Incan ruin, and have breathtaking views back towards Cusco. Once you cross the pass, it’s a long walk down a dirt road until you reach the Lares Hot Springs.

Option 3: Beginning from Yanahuara

This is the only route I haven’t personally tried. The route from Yanahuara leads up to a large lake sitting at about 4000m. Camp beside this lake then continue up and over the pass and down to Lares and the much needed hot springs.

Inca Trail from Chinchero

Yes, it’s an Inca Trail hike, but it’s not THE Incan Trail. Here in the Sacred Valley, there is one long continuous hike that anyone can do, for free, on an authentic section of the Inca Trail.

It runs from Chinchero down to a small village called Urquillos. The trail can technically be hiked in either direction, but I recommend beginning in Chinchero and hiking down to Urquillos, unless you’re a true sucker for punishment.

Get a taxi or combi van up to Chinchero then head to the ruins. Walk down through the terraces to the very bottom and head off towards the forest and mountainside. You should find the start of a pathway leading down. After less than 5 minutes of walking, you’ll see a sign indicating that this is an authentic Incan Trail.

The trail leads down a steep mountainside to the village of Urquillos, close to the Aranwa Sacred Valley Resort. Pop in there to ask for help getting a taxi, or simply stand on the main road and wave your hand until a passing bus or car picks you up.

sacred valley above urubamba

On the way up to Yanacocha

Laguna Yanacocha Hike

One of the most beautiful day hikes in the valley, the hike to Yanacocha is incredibly popular with locals but little known to tourists. It may be a good idea to find a local guide to show you the way, as this trail can be difficult to find. Your hotel in the valley should be able to help you find a knowledgeable guide.

The trail begins from Huayoccari, first winding through eucalyptus forests, then slowly ascending the mountains above.

The trail will open up onto high Andean farmland, then alternate through forests, slow scrub, and more pastures. If you’re lucky you may see some wildlife but it’ll mostly just be cattle.

When you come to a large flat rock, you know you’re almost there. This is a great spot to have a rest and take some photos.

The last part of the trail is steeper as you approach the lake. The big reveal comes as you scrabble up the last climb to find a most incredible sight: a large, crystalline black lake sits beneath towering cliffs.

Apparently there is another lake higher up and a trail to access it, but I never tried it. Hiking up to Yanacochoa at 4700m was enough for me.

Remember to bring water and snacks (at least!) or better yet a full lunch to eat at the lake.

naupa iglesia sacred cave hike near Ollantaytambo

Roadside map on the way to the Naupa Iglesia

Naupa Iglesia Hike

Really more of a short morning stroll than an full hike, the Naupa Iglesia is a mystical hidden gems in the Sacred Valley. Frequented by locals and expats, you’ll be unlikely to encounter another tourist at this secretive Incan site.

The Naupa Iglesia is found in a cave sitting atop some old terraces. Inside the cave is a stunning carved altar, partially destroyed by the Spanish, and a mysterious stone door carved into the wall of the cave. In front of the cave are several structures containing the human remains.

To reach this site, take a taxi or combi to “el puente Pachar” or the Pachar Bridge. You should see a large sign for a Circuito Turistico when you disembark from the car. From there, head on up the road that leads through the village and up the valley. Stay on the road and look to your right hand side. When you see some crumbling terraces, follow the path up them and you’ll find the cave at the top.

If you have a guide, there is a beautiful hike that goes from there up to a majestic waterfall and onwards. That is a full day excursion and not to be undertaken without a guide.

Hiking Chicon Glacier Hike Peru

Trying to get to Chicón

Chicón Glacier Hike (Chi’qun)

Chicón, alternatively spelled Chi’qun to respected the Quechua, is the massive glacier and mountain peak above Urubamba. It’s peak is visible as you drive from Cusco to the valley, visible from the main square, and featured prominently in this music video from Calle 13, one of my favorite songs.

The peak of the mountain is 5,530m (18,000+ft) and the glacier sits just a few hundred meters below that. Needless to say, it is a very rigorous and demanding hike. Though technically possible to achieve in just one day, you’re better off bringing camping gear and giving yourself two days to attempt this trek.

To get there, find a taxi to drive you up the Chicón valley to the end of the road. There are also combis that leave from the main road very early in the morning if you can find them.

From the gate, you walk up the road until you come to the flat, cleared area. Perhaps it’s a mine, but I’m not certain. After that, follow the switchbacking trail as it leads up and up and up. It’s a rigorous ascent and this trail is unforgiving.

Full disclosure: I got altitude sickness up there and did not make it all the way to the Chicón glacier. If you attempt this hike and make it to the lake below the glacier and to the glacier itself, write me a comment and let me know how it goes! I’m dying to go back for another attempt.

Salineras to Maras

Less of a hike and more of a day trip on foot, it is totally possible to walk from Urubamba to the Salineras flat mines and up to Maras. I really enjoyed this walk and I recommend it to other travelers who love seeing the world on foot.

From Urubamba, you’ll want to cross the main road and find the lower road that runs parallel, one block closer to the river. Follow this for a few miles until you see a sign for the rainbow bridge and Salineras. Cross the bridge. On the other side you should find an official who will take your 10 soles or $3 for the price of entrance. Hang onto the ticket he gives you.

Follow the road along the river then upwards into the valley. You can’t see the salt mines yet but you are almost there. Hike the winding path up the hill and you’ll soon find yourself in amongst the salt mines.

When you enter the mines from the bottom they are slowly revealed to you, bit by bit. It won’t be until later, once you reach the top and look back, that you’ll realize the full expanse of the salty wonderland you’ve been wandering through.

Salineras Incan Salt Mines

Salineras Salt Flats

After you’ve had your fill of the salt mines, there is a trail that cuts up the hillside all the way to Maras. Head through the parking lot and look for the trail cutting straight up the hill. It will be narrow at first but will eventually open up into a sort of narrow road. Look out for mountain bikers coming downhill!

This road winds up the enticing valley all the way to Maras. Once you arrive in Maras, you should be able to find taxis to take you out to Moray or back down to Urubamba, or even onward to Cusco.

Best Events

Spend a year in the Sacred Valley and you’ll soon notice that the rhythm of life in the Sacred Valley is marked by festivals. Each one had something unique and wonderful that sits locked in my memories. But few of them recur every year. Here are a few of my favorite yearly or monthly events happening in the Sacred Valley

Cervecería Saturdays

The Cervecería del Valle Sagrado is a craft brewery located just outside of Urubamba, in the small village of Pachar. They are open most weekdays from 2-7 and if you have a free afternoon I highly recommend dropping in for a flight or at least a pint of one of their delicious brews.

