Month: September 2014

Córdoba, or the Place I Stopped in Between Mendoza and Buenos Aires

Córdoba is a hit or miss city. For me, it was a miss. For lots of other people, it’s one of their favorites. The city itself isn’t all that bad, it just doesn’t have a lot to offer, so I think it depends more on how you’re experiencing it than the city itself.

I had two days and one night in Córdoba. It’s a small city but nice for pedestrians. I mainly just wandered around, stopping at a few cultural sites; I’d say my highlights were the Paseo del Bueno Pastor cultural center and the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón. The Paseo was a good free option to get my art fix. It is a small exhibition hall with local contemporary art. I liked the photography exhibit that was on display; it was from a music festival that had been held in Córdoba, and the artist sometimes fused two shots together into one, creating some intriguing images. The Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón is one of the more unique churches I’ve ever been in. It is colorful but the colors are muted, almost like they’re under a sepia filter. It was possible to ascend a staircase by the altar and see the naive and aisles from above. This is a perspective I’ve never gotten before and I found it fascinating.

I think what I enjoyed most though was my time in parks. First a small park, Paseo del Bicentenario, near the modern art museum had a public art installation commemorating the bicentennial of Córdoba, with rings of varying sizes and colors for each year. Of course I had to take a picture with the 1987 ring. From here it was an easy walk to the main big park in Córdoba, Parque Sarmiento. It was a sunny day so I sat by the lake for a while reading up on Buenos Aires, then moseyed around, taking a break to swing on a swing set (because as an adult how often do you just play on a swing set for a bit?), then read my book for a while near a fountain. It was quite lovely really.

Outside of these highlights, I just walked around a lot, had lunch outside (where I reflected on my time in South America), and wrote a handful of blog posts on my hostel roof. What I didn’t experience was the apparently awesome nightlife of this university town. My hostel was pretty quiet the one night I was there, and after the abundance of wine in Mendoza and the upcoming insanity of Buenos Aires nightlife I wasn’t exactly in a rush to find something to do.

In all honesty, my “miss” rating of Córdoba can be attributed to unfair timing. I’d been jumping around so much since Rio that I was just anxious to get to Buenos Aires and stay put for two weeks. Unfortunately this made Córdoba more of an obstacle than an enjoyable stop. But looking back at my visit there, it wasn’t all bad. It was a calm midpoint that broke up two overnight bus rides, and in that way it served its purpose for me.

Leaving Córdoba I took my last overnight bus. I finally treated myself and sprung for cama, meaning larger seats with more leg room and recline (and again in the front row of the top). I settled into my big seat, excited to finally experience the luxury of cama. It was one of the worst rides, I was so disappointed. I could barely sleep, it was freezing, there was a weird humming noise, and even though the seat next to me was empty I couldn’t move the arm rests so laying across both like I had the previous ride wasn’t possible. I suppose you could say it was fitting that my last night bus was not great, but at least I could say that I was done with overnight bus rides in South America.


Mendoza: Rafting and Wine Tasting (Eventually)

My three days in Mendoza I think perfectly hit the highlights of what it has to offer: outdoor activity, wine and relaxation.

Day 1 I went whitewater rafting on the Rio Mendoza. It was only Class 1 and 2 rapids, so it was an easy drift really, but for a first timer like me it was still an enjoyable hour. It was a perfectly sunny day as we floated down the river with the snow-capped Andes mountain range behind us. I was on the English raft – two Americans, a Portuguese guy and a girl from Singapore – with a nice English-speaking guide who told us some anecdotes along the way. After our trip we had a few hours to hang out at the restaurant deck overlooking the river and enjoy a cold beer. For just US$35 you really couldn’t get a better deal.

Day 2 was devoted to wine tasting, because let’s be honest, this is the reason I came to Mendoza. We had a good group: I was joined by Kasey from the US, who I met while rafting the day before, Louise and Katrina from England and Thea from Norway, all of who were also staying at my hostel. We had all heard good things about Mr. Hugo’s so we rented bikes there. The bikes were good, no problems, but at ARS100 and without the rumored return time flexibility and free bottle at the end, I’m not sure it’s worth all the praise it gets.

For a day that was devoted to wine tasting, it took us a surprisingly long time to actually have some wine. Our first stop was the olive oil and chocolate tasting place, or as it should be called, the get tipsy off vodka shots disguised as liqueurs place. The spreads and oils and chocolate were all delicious, but it was the liqueur made with vodka that stole the show. We each got to taste two; the other girls went with the more normal choices of chocolate, dulce de leche, or mint, but I chose pepper and beer. The pepper was great, it had a nice spicy kick that would be great in cockatils; the beer not so much. Since we were the only ones there, they nicely let us taste a few extras, including absinthe and absinthe mixed with pepper. We biked away a little wobbly after stop one.

After a failed attempt to go to Trapiche (they only do tours every couple of hours) it was already lunch time so we stopped at the brewery. As enjoyable as the outdoor seating, pizza and beer were, we needed to get to some wine! So we nixed the Trapiche tour idea and decided to bike down to where there were 3 wineries on one road. Maximum wine in minimum distance. At least minimum when we got there; the map they gave us at Mr. Hugo’s was grossly out of scale and the ride took us a half an hour.

