Category Archives: Women Travel

Quito's Crafty Nuns

When you think of nuns, often the image of “penguins” slapping parochial schoolchildren’s hands with a ruler comes to mind. But other Catholic orders dedicate themselves to tasks in service to others, or to making homemade goodies and medicines.


This is the work of three convents in Quito’s Centro Histórico: Santa Clara, Carmen del Alto and Santa Catalina. If Quito’s dry air is taking a toll on your skin, or you’ve picked up some sort of bug while out in the jungle, head over to their shops. If you’re more interested in sweets and other delectables than in natural medicine, these crafty nuns can fulfill your desires, too.


Convento de Santa Clara‘s (Rocafuerte and Cuenca), founded in 1596, is one block south of Plaza San Francisco. Among this convent’s offerings are a cucumber cream to soothe your skin at these high altitudes and a makeup remover. The sisters here also produce wine and have a bakery. While at the convent, stop by the church for a guided tour of the Baroque art collection (Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Entry: $1).


Two blocks to the east is Monasterio e Iglesia del Carmen del Alto (Rocafuerte and García Moreno). This is one of Quito’s oldest convents. It was originally the house of the city’s first saint, Mariana de Jesús (1618-1665). Upon her death, her family donated the building to the Carmelitas Descalzas, who enlarged the house according to the saint’s wishes. The work was completed in 1661. The convent is a closed cloister; the sisters do not enter public and pass their lives speaking only a few hours per day. The only parts the general public may visit are the church and the shop.


The Barefoot Carmelites of this convent specialize in raising bees, and many of their goods are made from that. They also make crafts which are for sale at their shop. The sisters are especially renowned for their embroidery work, sweets and holy wine (said to be the “star” creation of these Carmelitas Descalzas).


From the Iglesia del Carmen del Alto, walk two blocks east to Plaza Santo Domingo and cut across the square to Calle Flores (the street the Trole takes). Take Flores four blocks to Convento de Santa Catalina, on the corner of Calle Espejo. It is located in Barrio San Marcos, on the site where the Incan Aclla Huasi (House of the Chosen) was.


This convent has probably the widest range of health and beauty aids, some made by its community and others by outside producers. Besides lotions and creams, this religious order’s members craft products your great-grandmother probably whipped up in her kitchen. There is horseradish syrup for coughs, and all manner of teas and potions for other ailments. The honey-bees’ wax cream is exceptionally good for relieving dry skin and nice for massages. While at Convento de Santa Catalina drop by its museum (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Entry: $1.50).


These convents create products from their own huertas, or garden-farm plots. Besides being the way they fulfill their calling, this is also how the nuns can raise much needed money for their communities and projects. The shops are typically open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

The Backpack’her’s packing guide: being sensible but staying girly

By Andrea Davoust

Just because you are on the road doesn’t mean you have to turn into an unkempt mess clomping around in hiking boots for the entirety of your trip. Yet there is no way you can lug all your princess make-up and fashionista outfits – you would be staggering under the weight of a refrigerator-size pack. Follow V!VA’s top tips to pack light and still look right.

1/ Tick the list!

If you are a seasoned traveler, you may already have your own. Otherwise, check a few online, they will help you remember the indispensable (copies of your passport, first aid kit, vaccination certificate…) and suggest clever ones you would not have thought of (alarm clock, duct tape…). Check Women on the Road’s: Then adapt the checklist to your destination. Obviously, you won’t need the same accessories to party in Paris as to hike the Himalayas!

Photo by Phineas H.

Photo by Phineas H.

2/ Bag: Think light. And then lighter.

Unless you are about to sail on the Queen Elizabeth II, forget about the giant steamer trunk. Take a backpack or carry-on suitcase that will not contain more than 15kg of stuff – the limit for your back. Then pare down to the bare necessities! A good rule of thumb is to spread everything you think you need on your bed, then remove half of it. Remember you can always do laundry along the way, use hostel hairdryers, etc. Allow space for the souvenirs you will collect – including locally made t-shirts or earrings.

3/ Clothes: Mix and match!