If you’re lucky enough to be in the valley at the end of the month, head out to the Cervecería for their monthly party. On the last Saturday of the month they stay open until 10pm and expats and Peruvians alike from all over the valley congregate to drink, chat, and be merry. It’s a great place to meet other engaged people while drinking delicious beer. Just make sure to arrange a ride home at the end or be prepared to spend ages trying to hail down taxis in the dark!

Sacred Valley Peru

Sacred Sushi Sundays

Another regular event in the valley, this one takes place in the hippie village of Pisac. Each Sunday all the expats and some Peruvians congregate at Sacred Sushi Sundays. Yep, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Enjoy delicious vegan treats like sushi or organic curry, as well as some sweet treats, spring rolls, and other delicacies. All dishes are vegan and made lovingly by a collection of expats living full time in Pisac. You can find them each Sunday just up the hill from Apu Organics.

Market Day in Urubamba

This tri-weekly event easily became one of my favorite things about life in Urubamba. As I mentioned above, the Urubamba market is the one of the best places to see what everyday life is like for the Quechua people living in the valley. Especially on Market Days. Three days a week all the local farmers from across the valley and up in the mountains converge on Urubamba to sell their wares, drink chicha with their friends, and generally make merry.

Every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday is a market day, with Wednesday and Friday being the largest. The day begins early. People start setting up as early as 4am and the party lasts all morning. By noon things are shutting down and it’s mostly finished by 2pm.

During the morning the streets are filled with locals in their finery: hand woven garments in every color of the rainbow. People sit around chatting with friends and drinking chicha: a local alcohol made from corn.

The market itself overflows it’s banks like a river in the rainy season. For at least four blocks in each direction, women and men lay out blankets and sell their produce and products at extremely discount prices. This is best during the rainy season when the farmers have the most to sell.

Food vendors walk the streets selling all manor of street food. Feel free to get adventurous, approach women sitting with pots and ask to eat. You’ll get a delicious meal for often 3 soles or less. Just be warned, you may also get food poisoning.

On especially vibrant market days, you may also get live bands or musicians wandering the streets, but this is usually only when it overlaps with my final event suggestion, religious festivals.

traditional peruvian festival costumes in pisac

Women in their festival finery

Religious Festivals

I debated whether or not to include this one in this guide. The religious and cultural festivals of the Sacred Valley were easily some of my favorite days spent living in Peru – but they are very much NOT for tourist consumption. These festivals, like the famous one dedicated to El Señor de Torrechayoc are religious events and authentic expressions of the unique blend of Quechua culture and Catholicism that exist in the Sacred Valley.

If you are lucky enough to be in the valley during a religious festival and you stumble onto their parades or parties, be respectful. Do not try to join the parade, do not take pictures without first asking permission. You are a visitor there, and this parade is not being put on for you. Count your blessings and enjoy this amazing expression of an indigenous culture that hasn’t yet been stamped out by the continuing oppression of colonialism.

I won’t share the dates of these festivals because I truly believe they are not tourist attractions. But if you are lucky enough to visit during one, I hope you get lost in the colors and the sounds of an Andean festival.

Lare Trek Sacred VAlley Peru

Best Food

To close out this complete guide to your trip to the Sacred Valley, I just want to briefly highlight some of my favorite foods. Some of these can be found across Peru, while others are unique to the Sacred Valley. All of them are delicious and worth a bite or two.

Papa Rellena

A Peruvian classic. A potato is baked, then mashed up and stuffed with vegetables, egg, meat, and some spices. The whole thing is then deep fried. Served with a spicy “picante” salsa.

Rocoto Rellena

Take a somewhat spicy rocoto pepper and remove all the insides. Then they stuff the pepper with veggies, potatoes, and cheese. This is then deep fried and served with picante, a spicy salsa. Usually women with carts will sell both papa rellena and rococo relleno.

Yucca Frita

A simple yet decadent treat. A piece of yucca (tapioca, cassava) is deep fried and served with a delicious salsa.

Pollo y Papas

The national dish of Peru. Chicken roasted to perfection over hot coals and served with a generous helping of french fries. In the valley you usually have the option to choose between pollo broaster (deep fried), pollo a la brasa (roasted over coals), or pollo a la parilla (grilled). My favorite is a la brasa, it’s the perfect mixture of juicy and flavorful for me. I recommend getting un octavo (1/8 of a chicken), unless you’re starving, in which case it’s time to go big and order a quarto (quarter chicken).

Your meal will always come with a small bowl of chicken soup, usually with a chicken foot included, and all you can eat from the salad bar.

Cancha

Basically just Peruvian popcorn. The kernels of choclo, the massive white Peruvian corn, are roasted in salt and eaten. One of the best things to munch on while hiking in the high altitudes. Soothes stomach pain and gives you instant energy.

Pastelita

A little cake made from corn flour. Find women with massive trays selling slices for 1 sol each. Best tasting from October to December, though I’m not sure why.

Soup Peruvian Food

Typical Peruvian Soup

Menú

A menú is a traditional way Peruvian restaurants serve meals, especially lunch. Basically, the cook will prepare three meals and that is what you get to choose from. Every meal includes a soup and a main. They will write their two or three choices on a board out front and you walk in and tell them what you want. Your food will arrive in minutes. Menús can be as cheap as 3 soles but 5 to 6 soles is more common.

Be brave but also be aware, Peruvians eat a lot of offal so if you aren’t comfortable with that, check the definition of the meal before ordering!

Piccarrones

Little deep fried donuts served often with powdered sugar. 100% worth the calories.

The Salineras Hike to the Incan Salt mines

Salineras

Tamales

The tamales in the Sacred Valley are often sweet, but you can get both sweet and salty, just ask the woman selling them ahead of time which one you’re getting. I absolutely love both.

Pachamanca

This last one is unique to the Sacred Valley and a truly unique gastronomic experience. Pachamanca is a traditional harvest time meal. To make it, a large pit is dug in the earth and filled with hot coals. The coals are then covered with stones, potatoes, vegetables, more stones. This is repeated until the pit is filled. It is then covered with some earth and grass and left until all the heat has died out.

Family and friends then gather around the pit and slow remove the rocks, eating the root vegetables as they come out of the earth. Roasted or grilled meat is usually also served. It’s a truly communal way to celebrate all the goodness that has been delivered by Pachamama.

There are several restaurants in the valley that will cook a Pachamanca. Arrange a large group and call ahead to reserve your feast. If you have the opportunity to enjoy this ritual meal while you’re in the valley, you won’t regret it.

Where to Stay in the Sacred Valley

Since I lived in the valley, I never actually spent any time in hotels. However, I did teach the staff for various hotels and also taught yoga in some hotels, so I can recommend a few. Most are for people with larger budgets for accommodations but I do have one recommendation for budget travelers. These are all to be found around Urubamba, with one except being in Pisac.

