About Karen Catchpole, CWO (Chief Writing Officer)

Karen Catchpole helped create Sassy and Jane magazines, has freelanced for most major US women’s magazine, produced for The Jon Stewart Show and created programming for MTV and Oxygen Media.


In 2006 she left her job as deputy editor of Shop etc. and her apartment in New York City to embark on the ongoing Trans-Americas Journey, a multi-year, 200,000 mile working road trip through North, Central and South America. Karen now focuses on travel writing and her work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Escape, Outside , Action Asia, Asian Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Every Day with Rachael Ray and National Geographic Traveler as well as the travel sections of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. Her work also appears on high-end travel websites including jetsetter.com, indagare.com, itravelishop.com and travelandescape.ca (the website for Canada’s Travel Channel).


Her Trans-Americas Journey blog, which is ranked as one of the top 25 independent travel websites in the world, has also been part of the elite Lonely Planet Featured Blogger program since 2010. Karen has been profiled by WWD and More, featured on The Huffington Post and interviewed on National Geographic Weekend with Boyd Matson.




10 Years on the Road: 183,000 Miles Backward?

Monday marks the 10 year anniversary of our road trip through North, Central, and South America. That’s 3,653 days of full-time travel in the Americas. It’s been a great decade full of the kinds of ups and downs that come with life on the road. We mean that literally and figurative. A couple of weeks ago we reached our highest point on the road so far at 15,916 feet (4,851 meters) on the drive from the Paso de Jama border crossing from Argentina into Chile. After around 183,000 miles (28,000 km) we’re getting pretty good at this and we’re looking forward to many, many more years on the road as we continue south to Tierra del Fuego, then back up again. However, in one important way we fear we’re going backward.

Crossing Paso de Jama Aregentina to Chile

A couple of weeks ago we crossed from Argentina into Chile and headed to the highest point on the road (so far).

The main goal of the Trans-Americas Journey is to take our careers as travel journalists on the road to be better at our jobs and better at life. But our little road trip has always had a trickier subtext.

Here’s what happened

On September 10, 2001 we were focused on building a long-term working trip through Africa. Then the attacks of September 11 happened. We lived three blocks from the Twin Towers and when then President George W. Bush stood on a pile of debris in our backyard, picked up a megaphone, and vowed to get “them” it struck us as blindly jingoistic and dangerous.

Somehow “they” were going to get “us” if “we” didn’t get “them” first. Those vague divisions only got more pronounced: if you weren’t with us you were against us and that went for anyone outside or inside the US. Red states and blue states weren’t far behind.

We realized that we didn’t understand our own country and questioned why we’d spent so many years traveling so far from home. We put our Africa plans on the shelf for another day and decided to focus on the US and her neighbors instead. The Trans-Americas Journey was born. Feel free to read more about how the attacks of September 11 inspired our Trans-Americas Journey.

Bald Eagle flying

We’ve come close to losing this iconic symbol of US freedom once before.

Many Americas & many Americans

Even as we were laying the considerable ground work needed to create a working road trip through the Americas, we had a larger goal in mind: to look at what it means to be good global neighbors as the United States of America seemed to be getting more and more isolationist. Who is “us”? Who is “them”? And what about a more global or even regional concept of “we”?

After all, everyone from North, Central, and South America is American, not just those of us from the United States. There are many Americas and many Americans and there’s strength in that. The ‘S’ after the word America in the name of our project? That’s not a typo.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

If this wall could talk…

People born in Canada are American. People born in Chile are American. People born in Uruguay are American. People born in Peru are American. People born in Guatemala are American. People born in Mexico are American.

We believe that understanding that small detail creates a crucial shift in perspective which turns the idea of “us and them” into the much more beneficial idea of “we.” Anyone who’s traveled knows this already because many of the most fundamentally good elements of travel come from the fact that it’s an act of being together, not apart.

On the road through three Presidents

We spent the first 2.5 years of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip primarily in the US where George W. Bush was in his second term. Slowly, tentatively US citizens were coming to terms with new fears about domestic terrorism (fears much of the rest of the world had been grappling with for years).

Some people we met were becoming more and more insular. Others, however, believed that disengaging from the world or going to war with it weren’t the only options, or even the best ones. Those people wanted a middle ground where they could have security without fearing everything and everyone around them.

