Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bolivia and Peru Advice

Our friend, Elena, is planning a big trip to Bolivia and Peru. Dan and I have been emailing her advice, but I thought our advice might be useful to other travelers out there, so why not post it online? As a warning, this probably won't be very interesting to people who aren't planning a trip to Bolivia or Peru, so read at your own will.

Hotel in La Paz
We stayed at Hotel Gloria ( Potosí 909) in La Paz. This was after a 4 day Salt flat jeep tour where we had extremely rustic conditions, so we were looking to "splurge" in La Paz, and hence we stayed there for about $60 per night, which is a lot for Bolivia. It has hot water, and even heat in the room during the evening. It was fine, but it was definitely a hotel, rather than a hostel type environment.

From La Paz

Bus from La Paz to Copacabana
We took a "local" bus to Copacabana, which was much cheaper than a tourist bus. I think a tourism package would actually pick you up at the hotel and take you there, making it really easy, but a local bus is cheap and an experience if you are interested in that. We had a taxi take us to the bus station for buses headed for Copacabana (it is somewhere different from the main bus station, but people at hotels / hostels would know). Immediately, someone was rushing us onto their bus that was leaving soon. The key thing to know for the ride is that they make you get off the bus and take a boat across some water, and you leave your bags on the bus while the bus floats across the water on a separate vessel (shown below). We were scared of doing this, but it worked out fine. Make sure you have your passport though. Another plus with the local instead of tourist bus is that all the tourist buses leave extremely early in the morning and I'm pretty sure the local buses leave throughout the day. The local bus isn't exactly comfortable, but since it's such a short ride, it's worth it for the adventure. Plus, the price difference is something like $2 vs $20.

From Lake Titicaca

Isla del Sol
If you're not totally comfortable with Spanish, I'd recommend hiring an English guide for touring Isla del Sol. Once again, the price difference is something like $2 for Spanish and $20 for English, but our guide had a lot of neat stories about the island that made it much more interesting. We did Isla del Sol all in one day, which is a lot of hiking but good practice for the Inca Trail. I also remember that the early morning boat ride to Isla del Sol was really cold and I was glad to have all my removable layers (hat, gloves, fleece, windbreaker, and pants). You can buy nice and warm llama wool stuff most anywhere in the Andes, but I think we saw some of the best prices in La Paz.

From Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, Peru
For the Peru side of Lake Titicaca, we did a one day tour of the floating islands and one other island. We did not stay overnight with locals, which some people said they loved but others said was too touristy or was awkward staying with people they didn't know. Although pretty touristy, I thought the floating islands were really neat. I could have skipped going to the second island because it was a really long boat ride to get there and I thought Isla del Sol was similar but better.

From Lake Titicaca

Pisac, Peru
While in Cusco, I highly recommend going to Pisac, which is a nearby town. There is a market there that had some of the best shopping of our entire trip, but it might not be every day of the week. It also had the 2nd best ruins I saw on the trip (Machu Picchu was #1, of course). The ruins are on on the top of a mountain next to town. Even if you hire a taxi to take you to the top, be sure to wear proper hiking clothes and bring water because it's no easy stroll. Also, be sure to bring enough money for everything because there are no ATMs in Pisac. To get to Pisac from Cusco we took a taxi to a tiny little bus station on the edge of town. Then a local bus to Pisac, which costs less than a dollar, but be sure to have small change with you. In fact, always try to have tons of small change with you because people in Bolivia and Peru really dislike making change. For food, there is a really good empanada place in one of the corners of the market. From where the bus and taxis drop off, you have to walk about a block up a street/alley to get to the market (shown below). The first section of the market you'll encounter is the produce area. If you are walking up the street towards the market, take a left as soon as you get to the produce area. Tucked away in the corner is a little courtyard with an outdoor brick oven. It's right near a hiking gear store. They also sell roasted Guinea pig there, but I'm not into that.

From Cusco, Peru

Cusco Sights
If you're going to see more than one of the ruins in and around Cusco, you should get a multiple day pass, which I think you can buy at any of the sites. They're a little expensive by Peru standards, so make sure you have enough cash with you for the first ruins you go to.