Hiking in the Sacred Valley Peru

View from a hike above the Sacred Valley

Willka T’ika

This is less of a hotel and more of a retreat center. If you’re looking for a place to rest and escape for a few days, you couldn’t find a better option. Their staff are all dedicated and caring, the meals are all healthful with vegan options, and they have chakra gardens especially cultivated for walking and seated meditation. They can also arrange yoga workshops or classes for you if requested. Price: Luxury

San Agustin Monasterio de la Recoleta

Located in an old monastery, this beautiful hotel is a stunning place to lay your head before or after a long trek to Machu Picchu. I taught a few group yoga classes here and was very impressed with the staff and the setting. Truly a gorgeous place to stay. Price: Luxury

Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado

Absolutely jaw dropping hotel in an even more spectacular setting. Located a short drive from Urubamba, this hotel sits right on the Urubamba river, beneath high cliffs with views of the mountains. The staff are all dedicated, the food is excellent, and the rooms are comfortable and spacious. If you’re looking for a luxury retreat in the valley, this is it. Price: Luxury

BUDGET OPTION: Llamapack Backpackers

For the budget backpacker looking to stay near Urubamba, Llamapack is the most common option. They offer cheap dorms and single rooms, located just up the road from the main town, very walkable. Bonus, they are connected to a social enterprise rescuing Llamas. Price: Shoestring

Ollantaytambo Ruins

Exploring Ollantaytambo

Adventure Option: Skylodge Adventure Suites

This one of a kind hotel went viral not too long ago and for good reason. Where else can you stay in luxury suites only accessible by rock climbing or zip lining? Located 400 meters in the air, these adventure suites are 3 glass pods constructed of aerospace grade aluminum and perspex, giving you a nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding valley. The suites are only accessible through either a grueling via ferrata climb or a combination of hiking and zip lining. Either way, you’re going to earn your dinner beneath the stars. Price: Luxury

Pisac Options: Nidra Wasi

Mentioned this one in my Pisac section but I’ll mention it again. This guesthouse offers a communal space for workshops with a family atmosphere. Stay for the night or a month and take part in the many learning opportunities offered here in this spiritual center. Price: Low – Middle


That’s it. To learn more than that, you’ll have to come here and explore the Valley’s secrets on your own.

Have you visited the Sacred Valley, or are you planning a trip? If you can think of anything I missed, let me know in the comments!


Like this post? Pin it!

The Ultimate Guide to the Sacred Valley of Peru: Where to Go, What to Do, What to Eat, Where to Stay, and an Insiders Guide to the Best Hikes  The Ultimate Guide to the Sacred Valley of Peru: Where to Go, What to Do, What to Eat, Where to Stay, and an Insiders Guide to the Best Hikes

The Ultimate Guide to the Sacred Valley of Peru: Where to Go, What to Do, What to Eat, Where to Stay, and an Insiders Guide to the Best Hikes

Mud & Water: The Kindness of Strangers in Rural Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

The one true constant that I have found as I move around the world is the kindness of strangers. Of course, people have also been terrible. In every country I have met selfish people, hateful people, violent people, I’ve had things stolen, I’ve been followed home, and I’ve been harassed.

But these things don’t stick with me. I don’t remember the bad moments from Korea, Nepal, or any other country. What I do remember is the kind words and kind actions from strangers. The little moments when a stranger reached out to me, across cultural misunderstandings and language barriers, and offered me help or support.

20160914_180505But What About Battambang?

My weekends in Battambang are remarkable in their dullness. Please don’t think I am complaining. I work hard all week, slaving away at an underpaid NGO job, spending my lunch breaks and evenings creating content for my freelance writing clients to make ends meet. By Friday afternoon, all I can think about is the two days ahead of me filled with absolutely nothing.

Or actually filled with five to ten hours of writing, or seeking new freelance writing gigs… but also nothing.

This is a stark contrast from my life in Korea and Peru. In South Korea my weekends were full of partying, drinking, and weekend long excursions across the tiny country. In Peru, living in the Andes, my weekends were usually filled with hiking and backpacking adventures.

Here in Battambang things are different. It’s so goddamned hot every day, I can’t be fucked to leave my apartment. If I go out in the sun I’m immediately blinded and can feel the cancer cells erupting from my skin. Cambodia makes me feel that I am part Vampire, craving the darkness. Or maybe that’s the buffy I’ve been binging on…

Yet Sometimes I am Adventurous

One weekend, I made a conscious effort to get out of my house. A girl named Valerie recently moved into the apartment next to mine, and we hit it off right away. And even though I had been dealing with a persistent ear infection, and I knew I had other shit to do, I asked her in passing… want to go for a drive?

I wanted to check out a temple I had spotted on google earth. I got the sense it wasn’t a temple frequented by westerners, because I couldn’t find any mention of it in any blog, anywhere. Of course this only made me want to visit it more.

Now might be a good time to mention I haven’t really visited any of the tourist attractions in Battambang, except for the one I work for.

The Eventful Trip to O Krasang

20160918_124131So we hopped on my decrepit Honda Daelim 150cc motorbike and set off for O Krasang and the Angkor Era temple. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the road there would be a dirt road.

Or, in the dry season it is a dirt road. But now, three months into the rainy season, it was a muddy death trek of doom. When dry, the road would be wide enough for one car to drive safely, but two cars would have difficulty passing each other. In the wet there was one track, exactly the width of a motorbike tire and no wider, on which it was safe to drive. Everywhere else was either puddles or slippery muck.

As I set off onto this road, my whole body was tense. I wasn’t worried about myself or my bike. If I fell and muddied up the bike, whatever, it was just part of the story. But I was also responsible for Valerie’s well-being.

So this is what I am thinking as I start winding my bike along this twisting 5 inch wide strip of rideable road, desperately trying to maintain enough momentum not to get stuck, keep my eyes on the path in front of me, and not kill Valerie.

The tension was quickly broken by the source of my worry, Valerie. Instead of acting scared or stressed out, I heard her shouting behind me “Yeah, Megan, you got this!” “This is so cool!” and “There are so many cows!”

Pretty soon we are both laughing, and I was really enjoying the challenge of motoring along the muddy death trap. The road probably took 20 minutes to traverse, and I’m proud to say I didn’t fuck up once.

After the 20 minute joyous ride of doom, we turned onto a paved road and the rest of the trip was smooth and comfortable. 10 minutes later we pulled into this small temple in the middle of a Cambodian village. I probably don’t have to tell you that we were the only foreigners there. They didn’t even charge us an entrance fee. In Southeast Asia if they don’t charge you an entrance fee, it means you are the first foreigner ever to set foot there.

