February 28, 2008

Buenos Aires – Where Does the Time Go?

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 5:06 pm

We’ve been in Buenos Aires for a week now, and our time has been packed. This second largest city on the continent makes Lima and Santiago look really dull in comparison. It also feels more European than South American. We’ve been watching movies, tango shows, soccer games, planetarium shows, acrobatics, going out to drink with expats, eating really well and loving it.

We started the first night in a hostal in the center that was entirely Israelis besides us. We’d heard about all the Israeli’s traveling around, but this was the first time we’ve been REALLY exposed to it. I think Israelis are vampires, because they do NOT seem to sleep at night. We had to move from that hostal after the first night because we like to sleep at night. However, all the noise they made until 5 in the morning didn’t bother me since I had had too much to drink at an all you can drink gathering at the South American Explorers club house.

The next place we found in San Telmo (a neighborhood south of the center) was awesomely cheap and big. It was like having our own apartment for only 50 pesos (about $16). We stayed there the entire rest of the time.

From there we spent most everyday exploring various parts of this gigantic city. This included street fairs, junk markets, parks, the subway system, cemetaries, and lots of great vegetarian restaurants. We even found a place that was all raw food. It was nice to find that counter balance after having to listen to people go on and on about how good their dead cow carcass was every night. Even if I ate meat like I used to, the amount of steak people eat here would make me sick.

Going to a soccer game of River Plate (one of the major local teams) was one of my highlights. The general admission cheap seats are moving, chanting, singing, shouting the entire game, and are more fun to watch than the actual game. We didn’t sit there though, which I think was good so we could admire the action both on and off the field from afar. The game even turned out to be great. Both teams were tied 1-1 until close to the very end. With about 2 mintues left to go in the game there was a fight and one of the River Plate players got a red card, so they were ejected and River Plate was a man down. Almost immediately aftewards they took the ball down the field and scored a goal with maybe 30 seconds left to win the game. Awesome.

The one thing I wish we had done and didn’t was go to a live show in Spanish, which there were a TON of. It’s basically like Broadway, New York, but everything’s in Spanish. We did see a tango show which was fun, and we really like the music. Part of the show though was folkloric dances, which I think was fascinating since they guy does most of the flair stuff and is very active with lots of stomping and props. We also saw a bit of tango in the plazas.

This is the only city in South America we’ve spent more than a week in without doing volunteer work there, and I think I could easily enjoy more time there. If you’re looking for a cheap place to vacation but still have a ton of fun, get here quick before Argentina’s economy fully recovers and becomes one of the most expensive on the continent again.

February 19, 2008

Maipu is Winey

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 11:43 am

Bicycles and lots of wine. What a great combination. Close to Mendoza there’s a ton of wineries, and many of them are close enough together that if you rent a bicycle you can stagger from one to the next on two wheels.

You take a bus to the Maipu area from Mendoza and then there’s a few companies to rent bikes from. We rented from the one with the most advertising, Bikes and Wines, and man did my butt hurt the next day. We were told that Mendoza Bikes or something like that has more comfortable and cheaper bikes. We barely cared about cheaper since the price difference was very small, but I would have loved a more comfortable bike.

Only a few of the wineries on the route are free tastings, but most are pretty cheap if they’re not free. I think my favorite winery was the Tomasso family winery because they did lots of tastings and one of the better tours in a much smaller vineyard. We didn’t do many tours because often the guides would tell you that it would start in five minutes and then 15 minutes later you’d be wondering where the guide went. The bike rental companies say to estimate 30 minutes per stop, but we found that was highly unlikely. You might have to wait that long at some places for them to get in gear.

The ride at first is dusty and has lots of traffic, but as you get farther away from town the street becomes tree lined and pleasant with only the occasional car. We rode all the way down to the olive oil tasting at the end of the route. It was fun to see, but the olive oil here doesn’t compare at all to the stuff we practically drank daily in Spain. Another non-wine stop that’s really good is the chocolate and licour place. We probably would have bought a bottle of something there if we could have carried it the rest of the day.

Riding bikes to wineries is really a much nicer way to see them than a tour or public transportation. I hope Chile’s wineries get something like this going in the future.

Mendoza – Look at All the Trees!

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:24 am

Our first stop in Argentina is a gorgeous one. The super, extra wide, tree lined streets of Mendoza make many other cities seem crowded and ugly. The biggest tourist destination nearby is the wine region, but Mendoza was a nice place to just chill in. The plazas are really nice and there’s a really big park nearby.