It was almost 3 by the time we finally got to taste some wine. But it was some damn good wine. At the first winery we split a 5 glass tasting so we could try a variety of Malbecs and Cabernets, each picking our favorite to finish. The second we did our tasting outside, a few of us opting for our own 3 glass tasting this round. The view over the vineyards with the mountains in the background was just beautiful. This was definitely the most enjoyable location. We made it to a third and final place, where we just split a bottle of wine on another outdoor balcony. The ride back went much faster than it did to get out there.

Even though it took us a while to get to the wine, it was still a fun day and we got to sample some delicious Argentinian wines. I will admit though, I have become a bit of a Northern California snob. It’s nice out by Mendoza but it doesn’t come close to wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa. The main road you bike down is not exactly scenic, and the tastings aren’t as plentiful or informative. And as a Cabernet lover, I didn’t find the wine as good. But for under $15 for the whole day, it’s a steal.

Day 3 Kasey and I just wandered around Mendoza. We had a nice leisurely lunch, walked to a few different parks, and discovered that there really isn’t much to discover in Mendoza. It’s a quiet town and most of the draw is the surrounding area. I had heard good things about a horseback ride or nearby hike but had already spent my activity budget on rafting. So we just had a relaxed day, which was good for me because I was getting on a night bus to Cordoba. My second to last night bus.

I had again purposefully booked the front window seat, but I got lucky with an empty seat next to me. I actually got to lay down! Curled up across both seats, I dreamt that the bumpy bus ride was the major earthquake in California and it was going to separate us from the rest of the US. I think I should stop taking Melatonin on bus rides, it leads to some weird dreams. I also was so sound asleep that I didn’t even realize we had arrived in Cordoba, the driver had to wake me up.

My First Morning in New Zealand, Land of the English Speakers

Today I went through culture shock.

It started in the airport when the incredibly nice New Zealand man sold me my ticket for the Airbus. When I said the street he knew what hostel I was going to, told me a little about it, and pointed it out on the map in relation to the bus stop where I needed to get off; and when the bus pulled up he looked at me and gave me a thumbs up to show it was the right bus. And I got everything he said because it was all in English! On the bus, the driver asked over a loudspeaker for our attention please as she announced the stops, and if we would like to get off just push the button. I’ve never heard such a polite bus driver in my whole life. The entire bus experience was so easy and pleasant, two words I never used to describe public transportation in South America.

As I walked around the clean, large, well-paved streets of Auckland, I smiled at the ability to understand everyone. English was everywhere. And no one was staring at me; my blonde hair no longer screamed “I don’t belong here.” Cars stopped for me the instant I approached a crosswalk. But what the hell are they doing on that side of the road? I continually looked the wrong way when crossing the street and openly laughed at the right turn arrows instead of left. And it is expensive. Coffee for NZ$4, lunch deals for NZ$12, and NZ$18 just to get to the top of Sky Tower. No more Blue Dollar to help make this city affordable.

It’s amazing what you get used to without even knowing it. I didn’t realize how accustomed to South America I had become until I got out of it today. I am curious to see how long this shock lasts. I have a suspicion it’s city-related and I will get over it when I am out in the countryside. Then a whole different type of shock will set in; shock and awe at the landscape.

(An aside: the Airbus system is fantastic. A sign “Bus to city” is clearly written right outside baggage claim next to a booth to buy your ticket. For NZ$16 it takes you from the airport right into the city to 5 set stops, and you can take one from the city to the airport from any of 7 stops. It runs every 15 minutes. I’ve never seen such easy airport transportation. Let’s work on this US.)

Planning to Not Plan for New Zealand

The other day I made a decision about my month in New Zealand: I am not going to have a guidebook. It’s been immensely helpful to have the Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide to South America, don’t get me wrong, but I want to experience this part in a different way.

Every time I tell someone where I’m going I am flooded with “you have to go here!” This has happened a lot with New Zealand, so I figured I would trust my fellow travelers and just go with what they said. Who could tell me what to see better than someone who I know shares my enthusiasm for the backpacker lifestyle? Plus in a country where it seems you can do no wrong, where even just driving down the road is a sight to see, why would I want to burden myself with a guidebook’s list?

After traveling around South America for the past 3 months, I already know that I want to do another long trip in the future that is very spontaneous. I want to do the one way flight with no plan method. Just show up and see where life takes you. New Zealand is my chance to do that within this RTW trip; arrive in Auckland, leave from Auckland, and let life do the rest.

So in an hour I will board my plane with just 2 nights booked at a hostel in Auckland and a handwritten list of names of places from friends. Anyone in Auckland want to help me figure out the next step when I get there?

Thoughts from Cordoba: Goodbye South America

September 11, 2014. “As I finish my deluxe jamon y queso sandwich (con tomate y lechuga!), sip my Stella (tastes so good after so much South American beer), and enjoy the brisk spring air at an outside table in Cordoba, I think: ‘I am ready for Buenos Aires.’