From Cusco, Peru

Try to avoid having much cash on you (or at least disperse it) when you pass from Bolivia to Peru because I've heard of a scam where they claim your money is counterfeit. Also, always have your passport in a money belt or in a safe deposit box, never in a bag. Try to get a receipt for what you put in your safe deposit box and avoid putting cash in safe deposit boxes. Also, while on non-tourist buses, never let your carry-on bags out of touch. You may even want to safety pin some of the zippers shut because I've heard a few stories of people reaching under seats (I think someone tried to do this to me in Ecuador, but my safety pins stopped them). I've never heard of problems with large bags stowed under the bus, except for them getting dirty. When we flew from the US, United gave us giant plastic bags for our hiking backpacks which we continued using whenever we checked our bags (I think most big airlines have these, but you sometimes have to ask for them). Not only did the plastic keep our bags clean, but I also thought they provided an extra layer of security just because it made it more of a pain to steal anything.

From Argentina Part 1

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Closing the book

Hello everybody! I am writing this from our new apartment in Oakland, California. I don't have many photos yet, but I do have one picture of us with our new car, the Honda Fit!

Before we get to engrossed in our new lives in California, I wanted to do a final recap of South America. For one, the trip lasted a long time -- 3.5 months of traveling. It was long enough that I really got used to the lifestyle. Speaking Spanish became second nature. I became used to meeting Europeans, Australians, and Canadians on a regular basis, and rarely met Americans traveling. Dissecting menus became a daily ritual, as did evaluating rooms at hostels, hosterias, posadas, and hotels. Our most important possessions were our passports, ATM cards, cameras, and photo backup CDs.

Do I miss South America? Let me count the ways:
- I miss the excitement of entering a town or city for the first time, and taking everything in as I step off of the bus.
- I miss the family owned bed and breakfast lodging, where the owners would go out of their way to make sure we were comfortable and enjoying ourselves.
- I miss sipping Caipirinhas while listening to a mix of ocean waves and live samba played by street musicians.
- I miss the landscapes of Bolivia.
- I miss Argentine steakhouses.
- I miss the awe-inspiring history of Peru.
- I miss the diversity and friendliness of Ecuador.
- I miss the music and energy of Brazil.
- I miss the wildlife of the Galapagos.

What am I glad to have back? There's a list for that too:
- I'm glad to have friends and family in the same country again.
- I'm glad to have American music back. Especially jazz.
- I'm glad to have English be the primary language again.
- I'm glad to have a phone.
- I'm glad to have the internet be reliable and helpful again.
- I'm glad to be able to turn on sports television and not have soccer be the only option.
- I'm glad to know where I'll be sleeping each night.
- I'm glad to be able to eat home cooked meals.

What were my favorite countries?
  1. Brazil -- The people are incredibly friendly and laid back, the weather is warm, the beaches are beautiful, the music is fantastic, and the food is delicious!
  2. Ecuador -- There is just so much to see and do in Ecuador, and it's incredibly easy to do it all because the country is so small! The people are friendly, the fresh fruits are great, and everything is cheap to boot!
  3. Argentina -- You can view glaciers, beautiful lakes and snow-capped mountains, tour wine country, ride horseback through ranches, and explore one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world. Oh yeah, and I love the steak!
  4. Bolivia -- If you don't mind roughing it a bit, you'll be handsomely rewarded by landscapes that are literally out of this world. It's also the cheapest country we visited. Now, if they could only get heat and hot water figured out.
  5. Peru -- Machu Picchu is incredible, as is much of the scenery here. For seafood, you can't do much better than ceviche in Lima. I just had a hard time with the "touristy" feel here, and the constant harassment from people hoping to sell me something.
What are the specific destinations that I would recommend most?
  • Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. I truly felt like I was on another planet during this 4 day jeep tour. The landscapes were absolutely incredible, and like nothing I have seen before or after. I also loved the feeling of being completely isolated in the absolute middle of nowhere. If you can put up with very basic accommodations and long days sitting in a jeep riding on bumpy unpaved roads, this is one of the most incredible things you can do in South America.
  • Machu Picchu. Maybe skip the 4 day hike beforehand, but do not skip Machu Picchu. The ruins are truly awe-inspiring, and it deserves its status as one of the wonders of the world.
  • Galapagos Islands. If you love wildlife, this is one of the greatest destinations you can visit. Unfortunately, the costs to visit are high and will only get higher.
  • El Calafate, Argentina. The glaciers are phenomenal, it stays light out until 11pm during the summer, the town is cute, and it's Argentina, so you'll eat well.
  • Iguazu Falls. If you love waterfalls (or even if you don't), you'll be amazed by what you see and hear.
  • Ilha Grande, Brazil. The beaches are fantastic, there are no cars, and it's Brazil, so you'll definitely eat well and have incredibly friendly hospitality.
  • Banos, Ecaudor. You can do tons of different adventure activities during the day, then come back and relax in one of the many hot baths in town. The whole town is beautiful, and its Ecuador, so you won't be spending much.
All in all, I'm really glad we took the trip. Before we left, people told us it would be an experience of a lifetime, and it didn't disappoint. I'm also glad we did things on our own, and didn't just go on a long tour. Even though we suffered through some of the logistical planning, we got to become immersed in the countries and had the freedom to do whatever we wanted. It would have been nice to have a travel agent helping us out, but the Lonely Planet goes a long way. Now that we're done, I'll always be able to look back at our photos and this journal, and know that we did it. Thanks to everyone who wrote to us during the trip, offering words of encouragement or feedback on this blog.

