Author Archives: LiLlama

Undercover Travel: How to Blend In (When You Really Stand Out)

Rachel Anderson, VIVA Travel Guides

I’ve been living in Ecuador for almost a year now, and trust me, I’m not stupid: I know with my porcelain skin, Barbie-blond hair and bright blue eyes that I blend in about as much as a bikini in a blizzard. Yet, somehow during my stay in Latin America I’ve been mistaken for a coastal Ecuadorian twice and a Colombian model once (Shakira! Shakira!). After ruling out the possibilities that my Latin companions were either legally blind or hopped up on hallucenogenics, I’ve concluded that I must have finally learned the art of blending in.

Living in the Land of Darwin, I’ve evolved to adapt to my surroundings as best I can — and you can, too. Maybe you can’t change your skin color, but you can change out of that heinous Hawaiian print (and set it on fire, perhaps). With a little confidence, a little smarts and a lot of common sense, you can bring your boiling-hot red flag screaming “Fledgling Foreigner!” to a simmering salmon.

How many things can you find wrong with this picture?

How many things can you find wrong with this picture?

1. Crack the Dress Code
Every country, every region, and every city you visit has its own culture and energy, and within that culture lies its dress code. Your goal is to study it, learn it, and apply it to your wardrobe. What colors, fabrics and styles do they wear? Do certain age groups dress differently? Study it before you visit so you can pack accordingly. Once you’re there, watch your demographic, observe their style, and incorporate it into your closet. Of course, there’s no need to take this to extremes, as a foreigner in head-to-toe native wear will look just as ridiculous (and potentially offensive). Moderation is the name of the game here. For example, Ecuadorian women love to wear lots of colorful jewelry and makeup. With some spondylus earrings, a coral bracelet and a touch of turquoise eye shadow, I can apply the style without going overboard (they can keep their skintight leggings with knee-high leather boots).

While each culture varies, there are some clothing items that should forever be retired into the Tourist Hall of Shame (did you burn that Haiwaiian print yet?). Unless you actually enjoy looking like a grade-A gringo, please remove the following items from your wardrobe ASAP:

  • Panama hats
  • baggy/bright rain jackets
  • walking canes (unless you actually need it)
  • hiking pants or khaki capris
  • white sneakers
  • white socks
  • sweatshirts that say OHIO STATE or SYRACUSE (or any item proudly plastering your home turf)
  • sunburn (nothing screams tourist like a lobster in a bright polo)

Also, it’s probably a good idea to wait until home to show off your souvenir T-shirts from the hotel gift shop or local artisan market. It’s kind of hard to earn local “street cred” while donning a Galapagos-inspired “I Heart Boobies” shirt.

2. Walk Tall (And Carry a Big Smile)
Your body language can be just as important as your body itself when it comes to blending in. Anyone looking lost, looking down or looking nervous is sure to send off “foreigner flares”. Worse, it makes you appear vulnerable and an easy victim to prey on.

Try to adopt a little something I call  “casual alertness”: Walk with confidence, keep your head up, and look straight ahead. Yet, at the same time, try to appear laid-back and comfortable. Introduce a smidgen of swagger into your walk; look like you know the area and have things to do and people to see. Take a wrong turn? Keep going. Turn around at the next corner. Try to never appear lost or confused. If you absolutely need to look at a map to get your bearings, dodge inside a building and figure it out in the solitary confines of a bathroom stall (or the lobby, at the very least).

Now that you can walk the walk, you now must talk the talk. Brush up on the language, and practice it. A lot. Learn the local slang. If you have at least an upper-beginner level of the language, then push yourself to talk. But it’s not just about talking: it’s about your style and tone. Do they speak softly or boldly? Are they serious or more jovial when they talk? If you speak with confidence and without hesitation, people won’t care about the mistakes. After all, even native speakers don’t speak in precisely grammatical terms. When I was mistaken for a Guayaquil gal, it was after I chatted up the store clerk in my broken (but unapologetic) Spanish. I quipped. I smiled. I succeeded. 🙂

3. Shake Your Assets (But Watch Yourself)
Take inventory of yourself. What are your cultural strengths? What makes you most blend in? Maybe you have Carrot Top hair but your Spanish is flawless. Great! Then chat, chat, chat your way into the local scene. Don’t speak the language but share the same hair color/skin tone? Then keep your little mouth shut and let your body do the talking. It’s all about using what you’ve got and downplaying what you don’t.

