7 Reasons Why You Should Do that Thing You’ve Always Wanted to Do

You may have seen my post about things that are hard about van life. Admittedly, that was written during a time where I was still getting used to this lifestyle and was annoyed more often than not with the challenges. There was a day where I was texting a friend about how hard things were and thinking that I couldn’t do this and I remember saying to her, “I just need to climb a god damn mountain.” I was suffering through all of the planning and process of getting to where I wanted to be and hadn’t yet seen many of the rewards. The benefits were not outweighing the tribulations and I was questioning my decision to live a mobile life. But sure enough, as always, time always helps and slowly but surely, I began to feel comfortable living in a van. The benefits have been shining their little rays of sunshine in the most unexpected places. So in efforts to bring some more positivity to what I am doing, here are some of the best things about living on the road:

  1. I really enjoy the silence

I have never gone such extended periods of time with such unpredictable cell service or WiFi. Of course I need to be around civilization for work, but on the nights and weekends, I never really know if I’ll have service where I am going, which limits communication, social media and even listening to music at times. This has proven to be a lovely surprise in many ways and I have grown to really enjoy the quietness of nature. Peace. Nothingness. If I close my eyes, all I can hear is the soft crunch of Simone’s paws on the gravel pathway and the gentle whistle of the wind behind me. As I walk, I begin to hear the buzz of a stream and as I move closer, the chorus turns into a roaring river, beating against the rocks without remorse. There is such power and force in nature and I truly appreciate being able to tap into the depth of it on my hikes. The sternness of the mountains speak to me. The squeak of the chipmunk delights me. I notice details that I wouldn’t otherwise because all of my senses are alert and ready for whatever beautiful surprise lies around the corner.

  1. It is never boring

Whether that means I am getting kicked out of a parking lot in the middle of the night by the cops or because I stumble upon the most adorable little sustainable cabin along a river at the edge of the mountains, there is nothing boring about this lifestyle. Every moment is full of surprises and adventure and newness. Change is the norm. New experiences emerge every hour. As someone who thrives on adventure, this is a dream come true. I soak up the stories of the people I meet like a sponge, it’s like going to the cinema and watching a documentary about your favorite hero, except that every person you talk to is a brand new script. I glow at the sight of their weathered skin and bask in their kind and gentle hearts. I love watching people’s eyes as they tell a story, you can see so much about what they are feeling by looking at the expression in their smile lines. I can’t help but want to consume every single one of their words and memorize what they are telling me. It truly is a gift.

  1. Every morning is different

If you know me at all, you know that I love mornings. I love the lighting. I love how refreshed I am at the beginning of the day. I love that when I jump out of bed, anything is possible. Anything my heart desires can be reality. There is nothing so pure and fresh and abundant and full of hope than the morning light. It breathes life into everything it touches. It inspires. It refreshes. I want the morning light to possess my entire body, run through my veins, light up my skin and warm into the depths of my soul with its goodness. I cannot accurately express what it does to me, it’s one of the most magical things I have ever experienced, and lucky me, it happens every day. Part of what I love about mornings is that each one is different. It doesn’t matter where you are, each one is unique, but the differences are even more exaggerated when you are in new places as well. To sit and sip my coffee on a deck with the Rockies hovering authoritatively over me or to open my eyes and see a bumbling stream joyously singing to me good morning… there are no words to express that satisfaction.

  1. There is no pressure

One of the best things about being mobile is that there is no pressure to find the “best” place to visit. I have hardly researched anything at all on this trip because I would rather go where feels right and discover whatever that place has to offer. I have even stopped searching for coffee shops or stops along the road, because I would rather pull off and wander around a little town to see what I find. This has proven to be a good strategy because I have an aversion to touristy areas, so I often discover simple hidden treasures that are off the beaten path instead. I have still experienced some of the great beauty of the more populated places, but the ones that really dig deep and touch my heart are usually the quieter spots. I have no regrets about anywhere I have gone or not gone, because you know what? I can always go back. Time is on my side.

  1. My free time is always spent outside

I have always loved nature. I grew up camping, playing sports, walking in the city, canoeing, hiking, traveling, etc. My parents took us all over the world as kids and we got to discover everything from the rain forests of Australia to the ski slopes of Korea to the cobble stone streets of London. Thinking back, the things that I remember the most are the outdoor activities. I am not sure if that is just because that was what we mostly did as a family or if I have a selective memory, but either way, nature has always been a force that has an incredible power to move me. Even to the point of tears. I remember when I was twelve years old, we were in Australia as a family, it was the middle of the night and we had gone out to watch the turtles hatch on the beach and run towards the ocean. To this day, I couldn’t tell you a thing about the turtles. But I do remember staring into the sky for what felt like an eternity and getting lost and even dizzy by the beauty of the stars. I had never before in my life seen such a thick layer of stars, sparking, dazzling, mesmerizing. I remember being so in awe that it brought tears to my eyes. I will never forget that moment. That moment solidified that I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up. (which obviously turned out… lol). I couldn’t imagine a better life than to stare in the stars, study them, learn from them, analyze them, and maybe even go to space one day. There is no doubt in my mind that I am at my best when I am outdoors and I am so grateful that this lifestyle allows for me to do that.

