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.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


Top 10 things I learned while in Brazil:

10. You haven't truly been to Brazil unless you've heard "The Girl from Ipanema" played by at least five different groups
From Rio de Janier...

9. Açai is a type of berry, and açai smoothies (tastes like a blackberry icee with banana and granola on top) are supposedly energizing, but definitely filling
From Ilha Grande, ...

8. Brazilians are serious about their desert carts
From Ilha Grande, ...

7. Skol beer tastes better than Skol vodka, but passion fruit caipirinhas are divine
From Ilha Grande, ...

6. Instead of having people on their money, Brazil uses animals.
From Rio de Janier...

5. Portuguese looks pretty similar to Spanish, but sounds more like Dutch.
From Rio de Janier...

4. Instead of using a bidet, Brazilians only need a hose.
From Rio de Janier...

3. Don't believe locals when they claim there aren't any mosquitoes
From Iguazu Falls

2. Jesus loves Brazil
From Rio de Janier...

1. We love Brazil

From Rio de Janier...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Brazil -- The End of the Trip

Hello and Happy New Year!

Shortly, I'll be joining Carrie out in California, as we prepare to head back to reality. Until then, I might as well write about what we did to finish our epic South American journey. At Iguazu Falls, we crossed the border from Argentina to Brazil. Our original plans for Brazil included locations up in the Northern Coast, but due to fatigue and lack of time, we decided to simplify things.

After our time at the Brazilian Falls and Itapu Dam, we boarded a plane to Rio de Janiero. Our plan was to first investigate the island of Ilha Grande, then finish the trip in the city of Rio. With that in mind, we rode a 3 hour bus from Rio to the town of Angra dos Reis, where we found a place to stay for the night. The next morning, we investigated boats to Ilha Grande. We discovered that the "official" ferry left town at 1:30pm, but there appeared to be some "unofficial" looking guys willing to take us at 10:30am. Since we were eager to get to the island, we decided to take our chances with the unofficial boat. While it seemed a bit shady at times, it turned out fine, and 1.5 hours later, we were at the island.

From Ilha Grande, ...

The Island consists of one main town of about 3000 people, and has no cars besides one emergency vehicle. We quickly discovered that people freely walk down the main streets barefoot and in swimsuits (which don't consist of much in Brazil). We stayed at the Pousada Beira Mar, owned by a friendly German named Lutz, who thankfully spoke perfect English. Lutz enjoyed telling us his many travel stories and was very helpful in helping us decide what to do while on the island.

Ilha Grande is supposedly home to over 100 beaches, so needless to say, the primary activity on the island is going to the beach. The most famous beach on the island (and possibly in all of Brazil), was Praia Lopez Mendes. To get there from the main town, we could either hike 3 hours each way, or ride a 45 minute boat followed by a 30 minute hike. For the first day, we hiked to the beach, stopping along the way for a pleasant lunch along the water. We also stumbled upon some monkeys along the hike, but since we were scared of theft, we didn't have our camera with us to take pictures.

The next day, we went on a boat ride / tour, where we got to see other parts of the island. At one stop, we hiked into a cave, which got quite claustrophobic as crawling was necessary at times. Once we got further into the cave, there was a pool of water where we could wade and observe fish swimming in the distance. Outside the cave, we also made a boat stop at a lagoon where we did more swimming and snorkeling, before stopping for lunch and heading back.

On our third day on the island, we decided to take the easy boat ride back to Lopez Mendes beach, and bring our camera. Here are some photos:

One of the boat drivers:
From Ilha Grande, ...

The beach:
From Ilha Grande, ...

Drinking out of a coconut while waiting for our boat ride back:
From Ilha Grande, ...

As we waited for our 5pm boat ride back, we noticed ominous clouds moving in. Around 4:45, rain started falling. Since we were in our bathing suits, we weren't too bothered by this at first. However, after boarding the boat, the rain started coming down harder, and the roof of our boat was not shielding us all that well. Midway through the boat ride, the rain was pouring down in sheets, with high winds blowing the rain horizontally into the boat, where it pelted us with a hail-like strength and intensity. Our boat driver struggled to steer the boat due to the blinding rain blowing directly into his eyes. Huddled together with the fellow travelers, we couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Thankfully, we made it back safely to the town and dried off.

It rained for the remainder of our time on the island, so we spent most of the time relaxing after attempting to hike in the rain and realizing it was not a good idea. After that, we left the island and headed to Rio de Janiero!

Our first hotel in Rio was the Hotel Vermont, in Ipanema. Due to repeated warnings from travelers, family, and Ilha Grande residents, we were extremely cautious with our belongings in Rio, and therefore didn't bring out the camera much. Ipanema was a nice area, with the town having decent (but expensive) shopping, and the immense beach two blocks from our hotel. The beach itself was quite the scene, with all sorts of different types of people crowding together enjoying the sun and very intense surf. We ventured in to test the waters, and quickly realized that we were no match for the immense waves and strong current. Instead, we enjoyed the sun and witnessed the interesting sport of futvoli (volleyball without hands). The video below is from youtube -- we didn't take it:

We also took in some Bossa Nova, and I was thrilled to watch some great music after so much Andean Flute and Tango, which hadn't excited me as much. One night, we went to a smaller club, and the next, we went to a 3 floor club where they had a 10 piece band! The music was great at the clubs, and I also bought numerous CDs from the local bossa nova music store.

After a few days in Ipanema, we switched hotels and moved to Copacabana to finish the trip. Since this was the end, we decided to splurge, and we got to enjoy this view from our hotel room:

From Rio de Janier...

One day, we decided to visit Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). This immense statue is located atop a mountain, and the view overlooks nearly the entire city. Here are some photos:

From Rio de Janier...

From Rio de Janier...

Another day, we decided to try hang gliding. Here, we were driven to the top of a mountain, where we got strapped into some wings with a guide, then ran off of a platform and hoped that our wings would fly!

For our last night, we sipped caipirinhas along the beach, before heading to a churrascaria for some all you can eat meat!

From Rio de Janier...

All in all, I really enjoyed Brazil. Over time, little things kept happening that made us really appreciate the people and culture of Brazil. From the fresh fruit juice stands and snack bars at every block, to people politely asking at restaurants if their smoking is bothering neighboring tables (and doing something about it if it was), to the music, to the beaches, to the laid back personalities (despite our lack of Portuguese), I really felt at home here. I think Carrie and I both felt like if we hadn't been so tired and short on time, we could have spent a long time exploring Brazil. Perhaps someday we can head back to Brazil to explore some more!

Coming soon -- A final wrap up of the trip!