We explore the temple, wander around the footpaths into the jungle a bit, find ourselves in someone’s backyard, work our way back to the temple, and eat a picnic lunch. Eventually it’s time to go home.20160918_121306

On The Way Back, Things Get Interesting

As we are hopping back onto my trusty steed ancient scooter, I mention to Valerie that I had seen a different way home on the map. It would take longer, but be much prettier, following a stream as it wound through the jungle and farmland. Was she game to try? Valerie, the embodiment of adventure, consents. We decide to try out this wilder route home.

Of course, it isn’t a paved road. We find ourselves facing another muddy dirt path, winding along a murky river swollen from the recent rains. Overconfident from our recent success on the 20 minute ride of doom, I turn onto the street and rev the engine.

We hadn’t even gone a quarter of a mile before we’re faced with a muddy patch that outdoes everything we saw on the way to the temple. It makes my earlier “ride of doom” feel like a cake walk. Instinctively I know, 5 seconds too late, I can’t do this.

But of course, my hands don’t follow my brain. My brain says NO! Stop! Turn around! My hands drive the bike into the muck. I hit mud, I slide, step my foot to the side to catch myself, my foot hits the mud and slides uncontrollably backwards, my bike slides to the left and I fall into the mud. I feel Valerie fall behind me. I push my hands into the muck and they sink a good 6 inches. I try to push myself up and that’s when I realize… I’m stuck.

When my foot hit the muck, it slid backwards and Valerie fell on top of my leg, trapping me in the mud. I try to twist my face over to look at Valerie and ask her to get up. That’s when I realize she can’t. She is trapped under the motorbike.

Okay, I think, you’ve crashed your motorbike on top of your new friend. Time to pick it up so she doesn’t get hurt and hate you forever. I grab the handlebars and try to pick up the bike. But every time I try to move it, I just slide deeper into the mud. I can’t get purchase to leverage up the bike. I can’t move it.

Shit. I’m trapped under Valerie, who is trapped under the bike that I can’t move because I’m trapped under Valerie. Things were not looking so good.

20160918_164419

That’s when I heard him. A man ran over saying something in Khmer. He grabbed the back of the bike, I grabbed the handles, and we lifted the bike up a few inches, enough for Valerie to get out and me to stand up.

He took the bike and walked it out of the muck, setting it on its kickstand on the side of the road. I realized we had crashed right in front of a house with a family sitting outside. A woman came over to us. She grabbed Valerie and motioned to me. She led us into their compound and beneath the house.

Traditional Cambodian homes are raised up on stilts. Beneath the house, the family will set out tables, hammocks, and a few large jar shaped cisterns to store water. The woman led us to one of these cisterns to wash ourselves off. By now her husband had joined us again.

I thought they might give us a bucket to wash off the mud, but no. The husband walked over with a small plastic bucket and started to wash Valerie himself. She is laughing and saying thank you “akun, akun, thank you so much” over and over again. He turned her around, washing her legs, her arms, his wife standing behind him, pointing and fretting. They clean her cuts, her feet, he even tries to clean her face.

The wife steps up and tries to help me clean myself as well, but being the rather shy person I am, I gently shake her away and set about cleaning my feet. She settles for cleaning my shoes.

Once we’re all tidied up, we turn to the family and try to say thank you, over and over, in both Khmer and English. They shake off our thanks, smiling shyly. There is probably some huge gap of cultural understanding behind our desire to say thank you, and their unwillingness to accept our thanks.

Taking us in and helping us get clean would have filled my daily quota of unsolicited kindness, but of course, there was more. The family walked us back to the bike and watched to make sure we could get it going again. When I was too flustered to start the bike, the husband came over to start it for me.

We made the intelligent decision to take the paved road home, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the very strange looks we got from strangers as we drove down National Highway 5 on a motorbike completely covered in muck.

All in all, a good day made excellent by the kindness of strangers.

Pay it forward.

Street Food of the World: Chocho

Adventure Travel, Food, Peru, Uncategorized

Food: Chocho
Country: Peru
Region: Huaraz
Flavor: Savory
Spice level: 4/10

Meet one of my favorite street foods in the entire world: the Peruvian super food secret – Chocho!

sfood4

What is Chocho?

Chocho is probably the healthiest street food I’ve ever found. Basically, it is a salad made up mostly of the tarwi bean (we’ll get to that), mixed with tomato, onion, lime juice, cilantro, cancha (Peruvian popcorn), and maybe a spicy sauce and some MSG.  Peruvians still love MSG. Either someone forgot to tell them how hidious that stuff is for you or they just don’t care. Give me flavor or give me death.

sfood2

Mix all the ingredients up and you get a super simple, super tasty salad. The street vendors here come out to the markets early and sell it till it’s gone, usually by lunchtime.

Though I had seen the white bean, tarwi, while living near Cusco, the first time I ever tried this snack was not until I met a Peruvian family while hiking a little off the tourist trail in the Cordillera Blanca. One of the daughters gave me a big bag of the stuff and I could not stop eating it.

sfood3

Now, what makes this street food so special? Its main ingredien: tarwi. Tarwi, scientific name Lupinus Mutabilis, is a white bean that grows all across the high Andes. The plant itself is a beauty.

Here I am haplessly researching tarwi thinking “hmmm I wonder what the plant looks like?”

IMG_20151024_085254886

It looks like the beautiful purple flowers that I have seen on literally every hike I have been on in Peru, ever. They are ubiquitous throughout the Peruvian Andes. I thought tarwi was this mysery bean that came from some secret tarwi bunker, but I was wrong. It grows everywhere.

The plant itself is a hero. It grows well in soil with low acidity and helps replace nitrogen in the soil.

More importantly for our gastromic journey, the plant then produces these little white beans that are a health bonanza. They are 40% protein and 20% fat. That is richer in proteins than either quinoa or soy.

The bean is inedible raw due to its high alkaloid content. The alkaloids give it a bitter taste and are poisonous. Easily fixed, by soaking the little guys in water for a few days the alkaloids are completely leeched out.

sfood1

I used to see the local women doing this in the markets in Urubamba and I thought the idea of beans sitting in tepid water was a bit gross. Having done a bit of research, turns out it’s totally logical.

In Cusco, they mostly grind the tarwi into a paste and eat it like a stew. Nutritious, but I find the Huaraz region’s Chocho a much more delicious way to ingest the magical tarwi.