  1. I forget to look in a mirror

It has been incredibly liberating to not give two shits about what I look like for the last three months. I put on whatever outfit is at the top of my drawer. I don’t wear makeup. I’ll wash my face if I’m feeling fancy, but hey now… let’s not get too crazy. It’s amazing that I am still able to brush my teeth twice a day. I have embraced the fact that on most days I look like a homeless hippy who doesn’t own a hairbrush and you know what? I am totally ok with that. I am MORE than ok with that. It is freeing and beautiful and has opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. I used to always say that if someone didn’t find me beautiful, it didn’t matter because there were plenty of other people who did. But I was also so careful about my appearance before. I did dozens of different things to make myself look a little bit “better” than what I looked like naturally. But this new life is a whole new level of that mentality. Sometimes I don’t shower for a week. Sometimes I have broccoli stuck in my teeth and don’t realize it for 48 hours. Sometimes I forget to shave. Most days my hair is tangled and I struggle just to put it in a ponytail. I am not polished. I am not pulled together. I am disheveled, but I am so happy. I find it so beautiful. And I love this new me. It takes away the vanity and creates an environment where I can truly focus on what brings me joy instead.

  1. Freedom

This is sort of a no-brainer, but the freedom has been incredible. I get to wake up every morning and not know where I will go next. Every weekend is like opening the greatest present of your life and it never disappoints. I have no events that I need to attend. No activities. No appointments. Outside of work responsibilities and making sure my pets are alive, I can literally go anywhere or do anything. This could mean staying in bed for a week because I have a fever. But it could also mean waking up one morning and deciding to drive 6 hours to another state. It is such a thrill. There is so much to be seen and I love the feeling of being called in a giving direction and just being able to go. I love that I am on this adventures. Challenges and all, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The Spiders and the Tub

I made it to a perfect little cabin at the edge of the foothills in Colorado. I unpacked my things from the car, got the kids into the room and started to run the water into the Jacuzzi tub that welcomed me. Once the water was a few inches up, I climbed in and hugged my knees, feeling the warmth rise around me.

As I turned my head, I noticed a tiny little spider trying to climb up the side of the tub. I watched it. Its tiny legs struggled to grasp the ceramic walls. It didn’t take long before another spider climbed out of the jet, a larger one, and began accompanying the smaller spider up the side of the tub. I imagined that it was a mother and a child. The mother trying to encourage the child to carry on, don’t get discouraged, we can make it to the top. As I watched the two spiders, I found myself rooting for them. I wanted them to get out, feel the accomplishment of their feat, and live a long and prosperous life.

But then, suddenly, the larger spider crawled back into the Jacuzzi jet, and sure enough, brought another tiny spider out to climb up the giant wall. As she was trying to get herself out of the jet, the water had rose higher than she anticipated and her back legs got stuck in the water. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. She was struggling to climb with only her front legs and it wasn’t going well. The water continued to rise. I almost started to tear up watching her. She fought hard and eventually her back legs started to gain traction again. The three spiders continued up the side of the tub.

Then, completely out of nowhere, the larger spider fell straight into the tub. All hope was lost. I cringed at the site of the two little ones climbing alone. And then the two smaller spiders fell also. I was shocked and appalled. Then, suddenly, an even larger spider, double the size of any of the others, floated out of a jet from the opposite side of the tub. With a moment’s notice, my introspective and pensive moment turned into a scream and before I knew it, I was standing on the edge of the tub, covered in soap, staring into a tub full of dead spiders.

Needless to say, I finished washing my hair in the sink.

So You Wanna Live in a Van?

When I tell people that I sold all of my possessions and am going to be traveling the west for a while the most common response I get is, “Wow, I am so jealous.” I know that those people have good intentions. It’s encouraging to know that people support what I am doing. And many of you reading this probably said that very thing to me.

First of all, you don’t need to be jealous. There is a path for your life that will make your heart sing. And it will be unique. It will include all of the awful, painful heart breaks as well as the beauty. I was recently asked the question if I would choose one person’s life to live, would I choose my own? I thought about it long and hard. I thought about it for days. And I finally concluded that, yes. I would choose my life over anyone else’s. I created my life into what I what I want it to be. I didn’t get to choose all of the circumstances that affected me, and hell, there are a lot of them that I would gladly do without, but in the end, I do get to choose what I want my life to look like. So no, don’t be jealous. Create the life that you are in love with.

Second of all, living on the road is sure as hell not easy. I get frustrated at times when I hear over and over that people are jealous, because there are moments where I just want to shake them and say, do you even know what it’s like?? There’s a reason that not a lot of people do this. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be whiny. I love this trip and I wouldn’t take it back. But in efforts to ease your mind just a little bit, let me tell you some of what it’s been like to live out of a van for the past several months:

  1. You wake up every morning grateful that everyone is alive

The first few months in the van I was living in Minnesota in my brother’s backyard. Yes, it was April. Yes, it was 20 degrees some nights. Amelie learned pretty quickly to crawl into my sleeping bag to stay warm, which of course I welcomed, since it was like adding a little tiny heater to my sleeping bag. Simone, on the other hand, is slightly too big. There were nights where I would wake up and feel her shivering and not know what to do. She doesn’t really like blankets, so I didn’t know how to help her stay warm. I am not kidding you when I say that every morning I wake up and look around at my pets and feel an incredible amount of gratefulness that, yes, we made it another day. 