For example, I may be blond and blue-eyed, but I’m also barely five feet tall. On a good day. It’s precisely this lack of height that helps me blend in better in Ecuador. Locals assume most Americans and Europeans are tall; therefore, my short stature must mean I have some “Latin” blood in me (and if anyone asks, I do). To accentuate my lack of height, I have ditched my heels and instead wear stylish ballerina flats.

4. Don’t Flash (your Red Flags) in Public

Don't be this guy.

Don't be this guy.

No matter who you are or where you are, there are four items that, when displayed, are like fog horns blaring “foreigner! fresh meat!”:

– Map (particularly the fold-out variety)
– Guidebook
– Camera
– Backpack

You may never actually end up succeeding in looking like a local, but you can at least look like you’ve been there awhile, that you know what’s up. And nothing shouts “I’m new here!” like a big fat travel guide with an indigenous person plastered on the cover or a bulky Nikon with its own matching neck strap.

You hide these personal items as if they were your own incestual child. Cover them in your bag, or ditch them altogether. If you absolutely must carry a guidebook, rip out the pages you need or recover the jacket to make it look like a novel. Keep maps folded and hidden (see Step 2 about when/where to use a map). Resist the urge to be snap-happy on the street, as each shutter release on your camera is also a release of any hope of appearing local. Backpackers will find the last item unavoidable; in this case, stick to the other steps and at least try to pass as a veteran vagabond.

At the end of the day, the simple fact is this: you’re gonna stand out. A lot. People will notice, and people will stare. However, using these tips should help weaken your blip on their radar. So go on now…get lost! (in the crowd, that is)  🙂

Photos courtesy of “Alaskan Dude” from Creative Commons

VIVA Cover Photo Contests for Ecuador and Peru

Congratulations to Luciano Stabel, winner of our Flickr Cover Photo Contest for Chile! His beautiful photo of Puerto Varas will appear on our premier guidebook to Chile, due out later this year!

Want your photo to appear on the cover of our upcoming guidebooks?

VIVA Travel Guides is happy to announce FOUR upcoming Flickr Cover Photo Contests!! Whether you’re a professional photojournalist, amateur photographer or simply a wanderlusting backpacker with a good eye (and camera), we invite all travelers to submit their photos. Entering is free, and you can submit as many photos as you want!

Winner gets $100 and the coveted cover of the upcoming guidebook!

If your photos doesn’t win, don’t fret: Runners up get their name and photo inside the guidebook itself.

You already show off your amazing travel photos to your friends and family — why not gain a little exposure and help travel guide readers see the beauty of this world? Visit our Flickr Contest Pages below to read contest guidelines.

Ready, Set, Snap!

Upcoming Contests

Cover Photo Contest for Argentina: Deadline Extended to November 1st!

Attention all travelers and photographers: VIVA Travel Guides has extended its Argentina Cover Photo Contest to November 1st!

You already show off your photos to friends and family – now you can help other travelers experience the allure of Argentina by submitting your photos for our premier guidebook to Argentina! Whether it’s a dramatic tango shot from Buenos Aires, a quaint capture of a winery around Mendoza, or a serene snapshot of the Lake District, we crave all photos authentic and aesthetic.

Winner gets $100 and the coveted cover of the travel guide! Runners up get their photo and name credited inside the travel guide.

Visit our Flickr Contest Page to read contest details and submit photos. Entering is simple and free!

Are you a well-seasoned traveler? Be sure to check out our Photography Contest Page for upcoming contests for future guidebooks


December 1: Cusco and Machu Picchu

Traveling This Autumn? Five Fun Activities for the Frugal

Quietly nestled between summer’s swelter and winter’s wonderland lies nature’s most majestic season of all: autumn. The air turns crisp, the leaves diversify into a kaleidoscope of colors, and fruit bids farewell with the utmost flavor and freshness. We never quite know exactly when autumn will come, or how long it will stay (all the more reason to appreciate it), but when it finally arrives and waves its wand, it’s virtually impossible not to get caught under its seasonal spell.