Today I bought a bag of Chocho (2 soles) and a bag of pre-shredded lettuce in the market (1 sole). Total cost of my (very filling) lunch today? 3 soles, or about $1.

sfood5
So if you find yourself wandering through a market in the Andes, seriously don’t miss out on this one, get yourself a big bag of Chocho and start snacking.
Like this post? Pin it!
Peru Travel Tip for Foodies: Don't miss out on Chocho, the best street food in Huaraz, Peru

Riding The Bus In Peru

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

I enter the terminal to the sound of men calling out the various destinations. “Cusco! Cusco! Chincero!” “Ollantaytambo!” Occasionally I am noticed and one calls out the name of some nearby tourist destination for the gringa. “Maras! Moray!”

But today I am not traveling for pleasure. Today I am heading to a different place, on a bus that las turistas rarely take. And why would they? There is no obvious reason to go to Yanahuara.

I step onto the bus and take a seat on the front bench, facing the rest of the passengers. We are waiting for the bus to fill up near to bursting. The driver will not leave before then.

The bus is in fact a van, converted into a combi of sorts, with four or five rows of seats bolted to the floor, and a bench along the front, facing the rest.

Here I sit.

Slowly the bus fills with characters from agrarian Peruvian life. At first glance they are all quite similar, in speech, in appearance, in attitude.

But look more closely.

Here is a stout old campesiña woman, carrying my weight worth of vegetables on her back in a brightly colored tapestry. And behind her a younger woman in traditional dress, a similar brightly colored tapestry on her back, but within it? A baby.

Next, a couple step on who, by appearances, could be from the United States. Modern clothes and modern cell phones, the only thing giving them away is the way they speak Spanish.

An elderly man enters, draped in a brightly colored traditional poncho and hat, and close behind a young boy similarly dressed.

And last, a group of school kids, middle school aged, talking loudly and teasing one another. To listen to their conversation they could be from anywhere. From Tokyo or Seoul or nowhere, USA.

The bus is full at last and we pull out of the terminal. Slowly we inch out of town and up into the farmland. Every once and awhile a “baja sol y luna” sounds and a few passengers step off. Later the bus pulls over and a few more step on.
There are no designated bus stops. The system has no order. And yet somehow it works perfectly.

The sounds on the bus rise and fall. Conversation switches from Spanish to Quechua and back again. Everyone seems to be at least some little bit bilingual.

Occasionally there is a furtive glance at the gringa. Children stare, openly curious. But mostly I am left alone, neither harassed nor treated like some special being. It is in a way comforting. To be left alone to observe. To people watch. To disappear into the tapestry.

Eventually my turn arrives and I say to the driver, “baja allyupampa”. I step off and pay my ochenta centimes for the ride and the bus drives off along the single paved road in the valley, leaving me in the dust.

 

And such is my experience riding a bus in Peru.

Life In Urubamba: The Beginning

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

Ok, It is now the start of my second week living and working in Urubamba, Peru. My brain is a little tired from using Spanish, even though I am able to use English at home. Every day, all around me is Spanish. This is good, this is great. I can feel myself learning every day. But it is an exercise in patience. I want to learn faster, to see myself improve faster. I want to be fluent now. But with patience, and hard work, I will gain close to fluency. I hope.

Many of the people here, even the tourists, they speak Spanish. Though at least two of my fellow teachers are at a low Spanish level, much like I am. That helps, because I am human and I do compare myself to others. When I am only around fluent Spanish speakers I feel that I have so far to go. But really, I am able to communicate… most of the time. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to express an idea and not having the words to do it. Imagine human life before the development of language. There is a chicken and the egg debate for you.

My ability to speak Spanish also impacts my teaching. Right now I teach 3 classes, and will be adding a private this week. My first class is hotel English. This is fairly simple because the employees at the 5 star hotel that I am working with already have a high level of English, so what we work on together is more like troubleshooting. For example we explore how best to give a sales pitch for their membership program, and how to reply to guest complaints. Things like that.

Next I teach a class por los niños que tiene 5-7 años. So far my attendance has been spotty so I have only had one kid at a time. This makes it quite enjoyable because normally I’m not so fond of working with little kids. I prefer preteens and teenagers. I’m strange. I know. Anyway, the kids and I have mostly been working on numbers and colors and shapes. We do a lot of coloring, and then I read one of the Dr. Seuss books that I brought with me from my parent’s house in the States. I mostly use Spanish to communicate to the kids, but I am trying to include more and more English as the weeks go on.

Then there is my adult class, Basic 2. This is by far the most challenging and the most rewarding. I really need to use Spanish to make sure they understand what I am asking them to do, but in reality I try to use only English in the classroom. This makes it very challenging for them, I can see this, but in the end it will earn the best results.

The style of teaching is completely different from what I learned in Korea. The atmosphere in my classroom and my style of classroom management is the same, but the material is different. So, what I love about teaching, that stays, and what I disliked, has changed. Now I am teaching more grammar. Yesterday we worked on Can/Can’t. The students really enjoyed learning that unlike in Spanish (yo puedo, tu puedes, él puede, nos podemos, ellos pueden) in English it is actually simpler, I can, you can, she can… etc. Always can! Then by contrast we went over Do/Does. He does. Megan does. Everyone else do hehe.

Anyway I really enjoy it. I love seeing the moment in the student’s face when something clicks and they hurriedly scribble down a note to themselves. Also, now in the second week the students are getting to be more comfortable with me and as a result are asking more questions. My absolute favorite part of teaching is when students get engaged enough to start asking tough questions.

What else can I tell you about my life in Urubamba? There is so much to tell!

Overall, I feel happier and healthier and more centered here than I have since.. well… childhood really. I know that sounds extreme but I’ve been thinking about it and it’s true. For the first time since I hit 13 years old and noticed I was a female human and not some fairy creature from Narnia, I am happy with my body and not critically examining every inch of myself. I eat what I want, and eat healthy. Am I losing or gaining weight? I don’t know and I don’t care. It is liberating.

My meditation and yoga practice has become effortless. I wake up with the sun most mornings between 5-6:30. I know that is a big window but there it is. I practice meditation for 20 minutes and then go through an asana practice. A few mornings I have felt no desire for asanas and I did not punish myself for this. For example this morning I have woken up with a touch of a parasite and I know that my body needs rest. I also knew I wanted to focus on writing, and so instead of meditation and asana, I am writing this. And it feels right. I feel no guilt.