We camped most of the time we were here. This required taking a bus out of town about 20 minutes, but the campground had a swimming pool and showed nightly movies, so it was a nice place to come to at the end of the day. The information in the Lonely Planet guide book to get there is wrong, so ask at one of the tourist kiosks and they’ll tell you the right bus to take, which I think was 174/175.

The park at the edge of town has a really cool irrigation system, as do many parts of the town. The water all flows through little channels, and there’s gates that slide into place to direct the water all over the place. So far I think the most beautiful cities in the world are the ones that manage their water well to provide lots of greenery. We spent most of one day wandering through the park and going up to the lookout peak. Unfortunately we never saw Aconcagua or much of the Andes from town as there was usually a lot of clouds in that direction.

We went to our first all you can eat vegetarian restaurant, which turned out to be a great deal even though neither of us really take full advantage of going back for more food. We also continued to find that breakfast in Argentina is a super huge challenge if you want to have more than some pastry and coffee. I swear this country doesn’t even start moving until 10 in the morning. Then dinner doesn’t really start until after 8 or 9 at night. A ton of restaurants aren’t open until then either which can sometimes make lunch frustrating if you were hoping for a particular place. And forget about anything being open for sure on Sunday. You might as well plan to have Sunday be your lazy day.

February 16, 2008


Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 11:16 am

This city took us a day to warm up to, but once we did we loved it. The problem is when you first get into town you’re exposed to the mediocre part, which is just busy, noisy streets and people in a hurry. But once you get up into the hills you see an entirely different city, full of culture and peace. We almost left before we discovered this part of the city, but fortunately all the buses direct to Argentina that day were full.

As soon as you get into town forget the main plazas and port and just take an elevator up into the hills. You’ll start to see winding, crazy streets, lots of murals, and way better restaurants. We ate at one called Epif which was probably the best of our trip in South America. We also were walking by a puppet theater just as a show was starting, so we stopped in. It was weird. Aliens were after some peasant guy who just wanted to go home to his love after making his fortune, but the aliens kept finding him. Bizarro. We got lost a few times, but it always turned out to be a fun detour.

We also visited Viña del Mar which is close by. The city was pretty dull, but there was a park with a mini zoo in it that we walked through. It’s one of those zoos where you feel bad for the animals though.

From here it’s on to Argentina!

February 13, 2008

Santiago, Chile – Let’s Go Shopping

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 11:09 am

Santiago is soooooo modern. This was good and bad. The downtown area makes you think that shopping and malls are all there is to the city. That’s bad, but they did have a really sweet movie theater so we got to see a few movies we’ve been dying to see, namely Sweeny Todd. Kim and I have both seen the musical, Kim more than once, and we love it, so we were very happy to see the movie live up to it.

Aside from amusing ourselves with movies, we explored the parks and went on a wine tour to Concha y Toro, the most famous vinyard in the area. Everyone talks about how great Chilean wine is, but it’s also expensive, even in Chile, and the vinyards don’t make doing tours easy or cheap. The Concha y Toro vinyard is accessible by taking the subway then a bus, so it’s about an hour and a half from the center. It’s $12 and only includes two small tastings. Decent tour, but nothing worth $12. The wine was nice too, but nothing to rave about. If we wanted to go to other vinyards we really would have had to rent a car or go on a really expensive tour. I’d rather just go to the vinyards back home in Washington.

We stayed in a fun hostal called La Casa Roja, which is in an old mansion and has a pool, free internet, ping pong and cricket batting cage (weird). The nicest thing about this hostel is that they’ve got a travel agency inside with very helpful people who will do a lot of stuff for free, like reserve wine tours or reserve hostels in Valparaiso. Kind of a party atmosphere with lots of young people drinking.

Santiago has some nice hill parks. We went to the two major ones. The views would be very nice if it wasn’t for the smog. We road up a funicular to the top of the big park and then walked down. The paths are very dusty. One thing we noticed in the parks, actually everywhere, is tons of people are making out like horny teenagers. Not just teenagers either. Tongues are shoved so far, sloppily down each others throats it makes me gag. Apparently when your culture involves living at home until married, you need an outlet in public places. Gross.