  1. Nothing goes as planned

NOTHING. Ok, that is a little dramatic, but it often feels like that. Even on the days where you wake up with the best laid out plan that you thought you could have ever created, it will most likely all go to shit. You have to be prepared for the unexpected at every moment. Including losing solar power and having your entire fridge full of food rot. Or the weather changes and all of a sudden your plan of keeping the pets in the van goes out the window because you are paranoid they might die in the heat. Expect the unexpected.

  1. Sometimes you pee in a bucket

There’s not really a lot more that I need to say to explain this. When you are in a parking lot and can’t find an open bathroom nearby (or maybe you are just really lazy), you pee in a bucket.

  1. You “shower” in a Starbucks bathroom

Wake up in the morning, find the nearest Starbucks, grab my cosmetics kit and spending a solid 10 minutes in the bathroom freshening up. Brushing my teeth, washing my face, putting on makeup (if I am feeling extra snazzy), etc. Maybe I get weird looks or maybe I am just imagining it because I feel like people should be giving me weird looks.

  1. If you forget to lock your car, your whole life is gone

As someone who has lost their house keys more times than I would like to admit, or locked herself out of her car too many times to count, I am constantly paranoid that I will forget to lock the van and someone will steal my entire life out of it. It’s a reality. It could happen. My whole existence is in one tiny 100 sq. feet space.

  1. It’s more expensive than you think

I spent less on the van initially than I thought I would. But the amount that I’ve sunk into converting the van has easily doubled what I was planning on and I am not done yet. On top of that, there are expenses that you just don’t think about as much, like park fees, buying a lot of bottled water, eating out because you are too exhausted to spend 1.5 hours cooking, paying for a place to crash when you need it, etc. So far, it’s not much cheaper than how I was living before, but maybe it will even out. knock on wood

  1. People are thrilled for you or they judge you

I get two kinds of reactions when I tell people about van life. Either they are ecstatic for me (which is about 20% of the time) or they look at me very confused, which prompts a long explanation of how I got here. It gets tiring to feel like you have to explain your choices to everyone.

  1. Everything takes longer

This weekend I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park and I got up early (5:45am) to make breakfast and get out on the trails early. I wasn’t allowed to take Simone with me on the trails, so I wanted to hike early in the day before it got hot in the van. I got out my propane stove, ground and brewed my coffee, cooked breakfast, ate and cleaned up. Those tasks took me 1.5 hours. What would have normally taken me about 20 minutes in “normal” life took me almost five times as long. That’s part of the sacrifice.

  1. You always feel like you’re mooching

Whether you are staying with friends, at an Air BnB or camping, there is something about being around people all the time that makes you hyper aware of how your life is affecting everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being with people and wouldn’t want it any other way, but the feeling of always taking other people’s generosity weighs on me at times. I like to feel like I am giving back as much as I am receiving, so it’s tough to strike that balance.

  1. Sleeping is hard: lights, traffic, cows, etc.

The other night I slept in Oakley, Kansas and barely got a minute of shut eye because of the cows. The COWS. Who knew that being in the middle of nowhere would be the spot that I lost the most sleep because the cows were mooing all night. You just never know…

  1. Say goodbye to Amazon Prime

Yes, I had to cancel Amazon Prime. I have nowhere to ship to. As someone who does not like shopping in the first place, giving up my online alternative has not been easy.

  1. You can’t decorate

This may sound superficial, but it’s really hard not feeling like I can have a tidy, well-groomed space where all of my things feel like “me.” No matter how much stuff I get rid of, the van still feels messy and I am constantly shuffling things around to find what I am looking for. No longer are the days where you pull a pan off the shelf to cook with. Now you have to open the back door, open the cabinet door, move a few containers, shuffle some other cooking items, and maybe you can find the pan… but is your stove set up? Where’s the propane? I can’t find the cooking utensils. I don’t even have cooking oil. Put it all back, let’s go to the store…

  1. Having a routine is next to impossible

As much as I love adventure and new experiences, there are aspects of my life that thrive in routine. I wake up, make my coffee the same way every morning, eat my breakfast the same way every morning, work for several hours, eat the same lunch, continue working, drink my afternoon coffee and snack, finish working, run, and then have my evening to cook, run errands or visit friends. It is really hard to keep this up when every day is unpredictable. If I get out of my routine, it definitely takes a toll on mental sanity.

  1. Every day is an unknown

Even if I have a place lined up for the next day, you never really know what lies ahead. That unknown brings with it a certain level of stress. What if I get to my campground and they don’t have any camp sites left? What if they don’t allow dogs? What if I get kicked out of the parking lot I’m parked at? What if I get a flat tire on the way there? I am generally not a worrier, but I have a whole new understanding of stress with van life.

This is not meant to be a pity-party, but  I definitely have been learning the realities of this life style the past few months. But hey. Life is just one big learning lesson, ammiright??

Step 3: Sound Proofing + Insulation

Nothing was as bad as scraping insulation glue, however… if there is anything I learned through this process, it is that manual labor is hard. During no training season have I eaten so much, slept so much or been as exhausted as when I was working on this van.



Sound proofing material is expensive, but having installed this during the rainy season, there was an immediate noticeable difference once it was in. Definitely worth it.


Next was insulation. I taped this in with Gorilla tape and it went up fairly easily.


Step 2: Cleaning the Van

You know someone really loves you when they scrape insulation glue for three days with you.


