Monday, April 25, 2011

Trip wrap up and highlights

Everywhere we went on this trip it seemed like all our fellow travelers were Europeans on 2 - 3 month holidays or sabbaticals. Or they had just quit or lost their jobs and were just traveling around and going with the flow until they decided on their next move. When we told them of our travel plans they just looked at us like we were crazy.

We just don't have the time or financial ability to travel like Europeans, and for that I will probably forever feel that I was born on the wrong continent. American and Asian tourists were few and far between as none of us get long vacations. But also, Steve and I have never been up for the stay in one place sort of vacation. I always feel that if I find myself getting into too much of a habit, I may as well have stayed home. The airplane travel wasn't bad either. The planes were all new (except the flight to Cuzco on TACA, but that is another story entirely) the entertainment included all of the Oscar movies I failed to catch prior to the Oscars, I was able to read up on our next destination while en route, and the wine flowed freely.

Peru was the most incredible part of our trip with the most unbelievable scenery. The people were wonderfully friendly, though at times a bit pushy.  It was also the poorest and least developed country we visited. We left there on the eve of a major election that will likely have huge consequences for the country.

Easter Island had incredible sights but was struggling with the influx of tourism which has really just taken off in the last 10 years. It was not the nicest place to stay but the locals warmed up to us eventually, albeit begrudgingly. The other tourists never did warm up - they were super grumpy to find they would have to share the 28 km island with a bunch of other tourists. But being there and visiting the sights was like walking through an issue of National Geographic magazine. It probably would have seemed even more impressive if we hadn't just come from Machu Picchu.

Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo were all similar but distinctive big South American cities. We had a lot of fun in each of them. They each had their own quirks but overall I think the locals would be annoyed to hear how similar I found them to be. Probably it is both globalization and their similar colonial histories. I think that people in North America think of these South American cities as somehow secondary to European and North American cities. This is unfair as each of these cities has fantastic restaurants, cafe culture, and walkable historic centers.  They are all great cities in their own right. I was also taken by how hard people seem to work in South America generally.  Businesses don't close early like they do here, and hours are long (the exception of course being holy week).
 
I do regret that we didn't spend more of the trip exploring the great outdoors as there is a lot to see in every country we visited. But we really didn't have much time to cover any meaningful distances, so we opted to stick to the cities for the second part of our trip. I guess that just means we will have to go back!
 
 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Montevideo

Our last 2 days in South America were spent in Montevideo Uruguay. This city is just across the Rio Plata from Buenos Aires. I say "just" but the river is some 30 or 40 miles across here at the mouth. It's hard to tell where the river ends and the Atlantic Ocean behins, but all the maps say it is still river (even though it smells like ocean to me).

It was raining and gray the whole first day and part of the second and no city really puts on its best face under those circumstances. To complicate matters, many museums, restaurants and attractions closed Wednesday evening not to reopen until the following Monday due to this Sunday being Easter and this part of the world being predominately Catholic.

We wandered around the old town, had a fantastic lunch that we just managed to squeeze in before they locked down the restaurant for the rest of the week, and walked the riverside Rambla back to our hotel. The old colonial buildings were mostly in a state of arrested decay that could be charming, but seemed depressing with the crappy weather. It didn't help that the older buildings were interspersed with circa 1970s soviet bloc style tenements. And it really didn't help that the town felt deserted.

But we regrouped at our hotel, and got ready to meet our friend-of-a-friend Fernan for dinner. We headed over to a posher part of town which was filled with cute cafes, shops, and expensive looking condos. It was kind of like Miami but less seedy and fake. We had another wonderful carnivorous South American dinner and had possibly the best bottle of wine this trip. After visiting the wine hot spots of Chile and Argentina, it was a surprise that my best bottle was a tannat from Uruguay.

Thursday we wandered around the downtown a bit more, had lunch with Fernan who found us some cultural sites that were open, and walked the Rambla to Puntas Carretas. The sun came out just in time for a glorious sunset that we enjoyed along with all the locals still in town, who all seemed to be out drinking mate and enjoying the sunset.