Once we got out of the center the food got a little better, but we still think people in Santiago are retarded when it comes to vegetarian food. We ate at one restaurant, whose name is El Vegetariana, and their set lunch included chicken. Not fake chicken either, we asked. Apparently only the regular menu needs to be meat free. Service and food were terrible. In all of Chile if you go into a normal restaurant they often have a vegetarian option which they’ll point to, smile and tell you it’s “pura verduras” (all vegetables), which usually includes really old, canned weird vegetables, usually corn, all mixed together. In other words, it’s a disgusting option.

We had fun in Santiago, but it’s definitely not any kind of highlight or place to go back to, except maybe to watch some good movies at a theater.

February 12, 2008

Copiapo Is Dull

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 10:25 am

We didn’t want to do a 24 hour bus ride from Arica to Santiago, so we thought Copiapo would be a nice place to break the trip in the middle as it’s about equidistant from the two. The problem with Copiapo is that there’s not much to do there, especially if you arrive on a Sunday. There’s not even a movie theater. Inexpensive hotels/hostels are hard to find and fill up fast, and the food options are pretty slim for vegetarians. There’s some nice sounding national parks nearby, but you need a car to get there and we didn’t know where any car rental agencies were (the tourist office was closed too) or feel like paying for a car again so soon. One day if we come back to Chile we’ll just plan on getting a car for a week or more to drive around to these parks.

The one fairly interesting thing we did do there was go to the Mineral Museum, which has some cool glow in the dark rocks. The museum has tons of samples, although it could use some more signs explaining why to care about any of the rocks or how they’re organized or something.

Other than rocks we mostly wandered around the town plaza and hung out in internet cafes. The Empanadopolis, which serves some decent vegetarian empanadas with more that just cheese, finally opened up right before we caught our bus, and we ate far too many empanadas.

February 9, 2008

Lauca National Park

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 2:03 pm

Getting Lauca involves either renting a car or taking a tour. A 2 day tour was $130 per person, so we’re going the independent thing again and renting a car. In the end with the cost of gas and car rental we probably didn’t save more than $50 over the tour, but it was fun to have our own car and freedom of schedule. Another option that I’d consider very good if altitude doesn’t mess you up or you’re already acclimatized is doing the one day tour, which might be overwhelming, but is only about $30.

Car rental is actually more expensive than in the US. We ended up with a truck from Ghama Rent A Car (found in a sketchy mall near the international bus station) which was around $50 per day. People kept telling us a car wouldn’t cut it on the roads. After having gone we wish we had gotten a car which can be found for around $30 a day. Whatever you get, fill the tank in town before going, because the only gas near the park is purchased out of people’s home in Putre for about a 50% markup. You’ll want to take extra gas in a can or something if you want to drive to the salt flats, and then you might need 4×4. We didn’t go there though. Driving in Chile is almost like back home. There’s road signs and people actually pay attention to things like stop lights and speed limits, so it’s not scary like Peru would be.

It’s about 2 hours from Arica through deserty mountains before you get to interesting scenery, although you do pass candelebra cacti on the way. We burned a half a tank of gas getting there since you go from see level to about 4500 meters. We’re totally burned out on the charm of rural mountain towns, so Putre didn’t appeal to us at all. We stopped by there to get some more water before heading into the park.

We planned to camp at Lago Chungara so we headed directly there, but when we got there it was snowing and way to cold. Besides that, we were told camping is $8 per tent and we got a room in the tiny village of Parinacota for $10 for the both of us. In Parinacota you just stay with whatever family you can find in the deserted looking village. We found an old man with a dirty bathroom, but two beds with lots of blankets.

The next morning the weather had cleared up a lot and the views with the volcanoes are magnificent. The land around doesn’t look like much since all the vegetation is under a foot tall. We did a little nature hike of about 1 hour around the village and saw lots of birds in the marshy areas and alpacas where the greeness grows. We both felt pretty good hiking at this altitude, so we must not have lost all our acclimitization from Puno. The trails are decently maintained, but not at the end.

From the village we went back to Lake Chungara, which was much more impressive with clear skies. There’s a trail but we could only find half of it which is very short. You see tons of birds doing their thing here. There’s also the usual sweater/blanket/knick knack vendors at the ranger station.