In the future, I hope to write one last post about the logistics of traveling, in hopes that fellow tourists who stumble upon this blog will be able to use our experiences to better their own travels. I want to thank everyone again for reading!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Argentine Mixed Grill

It took me awhile to get around to labeling the below picture, but I took it while at a restaurant in Buenos Aires with Dan and Joe. My personal favorite was the chinchulin.

From Buenos Aires ...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Brazilian Dining

Ecuador's abundant and diverse fruits made for amazing breakfasts, while Argentina's fertile pampas and love for meat made for amazing dinners. Unfortunately, Ecuador's dinners weren't much to write home about and Argentines tend to be satisfied with only a cup of coffee and a small pastry for breakfast. However, Brazil, being known for their tropical fruits, hearty churrascarias, and ample snacking options, could possibly be the superfecta of South American dining.

Unlike Brazil, we were always amazed by how trim Argentines were, despite their enormous meat portions. We suspected it had something to do with less driving and more walking, or possibly all that red wine. However, probably because of their amazing and abundant food, Brazil tended to have the heaviest people of all of the countries we visited in South America. That said, Brazil was also one of the friendliest countries we visited.

Brazil definitely has a wide variety of fruit, many of which I had never previously heard of. Cashew nuts are pretty common, but I learned that cashew trees also produce a fruit, referred to as caju in Portuguese. I never saw fresh caju fruit but the juice is very common in Brazil. The first time I had it I thought I was drinking watered down lemonade made from a powder. After learning what it was, I tasted it more closely and noticed a very subtle nutty flavor, but although not bad, I wouldn't say it's one of my favorite juices.

Guaraná is a very popular soda in Brazil. It is named after the guaraná berries it is flavored with, and is very sweet and carbonated. In addition, it is often cheaper than bottled water!

One of my favorite things to drink while in Brazil was coconut milk straight from the coconut! They would simply cut a hole in the top and stick a straw in. The milk has a gently sweet and coconutty flavor. I think it tastes more watery than milky and it is extremely refreshing. One of the best parts is that after you finish drinking, you can break it open and have a little snack. However, I tried to break one open using only a rock and it took forever (I guess I'm no survivor-lady). The second time around I went to a juice bar and they cracked it open for me.

From Ilha Grande, ...

There are always ample opportunities for snacking while in Brazil. Almost every commercial corner in Brazil had at least one snack or juice bar. In addition, all along the sidewalks lining Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are snack stands. As if that wasn't enough, on the actual beaches there are dozens of vendors walking around selling beverages, açai smoothies, and even skewers of unshelled shrimp (these vendors sell much more than just food including sunglasses, purses, lime crushers, and even bikinis)! Even Praia Lopez Mendes, the remote beach on Ilha Grande that we had to hike to, had people selling sodas and sandwiches! Also on Ilha Grande, there were guys biking around enormous dessert carts. Below is a picture of one of those dessert carts:

From Ilha Grande, ...