You also know someone really loves you when they grid the hell out of rusted seat belt locks.


And… you know that you love your dream when you spend countless hours in strange positions to get to the next step.


Might not look like a lot to you, but this is a solid 40 hours, 3 person cleaning job.



Step 1: Gutting the Van

So I woke up one Saturday morning and decided to rip all of this out of my new van…


It was in really good condition when I got it, so there was something sad about pulling it all apart.


Fortunately, I had the Gandalf to help me.


Also fortunately, I have a brother who enjoys destroying stuff.


So we did.


This is what I was left with. Yuck.



What the Hell are You Doing Anyway?

You know those projects that you get yourself into where you have no idea the intensity or level of effort that you are committing to?

So there was this one time I bought a van… her name is Gertrude.

Van 1 Van 2

When I first starting talking about the idea of turning a van into a tiny house and traveling around the country, my friends patiently nodded their heads and smiled. “Just another one of Lara’s crazy ideas that surely will fade away” …. “Just let her talk about it for a while and it will pass.” But once I made up my mind to take the plunge, everything happened really fast. My lease was up, I knew I could stay with family in Minnesota and I could use my brother’s shop to build it out. Before I could blink, I was saying good bye to some of the most important people in my life, my community, my home.

I cried only about half the way to Minnesota. Indy has a special place in my heart. And even though I don’t know if I’ll move back there or not, I do know that this is the end of one chapter of Indianapolis. I was also stressed because I wasn’t used to driving a conversion van and Amelie meowed incessantly for the first hour and then spent the rest of the 10 hours to Minneapolis desperately trying to climb down by my feet while I was driving. I had just spent the last few weeks in a whirl wind of selling everything I owned and trying to pawn the rest of my stuff off on friends. I spent my days working and every other moment trying to pack and visit friends (and by visit I mean convince them to bring me food and talk to me while I pack). I said good bye to some very important people in my life. I was given some very thoughtful gifts and notes. It was a hard trip leaving Indy.

I had only pulled the trigger on buying a van the day before my trip to Minnesota. In an ideal world, I would have gotten it checked out by a mechanic before hitting the road, but in typical Lara fashion, I went with my gut and just left. It was crazy to look at my stuff crammed into that tiny van and realize that was my life. Almost everything I owned was in this vehicle. Even the sentimental things like my artwork that I was going to leave with my family was with me. My pets. My clothes. Kitchen stuff. Books. Everything that I needed to live was there.

And the funny this is, I still felt like it was too much. Packing up that van made me want to get rid of another half of it. Ha.

Van 5a

I didn’t have a plan for what was going to happen once I got to Minnesota. I was texting my family on the way up trying to figure out who I was going to stay with. My sister volunteered to take Simone, I could crash on any one of my sibling’s couches, but since everyone either had a cat of their own or allergies, I wasn’t able to find a spot to leave Amelie. So about half way there, I decided that we would all just stay in the van while I built it out. I could move the stuff in and out when I needed to work on it. I didn’t want us to all be split up anyway. We were a family and all three of us would be happier if we were together.

So we came up with the plan of parking the van in my brother’s fenced in back yard and I would have access to their house. I don’t think he realized what he was committing to when I pulled in that night. But it’s family, right? You don’t get a choice in these things, right?? It actually worked out perfectly because Simone (and Amelie) could run around the yard and we were relatively safe parked in a fenced in yard.

Van 4

It quickly became second nature for my brother and sister-in-law to explain to their friends that Nate’s sister lives in a van in their backyard. Totally normal, right? My nephews very quickly started calling me “crazy aunt Lara.” And it’s become the running family joke when something bad happens someone will say, “Well hey, it could be worse. At least you’re not living in a van, right??”

All jokes aside, it’s been absolutely wonderful to be here with my family. Everyone has been supportive, helpful, gotten their hands dirty, kept me company, fed me and most importantly, I’ve just been able to spend really quality time with some of my favorite people. I wouldn’t trade the time I have with them right now for anything.

And let’s also not forget that Amelie is able to run free as a wild baby panther. So he’s pretty stoked to be here also.

Van 5

I will be continuing to write about the build out of Gertrude and eventually blogging about my travels once I am finally on the road. I definitely enjoy the comments so feel free to chime in or ask questions!

5 Backpacking Tips

I am so grateful for this trip to Guatemala, it’s truly been an experience of a lifetime. It all came together in an add round-about way on short notice, but I am convinced that I was destined to go on at this exact point in my life. Everything fell into place perfectly. I have not had such a long period of time dedicated to one trip and was able to do it all on a tight budget. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything that I wanted to do or have any regrets about the experience. Every moment was beautiful.

There have been so many thoughts mulling through my head the last few weeks. Traveling alone with limited access to technology is such a pleasant way to take a break from the world. There were several days where I was stuck on a bus for hours with just a book and a sketchbook. Or others where I was climbing a volcano with next to nothing. It’s truly enlightening and forces you to dig deep into your own psyche. It brought me a lot of perspective on life. I can’t say that it necessarily brought a lot of clarity, but it’s a beautiful exercise to wrestle with your own mind. It’s somewhere between a dance and a struggle and if nothing else, it for damn sure is entertaining.

I learned a lot this trip. This is the first time that I was truly a backpacker and although I did a ton of research beforehand, I learned a lot along the way as well. I thought it might be interesting to give some of my insights from this trip and maybe someone else along the way will benefit from them.