Today we are heading home. Montevideo was probably the most sedate of the cities we visited, but that was kind of nice actually. It seems to be a very nice lifestyle here.

Today we start our 30 hour total trip home. It has been a wonderful trip and I really enjoyed all the places we visited. There is a lot to see on this continent, we barely.scratched the surface. But them again, that's how I always feel. Looking forward to returning home too.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Last day in Buenos Aires and on to Montevideo

This has been delayed because our hotel in Montevideo charges $6 a day for WiFi. There really ought to be a law against that...

Tuesday was our last full day in Buenos Aires. We went to Recoleta, saw Evita's grave, and found the really nice and really touristy parts of the city. We saw the dog walkers who are usually out with 10 or 12 dogs at a time, and we sat on an internal patio and had a really great bottle of Syrah rose. Then we went to take a walking tour and minor medical emergencies on both our parts ended the day early. Nothing major, no doctors or hospitals involved, just a trip to the pharmacy and some bruised egos.

We spent the evening in the neighborhood by our b&b which was very cute. Unfortunately it was another mostly sleepless night as we never did acclimate to the high decibel levels in the city.

Wednesday morning we took an early ferry then bus to Montevideo where it was rainy and miserable :(

Monday, April 18, 2011

Another lovely day in Buenos Aires

Today we took a wonderful walking/public transit tour covering the legend of Carlos Gardel, the main historical political monuments, and an introduction to the buses. Lots of great information on the tour -- highly recommended. I don't think it really helped me feel comfortable hopping on the buses, though. I completely understand how useful the bus routes are here, but I think I will stick to the subway for now. If you zone out and miss a subway stop, you get off, cross the track, and catch the next train in the opposite direction. The ways that a bus ride in a foreign town can go awry are too numerous to count.

After the tour we hit a cafe with our your guide, Jonathan, for some snacks and drinks. Steve, of course, had to get the national beverage, Fernet Branca and coke. Fernet is a highly alcoholic bitter, menthol-y digestif that everyone drinks here for some reason. It rather reminds me of lakerol pastilles - licorice meets eucalyptus with something else thrown in that you can't quite place.

We took a short siesta afterwards (probably Fernet inspired), then went out for the night.  Or rather we attempted to head out for the night but we like to sleep more than most portenos so we were back in bed by midnight.

Before conking out we did finally manage to sample two must-haves in Buenos Aires: steak and ice cream. But not in that order. See, there is an excellent ice cream shop right by our b&b so we got dessert first. Then we hit La Brigada where we split a nice piece of beef, a salad, some potatoes, and a bottle of wine.

I'm still not in love with malbec the way the locals are. Every bottle has been different but has brought to mind the same rather unappealing descriptor for me - "gravelly". Although some do have lovely bold fruit, I can't shake the lingering aroma of a first rain bringing down all the carbon and smog from a month long dry spell. Maybe I haven't had any truly good malbecs yet. So tonight I ignored the waiter's recommendations that were not surprisingly mostly in the $100 and north price range, and went with a cab and malbec blend. It was unremarkable, but not unpleasant and less than $30.

After all the steak and wine and dairy we hailed a cab and rolled ourselves back to the b&b. Time for bed. I'm going to utilize the earplugs tonight. This is one noisy city. The traffic never seems to die down.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Futbol

Today we ventured out to a soccer game. The local team, Boca Juniors vs Tigre, the visitors. The hardcore fans sang enthusiastically throughout the entire 2 + hours of the experience and the stadium was a sea of blue and gold, the local colors.

The game was a tie, and the local team didn't play the best, but it was fun. After the game they took us to drink with the local hooligans. It was quite an experience.