Autumn (or fall, as it often called in North America) is a spectacular time of year to explore the outdoors and soak in some fun-in-the-sun before winter marches on in. There’s so much to see and do during this time of year, and best of all, this season caters to the cost-conscious: most activities cost less than $15, and many are even free. If you’re fortunate enough to be traveling this autumn, be sure to bask in these budget-friendly activities:

1. Visit a Pumpkin Patch

If autumn were a fruit, it would definitely be a pumpkin. These bloated, yet beautiful melons are cheap, delicious and versatile –- perfect for the traveler on a budget. Visiting a pumpkin patch is a must during autumn. Enjoy the fresh fall air while learning about the plump fruit’s past and foraging the farmland to pick out your very own pumpkin(s). Prices vary, but most cost between $3 and $10.

So what can you do with these orange-tinted titans? Well, lots. If you’re feeling festive, you can carve them into jack-o-lanterns. The inside “guts” can be used for all sorts of delicious dishes, including pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread and spaghetti squash, to name a few. The seeds can be roasted and eaten, too, and make a great substitute for pine nuts and/or sunflower seeds in recipes.

To find a patch near you, visit (Countries: United States, Canada, England, South Africa)

2. Take a Hike! (Or Ride a Bike)

What better way to enjoy fall’s fantastic foliage than walking or biking beneath it? Whether winding through trails on a bike or taking a leisurely stroll at sunset, getting out in nature is one of the simplest – and cheapest – ways to take advantage of autumn. The moderate temperatures will spare you the sweat and shivers of other seasons, while the gorgeous leaves will amaze your eyes and ignite your inner artist, be it in the form of a painting, a poem, or a picture.

3. Go Apple Picking

If pumpkins aren’t your passion, then try out autumn’s other fruit: apples. Apple orchards are in full bloom this time of year, and like pumpkin patches, they are a great way to enjoy the outdoors while stocking up on fresh fruit. From the sweet shades of red to the tart tastes of green, apples come in enough variety to satisfy any appetite. And since they can be peeled and eaten raw, apples make a healthy, clean and convenient snack for travelers on the road.

To find orchards in the US and Canada, visit

4. Rent a paddleboat/canoe/kayak

End  autumn with a splash! Now’s the (last) time to get out on the water before it freezes. Check local parks for paddleboat, canoe and kayak rentals. Many rental shops offer the option of renting for a half hour, hour, or for the entire day – so there’s plenty of options to suit your budget, time and comfort. Some paddleboats are as cheap as $5 (split between two or four people), making it a great way to indulge in the weather without thinning the wallet. It’s a fun activity for traveling families or a backpacking couple looking for some relaxation and romance.

5. Corn Maze Craze!

Corn Maize - Afton Apple

Corn Maize - Afton Apple

If you’re looking to stimulate your spatial and navigational skills, here’s your autumnal answer: the corn maze. Like the name suggests, these life-sized obstacle courses are made up of corn stalks and landscaped into a labyrinth of intricate designs. If you’re feeling a little too clausterphobic or starting to resemble a frantic rat, don’t fret: most maizes employ “corn cops” to ensure safety (and fun) is had by all.

Check out The MaiZE – the world’s largest corn maize company. To find a maze near you, visit

Rachel Anderson is a staff writer/editor for VIVA Travel Guides.

VIVA Reveals Colombia's Top Five Secrets

By Michelle Lillie, VIVA Travel Guides

Say ‘Colombia’ and most people will immediately think of something negative: drugs, guerrilla warfare, corruption, kidnappings, crime. This is hardly surprising, since these are the few factors about the country that regularly reach the international press.