#1. Pack Strategically

I used almost everything I packed. I kept it very minimal, but there are a lot of things that I did actually need, so I had to be thoughtful. I was going to temperatures from 30-80 degrees, so it was tricky to be minimal and also prepared. Here’s the list of what I brought with me.


  • CLOTHES: 4 tank tops (2 moisture-wicking ones), 2 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants (both warm running pants), 3 pairs of shorts, 8 underwear, 3 bras, 1 long sleeved shirt (moisture-wicking), 3 sweatshirts, 1 rain jacket, 1 PJs, 8 pairs of socks, 1 pair of wool socks, flip flops, tennis shoes, hiking boots, 1 swimsuit, 1 pair of gloves and 2 warm headbands.
  • COSMETICS: shampoo/conditioner, face wash, body wash, razor, face moisturizer, sunscreen, hair ties, hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, chapstick, tissues, hand sanitizer, mini hair straitening iron, and DEET.
  • MEDICAL: athletic tape, bandaids, ibuprofen, pepto bismol and imodium.
  • OTHER: Small towel, 2 bandanas, flashlight, pocket knife, 2 books, Nalgene, sunglasses, backpack, small blanket, 1 trash bag, 4 grocery bags, sketchbook, laptop, computer charger, cell phone/camera, battery pack for phone and phone charger.

First of all, there were a few things that I could’t have lived without:

  1. Good hiking boots were INCREDIBLY important – don’t skimp on this
  2. My backpack was awesome – investing into a good one was worth every penny
  3. REI’s biodegradable shampoo/conditioner is amazing. I think I used a quarter of the tiny 3 oz bottle my whole two-week trip.
  4. Pocket knife came in useful for avocados, papayas, camping and opening bottles of wine J
  5. Blanket – I am SO glad that I had a blanket. There were many cold moments where I needed it, including my overnight at the Miami airport.
  6. Water bottle – I saved a ton of money by filling up my water bottle at whatever hostel, hotel or restaurant I was at instead of buying bottled water

Secondly, there were a few other things that I realized about my packing:

  • I didn’t use bug spray or the medical supplies at all
  • I almost ran out of sunscreen – 3 oz wasn’t really enough for two weeks
  • I had thought about bringing hiking sandals as well, but it was so dusty that I am glad I just brought boots
  • I did run out of books – I brought 2, but wish I had at least 4
  • Surprisingly, I didn’t really use my phone battery charger. When you’re on airplane mode most of the time, you don’t really run out of a charge.
  • 2 bandanas was a good idea – one helped keep my head warm while hiking and the other covered my face from the dust
  • It may just because I am really dry, but I was so glad to have plenty of lotion
  • I know it’s girly, but I was actually glad that I brought my mini flat iron to straighten my hair. Some days you just want to feel pretty!

Overall, there was nothing that I missed or had felt like I completely forgotten. In fact, I probably could have cut out 2 or 3 of the clothing items and still been ok. I only had to do laundry once and there were a few things that I am not sure I wore. I did have to rent a big down coat from OX Expeditions for my hike up Acatenango, but I am glad that I didn’t drag a coat with me.

#2. Take Shuttles Over Chicken Buses

I know that a lot of backpackers are on a budget so they opt to take what they call “chicken buses” (meaning they cram as many people as possible into a repainted school bus) instead of shuttles. Truth be told, the shuttles that I took ranged from 1-5 hour trips and usually cost around $10-$15 for the ride. So it’s still not very expensive and it was worth it to have my own seat where I didn’t have to hold my backpack for 5 hours. No matter what, the trip will be bumpy and slow, so you mind as well chip in the few extra bucks to make it a little bit more comfortable.

I would also recommend to take a private car when you get in from the airport, especially if you are traveling alone. Airports are a prime spot to target tourists, so this is one area where it’s worth it to splurge the $40-$50 for a car to Antigua. I was picked up by Adrenalina Tours, right on time, they had a sign with my name on it and we made it to Antigua in 45 minutes. It was so easy, they dropped my right at my door and made sure that I got in ok before leaving. It was worth it to me to spend $45 to make it to my door safely, especially since I had no idea where I was going and did not speak the language.

#3. Don’t Stay in a Hotel

There are a lot of choices for where to stay, especially when traveling solo. It depends on what you are looking for as to where you might want to stay; I was looking for somewhere quiet with a private room. I didn’t care quite as much if I had a private bathroom as long as there was a hot shower. Although I love the community aspect of meeting other travelers, I opted not to stay in hostels because I was worried it would be party town and I wouldn’t get any sleep. For this reason, Air BnB was a great solution for me. The first place I stayed was a home in Antigua that had three other bedrooms, which housed other travelers and cost me $22/night. I met a Canadian woman studying Spanish, 2 travel bloggers, a couple from Virginia on vacation, a retired gentleman who comes to this same spot every year and of course my hosts, who was a lovely couple in their 70s and their three dogs. They were incredibly gracious hosts and made me breakfast every morning. I also got some great tips of what to do and where to go from other travelers and vice versa.