Airstream Mount Ranier National Park

We listened to the historic nomination of Barrack Obama as the Democratic Presidential candidate in 2008 in this Airstream in this campsite in this US national park.

We listened to the 2008 Democratic National Convention on satellite radio in an Airstream in a campsite in Mount Rainier National Park. By the time we’d crossed south into Mexico President Barrack Obama was well into his first term and we felt that the search for middle ground was growing in the US, like a pendulum becoming less and less polarized as it slows down and lingers in the mid-swing.

During Obama’s second term, our road trip moved further south through Central America and we traveled with a feeling that, despite clear and present problems, the world was predominantly on the right track. The pendulum was still slowing and finding its sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

The pendulum swings

We followed the most recent US Presidential election cycle on TVs throughout South America. We voted at the US embassy in Brasilia. We watched the results come in at our friend Mauro’s apartment in Sao Paulo. Now, rather than settling down to find middle ground, the pendulum of “us and them” in the US seems to be swinging more wildly than ever.

Absentee ballots Brasilia, Brazil

Our 2016 Presidential election ballots being dropped off at the US embassy in Brasilia, Brazil.

The blind, jingoistic rhetoric of “we” better get “them” before “they” get “us” is back and it’s louder than ever. It also now applies to more than just suspected terrorists and comes with a fresh coat of racism put on with a very wide brush.

Because of our 10 years anniversary, journalists have been asking us a lot of questions including questions about what we’ve learned in all that time on the road. That one always stumps us. However, one thing we’ve learned is that we all need “we” and we’re all better together than we are when we’re divided.

Also, we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

Revisit our 5 Year Road-a-versary

Revisit our 9 Year Road-a-versay

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Travel Guide to the Pueblos Patrimonio of Colombia

During our time in Colombia we made a point of traveling to as many of the colonial towns on the country’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio as we could. In the end, we explored 13 of the 17 towns currently on the list. Here’s why you should too.

The Pueblos Patrimonio of Colombia

The Colombian government operates a program called Pueblos Patrimonio which recognizes towns in the country which retain a remarkable amount of Colonial architecture, living history, and thriving traditions. Here’s a travel snapshot of the 13 Pueblos Patrimonio in Colombia that we visited.

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Layva Colombia Pueblo Patrimonio

Close to Bogotá, this extremely popular pueblo deserves more than just a day trip.

 

Santa Cruz de Mompox

Iglesia de la Concepcion - Mompox, Colombia

Time stands still, history is alive and an important part of the essence of Colombia is at hand in Mompox (sometimes called Mompos). This riverside stunner is getting easier and easier to reach, so no more excuses.

 

Barrichara

Barichara Colombia

Our choice for most beautiful Colonial town in Colombia. Hands down.

 

Honda

street Honda, Colombia

Honda did not make a good first impression, but we warmed up (a lot) to a great boutique hotel and meaty alfresco dining in this steamy town.

 

Aguadas

Traditional hat weaver in Aguadas, Colombia

We spent  just a few hours in Aguadas, but that was enough to get an impressive look at the town’s hat-making heritage and get some video of the artists at work (below).

 

Santa fe de Antioquia

Parque Principal Santa Fe de Antioquia Colombia

A creative vibe and a legit place in Colombian history make Santa fe de Antioquia a top day trip choice from Medellin.

 

Salamina

Salamina Colombia

The weirdest breakfast and tallest palms in Colombia can be enjoyed in and around Salamina.

 

Jardin

Plaza Jardin Colombia

Outdoor adventure and one of the most charming plazas in Colombia await in Jardin.

 

Guadalajara de Buga

Holy Water Ale cervesaria - Buga, Colombia

Buga, as it’s usually called, is home of a miracle which pilgrims still come to celebrate. It’s also home to Colombia’s only Bed & Beer hostel with it’s own microbrewery.

 

San Juan Girón

Colonial Giron Colombia

Called the “white city” because of the amount of whitewashed Colonial buildings, Girón offers good food and a charming little hotel as well.

 

Jerico

Jerico, Colombia

Colombia’s first saint and its beloved traditional man bag are both from Jerico. And that’s not all.

 

Guaduas

Guadas, Colom,bia Peublo Patrimonial

We did not spend the night in Guaduas, but we did tour through long enough to appreciate the town’s picturesque church and time-worn cobblestone square.

 

Monguí

Mongui Colombia Pueblo Patrimonial

Altitude, Andes, and a whole lot of soccer balls–all in little Monguí.