However, VIVA travelers and writers want to let you in on a little secret: Colombia is actually one of the most beautiful countries in Latin America. There are still many places to visit within the country that are just as safe as other top destinations in Latin America; you just have to know where to go (that’s where we come in). If you are looking for something off the beaten path in a country whose tourism is just starting to pick up, try one of VIVA’s Top Five Secrets to Colombia:

1. Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City)

Located in the heart of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is the beginning of the six day hike to the Ciudad Perdida. The first three days of the hike are up hill in the brutal Colombian sun and through some of the most breathtaking scenery the jungle has to offer. Climbing waterfalls, wading through rivers and weaving around hanging jungle vines is just the beginning of the hike to this city hidden deep in mountains. (So deep in the mountains, that it remained undiscovered until 1975.)

On day four you will come to the end of the hike up the mountain and reach 2,000 stairs that must be climbed in order to reach the base camp at the top and see the ruins. Not much is known about the ruins of Cuidad Perdida except that they were built by the Tayrona people around 800 A.D. Although the hike is a brutal 6 days, it’s definitely vale la pena (worth the effort), as you’re rewarded with some of the most amazing natural landscape and hidden ruins in the world.

2. Playa Blanca, Cartagena

Without a doubt the best beach near Cartagena, Playa Blanca sits just a boat ride away from the other sandy beaches of the coast. Appropriately named Playa Blanca (white beach), this creamy sand island is rather isolated, except for a few small food stands and hostels closer inland. Boats leave twice a day to take passengers back to Cartagena, but you can rent hammocks or stay in the hostels for the night as well. (Warning: there is no electricity or running water). This primitive island is a nice escape from the hustle of street vendors and city noise on the more commercial beaches of Cartagena.

Read one VIVA traveler’s first-hand account of this beautiful beach: Playa Blanca by Darren Fitzgerald. More travelers’ tales in VIVA List Latin America.

3. Medellin

Once a city bending to Pablo Escabar’s every whim, earning the reputation as the “most violent city in the world,” Medellin is now one of the most progressive and beautiful cities in Colombia. Located in the Aburra Valley, Medellin is home to wild flowers, parks and tropical birds, giving it the name “city of the eternal spring”. Enjoy the accessibility of Colombia’s only metro (and arguably South America’s finest) as it shuttles you from the sights of downtown’s Botero sculpture-filled Parque Barrio to the exclusive bars, restaurants and hotels of El Pobaldo. There is also a cable car that takes you high over the less affluent barrios in Medellín, offering a bird’s eye view of the expanse of the city. If you happen to arrive in July or August, be certain to catch the Flower Festival, and don’t forget to stroll to Parque de los Pies Descalzos to marvel at the modern architecture.

4. Santuario Nuestra Señora de las Lajas

One day in 1750 (more or less), María Mueses de Quiñónez was walking from Potosí to Ipiales. Upon her back she carried her young, deaf-mute daughter Rosa. They decided to rest at Pastarán cave on the banks of the Río Guáitra. When doña María awoke from a nap, she discovered her daughter had wandered off. Upon finding her, Rosa said, “Mamacita, the Mestiza called to me!” She pointed to an image of a woman holding a child and two men.

Thus begins the story of Santuario Nuestra Señora de las Lajas. A small adobe chapel was built to protect the image of the Virgin in the shallow cave, forming the “altar screen” of the temple. Over the centuries it has expanded to the impressive neo-Gothic structure that now spans the Guáitra River. Many Colombians and Ecuadorians make the pilgrimage to this site, beseeching the Virgin Mary for her intercession. The cliff walls are covered with thousands of plaques thanking her for miracles. (The Vatican only recognizes one.)

Come for the day (bring a picnic lunch) and stroll the network of paths that interlace the grounds. Take a bath in the healing-water pools at the foot of the waterfall. There’s even a playground if the inner child wants to play. The on-site museum has exhibits on the Sanctuary’s history and on the Pasto indigenous.

5. San Agustín Archaeological Park

Home to one of the South America’s most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites is the small town of San Agustin. The archaeological park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and is filled with over 500 megalithic sculptures depicting the pre-Columbian civilization that existed between the 6th and 14th century AD. (Archaeologists have said to have uncovered only ten percent of the statues that exist).

The statues, which are carved out of volcanic rock, are also markers of ceremonial and burial sites and are thought to have been constructed during the Agustinian Culture. The park spans 800 square kilometers and is a great place for hiking and horseback riding after looking at the statues of various animals and gods.