On the way out of the park we stopped at the hot springs. The ones in the park aren’t that hot and are in a little cabin. This is right next to the little Las Cuevas trail were you can see some of the weird little endangered rodents, called Vizcachas, running around. There’s some more hotsprings outside the park called the Jurassi Hotsprings. Those are HOT! There’s an admission which is about $2, but there’s also multiple pools and mud baths so it’s totally worth it. The mud in the mud baths smells pretty bad, but the water is really hot. The top pool I couldn’t even touch. We played in the mud a little bit, washed off and soaked in the hot outdoor pool. We also had a picnic lunch here, which is nice since there’s a building for shade and tables. After lunch we went to the indoor pools since the sun doesn’t kick your butt there.

Overall it’s a very nice park, but both Kim and I are much more partial to heavily treed areas, something you won’t see at all here. It’s good that this is a preserved area though as the ecosystem seems very fragile. Hopefully Chile will continue to fund their Conaf department to keep land like this in good shape.

One other interesting thing. On the way back we stopped at Eco Truly to have dinner because there’s a half dozen signs on the road advertising vegetarian food in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately they weren’t serving dinner that night because their Hare Krishna leader was receiving an award or something in town. Instead we got a tour of their little compound and gave some women a lift into town. There land is interesting in that all their buildings look like beehives. They’re all about being sustainable with composting toilets and organic gardening. They had some funky art installations too. It turned out they were going to the Govindha restaurant in Arica, which is about the only vegetarian restaurant we found in Arica and around the block from the Residential Real where we were staying.

Crossing the Border to Arica, Chile

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 1:42 pm

We basically went from Puno to Chile with a night stopover in Arequipa and crossing the border from Tacna. The change was immediate and noticeable. People still speak Spanish, but the roads are in good shape, buildings don’t look run down, cars don’t constantly honk, traffic is orderly the money is in huge denominations and it’s a lot more expensive. We actually spent $20 on a meal the other night. Ouch. The modernity is nice though. I missed it.

The money is about $1 = 500 pesos. Our room is about 7,000 pesos per night. After trying to divide by 500 for a while Kim realized you can just doube the number and remove three zeros and it’s in dollars. So 7,000 = $14. It still give me sticker shock sometime seeing all those zeros.

Crossing the border was fairly easy. We took a bus from Tacna. The only part we didn’t like at all is that the driver takes everyone’s IDs, our passports too, and runs them quickly through the Peruvian exit station. We weren’t too comfortable with this and kept a close eye on the guy with our passports, but everything turned out fine. Entering into Chile all we had to do was through away a few fruits and our coca leaves, and get a stamp. We would have liked to take the train across, but it only leaves twice a day and we weren’t sure exactly when. Mabye on the way back we’ll take it if we continue our avoidance of that $100 Bolivian border crossing fee.

Chile continues the barren, desert landscape of coastal Peru. Arica is sunny and warm and has some nice beaches that we won’t be going to. We’re bothsuper sun sensitive from taking our antimalaria medication, doxycycline, which we are supposed to take 4 weeks after the malaria exposure area, plus the sun here is super strong anyway. There’s not much of tourist import in Arica, but from here we’re heading to Lauca National Park on the Bolivian border.

February 6, 2008

Lake Titicacas Islands

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 1:42 pm

We took a two day tour of some islands in Lake Titicaca on our own. Kim already wrote about this in more detail so I won’t, but we recommend doing one of the 60 sole tours instead of buying your ticket direct from the boat captains of the islands. The boat captains lied to us repeatedly and were impossible to find after they lied. Nobody took any responsibility. Basically we were promised a visit to 3 islands and their boats only took us to 1 before the captains disappeared and dumped us of on a tour boat.

Aside from that hassle, the trip was nice. We went direct to Amantani, where there is no electricity even though there’s wires for it. Apparently they used to run the lights at night off a big generator but it was too expensive. It was hard to get any information out of anyone though since they mostly speak Quecha to each other, and only spoke Spanish to us when we pulled it out of them with repeated questions. We stayed with the captains family, so the wife brought us home, pointed to our room and then didn’t say anything else to us for a long time. We took a nap, then thought they were going to walk with us around the island since they said they would. When that time came though, just the son went with us as far as the town square and pointed at the road that would bring us to the ruins on the island and said he’s meet us again at the town square before sunset.