 

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Come for the Crucifix, Stay for the Craft Beer – Buga, Colombia

There are two miraculous reasons to travel to Guadalajara de Buga. One involves a crucifix. The other involves craft beer.

Holy Water Ale cervesaria - Buga, Colombia

Mmmmm…..craft beer.

The miraculous crucifix of Buga

Guadalajara de Buga (usually simply called Buga) is just 45 miles (70 km) from Cali, but the tranquility of this colonial town, whose architecture and living tradition earned it a place on Colombia’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio, makes Buga feel a world away from the big city.

Founded in 1555, Buga is one of the oldest cities in Colombia and its main claim to fame is a story that’s nearly as old. As the legend goes, an indigenous washer woman was trying to save money to buy a crucifix. She finally washed enough clothes in the local river to save the money needed to buy a simple crucifix. However, as she was on her way to make the purchase she saw a neighbor being hauled off to jail because of unpaid debts.

Instead of buying the crucifix, the woman paid off her neighbor’s debts. When she returned to work in the river she noticed something shiny in the water and discovered  a small crucifix floating by. She grabbed it and brought it home where the crucifix continued to grow and grow.

Today, the legend of the indigenous washer woman and her miraculously growing crucifix is marked by The Lord of the Miracles, a distinct dark-skinned Christ on the cross, which is housed in the Basilica del Senor de los Milagros in Buga. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the pink church.

The miraculous craft beer of Buga

If you worship at the house of hops, you’re in luck as well.

Stefan Schnur Buga microbrewery & hostal

Brew master Stefan Schnur with some of his Holy Water Ale beers made in Buga, Colombia.

When German Stefan Schnur arrived in Buga he did not intend to create the only bed & beer hostel in Colombia, but that’s what he did when he opened the Buga Hostel in 2011.

The hostel is affordable with standard hostel accommodation. The Holy Water Ale brew pub and cafe attached to the hostel, however, is a craft beer miracle with nine different beers brewed by Stefan at a small, nearby brewery. There’s also an inventive menu including homemade bread and legit pizzas with locally made sausage and other great toppings on homemade crust. Don’t miss happy hour.

Holy Water Ale brew pub - Buga, Colombia

The Holy Water brew pub, part of the Buga Hostel in Colombia.

 

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Hats in a Hurry – Aguadas, Colombia

The town of Aguadas is an official Pueblo Patrimonio for all of the usual reasons: historic importance, living culture, and surviving architecture and ambiance. But Aguadas is also famous as the source of some of the best hand-woven hats in Colombia and that’s why we traveled there on our way from Salamina to Medellin.

Traditional hat weaver in Aguadas, Colombia

A traditional hat weaver at work in Aguadas, Colombia.

Finding the hat makers of Aguadas

We’d been assured that practically every household in Aguadas had at least one hat-maker in the family. We imagined blocks full of houses fronted by talented hat makers working their craft in comfy chairs on stoops. So we were surprised when a first pass through town turned up precious little evidence of any hat making.

We asked around and the town’s tourist info office directed us to the home/workshop of Don Jorge Villanova but he only sells hats so there was no hat making to be seen. Then we were directed across town to Doña Rosa’s house, but she was busy dying fairly garish hats out of reeds that had been dyed hot pink, green or yellow as if the Easter bunny had possessed her. Though Doña Rosa can barely walk, we’re here to tell you her hands still move like lightning.

Weaving Sombrero Aguadeño in Aguadas, Colombia

Almost everyone in Aguadas makes hats. We found this woman working on a beauty in her tienda.

We left Doña Rosa’s unsatisfied, still in search of more traditional, less day-glo artistry. That’s when we noticed a woman working on a hat as she tended her tienda. Check out her amazing handiwork (see what we did there?) in our Aguadas hat making video, below.

 

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The Town that Coffee Built – Salamina, Colombia

Harder to reach and less well-known than other coffee region destinations, Salamina, which is part of Colombia’s elite group of Pueblos Patrimonio, offers travelers an unexpected stand of wax palms, the weirdest breakfast in Colombia, some quirky architectural touches, and a rich coffee growing heritage.

Salamina Colombia

Central Salamina, Colombia.