Ready to take the country less traveled? Pick up VIVA’s Travel Guide to Colombia, available at Amazon.

Uruguay Approves Bill for Same-Sex Adoption

Lawmakers in Uruguay passed a bill late Thursday allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. The bill, passed 40-13 by The Chamber or Representatives, must first go through the Senate,  who has until September 15 to vote. Since the ruling party holds the majority in the Senate, the bill is expected to pass, making Uruguay the first country in Latin America to allow adoption for same-sex couples.

This bill is the latest in a series of progressive laws backed by President Tabaré Vázquez. With the aid of his political party Broad Front Coalition (Frente Amplio), Vázquez has been working hard to change the legal landscape of alternative sexuality. Since taking office in 2005, the center-left president has legalized civil unions, lifted the ban on homosexuals joining the military, and approved a bill allowing children 12 and older to change their names — a nod to transgender youth.

These laws have been met with heavy opposition from conservatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church, the dominant religious group not only in Uruguay, but also in Latin America as a whole. Although the laws are controversial, they lay down the stepping stones toward social equality, paving the way for other Latin America countries.

Rachel Anderson is a staff writer/editor for VIVA Travel Guides.

One Week Left for Bolivia Cover Photo Contest!

Snap & Snag

(The cover of our next guidebook!)

Bolivia Cover Photo Contest Deadline: September 1st

You already show off your Bolivia photos to friends and family — now’s your chance share them with other travelers (and win cash, too!).  You still have one week to submit your Bolivia photos for our upcoming travel guide, so hurry and enter at our Flickr page!

  • Winner gets $100 and the coveted cover of our premier guidebook for Bolivia
  • Runners-up get their photo (and name) inside the guidebook

Are you a well-seasoned traveler? Check out our Photography Contests page for more countries and competitions.

Upcoming photo contests:

  • October 1: Peru
  • November 1: Argentina
  • November 1: Costa Rica
  • December 1: Southern Mexico
  • December 1: Honduras

The Googlemobile: Mapping the World, One Tricycle At a Time

Sure, Batman may have his Batmobile, but how will he know where he’s going? Luckily there’s a another superpower emerging, saving the world one high-tech map at a time: Google.

The Google Trike. (PC World)

The Google Trike. (PC World)

Google’s employees roll geek-chic on a customized tricycle, equipped with up to nine cameras, a generator, a keypad to control the cameras, and various other Google gear to help create the street maps for its Google Maps™ mapping service. (Don’t worry, they wear chunky white helmets to protect their cerebral genius.)

The pedal-powered machine allows Google to reach and map out secluded paths, cobblestoned streets, and other places inaccessible by car. For privacy protection the trike’s cameras detect, then automatically blur, all license plates and faces.

The multiple cameras snap tons of high-definition pictures, used to construct the 360-degree virtual tour maps made famous by Google.

The Googlemobile is currently pedaling around France, hitting up hotspots like Chateau de Versailles and Jardin du Luxembourg. It’s set to map Paris on Aug. 20. The tricycle already tackled Britain and Italy earlier this summer, and Google plans to expand its navigational empire to other European nations as well.

Back on the mainland, Google has already been using its pedicabs to map out college campuses throughout the United States – known for their scenic, yet often convoluted, paths and trails. Although older generations are skeptical, college students have embraced the high-tech trike, and parents of prospective students enjoy taking a “virtual tour” of campuses they may otherwise be unable to visit.

I’m looking forward to the day Google cycles south to South America. Can you imagine?  Pedaling along the Inca Trail to the majestic Machu Picchu, sweating through the arrid Atacama Desert in Chile’s Norte Grande, or circling Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes…the posibilities are endless (and a three-wheeled cartographer’s dream)!

Rachel Anderson is a staff writer/editor for VIVA Travel Guides.

Conquering Cotopaxi: V!VA Goes Volcanic

By Mark Samcoe, V!VA Travel Guides

Heed the teachings of The Wolf, and you too can summit one of the world’s highest active volcanoes.

Cotopaxi (altitude 5,897 m, 19,350 ft), often described as “a near-perfect cone,” rising up out of the vast, flat Parque Nacional Cotopaxi south of Quito, is a popular non-technical hike for visitors to Ecuador.