We hiked up to the top of the island to see Pachamama and Pachatata temples, which were pretty basic but had nice views. We saw more tourists and realized that there was a port on the other side of the island too that most of the tourists were coming up from. After watching the sunset and buying some fried dough at the tourist stand on top of Pachatata, we went back for dinner with the family. Eating with them was strange since there was a table, but we were almost the only ones who sat at it. Most of the family sat on small benches on the floor. The captain actually was there for dinner and we were able to talk to him a bit more, but still almost of the conversation was in Quechua.

The next day we ended up with a tourist group since our captain was nowhere to be seen, even in his own house or at the docks. Very frustrating. It turned out good though since we met another couple, one of them Canadian the other Belgian, with a lot in common and spent a lot of time talking to them. We all went to Taquile, which is another small island in the lake that’s known for their weaving and interesting customs. We hiked over the island, looked at their wares and ate lunch before boating back to Puno.

In Puno we had to pay 10 soles extra to go to Uros, the reed islands, since our captain never stopped there like we were promised. The islands are very touristy, but I thought they were sweet. Everything in their lives revolves around reeds. The islands are made of reeds, the boats are made of reeds, they even eat the reeds along with fish and whatever they buy from town. The lives of the islanders are obviosly very changed from what they once were since they now have solar panels, use metal for the roofs and have a lot of contact with nearby Puno, but it’s still a very novel way to live.

Puno And Lake Titicaca

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 11:30 am

We had the luck of being in Puno during Candelaria, which mostly consists of people dancing around in traditional clothing and carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary from place to place. The hard thing is that even though there’s a rough schedule of when things will happen, almost nothing happens when it says it will and quite a lot happens when nothing’s scheduled, so you basically just have to watch out for whatever is going on. February 2nd is the actual Candeleria celebration is supposed to take place, but that was one of the duller days we saw there since all they really did was cary Mary’s statue from church to church with a small parade. The coolest part of this was they created street art out of sawdust and flowers, then marched Mary straight through it all to destroy it. The night before there was a random fireworks show and more parades. The night after there were parades too. And I think the night after that, but I’m starting to forget.

Aside from watching all the dancing and parades, we spent a bit of time adjusting to the altitude which is around 12,000 ft. Kim slept a lot the first day and I was just winded walking around. It also gets cooooold at night, one night hailing for a long time, so we each bought another sweater. They’re supposedly 100% alpaca, but since we bought them for around $6-7 on the street I doubt it, although they’re very soft and warm. I almost bought a really expensive sweater from the women’s coop there, but it had a hole and 3 days I checked back to see if they could get it fixed and they didn’t, so I gave up on them. Of course they always said it would be fixed the next day. The poor communication never seemed to end in this city.

We met another couple on our tour of Lake Titicaca’s islands (see other post for more on that) and ended up spending a few days with them since we had so much in common. They’re vegetarian and have traveled more extensively than we have, so we had a ton to talk about which was very refreshing. They found an amazing pizza place called El Buho (the owl), for me amazing mostly because they had a delicious garlic dipping sauce.

We had a crazy, frustrating experience trying to go to Bolivia at the end. Basically, we got to the Bolivian border and found out that since December they’re charging Americans $100 per person to enter. Of course, the border town doesn’t take credit cards or have any ATMs, so we couldn’t have paid if we wanted to. Argh! Change of plans. Seems like a fairly dumb policy to me since now they get none of our money. Of course, they’re just doing it because the US does the same thing to their citizens. We were ready to get out of developing countries anyway, so now we’re headed to Chile.

Even though the Bolivia thing was bad, we had one good experience. We bought our bus tickets through All Ways Travel (what’s up with peru’s terrible flash based websites) and they refunded the unused portion of our ticket and actually apologized for the inconvenience. This is the first time anyone from any company in Peru has apologized to us for any kind of mixup, and there have been plenty of those. Most people just come up with some bogus excuse for why things didn’t work out and don’t offer anything to compensate. Anyway, the staff is very friendly I recommend you book stuff with them. They have two locations and the one we went to is at Jr. Tacna 281 Office 204 in Puno, telefax +51 51 355552. They also run a volunteer project to help some of the local islands setup small libraries to encourage reading, something badly needed on these barely literate islands.

We also went to the Coca Museum in Puno, which was very worthwhile. It’s a tiny museum, but has lots of info and knowledgeable staff. They have some of the local clothes so I got to try the womens weird skirts. There’s a bigger coca museum in La Paz we read, but now we’re not going there.

From here it’s back trhough Arequipa and on to Chile!