Student Kasey Altman Checks In from Colombia

This is the latest in an ongoing series from Kasey Altman, a Penn State World Campus student currently embarking on an impressive — and challenging — adventure. She hopes to experience as many sights, cultures, and traditions as possible around the world. Along the way, she is relying on technology and creative strategies to keep up with course work and complete her assignments.

After a surreal four months in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, I returned to my home base in San Diego for three weeks. My time back in the United States consisted of family, friends, and the adjustment back to familiarity. The highlight? Sleeping in my bed. Just like the wise ones say, you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. For me, this is padded mattresses.

I blinked my eyes, three weeks came and went, and I found myself on yet another flight to an unfamiliar destination: Colombia.

As with every trip, I whipped out my journal and scribbled down some thoughts before takeoff. My notes revolved around this question: What on earth was I getting myself into, in this round?

I’ve come to adore this question. World travel — and, in particular, budget travel — is composed of a list of unknowns. It’s a beautiful form of recklessness justified by research, experience, and a pinch of faith. And it’s the purest type of freedom.

I shut my eyes, and when I woke up, my plane was descending. Commence the adventure!

View from plane window
Heading to the next adventure

Fast forward six days and I’m writing this from Salento, Colombia. I just completed my Penn State course work for the week, and I’m looking forward to the flexibility of my next couple days. I was nervous about enrolling in my first semester with five classes, but time management has been my friend. Anyway, with the infinite possibility of backpacking, the structure of weekly course work has been a relief.

In this past week I’ve laid eyes on the most lush, vivid, natural beauty I’ve seen in all my 21 years of existence. Colombia is diverse, expansive, and unique. Despite being in a perceived “touristy” place, Spanish is the only language spoken. And I mean the only language. This has been an exercise in patience for both parties — my counterparts repeating themselves time and time again and my brain suffering a perpetual headache. Complaints aside, my Spanish has gone from proficient to above average in only six days’ time. Talk about a return on investment!

Los Colombianos are incredibly warmhearted. They greet each passerby with eye contact and a “buenas” (synonymous with “good day”). They’re quick to offer a smile and a helping hand. They’re incredibly festive. They play music during all hours of the day, singing along and tapping their feet. If they’re not singing, they’re dancing! Or both.

Colombian street band
Traditional Colombian band performing on the street of Bogota

Needless to say, my heart is immensely full. But so is my stomach! Colombian food is dangerously delicious. Plantains are fantastic, but arepas are my personal vice. They are fabulously grilled cornmeal cakes, topped with chocolate or stuffed with butter, cheese, chicken, beef, or just about anything under the sun. And don’t get me started on the Colombian coffee!

Arepa con pollo y maíz
Arepa con pollo y maíz
Kasey Altman enjoying a meal of plantains
Yours truly, sporting a smile with a large plate of smashed plantains
typical Colombian breakfast
Typical Colombian breakfast

In the past six days, I’ve gone on two hikes and have been rewarded with jaw-dropping views. Every time that I’m entranced with the Colombian countryside, thinking it could not get any prettier, I’m proven wrong.

Hiking in Colombian countryside
Valle de Cocura hike, outside Salento

One of these hikes (which turned out to be more of a crawl) consisted of 700 steps in 6,400 feet of altitude. The view was worth every bead of sweat.

Hundreds of steps built into a mountain
Hiking hundreds of steps in the Colombian mountainside
View of mountains and water in Colombia
La Piedra de Peñol, Guatapé, Colombia

One week in, and my time here has already surpassed any expectation I could’ve had. However, that’s something I’ve learned on the road: low expectations are key! Backpacking is all about the experience. And I can’t wait to experience what other beauty this continent has to share.

Hasta luego!

Kasey Altman