Nothing worse than being invited to hit a night club and discovering you have nothing to wear but ratty flip-flops and zip-up pants. So yes you need those lil’ strappy sandals. Generally speaking, choose clothes and shoes that can do double-duty. That long-sleeved blouse can save you from mosquitoes in the jungle, or from sun at the beach, and later look classy in a nice restaurant. For more ideas on outfits both cute and sensible, read Why smart backpackers bring their dancing shoes (

Photo by Jack Kennard

Photo by Jack Kennard

4/ Toiletries: think small!

For just a couple of weeks, you don’t need a family-size bottle of shampoo – just fill a baby bottle. Ditto with toothpaste (the three-quarters squeezed-out tube will do), cotton tips (a handful in a ziplock bag), etc. Or splurge on the travel kits with mini-perfumes and mini-moisturizer available in airport duty-free shops. Help yourself to mini-sewing kits given out in high-end hotels. But do bring adequate supplies of harder-to-find items: prescription drugs, tampons, and condoms (you may not plan to get lucky, but if you do, don’t rely on local brands).

Women Travel: Solving the tampon conundrum

By Andrea Davoust

Escaping from it all? Almost! The moon and its bloody cycles (sorry) will follow you anywhere you go on this planet…so how do you deal with having your period on the road? Pack a year’s worth of feminine supplies? Cross your fingers and hope that if Coca-Cola has reached that remote Nepalese village, so will have other civilized items? V!VA shares tips to not let Nature ruin your trip.

1/ Zap it!

Who needs a period anyway? Just do away with it altogether! If you are on a contraceptive pill, take the active tablets back-to-back for a few months. After all, manufacturers only introduced the period break because they (men, no doubt) figured it would otherwise feel unnatural. So don’t worry about skipping the bleeding. However conventional wisdom has it that it is best not to take the pill continuously for longer than three months in a row. Simply consult your doctor (link to before leaving, for advice and an adequate supply of your pill!

Photo by Dani Lurie

Photo by Dani Lurie

2/ Pack it!

If you simply know that you will never find the exact brand and make of tampons or pads you feel comfortable with…carry a supply from home. Anyway peace of mind only comes at the price of a bit more stuff in your suitcase – though if you are good packer, your stock shouldn’t take up more space than a couple of rolled socks. “I find that OB products, since they are so small and compact, are ideal for long-term travel. They take up a quarter of the space than others,” writes Delara.

3/ Risk it!

Let’s face it, women the world over have their periods, even in the remotest African bush. So sanitary protections are available everywhere, right? Anywhere in Europe, North America and most of Asia, yes. Ditto in the large cities of the developing world, where pharmacies are usually well stocked. In the backwaters of Africa or Central Asia…guess again! “I once had to buy some in a small Brazilian village. ‘Twasn’t pretty. I could only find massive mattress-like things,” writes Stephanie. But there will always be a local solution. Plus, haven’t you ever wondered how women of the Amazon jungle or Himalayan villages coped? Time to find out!

4/ Cup it!

Photo by Michelle Tribe

Photo by Michelle Tribe

Goodbye disposable products, hello re-usable, eco-friendly cups! Menstrual cups, which were invented in the 1930s but never really took off, are making a strong comeback. Now made of silicone instead of the more allergenic latex, these 5-cm eggcup-shaped devices are inserted in the vagina, collect the menstrual flow, then emptied and rinsed every few hours. “Yuuuuuck!?” Yet increasing numbers have become converts. “It takes a little bit of practice to insert, but it will be perfect for my six-month trip through South America,” says Sylviana, who has just crash-tested the device at home. Just be aware that you need access to potable or boiled water to clean it and avoid infections. Main brands are: Divacup, Mooncup and Keeper.

V!VA Interviews Jo Sykes, Intern turned Freelance Travel Writer

V!VA interviewed Jo Sykes to find out why and how she kick-started her travel writing career. Beginning as an unpaid Intern in the V!VA office, Jo decided to take to the road, and attended V!VA’s Guatemala boot camp. She’s currently on assignment for V!VA in Guatemala.

Why did you decide to go to V!VA to do an internship?

I was living and working in London and on one of those oh so typical dark, cold, wet winter days I decided it was time for a life change, to follow my dream and work towards turning my passion into a career. I came across an ad for V!VA on and liked what I saw: a modern, mainly web-based, up-to-date guide written for the people by the people. As a traveler I know that information needs to be as current as possible and readily accessible and that is what V!VA provides. Plus, being located in Ecuador might have had a little-something to do with it.