Inside Salamina

Salamina, reached via a mostly-paved and always scenic secondary road from Manizales in the Caldas province of Colombia, was founded in the early 1800s by a group which included women as well as men. The town is now home to roughly 20,000 people and is known for its coffee production (the crop flourished here even before other coffee regions took off).

Plaza Salamina, Colombia

Salamina’s main plaza. The fountain came from France and was dragged over the mountains and into Salamina by mule.

Many of those pioneering coffee growers got rich enough to build city homes and many were influenced by a woodcarver named Eliceo Tangarife who developed an elaborate form of woodworking that can still be seen in distinct balconies, doorways and window frames in Salamina.

Architecture Salamina, Colombia

Wood carvers in Salamina, many inspired by carver Eliceo Tangarife, are famous for their elaborate balconies, doorways, and window frames.

We were invited into one of those traditional homes by its current owner, Fernando, who showed us his open central courtyard full of plants and wire orbs adorned with shards of glass which Fernando makes. They’re sort of DIY disco balls and Fernando says that when the moon is full he uses them to “make stars.” Fernando called Eric “maestro” and we’re pretty sure that many other elaborately carved doorways in Salamina lead into a world full of the same sorts of charm and charmers.

Devil Doorway Salamina, Colombia

Some houses in Salamaina have a devil like this carved into the frames around their front doors. If you know why, don’t keep it to yourself.

The Masons played a role in Salamina’s formation as well and we were told that masonic symbols, including the iconic Masonic triangle with an eye inside of it, can be seen in the Basilica de la Immaculada Concepcion church on the main plaza. We looked and looked but never found the symbols.

Donkey Transport Salamina, Colombia

Salamina is still the kind of town where a girl can ride her mule around on a nice afternoon.

Colombia’s weirdest breakfast

Years ago the owner of El Polo Bakery in Salamina devised a way to add eggs to his menu without buying expensive new kitchen appliances. Instead of cooking eggs in a pan on a range top (which he didn’t have), he used the milk steamer arm on his coffee machine to steam eggs in a coffee cup along with chopped hot dog and butter. The results, called huevos al vapor (steamed eggs), are still offered today (2,500 COP or about US$1.20). They’re hot, fluffy, rich and, yes, a bit weird. You can also order a side of macana which is a cup of steamed milk with butter, crumbled saltines and cinnamon.

El Polo Bakery in Salamina, Colombia

Huevos al vapor taste better than they look, though don’t expect service with a smile.

Unexpected wax palms

Everyone talks about visiting Salento to see stands of rare wax palms, the tallest palm in the world and the national tree of Colombia. You certainly can see beautiful wax palms in the Salento area (though the best wax palms in Salento aren’t where you think they are). We were surprised to learn that Salamina has some grand stands of wax palms as well.

Wax Palms Salamina Colombia

The town of Salento is famous for its stands of wax palms, the tallest in the world and Colombia’s national tree. But Salamina has impressive stands of palms nearby as well.

Seeing the wax palms near Salamina requires a two hour drive from the town up to around 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) where, suddenly, the remarkably tall palms begin to appear–a few at first, then the cattle fields are peppered with them. There are no organized trails or circuits. Just park and wander through a pasture to admire the palms.

Wax Palms Salamina Colombia

Towering wax palms near Salamina.

As we were doing just that, a local farmer pulled up on his motorcycle and invited us to his small nearby farm where he has 20 cows, some sheep, potato fields and a trout pond. When we arrive at his farm his wife greets us with hot cups of sweet Nescafe, a welcome bit of warmth in the foggy cold. We sip and talk in her stove-warmed kitchen with views of the mountains and fields. It’s the kind of kitchen that makes you want to cook and do the dishes.

Their son is urging them to open a small homestay and we hope they do it. Their farm is tranquil and atmospheric and they are the kind of generous farmers who built Salamina. We didn’t want to leave.

La Casa de Lola Garcia Boutique Hotel - Salamina, Colombia

La Casa de Lola Garcia Boutique Hotel in Salamina, Colombia.

Where to sleep in Salamina

In Salamina we stayed at La Casa de Lola Garcia Boutique Hotel which is run by Mauricio Cardona Garcia who is the great grandson of one of the town’s Masonic founders. Mauricio opened the stylish and central hotel after renovating his aunt Lola’s two-storey house. There’s an open air courtyard, an open kitchen and a back garden with a Jacuzzi (180,000 COP or about US$59 double occupancy including breakfast and use of all facilities). It’s the most stylish hotel in Salamina and Mauricio is a wealth of information.