The most amazing part to me was the class structure at the game. The well-to-do club member ticket holders had seats in the stands and they came and went as they pleased. We filed in to the cheap seats with the riff raff a full hour before the game started. Once the game was over we had to wait until the entire rest of the stadium had emptied before we were allowed to exit. I had heard that the Boca fans could be rabid, so I was kind of stunned to see everyone obediently waiting. I think that sort of control would incite a riot in Oakland. I had half a mind to spout off about the social injustice inherent in that way of doing things, but I'm incapable of that level of communication in Spanish (and I didn't want to spend the night in jail).

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Buenos Aires for a day and no pictures to show for it.

We spent all day wandering and took no pictures on the phone. I feel guilty but we were way too busy enjoying ourselves. All I can say is that Buenos Aires exceeds all expectations. There are cafes and restaurants everywhere and this is possibly the best walking city I have ever been in.

Today we wandered around Palermo where everyone in the entire city seemed to be out window shopping. Then we did a wine tasting at a hotel in Palermo Hollywood - the ritzy part of town. Last we ventured to a residential neighborhood for a small intimate meal with about 20 people at the home of a Porteno (as natives are known).

Our b&b is an amazing historic BA home, though it's a bit noisy. Everyone has been completely nice and friendly to us. This is a fantastic city.

I'm posting a pic of Steve's Mully tattoo because it has been an excellent conversation piece throughout our trip.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Santiago

You are cute. But you are expensive and you have a serious coffee problem. I know that you don't grow any coffee here but that is no excuse for why you consider instant coffee acceptable or why all the "coffee" shops are really just tame strip bars. 

And you should try to do better with the smog (as seen above). It's really no worse than the smog where I come from, but it is a shame because this city is much prettier than mine.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hola Santiago

We arrived into Santiago late last night and checked into our studio apartment. Much less ingles here than in the last couple stops but we are dealing fine. The studio is tiny but new and immaculately clean which is a welcome change from Easter Island. The weather right now is much like San Francisco and my skin is getting a welcome break from UV rays.

We've only been here a day but we really love it aside from the street dogs. There are so many street dogs and many of them are visibly injured (of course none of them are fixed). The city is vibrant and full of cafes and art. Very European but with a new world vibe.

Tonight we are taking an evening bike ride from El Golf and tomorrow we will visit the central market and whatever else appeals.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Goodbye Easter Island

Today we depart for Santiago. Yesterday we rented a 4x4 and explored the sites out on the crazy dirt roads. From the top of any is the 3 large volcanoes, you can see miles and miles of nothing but deep blue ocean. It's very desolate.

Yet town is filled with tourists who are annoyed to find that they aren't the only people here and locals who are irked to have to eke out a living catering to them. All the accomodations on the island are pretty Spartan and expensive to boot unless you stay at the one exorbitant resort owned by the same people who own the Post Ranch Inn.

But the food has been good and the people have generally been friendly, though in a more reserved way than we experienced in Peru.  I'm not sure who what kind of traveller Easter Island is really for.  It would probably be disappointing for anyone looking for adventure travel and it is really not the place for a relaxing beach vacation - though the beaches are lovely, there are only 2 of them and they are on the side of the island without accomodation. Everyone we have spoken to seems to be living out their childhood fantasy born out of the pages of a National Geographic magazine, just like us.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A day in Rapa Nui

After catching up on some rest, we took a tour of the island today. This place is just amazing. The town, however, leaves a bit to be desired.

Happy birthday Stephen! I hope you enjoyed the day even though I couldn't see that you were showered with attention this far from home. I love you and I am lucky to be able to share such adventures with you!

First view of Hanga Roa Isla de Pascua (Easter Island)

The airport is old school :)

Lima tour then off to Easter Island

On Saturday we flew back to Lima, checked our bags, and got picked up by a local guide who drove us around Lima for a quick day tour.