When I got to San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, I had decided to get a hotel as my “treat” at the end of the trip. This was a mistake. I paid more for my room here and had less service. My water was broken for about a day and a half, so I couldn’t even brush my teeth, let alone flush the toilet or shower during that time. Breakfast was included, but it was underwhelming. They also didn’t come to clean my room once and since I had eaten dinner in my room several nights, it started to smell. It was not worth the extra money in the slightest and if I were to do it over again, I would have chosen somewhere cheaper. The hotel certainly did not live up to the Guatemalan hospitality that I had experienced in a home.

I am sure there are nicer hotels in San Pedro than what I got, so if you really don’t want to do Air BnB or a hostel, you can probably pay extra and get a better spot than what I did.

The last night I was in Guatemala City before my early morning flight, which was also an Air BnB room in someone’s home. Again, the hospitality was impeccable and my host and his puppy Tesha greeted me at the door when I arrived. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so he made me a tortilla with cheese and even drove me to the airport in the morning. It’s so refreshing to be treated like a person and have someone take an interest in your life. He and I chatted for a while (he spoke in Spanish and I responded in English and somehow we understood each other) and I learned that he is an avid hiker as well and loves to play softball. He’s from Guatemala City and has lived there his whole life, but also used to travel for work to California a lot. He told me I needed to do more exploring through California. I might take him up on that idea.

#4. Eat Cheaply, Spend on the Adventures

I had a tight budget for this trip, so I learned pretty quickly where to find the cheap street food. I also had a small bakery across the street from me in Antigua where I could get a pastry filled with vegetables and cheese for about $3. This served as many lunches and dinners for me during my stay, but I cannot stress enough how worth it is to eat cheaply and spend your money on the adventures. I don’t feel like I missed out by avoiding sit-down restaurants. I wouldn’t have remembered that meal anyway, whereas climbing Acatenango is something that will stick with me for a lifetime. I spent between $5-$20/day on food and drinks and hiking with a guide ranged from $70-$150 per trip. Tips for eating cheaply: buy snacks for the road, eat where the locals eat, buy produce to have in your room (I had to eat avocados and papaya at least once a day…), avoid the gringo restaurants and fill your water bottle at the place you are staying instead of buying bottled water. I did gets alcoholic drinks as well, but would buy the local beer from a grocery store rather than drink at a restaurant. A 16oz can of Gallo was about $1.50 from the store. Go for the experiences, friends! It’s worth it.

#5. Stay Safe – Make Friends!  

Safety was a big concern for many of my loved ones as I ventured into a country that I had never been to, don’t speak the language and has a reputation for being slightly dangerous, especially in the big cities. I am not a fearful person or a worrier, so it was challenging to take these concerns seriously, however, there are a few street smart things that you can do to make sure you are safe.

First, stay where the people are. This is something that I taught myself early on in life growing up in Beijing. If you find yourself on a street without a lot of people or are walking home in the dark, find a street where the people are. The more people, the less likely that something will happen to you.

Secondly, try not to carry a purse. I have yet to understand why women need to carry around ten pounds of stuff with them at all times, but try to avoid carrying a bag all together. Carrying a purse makes you a target because it’s easy to snatch off of you and run away with, whereas having a few things in your pockets is much harder to get at. Pretty much everywhere I went (expect for my hikes), I only brought a small amount of cash, my phone and the key to my place. That’s all I needed. And if I had happened to be mugged, I would have only lost a few bucks and my phone, which are both replaceable.

Lastly, the best way to ensure that you are safe when you are traveling is to make friends with everyone you interact with. Talk to other travelers. Talk to your host family or the hotel staff. Smile a lot. Start building trust. You might be surprised at how easy it is to form allies all around you just by being friendly. Not only did I make friends with a lot of the other foreigners who were there traveling, but I also made friends with some of the locals just but stumbling through my rough Spanish and asking them a few questions about themselves. I know that an unknown country can be scary, but in my experience, no matter where I’ve traveled across the world, I’ve found that the local people I interact with are kind and have good intentions if you give them the chance.

San Pedro Volcano

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. – Jack London

This quote is in honor of the book I just read yesterday – The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Being a big dog lover, it was a pretty intense read, but I did enjoy it. Especially the part about Buck falling in love with his master. It made me wonder if Simone ever wants to be a wild dog… maybe that’s why we make such a good pair?

Today I took at stab at my third volcano. I am getting more confident with each hike since I know more about what to expect. I did some research on San Pedro ahead of time and it turns out that this is one where you don’t really need a guide since it’s a pretty straight forward climb (i.e. difficult to get lost). Below is a photo of me early on in the hike when it was really sunny and sweat was pouring… you’re welcome.


I was going to get up at 8am to try and beat the heat, but coming off of a day of laying in the sun yesterday, I needed the extra sleep… *wink.* I’m telling you, life is tough here… Anyway, so I woke up at 10am and decided I was up for the climb, so I grabbed a tuk tuk, which cost me about $1.50 and was at the base on the volcano by 11am. I hadn’t taken a taxi yet since getting here, so it was fun to have the experience.

This is a climb that charges a fee and foreigners are the lucky ones who get to pay a premium price of 100q, which is about $13. Locals get in free.

The guy who took my money tried to convince me to wait for other hikers to arrive so that we could climb as a group with a state park guide, but I was anxious to get going and didn’t want to be slowed down, so I put in my head phones and took off. About 15 minutes into the hike, I heard yelling behind me and the man who had taken my money had been chasing me trying to get me to sign the waiver. Since I had my headphones in, I had not heard him until just then. I don’t speak much Spanish, but I am pretty good at reading body language and I could tell he was annoyed that he had to run after me for so long. Off to a good start, Lara!