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Top Travel Gear of the Year 2016

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

We’ve come to love and rely on a lot of tried and tested travel gear over the years–from Karen’s Kaikuna hoodie to Eric’s prescription Costa del Mar sunglasses to this nifty thing that lets us take booze in a backpack. Now we present our short but sweet list of top travel gear of the year 2016 including a game-changing lens, a really cool cool bag and hiking boots that were perfect straight out of the box.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

Top Travel Gear of the Year 2016

Canon-100-400mm-zoom-animals

There’s no question that the most valued new piece of travel gear in 2016 was Eric’s Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. He got a tease with this lens in the Galapagos when another passenger on our M/V Origin cruise let him use his lens. The difference in the quality of the wildlife shots was stunning, so we scraped together our pennies (more than 200,000 of them) and got one. This lens has helped Eric get great shots all year-long (a few of his favorites are above) and though it’s big and heavy and pricey it’s already proven its value time and again.  

Buy on B&H Photo  |  Buy on Amazon

 

Three Legged Thing carbon fiber Brian evolution 3 tripod

It’s hard to find a good travel tripod which combines durability and versatility in a compact and lightweight package. After years of looking, we found one. Don’t let the goofy name of 3 Legged Thing tripods fool you. They really do rock (in more ways than one). See why in our full review of our 3 Legged Thing Evolution 3  Brian tripod.

BUY ON B&H PHOTO  |  BUY ON AMAZON

 

colombia-thermal-tote

Sometimes we need to keep snacks and leftovers cold, for example, when we have a long day on the road with no chance of a lunch stop. Enter our Columbia insulated cold bag. It stays cold, doesn’t leak or sweat, holds more than you’d think, is easy to clean, dries out fast after use, and folds up small and compact when not in use. The only bummer is that the Velcro, which holds the bag snugly folded up when it’s empty, is located on the bottom, so if you fill the tote and then put it down on the ground the Velcro picks up grit. It looks like the specific model we have has been discontinued and only the bigger and beefier Columbia PFG Perfect Cast 45L Thermal Tote is available now.

Buy on Amazon

 

Brinno TLC200 Pro drivelapse timelapse camera

Time-lapse video is great, unless you’re the one who has to shoot and edit it. For years Eric spent hours every month piecing together then speeding up images taken by a GoPro mounted to the dash of our truck so that we could show readers a month’s worth of driving in just a few minutes. It was such a time-consuming pain the neck that we stopped making the videos altogether and then stopped publishing our end-of-the-month driving posts. Then we heard about Brinno cameras which automatically take time-lapse footage. It was a bit tricky mounting the camera on our dashboard (you can see our workaround, above), but ever since Eric figured that out this camera has made making time-lapse video so easy that we started publishing our end of the month Where We’ve Been driving posts again, complete with Brinno footage.

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merrill

There’s a cardinal rule about hiking boots. It goes like this: ALWAYS break them in on the trail before you really, really need them. Karen ignored that rule. She had a new pair of boots from a maker she’d worn before. They seemed like good boots. They felt fine on her feet when she tried them on. She settled. Then she wore them on one simple short hike and her feet were in agony. Luckily, there are some fairly well-stocked outdoor gear stores in Cusco, Peru so we were able to find a pair of Merrell Capra Mid Sport Gore-Tex hiking boots at the same price we would have paid in the US. Karen loved them straight out of the box and they proved comfortable and rugged during the multi-day Andean treks we did in 2016.

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Curaprox 5460 Ultrasoft toothbrush

Even the lightest packers need to bring a toothbrush. In 2016 a dentist in Sao Paulo recommended that we try toothbrushes made by a Swiss company called Curaprox. She raved about how gentle yet efficient they were, so we splurged, paying about US$7 per toothbrush in Brazil. We were immediately hooked. So soft! So easy to use! So effective! So many great colors! We’ve now stocked up just in case we don’t find Curaprox in other countries. Also, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get good medical care when traveling. These toothbrushes have been around for years but this Brazilian dentist was the first to tell us about them.

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Rubber boots El Altar Ecuador

Sometimes the most humble piece of equipment ends up being key. This was the case with our ordinary rubber boots which got us through the muddy, muddy trail to El Altar volcano in Ecuador which would have made short work of regular hiking boots.

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