Hippies will say that the Sacred Valley of the Inca (where Urubamba is located) is one of the energy centers of the earth. A chakra, if you will. If you don’t believe in that sort of thing then maybe you wouldn’t feel it. Or maybe you would. I feel so in tune with myself, and as a result, so in tune with everyone around me. I try to remain skeptical about things that cannot be observed but there is something about this place…

And I’m not the only one that feels it. I have accidentally stumbled into a hippie enclave, and I love it. All of the expats here are of the earthy-crunchy-burning man variety. Last weekend I went to a little festival during the day where people were exhibiting their own projects, I bought a handmade crystal wrap, some Maras salt mixed with Andean herbs, and cerveza artesano. The best part? There actually is a mixture of locals and expats in this crowd! So it doesn’t feel completely like neocolonialism (just a little bit…) And everyone speaks Spanish. Or at least tries to. So different from Korea…

10626386_10203566250777061_5254798332309354873_o

Looking bewildered on the day I moved to Urubamba

How about some of my adventures since getting to Urubamba:

First off, I am living with Elise, the young woman who founded El Arte Sano, the NGO that I work for. She lives in a really charming house in the countryside outside of town. The house is four rooms and a kitchen, and all of them open onto a courtyard that would be more accurately described as a whimsically overgrown garden. There is a vine with habañeros, or some kind of spicy pepper, strawberries growing out from under the stones beneath your feet, mint everywhere, and even an apple tree. It is quite wonderful and I am truly grateful to be staying in her spare room. Though at the same time I am excited to get my own place and begin the nesting process.

The first weekend here I was invited to go on a hike with Elise and three other teachers from the school: Jessica and Shane, both from the US, and Henri, a Spanish teacher from Cajamarca. Also on the hike was Ho, a guy from Urubamba who runs mountain bike tours, and a woman from Lima whom Elise had met at a workshop in Cusco the day before.

Anyway, we took a combi van 20 minutes away from Uru, towards Ollyantay and stopped next to the Cervezeria. We began walking on some paths that ran along corn and potato fields. Before beginning the meat of our hike, Ho stopped, took out 3 coca leaves and offered them to Mamapacha, or the Incan mother earth, as a prayer for a good day.

Sidenote: coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, are common as dirt here. You can literally buy them from every stall in the market. It isn’t taboo in the least.

Ok back to the hike. Our first stop was an Inca ruin in the mountainside. At first glance it was just traditional terracing, with none of the monumental stone architecture that the Inca are so famous for. But we climbed to the top of the terraces and there found a cave. This cave was undoubtedly a sacred space. A large alter had been carved into the rock facing the valley while a false door was carved into the side of the cave, facing into the mountain. I felt as if I were standing in an ethereal portal at the top of the world. The serenity of the space compelled all of us to have a meditative moment of silence. It was a beautiful welcome to the Sacred Valley.

From there we headed up, and up, and up, and up into the mountains towards a waterfall. Ho, our guide for the day, kept insisting that we were almost there, for nearly 2 hours. That said, I really did enjoy it. The hike took us along more farm fields, through a few indigenous mountain villages, and then up into the craggy mountains. I love the mountains so much, and the Andes are truly spectacular. They compare favorably even with the Himalayas. And the variety of the ecosystems is something to behold. Over the course of 4 hours walking we crossed a river and farm fields, through arid near desert low bush covered mountains, and up into a densely forested deep green chasm between two huge craggy peaks. Increíble.

12186242_723109901167271_1145773575361727533_o

At long last we made it to the waterfall, a 30 meter tall crescendo. Sorry America, I do metric now.

Speaking of which, Urubamba exists at an elevation just below 3,000 m (above 9,000 feet). I’ve been here a week and a half now and I feel as if I have adjusted to life at this elevation. Unless I try to do difficult aerobic exercise. Like walking up hills.

Okay one more adventure. THIS Saturday that just passed was Urubamba day, or Urubamba’s 175 anniversary. The party in the central square went on all night. There was a huge stage set up with Peruvian bands playing and I danced and danced and danced. One old man taught me some traditional peruvian dance and he twirled me around on the dance floor for ages. The cerveza was flowing generously and dare I say… dangerously?

The Peruvian style of drinking should be approached con cuidado. Someone buys one grande cerveza and one cup. Both are passed around and everyone in the circle fills the cup and drinks before passing it on. So you think you are only drinking a little. Well lots of a little is a lot. So let’s just say it was a good night, and leave it at that, hmm?

And then I discovered that my wallet (with my debit card) and phone (which was also my camera) had fallen out of a massive tear in the side of my $1 purse I had bought in Thailand last year.

Oh well, I still have another way to access money and my person is fine so all is good. These are just material things.

Overall I am happy and healthy and looking at an option for an apartment in a few hours!

If you love mountains, architecture, archaeology, the intersection of ancient and modern cultures, spiritualism, South American Andean culture, or well.. if you love exploring, I can’t encourage you enough to make Peru a priority. I know I am in the honeymoon phase but seriously, WHAT a honeymoon. I am so in love with this place.

Okay. Until next time,

 

Ciao!

Skiing in South Korea: High 1 Resort

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

 

My first winter in Korea was my first winter in 5 years. The initial adjustment was difficult, dare I say bordering on traumatizing. But thankfully my 18 years in New England came through for me and I adjusted. Buying some thermal leggings and knock-off ugg boots helped as well. But god damn it was awful at first. Los Angeles, I hope you realized how very blessed you are.

Aside from trauma and freezing cold feet, winter does have its benefits. Primarily: SKI SEASON!!

Yes there is tons of skiing in Korea. Like, tons and tons of it. This whole peninsula is covered in mountains so it makes sense that they’d cut some trails into a few of them. I managed to get out skiing a couple times, which was pretty miraculous considering how exhausted I was after a week of teaching Korean school kids how to speak English.

The first weekend I went to a smaller resort in western Korea. For those who do not know, let me take this time to illuminate for you the geography of Korea.

635px-South_Korea_location_map_topography_with_taebaek_mountains_marked
Map of Korea with Taebaek Mountains in Red (wikipedia

In its western half  Korea is more “flat” which by Korean standards means peppered with small mountains. Then as you drive east the mountains get bigger and bigger and you enter the Taebaek Mountain Range. In there the towns are smaller, you finally lose sight of the army of huge apartment buildings that cover this country, and the landscape becomes breathtakingly beautiful.

So the first weekend I went skiing in the west. The resort was tiny, 6 trails and about as many lifts. Only one real expert slope, and to be honest it was an east coast (of the US) blue square. Still, I had a BLAST and in 3 hours of skiing I got in so many runs and was exhausted the next day.

 west korea ski
View from the Top of the smaller Resort (Western Korea)

By the way, skiing in Korea is ridiculously easy. Many resorts have free shuttles to and from Seoul, you can rent all your kit for less than $30, and you can rent pants, a jacket, and goggles if you need. It’s really absurdly easy. And Korea is so crowded and overpopulated that they are GREAT at dealing with crowds. Even at a small resort there are almost more lifts than trails, so you never really have to wait in a long lift line. And you can buy lift tickets for just 3 hours, instead of purchasing a whole day and wasting half of it in the lodge!