IMG_8921The hike was challenging for sure. I would say that the steepness was comparable to Acatenango, however, the trail was much better maintained. You can see the steps in the photo above, which was about a quarter of the way up. There was no sliding sand and it had stairs built into the trail almost the whole way up. On top of that, being without a backpack and enjoying shade about 90% of the hike up, it was actually quite pleasant. I passed at least three other groups on the way up, so I felt good about my pace. I was expecting the hike to take me about 3 hours (most estimations said around 3-4 hours), so I was elated when I realized I was nearing the top at 2.5 hours into my hike. There were a few sneak peaks of the lake during the hike, but for the most part I was in woods on the up, so when I made it to the top it was truly striking.



Even though it was the weekend, there weren’t a lot of others on the trail, so I was able to enjoy the view at the top without many interruptions. I had eaten the food that I had brought and drank all my water, so I decided it would be best to run down the mountain to try and get down as quickly as possible. It normally takes about 2 hours to get down, but I was able to do it in just over an hour. Boom! Trying to get in some good Asheville training for my half-marathon in March. And it’s a good thing that I booked it because I made it to the base just as a truck load of gringos were about to take off. I asked them if I could hitch a ride and they gladly let me onboard. It’s only a ten minute ride, but it is difficult to get taxis from the volcano back down into town.

I made friends with the folks on the truck – they were a group of bird watchers who were in town from California and just finishing up their two-week tour of Guatemala. Everyone is so friendly here! They were probably all around 65 or 70 years old, so I was impressed they committed to the hike. I had actually passed them on the way up and noticed this group in particular because they all had beautiful cameras. Dad, you would be proud. Ha.

I learned that one of the men had started his own bird watching company based out of Cali and organizes tours all over Central America, so this is his seventh trip to Guatemala. At one point, one of the men asked me about why I was here and I told them I was on vacation just traveling around and had gotten to San Pedro on Thursday. Another woman chimed in and asked me if my parents were worried about me. I laughed and said that my parents are just about as crazy as I am and they didn’t bat an eye when I told them I was going on this trip. I explained that I grew up in China and spent my childhood traveling all over the world, so I was used to not understanding the language and picking up on cultural cues and norms in order to fit in as best I can. It was at that point that I realized this trip has gone relatively seamlessly and that the number of hiccups have been less than most of my international experiences. Thanks Guatemala.


The group was all very kind and even when I insisted that I pay them for the ride, they refused. They were off to cervezas and I was in desperate need of a shower, so we parted ways.

Of course, I jinxed myself, because when I got back to my hotel, I had no water in my room. It took a good several hours to get fixed, so I was dirty, covered in mud and sweat for longer than I had hoped, but hey. I got to spend the time FaceTiming friends and family, so it wasn’t all bad.

Another successful volcano climb in the books. I am considering going back up for a sunrise from the top before I leave. What do you think?


Hiking Acatenango

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” – Jack Kerouac


When I started planning my trip to Guatemala, it didn’t take much research before I was dead set on hiking Acatenango. One of the hardest climbs in the country, you say? Must be really in shape? Camp overnight at 3,400 meters? Watch the sunrise at the summit of the crater? Hell yeah, I’m in.

I would like to say that I trained for the hike, but now having done it, I realize that was a joke. Running stairs in Indianapolis and training on a 7.0 incline on a treadmill didn’t do jack squat. Even if you are in shape, there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for altitude like that. There’s a reason that athletes train in high altitude and I had trained at 218 meters… quite different than the 2,400-3,900 that Acatenango offered.

We met at OX Expeditions in Antigua (I highly recommend them) where we packed up, loaded up and grabbed breakfast on our way out. By that point, I was already making friends with several of my fellow hikers. One of my favorite parts of traveling is soaking up the stories of the people I meet along the way and where they are in their journey. I could already tell the vibe of the group was going to be fantastic.

In less than an hour, we were on our way up the trail. And just a few minutes after that, I could feel my chest tighten and I was having a hard time breathing. My pack felt so tight across my chest and stomach and I started to panic. How was I going to make it up this mountain when I already felt like I couldn’t breath? I loosened the pack and kept trucking along. Needless to say, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to climb at the pace that I normally would. So I slowed it way down and made it my objective to try and not get out of breath; just focus on a slow and steady pace.

The fog was thick on our hike up. It was overcast and even started drizzling a bit, which was perfect hiking weather. I can’t imagine what it would be like to blaze those trails in the hot Guatemalan sun. Although it was cold at points, we were fortunate to have clouds. The first hour of the hike was through farmlands and fields, and the fog laced the landscape with a mystic glow as we ascended. Our surroundings looked like a whimsical painting. It was beautiful.


There was a lot more greenery than I expected on the trail. The trail went from steep sand where you took two steps up and slid one step back, to built-in log stairs, to switch backs of dirt trails. I had to remind myself to look up and enjoy the view as I went along, since it was so easy to just stare at your feet, trying to focus on the next step. I certainly wasn’t the fastest in the group, I was a solid “middle-of-the-pack” girl. The entire climb was such a mental challenge. I would tell myself the same things that often go through my head during a race: “You are strong enough to do this,” or “steady, steady, steady,” or “just one more step.” I also spent a lot of time doing breathing exercises that I practice both during runs and pilates. It’s fascinating how so many of the challenging things in life can be overcome with the same mental and breath work. I guess I should keep practicing those habits.