Through our travels, we noticed that every country has a totally different type of empanada. Argentina's empanadas were the most similar to what I've had in the US. In Brazil, the empanadas looked like tiny little chicken pot pies, about the diameter of a can of soda. The crust is also similar to a flaky pie crust, and they are usually filled with chicken or cheese.

In addition to empanadas, Brazil has a wide variety of fried goodies to snack on. One of my favorites was like a fried, breaded hamburger. They kind of reminded me of my Mom's piroshkis (of course my Mom's were better). Dan's favorite was a teardrop shaped fried thing filled with chicken and cream cheese. Below is a picture of Dan eating on of those. However, according to our guide book, Brazilians never pick up their food with their bare hands, and often eat sandwiches with a knife and fork. Please excuse Dan's faux pas in the below shot:

From Ilha Grande, ...

A very common dining option in Brazil are pay by weight buffets. As opposed to the all you can eat buffets in the US, I liked how these buffets don't encourage gorging. However, pay-by-weight buffets require a totally different eating strategy than all-you-can-eat buffets. I consider myself somewhat of an expert all-you-can-eat diner. While on the Argentine side of the Iguazu Falls, we splurged and went to the Sheraton's lunch buffet. It cost about $30 per person, which at the time was our most expensive meal of the trip (Brazil's stronger currency resulted in much more expensive meals). Below is a picture of each plate of food I had at the Sheraton buffet:

1st course: Appetizers

From Iguazu Falls

2nd course: Main dishes

From Iguazu Falls

3rd course: Best of appetizers and main dishes

From Iguazu Falls

4th course: Gazpacho

From Iguazu Falls

5th course: Dessert

From Iguazu Falls

However, at pay-by-weight buffets, it's all about the quality of food, not the quantity. Rice, pasta, and beans tend to be heavy yet less expensive, so they should be avoided. Meat is a much better alternative. Many pay-by-weight buffets had sushi and shell fish, but I skipped that at some of the less fancy buffets. Another thing to avoid at pay-by-weight buffets is leaving any food behind. However, Dan and I were new to Brazilian cuisine, and we weren't always sure what we were going to like. At our first pay-by-weight buffet we first got little portions of everything we wanted to try. Later we went back and got larger portions of the things we liked. However, I don't think this is standard practice in Brazil because the woman who weighed our plates seemed to find us very amusing.

Brazil is also known for their all you can eat steak houses, called churrascarias. The first churrascaria we went to, called Porcão, was almost exactly like Fogo de Chão. In addition to an amazing buffet, they also have gaúchos walking around with big skewers of meat. Each person is given a little circular card that is green on one side and red on the other, and turning the card to the green side indicates to the gaúchos that you want more meat. Each gaúcho specially prepares the meat that they are serving, and it all looks so good that it is difficult to turn them down. I call the green/red card the meat faucet, because if you leave it on too long you will inevitably end up with a plate piled high with meat. The biggest difference I noticed between Brazilian and US churrascarias is that Brazilian churrascarias serve corazóns, or chicken hearts. Each one is about the size of a large kidney bean and the gaúchos carry enormous skewers of them. Unless you stop them, they'll give you a plate full! Personally, I really like corazóns, but only in moderation.

Our last night in Rio we tried to go to a seafood churrascaria, called Marius. Half of the restaurant is a regular meat serving churrascaria and the other half serves seafood, including lobster tails! However, we were shocked to learn that the seafood side cost about $80 per person not including drinks, so we decided to settle for the regular meat side. However, apparently everyone else thought the seafood was too expensive as well because the meat side was totally packed and the seafood side was fairly empty. The Maitre 'D told us it would be a 10 minute wait. The restaurant is covered in cutesy nautical themed decorations, which is a little annoying when you're really hungry. 40 minutes later they finally seated us, but they put us in the upstairs area of the seafood side. They assured us that we would still get good service, but I had my doubts since we were so far from the meat kitchen. We decided to leave, hopped in a cab, and asked him to take us to a good churrascaria. He took us to this little place just around the corner from the Copacabana Palace. It had a live pianist who was playing pretty cheesy music, but the food was delicious and it was a perfect end to our trip.