So then this past weekend, I made a longer trip out to a resort in the Taebaek Mountains in the East called High1 Resort. I stayed in a hotel nearby that was really nice. Check out the view from my 11th floor window!

east korea ski

I was lucky enough to have a friend at work take my only Monday class, so I stole a 3-day weekend for myself. I traveled on Sunday, and skied in Monday, so there was almost no one at the resort!

 me ski
Me rocking rented jacket and goggles

The lodge of the resort was located in between 2 mountains, and there were lifts going up both and trails coming down on either side of this valley. On the one side were some advanced and intermediate trails, and that lift was slightly crowded. But on the opposite side there was a lift that only accessed 3 expert trails. They weren’t very long but they were super steep, wicked fun, and there was nobody on the lift. I almost had the trails to myself!

 east ski 2
View of the other mountain, from the top of the expert zone

I spent the entire day on those 3 trails, only going on the other side once, decided it was boring, and went back to my private expert only zone. It was amazing!

Just to be clear: Skiing in Korea is hassle free, and awesome fun.

  • You can easily rent all your gear, including snow pants, jackets, and goggles, for less than $30.
  • You can buy a pass for the number of hours you want to ski, or for a whole day.
  • There are free shuttles from Seoul to the nearby ski hills.
  • There is night skiing.
  • There are no lines, even when there are crowds.
  • It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s fun.

Alright so there is a recap of my skiing experiences. I have one more story to relate. High 1 Resort is also the location of Kangwon Land: the one and only Casino in Korea that lets in Korean Nationals.

That’s right.

There are casinos all over Korea, but they only allow in foreigners like me.

Except at Kangwonland. So of course I had to check it out.

First shocking fact: no alcohol. So in Korea, you can drink to excess, and you can gamble, but you cannot drink to excess and gamble at the same time. I even had to blow into a breathalizer before they let me in!

Once inside, no pictures allowed. So unfortunately I have no pictures for this part of the post.

The atmosphere inside was kind of dark and tense. Picture hundreds of Koreans all packed around tables looking really intense and losing all their money. If you know Koreans at all, you know that they are really tight with their money. It makes sense when you think about it; the nation only became wealthy recently. This is a people who are used to poverty and hard times. So they all seemed angry or at least upset, but at the same time… they weren’t cashing out.

Then on top of that, I was the only foreigner in the place. I was traveling with a Korean. My daily life includes people staring at me everywhere I go. It has become normal now and I don’t really notice it anymore. But being in this Casino was like my first week in Korea all over again. Every time I turned my head I made eye contact with a curious and possibly hostile Korean.

But the upside of this strange experience was that I gambled for the first time in my life. I played a slot machine and won the equivalent of $5. So ha ha, Korea, I win.


me garden

Megan xx

Hiking Seoraksan National Park

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

I had been hearing about hiking in Seoraksan National Park place since I got to Korea in July, 2013.  Of course, I wanted to make it out there before winter hit.

Seoraksan is the highest mountain in the Taebek mountain range, and the third highest mountain in all of South Korea. Located only 2 to 3 hours from Seoul without traffic, Seoraksan National Park is a really popular place to see autumn foliage in Korea, as I learned the hard way.

The most popular route through Seoraksan is to climb the tallest peak in the park, Daechongbong Peak, rising to 1,708m (5,603ft). However, this route takes 2 days, and since I hadn’t gotten organized to do this, I went with a big group of ex-pats and Koreans to hike the easier, one day route. We started hiking at about 10:30am and finishing around 5pm.

But we were not alone.

lots of koreans

I kid you not, I have never seen so many Koreans hiking at the same time. It was beyond ridiculous but made for a very amusing day.

Near the top we were all crammed onto a wooden platform. On a normal day this platform is probably a great place to take in the view. On this day, it was a great place to feel like livestock.

koreans on platform

Myself and a few other people from the group decided to take a “quick” (read: 30 minutes) detour to the top peak of this hike. The view from up there was truly incredible. But all the views all day were breathtaking.

koreans stopgo

Hiking down we encountered the most traffic. It was literally stop and go on these stairs on the way down. The traffic was caused by places in the trail that were slightly perilous and so only one person could walk through it at a time. Again, on a normal day this would not be a problem. But when most of the population of Korea is on the mountain, it caused some traffic.

foliage

But why, you may ask, was the entire population hiking Seoraksan National Park on this particular weekend?

This weekend was supposed to be the best for fall foliage in Seoraksan. And once we’d made it up and over the pass the foliage started to show itself and let me tell you, it was worth it.

foliage2

I was born and raised in New England and as such I am no stranger to Autumn. In fact, it is my favorite season. But I’ve spent the last 5 years living in Los Angeles in perpetual Summer. This weekend for me was almost like a rebirth experience. Being in among the fall leaves, smelling crisp autumn air and watching the colorful leaves blow in the wind was cathartic on so many levels. I spent a good hour walking by myself along the canyon taking pictures of leaves and feeling so spiritually connected with the Earth. It was beautiful.

view2

The end of the hike was an absolutely stunning walk along a stream at the bottom of a canyon. Gorgeous foliage. Gorgeous views. And thankfully no traffic.

food1

Afterwards we all went to a restaurant to drink beer and eat dinner.

Foods

A selection of “banchan” the traditional small plates that accompany every meal in Korea.

Then we piled back onto the bus to sit in traffic for 5 hours back to Seoul. I slept for 2 of them and spent the other 3 hours watching the Korean countryside go by. It was nighttime so the views weren’t that great but it was a nice chance to think.

So that is my update on my life here in Korea. Every weekend is different from the last. I am always excited, always experiencing new things. All in all, I think I’m overcoming the culture shock. I am less enamored with everything I see, but overall much happier. I feel like I am myself again, just myself living in Korea. This is going to be a great year, and at this point I’m starting to understand why people would stay for a second one…

me on mountain

Love you all!

four stages of culture shock in korea

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock and My First Experience

Adventure Travel, Expat Life, Korea, Uncategorized

If you move abroad, whether to study or to work, culture shock will happen to you. You’ll probably experience all four stages at some point during your transition. But it doesn’t have to ruin your time abroad.

The key to surviving culture shock is being aware. Read articles like this one. Familiarize yourself with the process. You won’t be able to avoid it completely, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on when you burst into tears while waiting for the bus at 11am on a regular Monday.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon

You’re new to the country. Everything is fresh and exciting. Each new day holds another adventure to be had. You’ll feel like you were meant to move to this country and you couldn’t possible have any trouble adjusting.

Rejection

 

Aspects of the new country that were fun and exciting begin to feel irritating. Small inconveniences become major issues. You buy body wash instead of moisturizer for the 3rd time and cry in your shower. Homesickness starts to kick in. You may idealize your home country and miss it intensely.

