Guest commentary: The road from South Africa to Aspen is paved with good times |

Guest commentary: The road from South Africa to Aspen is paved with good times

Will Norton
A South African in Aspen
Will Norton


My name is Will, and I am one of many South Africans in Aspen. You may, or may not, know that for many years “saffas” have been making the trip over here for the winter ski season, and this year there are no exceptions. A group of 25-30 of us took “the road less traveled“ to get here, but nonetheless we are settled in and fully into the swing of life in Aspen!

I didn’t really know what to expect of life here when boarding my United Airlines flight, and it got me thinking. If I, a South African with many friends who have done this prior to me, had hardly any idea about the Aspen experience, then there must be others who are in the same boat as me. From this unknowingness, “A South African in Aspen” was born, and this column serves to provide insight into our experiences while living and working in this beautiful town.

The COVID-19 virus has taught me many things, but one of the most important is that a Plan B is almost always required. I like to believe that us saffas are a resilient bunch, and we were truly tested when trying to get to the United States. Many months of planning, paperwork and admin went into organizing this experience, and just days before our flights from Johannesburg to Denver were set to depart, the omicron variant was discovered by South African scientists.

Plan A was now completely out the window as many countries around the world (the USA being one of them) saw it fit to “red list” our country. This meant that anyone who had been in South Africa, or other Southern African countries, within the last 14 days could not directly enter the United States. I mentioned our resilience earlier and this truly showed when after two days, and many hours of phone calls to travel agents and deliberation with parents and friends, we were all booked on the same flight to Cancun, Mexico. Who would’ve thought?

A day of packing and a day of saying goodbye to friends and family was all we had before departing O.R. Tambo International Airport and beginning our journey. In order to enter the U.S., we had to spend two weeks in quarantine in Mexico. By doing this, we were officially out of a red-listed country and were legally allowed to enter the United States.

While the Mexico portion of our trip was unexpected and unbudgeted for, it could not have been a more perfect start to our experience. We stayed at the Mayan Monkey Hostel in Tulum, sharing a dorm with 11 other travelers from all around the world. Most could not believe we were from South Africa, they expected to hear Argentina or Peru instead.

On our a first day, we made a sweet deal with Alejandro and secured rented bicycles for our two week stay (the main form of transportation) and the 25 of us moved around Tulum in a manner that very much resembled the leading Tour de France peloton. Adjusting to driving/cycling on the different side of the road took us fairly long, and I think the locals could do nothing but laugh at the sight of us all trying to maneuver our way through the busy streets.

The only bicycle crashes to report were the ones caused by over-confident members of the group trying to cycle home after a night at The Straw Hat (our local watering hole). It turns out, curbs and pavements are pretty resilient and immune to intoxicated South Africans. The reverse, however, is not the case. Safe to say we shortly started walking to and from The Straw Hat.

Exploring cenotes, visiting the Mayan Ruins, and spending days on the most beautiful beaches any of us had laid our eyes on were highlights of the trip, and in hindsight our Mexico leg couldn’t have been more perfect. We had the chance to relax after three or four years of studying and it gave us all a chance to adjust to the time zone before being thrown into the thick of things here in Aspen.

After years of watching other South Africans — our friends, our siblings — graduate and migrate over to this town we’ve heard so much about, it feels surreal to be experiencing our turn. So far, it’s consisted of finding jobs at places like The French Alpine Bistro, Bear Den, Jus and Campo; gliding, sliding and (mainly) colliding on the slopes, picking up some new sayings, you’re good, and realizing why so many of our predecessors still talk about their time in Aspen as the best of their lives.

This was our road to Aspen. Our road through Aspen, however, has only just begun. More on that in two weeks.


Will Norton is South African born and bred, and loves home. He will be writing twice monthly for The Aspen Times while he’s here. It’s true, there’s no place like it, but Aspen with 30 of your mates is pretty good, too.