Our guide Monica was great. We hit some of the tourist sites and some of the cute neighborhoods. When we were planning this we decided to mainly skip Lima and hit Machu Picchu and Cusco instead. This was for two reasons--first, we had not heard many nice things about Lima, and second, the concept of seeing Machu Picchu was totally exciting and turned us into giggling school children. Our brief visit to Lima revealed a city with very appealing aspects and very unappealing aspects. I am glad we didn't spend 4 days there, but there was definitely more that I would have liked to explore. In particular the Barrancas and Miraflores neighborhoods were vibrant and appealing much like Madrid or Barcelona. But the neighborhoods by the airport and shanty towns were depressing and a little frightening. And the fact that the city sits on the coast seemed odd. It wasn't a positive or a negative.

Dinner was at Astrid y Gaston and it was amazing. We totally felt like  judges on the Top Chef finale. In particular the ceviche and the northern Peruvian seafood stew were fantastic. Unfortunately, because the election was on Sunday we could not get the wine pairings. They have a rule that no alcohol can be sold for a couple days prior to the election (and voting is mandatory, enforceable by fine). But the food was wonderful nonetheless.

Monica took us back to the airport and then we spent the next 12 hours and then some in transit.

That is Cuzco above because we didn't take any pictures with the phone in Lima.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Guinea pig - it's what's for dinner

Moray, Las Salineras, and back to Cusco

Yesterday we took a cab from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco stopping along the way at Moray, which was an ancient Incan agricultural laboratory, and the ancient Incan salt pools seen above. Usually they are a brilliant white, but it has been raining and the soil washing down from the mountains has turned them yellow. The salt pools were created some 600 years ago and are still used today. The local farmers provide the labor on a collective basis each contributing a couple weeks of work every year--in Incan style.

After we went to our hotel in Cusco and tempered the symptoms of elevation sickness with the local remedy, coca tea. Then we took a tour of Cusco which is an ancient Incan city itself and a UNESCO world heritage site. There are hundreds of ruins scattered about and around the city; we hit a handful. We met a lovely Irish woman (who has unfortunately had to work in Tennessee for the last year) on the tour and had dinner together at a great restaurant with the best pisco sours I've had thus far.

This morning we met the owners of our hotel, who were just returning from getting married in Hawaii, to discover that one of them, Melanie, lives part of the year in Oakland just blocks from my office!

We are on our way back to Lima now. I didn't really have any expectations for Peru but it has been marvelous. Next stop Easter Island.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Machu Picchu was amazing

Even though we didn't get to our hostel until after 9 last night we got up at 4:30 am to get to Machu Picchu so that we could climb Wayna Picchu. They only let 400 people climb per day so we had to get there early.

We made it in time to get our passes stamped to make the climb and then we actually made the climb to the peak, though there were a few moments of doubt.

In the photo above, it is the peak on the right. I didn't take any photos from my phone of the view from the peak but it was astounding. Pictures will follow later when I can hook my real camera to a computer. The second pic is the just for proof that we made it. The climb was only a kilometer but it was straight up 500 year old stone steps and it was quite a harrowing ascent and descent.

Machu Picchu was even more amazing than expected. I'm so glad we added this leg to our trip!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

One exhausting but wonderful day

Our flight to Cusco was delayed but we met our tour, got lunch, visited Pisac, and got to explore Ollantaytambo which was marvelous. The scenery is amazing. Although it has been nearly 36 hours since we last slept fot more than 15 minutes, we are waiting for the train so we can spend tomorrow exploring Machu Picchu!

In Lima

We made it here and are commencing our 5 hour layover. It's 12:40 am local time and the Starbucks at the airport is still open. The flight was non eventful and relaxing actually. I got to watch The King's Speech and True Grit. International flights have gotten a whole lot better in the last couple years.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Packed already

Here is Mully with my bag. This is all I am taking. My day pack is inside. What amount of luggage would you take for 18 days? What if you had to lug it on 5 flights, a train, a bus, 2 boats and endless taxis? Wish I could whittle it down even more!

Pictures from our last trip

Here's a slideshow of our pictures from our trip to Thailand and Cambodia in 2009: