In Colombia, I didn’t have the space to set myself up for making my travels, for really digging into a place, a culture. I did not set up any interviews, only went out into the streets with a particular mission but a few times. My bags were always packed in this country, I was always on the verge of going or coming. This is, perhaps, travel by definition, but for an independent journalist/ world chronicler/ travel writer, such perpetual motion means hovering on the surface of each place I pass through — as oppose to making contacts and jumping in to a story, a people, a location on the map.
This was not my intention. Upon arrival in Colombia, I went looking for a few places in the country for my family to stay for 1 – 3 month(s) but, to my surprise, did not turn up a place that met our rather broad criteria.
When traveling with my family, it is my first intention to set myself up in a place that is secure, find good and affordable accommodation, put together a solid food strategy, and then use this set up as a base from which to really explore, investigate, and seek information about the region and the people who live there. I never set up a base in Colombia, finding each stop we made to either be too costly, too overrun with tourists, lacking the basic amenities to live and/ or work comfortably long term. In point, we were consumed with living arrangement challenges throughout our stay in Colombia that I did not take my travels there to the next level and really engage the country.
Colombia ’11 was the first time I had been “beaten” by a country since traveling with my family. Generally, our travel strategy has worked spot-on: we test the waters of advice, research, and happenstance, and plot a few potential hubs out on the map where we may want to set up camp for a couple of months. We then travel quick to one of these places, making a few stops along the way, and then, upon arrival, decide if we want to stay. If we decide “yes,” we look for a cheap and good apartment or try to set up a monthly rate at a hotel, try to find additional income, and settle into a place for a while. Then, two or three months later, we travel on to our next prospective hub, spend a couple of weeks checking out places along the way as the cycle repeats again.
This strategy worked excellently for us as we traveled in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico in 2010/ early 2011. But we ran into a brick wall in Colombia: the country was more expensive than we planned for (the most expensive country I’ve experienced from Mexico to Patagonia), some places were so underdeveloped for tourism that it would have been difficult to work out of long term (I need good internet daily), while some places were so over run with tourists that an extended stay would have been impractical, while still other rather popular places turned out to be a little to crime ridden for me to want to remain long with my family — or to even stay myself. My family sort of moved through Colombia from place to place, searching, but never really finding a base of operations.
It was a little frustrating, my usual travel methods were being checked by my own parameters: traveling with a two year old is not the same as traveling with a baby. I need a new strategy for traveling with my family.
Jumping between locations, feeling places out on the ground, deciding day to day whether we want to stay longer is no longer an appropriate strategy for family travel in mid-range countries. If we could afford to show up in a town, move into a hotel after a quick search, and afford to stay there at the nightly rate for a week or so while looking for cheaper accommodation options, then all would have been fine. But Colombia is not a cheap country for travel — a week stay in a secure seeming hotel costs at minimum $150 to $200.
My family’s true budgetary cut off point is $30 per day. If we go over this amount, we start to lose money; if we stay under it, we save money. If our income was doubled, Colombia would have been a very different story — it would be easy to live anywhere in Colombia on $60 per day. Budgetary restrictions limits options in travel, and having less options creates more of a challenge to obtaining what you need and want to survive on the road. This is obvious.
In point, moving my entire family costs 3X as much and is 3X more complicated than just moving myself. Again, this is obvious. This does not mean that family travel is too much of a hassle to continue with, but that a new strategy is needed. In Colombia, my entire family moved between locations looking for a base of operations. This made us drastically less mobile, drastically less capable of completing our mission. Moving the family is an ordeal: we have a load of living gear and Petra hates buses. Each move to a new destination is pretty much an investment to stay there for at least a week, as a continuous string of quick transitions is an arduous way to live.
Our new family travel strategy in mid-range countries is that myself or my wife will go on ahead to a new destination on our own as a scout, check the prices, probe the lay of the land, set up a suitable place to live, and when everything is ready to go send word back for the rest of the gang to follow.
We won’t move through a country like refugees again.