Including a few stops, it took us about six hours to get to camp. At that point, we were at 3,400 meters. The wind was ferocious, but the sun and blue skies were out. It was breathtaking to say the least. I was immediately overwhelmed that beauty like this exists. It’s so incredible to be pulled out of your daily world to experience something so immaculate and inspiring. The colors, the textures, the lighting. I couldn’t help but gasp aloud and continued to pace from to every angle of the cliff, making sure not to miss a single detail of the view.


Let me take a moment to tell you about the incredible group of people that I hiked with. Of the 20 of us, we represented at least 9 different countries, plus several provinces in Canada and at least five different states in the US. There was very little overlap in place or origin and it was especially fun to meet other women who were traveling solo. Some were studying Spanish, some on vacation, most were traveling for several months all over Central America and not one of them was dull. I had a fantastic time listening to everyone’s adventures and swapping advice of the best places to visit. Best part of being taken out of your comfort zone with a bunch of strangers: they immediately turn into friends. I have an immense amount of respect for every person who accomplished hiking Acatenango, including our guides (thanks Will, David and Patrick), and I am so grateful that the energy of the group was positive. We had a ton of fun, which could have easily been a very different story – so thank you, hiking buddies! And thank you for all being my 2016 valentines!


We set up camp and a few of the hard core hikers took off to continue up Fuego, which was another 1.5 hour hike up and 2 hours down in the dark. I had planned on joining them, however, with the nausea I was feeling, I didn’t want to risk pushing myself too hard at that altitude. Turns out, several of them ended up puking… that definitely would have been me too.

When it got dark, it got very cold. It was probably around zero Celsius, not including wind chill. My guess is that wind gusts were around 30 miles per hour. Yes, I am from Minnesota, and yes, I know how to handle the cold. However, I had not prepared for it to be this cold. I hovered as long as I could over the fire throughout dinner and did my best to stay up late and hang out… but after a few swigs of rum, I went to sleep at 8pm. Fortunately, once I was in the tent and sleeping bag, I was toasty as a marshmallow.


I drifted in and out of sleep that night. The wind was loud and flapped aggressively against the tent. There was a lot of snoring. Regardless, I was able to collect enough energy to wake up at 4am for our hike to the 1.5 hours to the summit for the sunrise. This portion of Acatenango was the steepest and sandiest of the entire trip. It was pitch black. And although it didn’t bother me the day before when I ended up alone as I jugged along the path, this time when I found myself completely alone, I got nervous. There was a point where the terrain was slightly more flat and I ceased to hear anyone either behind me or ahead of me. I started to wonder if I had gotten myself off the path. I looked to my right and there was a steep drop off. I looked ahead and saw nothing. No lights. I heard no voices. I yelled out “hello” to see if anyone would respond. Silence. I was told that this climb was straight up, but it seemed to be that I was walking on a moderate incline. I was sure that I had made a mistake. I looked at my watch – according to my estimations I should be at the top in roughly 15-30 more minutes. I had no choice but to continue.

I’m going to die on the top of this volcano.

I fully expected that when the sun rose I would find myself on the complete opposite side of the mountain, lost, with no one in sight. There’s also a chance that I am a bit dramatic at 4 in the morning before I’ve had any coffee.

As you may have guessed, I was not lost and shortly after caught up with the overachievers ahead of me. Once we reached the summit, the wind gusts got even more intense. 35 or 40 miles per hour and the temperature dropped another 5 degrees Celsius. I had to fight between not wanting my fingers to fall off and taking photos.


All of the pain began to fade as the colors of morning emerged from the skyline. I have an overpowering and probably unhealthy obsession with morning light and although I was freezing and all I could think about was a hot shower, I was still in awe of the sun rise. That 30 minutes on top of the volcano embodied just about every color you could imagine. It was glorious. You could see the surrounding volcanos from the summit: Agua, Pacaya and Fuego. In typical Fuego fashion, there were thick smoke clouds pouring from its peak. It had erupted several times the week before and is known to be very active. There’s a certain air of arrogance that surrounds Fuego, and you could see it owning its bold reputation as the glow of morning crept up its neck.


Shortly after the sun poked its head above the horizon, I began to make my way down the mountain. I had to get moving. The hike down was quick and easy and I made it back to camp in about 15-20 minutes. The trees were surrounded by fog and the plants were coated in little ice droplets. It looked like a fairy land.


Back at camp, we made coffee and ate banana bread, followed by tearing down the tents and packing up. Even though the trek to the bottom was supposed to only take 2.5 hours, I was struggling to muster up the motivation to do even that. The nausea was still heavy, but as soon as we got going, every step I felt a little bit better.

We took a different path on the way down and got to enjoy a more shadey wooded side of Acatenango. It was quite lovely and reminded me of the kind of hikes I enjoy at home in the Midwest. I was able to put in my headphones and listen to music most of the way down, which helped me zone out.

Our guides were awesome enough to have beers waiting for us at the bottom.


I am so grateful to have been able to experience Acantenango. This is truly an experience that will stick with me forever. If you are planning on doing it sometime in the near future, I would say, absolutely go for it. You won’t regret that you did it and it will be one of your greatest accomplishments.

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.” – Jack Kerouac