Our guide, Efrain, nicknamed El Lobo (The Wolf), was a former elementary school teacher from Ambato who had climbed Cotopaxi over 500 times in his 15+ years of guiding. We began our trek around midday, hiking from the volcano’s parking area (4,200 m / 13,779 ft) up to the refuge (4,500 m / 14,764 ft). After an hour of lugging my refrigerator-sized backpack,  sinking into the scree slope, and gasping for air, I reached the two-story stone building, completely exhausted.

Instead of practicing wearing crampons or making short climbs to acclimatize, El Lobo told us to rest. In the crowded refuge dining area we sipped tea, ate bread and cheese, and popcorn with fried garlic. We spent the afternoon messing up the table with crumbs, instant hot chocolate and powdered milk.

At dusk, Lobo served us soup and fried fish with rice. While we ate he showed us how to breathe and walk: breathe in deeply through your nose; step with the right foot; plant your ice axe; and breathe out through your mouth, loud enough to hear it.

We bundled into our sleeping bags to rest up for the ascent. The sound of boots clomping on the wood floor, a couple in another bunk whispering and giggling, and people tossing and turning in the lower bunks kept me awake for hours. Eventually I fell asleep, and awoke at midnight, along with the other hikers, all preparing to tackle the summit.

Dressed in layers, we geared up after breakfast; the three of us were the last group to leave the refuge. Above us, the slope was spotted with headlamps moving imperceptibly. I carried water and snacks in a tiny day pack that Lobo joking referred to as a child’s book bag.

We trudged up to the glacier in 45 minutes. I walked, head down, following footsteps, concentrating on breathing and stepping. At the snow line, my boots grew fangs as Lobo strapped on our crampons and roped us in with a bright green cord. Up we marched (the wind gusting and blowing snow), side- stepping and switch-backing, occasionally through knee-high snow. We took short breaks when Lobo said we could. When he asked us how we were doing, we said, “good,” as though it were our mantra.

Surprisingly, my leg muscles didn’t burn from the steep climbing, and I didn’t get light-headed from the altitude. The most trying part of the hike was when I would plant my ice axe in the snow and it would sink deep. It was like leaning on a banister while climbing a steep staircase and having someone yank it out from under you.

The near-vertical ice wall was the biggest challenge. We were told it is 30 meters, but it looked more like 15. Last up, I climbed by slamming my axe into the wall, then kicking my left foot into the ice, followed by my right. I often only got the toe crampons of one boot stuck in, making it a slightly fear-stricken scramble to the top, where I dramatically collapsed once clear.

As we ascended the final stretch, my lungs gurgled each time I took heavy breaths. Sunlight began to peer around the side of the glacier, and we suddenly smelled sulfur. After four and a half hours we reached the summit at sunrise. We felt as though we were on top of the world (or of Ecuador, at least). Smoke billowed from Cotopaxi’s active crater and, below us, low-lying clouds buffeted the peaks of Chimborazo and Corazon.

We spent a few minutes on the summit taking photos and reveling in our accomplishment. The descent took an hour and a half and was more of a struggle than the ascent. Fatigued, squinting to follow the trail lost in cloud cover, we looped down to the refuge. This time, we led and Lobo followed.

El Lobo is a guide with VIVA-reccommended Gulliver Travel.

Nicaragua Photo Contest Deadline: August 1st!

Snap & Snag

(The cover of our next guidebook!)

Nicaragua Cover Photo Contest

You already show off your Nicaragua photos to friends and family — now’s your chance share them with other travelers (and win cash, too!).  You still have one week to submit your Nicaragua photos for our upcoming travel guide, so hurry and enter at our Flickr page!

  • Winner gets $100 and the coveted cover of our premier guidebook for Nicaragua
  • Runners-up get their photo (and name) inside the guidebook

Are you a well-seasoned traveler? Then check out our Photography Contests page for more countries and competitions.

Upcoming photo contests:

  • September 1: Bolivia
  • October 1: Peru
  • November 1: Argentina
  • November 1: Costa Rica
  • December 1: Southern Mexico
  • December 1: Honduras