What’s a guidebook office really like?

Tell it like it is: V!VA is honest and up front. We have real people out on the road and real people in the office too, working hard to deliver good quality information. Some days can be quite, er, long, for example: when editing website entries all day. Then other days are hectic, especially when a new book is nearing completion and there are editorial and graphical design pressures, or map and cover-photo deadlines. And it’s a pretty international office so because most people are living away from home there’s a real sense of camaraderie, everyone helping each other, plenty of crazy nights out together like the SAE 80s party, plus the occasional inter-office soccer matches: Ecuador v The Rest of the world!.

What was appealing to you about the V!VA Boot Camp?

There’s a great buzz when a group of like-minded individuals get together and that week we really learned a lot from each other. Everybody, whether a novice or an experienced writer, had been to or was from somewhere different so there were so many varied experiences and valuable lessons to share. The fact that the Boot Camp was held in a country of interest to travelers particularly attracted me as it meant we were able to go out on mini-assignments and immediately put what we’d learned to the test.

Participating in the Boot Camp

Participating in the Boot Camp

What was the most useful thing that you learnt at the V!VA Boot Camp?

The importance of pre-trip planning. A lot of preparation is done before actually going out into the field and if you don’t do your homework you are not going to get the most of your assignment and nor will your reader. Fully researching your destination, seeking out key-contacts, planning routes and schedules as well as thinking about health and safety issues, are all important tasks. What do we say? One part preparation, one part organization, and one part perspiration.

So, you’re currently based in Guatemala. Where is the most interesting place that you’ve traveled for V!VA?

Traveling up to the chilly Western Highlands of Guatemala not only did I see some awesome views of the Cuchumatanes mountain range, but I also met some Mam locals who taught me about traditional weaving techniques and took me along to church where I heard the hypnotic chanting of prayers to a Catholic God in Mayan dialect. On the flip side, I recently hung out on the shores on Lake Izabal and took a boat to hot and sticky Livingston where I experienced the Black Carib Garifuna culture of Guatemala; two opposite, but equally fascinating, worlds within one country.

Lake Izabal

Lake Izabal

What is the most challenging part of guidebook writing? Why?

For me, the challenge is making sure all your readers’ interests are covered at the same time as really giving a town the attention it deserves (you see, it all comes down to planning again). Some people like to visit museums, others like water sports, some like fine dining, while others like to get down and dirty trying out the local ‘delicacies’. So regardless of your preference as a traveler you have to get to grips with every aspect of a place, in order to provide a comprehensive perspective and allow travelers to make informed choices, whether it be for a two-week holiday or a 12-month round the world trip.

What’s the most random thing you’ve seen while on assignment for V!VA?

I bumped into Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, while on Isla de la Plata. I’d only gone to see some blue footed boobies so I got more than I’d bargained for there! There have been quite a lot of animal experiences: a conversation with a bilingual parrot in Chichicastenango; sheep on the baggage rack on top of a bus near Todos Santos; hundreds of fish laid out to dry; and a pig on the dance floor at a club in Livingston.

Meeting Rafael Correa, Ecuador's President

Meeting Rafael Correa, Ecuador

Where would you most like to write a guidebook for, and why?

You know, I could say the Seychelles or the Maldives but instead it would be either Holmfirth, my home town in northern England, or Nomozaki in Japan, where I lived for two years. Both are equally as unknown or misunderstood as each other … I’ll let you decide which one is which! Nomozaki offers a great insight into the steady life of a traditional Japanese fishing village, far away from what most tourists see when they visit fast-paced techie Tokyo. And Holmfirth is the gateway to the Pennines, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales; far from the heady capital of London these are great places for long walks in the fresh country air and treating yourself to a well-deserved pint and a pub lunch.

What’s next?

In the short-term, I’m planning to do some traveling around Nicaragua and then sail from Panama to Colombia, and that’s just in between completing some write-ups for V!VA of course. Longer-term, I want to build up my freelance writing know-how now that I’ve got such great experience under my travel belt, working both in the V!VA office and on assignment. I’m expecting great things from myself over the next year. To infinity and beyond!

Fish laid out

Fish laid out