Adjustment

Those feelings of frustration at your host country start to happen less frequently. You begin to find aspects of life in the new country interesting and enjoyable. You can read social cues. You may start to understand the new language somewhat better.

Adaptation

You start to feel stable and relaxed in your new country. You enjoy certain aspects of it, are still frustrated by others but are not overly emotional about it anymore. In short, that foreign land has become home.

You don’t have to take my word for it, aside from my lived experience, I doubled checked with some fine scholars over at Princeton and they agree, culture shock comes in stages.

Like everything having to do with the human psyche, culture shock isn’t a straightforward process. You’re not going to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences culture shock differently.

The line between each stage will blend. One day you may get irrationally frustrated at a bus for being 2 minutes late, the next day you might be shopping in the local fruit market with no problems at all. It isn’t a cut and dry process, and your experience of it will be unique.

How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Expect to go through culture shock for at least six months to one full year. It depends on who you are as a person, your past experiences, whether this is your first time living abroad, or your fifth, and much more. The only thing you can know for sure is this: you will experience it.

The best thing you can do is acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that culture shock isn’t happening to you. It is. The sooner you become aware of the process, the quicker you can move through it and start developing coping mechanisms.

Though I’ve experienced some level of cultural adjustment each time I move to a new country, the most dramatic and painful was certainly the very first time, when I moved to Seoul, South Korea.

Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in Korea: My Culture Shock Story

I moved in South Korea in July of 2012. As you might expect, at first I was enamored with my new home country. The simple notion that I was in Asia filled me with childlike wonder.

One of my favorite things to do when I first moved to Seoul was to go for hikes. As an ESL teacher at an afterschool Hagwon, I didn’t start work until 3pm. My mornings and lunchtime were free, and there were mountains throughout Seoul for me to explore.

I’d be walking through the forest, listening to the cicadas, and the simple thought that “I’m in Asia right now” would cross my mind and take my breath away. I’d stand still in the middle of the trail just absorbing the impact of it.

I was on the other side of the planet, living in a city I’d only ever dreamed of before. I lived in South Korea. Wow.

This glowing pleasure in the strangeness of my new home continued for several months. I would sit on the subway and gaze around me, enamored with everyone and everything. I eagerly pursued new flavors, new smells, and new sights. I drank it all in.

And yes, I thought I was adjusting with no problems at all.

At the end of September, after I’d been living in Seoul for two months, I had a visit from a friend from home. He came and stayed with me for two weeks, exploring the country and sharing in my sense of awe. We hiked, we ate (a lot!), and we partied. It was an excellent two weeks, but everything ends.

Mere moments after we said goodbye my mood took a nosedive. I felt sad and lonely. And for the first time since my arrival, Korea felt unbearably foreign.

Not wanting to let the homesickness get to me, I set off for my local hike, a short trail up to the top of a hill and back down. Probably a two hour walk total.

The trail to the summit wound through the forest at the base of the mountain before ascending sharply top the peak via a steep set of stairs. As I jogged up the steps, my mind focused on my breathing, I thought about nothing except the push to the top. My mood leveled off the more distracted I became.

From the summit, my descent was much like the ascent, I was focused on not tripping and falling down the steep stairs, my mind devoted to the act of balancing.

Then everything changed.

Triggered by absolutely nothing at all, I burst into tears. Anguished thoughts and uncontrollable emotions burst out of me. I missed my home. I missed my friends in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

So there I was, walking down the side of a mountain, in bright sunshine, beneath leafy trees, sobbing my eyes out.

The difficulty of life in Korea smashed into me. I needed a haircut, but I couldn’t speak the necessary Korean to call and make an appointment. I wanted to buy some new furniture and accessories for my apartment but I had no idea where to find them.

I had purchased a bottle of what I thought was moisturizer, only to discover once I got home that it was a massive bottle of body wash. I already owned a massive bottle of body wash. Now I had two. And no moisturizer.

I rushed home to my apartment and threw myself into bed. Filled with homesick, I reached out to my friends at home the only way I knew how, I posted a sad cry for help to my facebook wall:

“I try not to post negativity on my facebook but this has been a tough week. I’m two months into life in Korea and while it is awesome and amazing and I’m making great friends and having crazy experiences, I also miss everyone in America and today, I would really like a hug.”

The response from my friends was overwhelmingly positive. For a few moments at least I was safe in the knowledge that I had friends who loved me. ONly, they were thousands of miles away.

Lonely, isolated, and sad, I knew I needed a gameplan to get over this. I needed a reason to leave my apartment and build a life for myself in Seoul.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Overcoming the Shock

I googled “English Language Yoga Classes in Seoul” and found Celebrity Yoga, a Bikram yoga studio in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The next day I was there taking my first class. It was unbelievably difficult. I had taken a few yoga classes in high school with my mom but I had no concept of Bikram yoga, no idea what I was in for.

For the uninitiated, Bikram yoga is 90 minutes of holding difficult yoga poses for an extended period of time in a room that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My first session was hot, hard, and sweaty; and exactly what I needed. I had found something to focus my energy on, something that made me feel healthier, gave me a goal to work towards and was a fun way to spend my mornings. Especially now that winter was looming and my weekly hikes were going to be put on hold.

Did the yoga classes fix everything? No. Of course I still felt angry at Korea for things I deemed “stupid”. I still got annoyed when Koreans bumped into me, or pushed in front of me to get on the train first. I still got frustrated and longed to hear people speak English. I still spent weekends in the foreigner neighborhood simply because I needed a break from Korea.

But the yoga classes were the first in a long list of coping mechanisms that I adopted to process my new life in Korea. Over time, as I found more things that made me happy, I learned to fixate less on the things about Korea that annoyed me, and adapt more to the parts of it that I enjoyed.

I made a group of friends. On the weekends, we took trips around the country, exploring waterfalls, beachside towns, and climbing mountains. The rest of the time, we adventured around Seoul, which many times boiled down to just finding the new, hippest spot to drink soju and beer.

Eventually I progressed towards the fourth stage of culture shock, I started to adapt and feel comfortable in Seoul. I had my bus routes, my subway station, my friends, and my life there. When it came time for my one year teaching contract to end, I extended it for a further three months.

Culture Shock Comes in Stages, But You’ll Survive

The moral of my story is not to scare you away from moving abroad. I would firmly encourage anything thinking about studying or living abroad to go for it! It was the best decision I ever made. But you will experience culture shock and it will be a challenge.

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some of the coping mechanisms I used to overcome my culture shock, and at least make the 4 stages more bearable.


Like this post? Pin for later!

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock hit everyone who moves or studies abroad in a foreign country.