For me, BA means a few things. It is a big city, and I have lived in big cities for the past 5 years. I find comfort in them. I like them. More than the city, BA is finally my time to stay put. I will be in the city for 2 weeks, my longest time since Rio. Ok I messed this up a bit with booking 2 different hostels (to get to know different parts of town) separated by 2 days in Uruguay, but at least I don’t feel rushed to see and do everything so quickly. I have time. I will get to know BA – its barrios, its public transportation system, its energy.

It feels like I’ve been moving towards Buenos Aires. ‘Just keep going, you can slow down in BA.’

BA symbolizes the end to my South America portion. It is my final destination before I go to a new continent. It is Part 1 completed.

By the time I leave BA, I will have been traveling for over 3 months. It’s hard to reflect on that. It flew, yet Saõ Paulo feels like ages ago. These months in South America were and weren’t what I thought they would be. For starters, I didn’t mean to land cross every border, but I did. Plans I set out with changed along the way, and in some cases (Ecuador) changed back to original plans. In the end, I think I actually did the South America that I meant to back when I started planning this RTW trip over a year ago. It’s funny how that worked out.

I have been to incredible places, and added even more to a mental list of next trips. I have met incredible people, ones who I hope I don’t lose from my life. I have survived in a language I don’t know in places where they don’t speak English. I have slept in bunk beds, real beds, hammocks, buses, airplanes, airports, and one tent. I have eaten all manner of meat from Brazilian BBQ to alpaca to a termite (does that count as meat?) and celebrated any time I got vegetables. I have tried the local spirits from Caipirinhas to Aguardiente to Piscolas and had memorable (and occasionally forgettable) nights with them all. I have encountered the cultures of 7 different countries across this content. And all of this still feels like just scratching the surface of South America.

But it is almost time to experience all new things in an all new continent, and I guess I’m ready. So with Buenos Aires I will say goodbye to South America. Thank you for the best start to this adventure that I could have but also never could have asked for.”

The San Francisco of Chile, aka Valparaiso

I couldn’t stop thinking how similar Valparaiso was to San Francisco. It is a colorful city built on hills next to a bay, and walking around staring at the scenery is the highlight of any visit.

My first day in Valpo was cold and rainy, but I braved the walking tour anyway. Tours for Tips does a tour here as well, and although it was not as good as the one in Santiago it was still a fine introduction to the city: we learned about its history as a port town and how the Panama Canal had a negative effect on its economy, and the reason for all the colorful houses and street art. With all the hills, Valpo has functioning ascensors, basically funiculars they call elevators, that you can take up some of the more daunting hills. On our tour we got to ride one of these that has been around for 100 years. We also got to try a local treat, a cookie of two wafers joined by dulche de leche and all covered in chocolate, and a beverage. By the end though I was soaked and freezing, so I went back to my hostel to thaw with some tea before heading to Pablo Neruda’s house.

I have always found visiting homes interesting – blame it on my parents’ love of HGTV’s House Hunters – so this was a perfect activity for a rainy afternoon. It got even better when the ticket lady mistook me for a student and only charged me 1,500 COP instead of 5,000. I admittedly don’t know much about Pablo Neruda but after visiting his house I do know he had very unique taste. The audio tour was just okay, I got more information from the posters in the lobby, but it was nice to wander at my leisure through his quirky residence and admire his views over the whole city.

Day 2 was a big improvement in the weather; nice and sunny. I planned to wander around in search of street art, and when I opened up the door to leave my hostel, Julia (my new Aussie friend from Santiago) was standing there. Talk about perfect timing. So I spent the day with Julia and Paul, another Aussie from our hostel, wandering around the streets, the cemetery, and the water, admiring the beauty of Valpo drenched in sun.

We had heard that the view from a boat was incredible, so after a very filling lunch of empanadas (Chilean empanadas are huge, heavy on the onion, and include an olive and half a hardboiled egg) we went to the harbor to see if we could get out on the bay. After looking like lost tourists for a while we ended up haggling down a nice private ride for 4,000 COP each. There wasn’t much to the ride itself – we saw some sea lions and some navy ships – but it was just so nice to be out on the water in the sun, lounging on the front of the boat. It’s also a fantastic way to really see the hilly landscape of Valparaiso.

My last night out in Valparaiso started out innocent enough. We had a big dinner at a local recommendation and a few pisco drinks while listening to live music. Then we stopped by a party that some of the hostel employees had told us about, and things escalated. Didn’t I learn my lesson in San Pedro de Atacama? Pisco and house parties with hostel employees are a dangerous combination. What made this one especially bad was the need to catch a bus to Argentina the next morning at 8:00. The night was fun, but the morning was very rough. Let’s just say that somehow, after less than an hour of sleep, I was able to make it to the bus station and get a ticket to Argentina, onto which I clumsily spilled half my coffee, and the minute I was in my seat I fell instantly asleep before I could eat the empanada I had purchased as my breakfast. When I woke up, I was at the border crossing into Argentina.

Oh Chile, I love you and I hate you. You have some amazing places and I could see myself returning and staying for a while, but your pisco led to some nights and mornings that were unlike any others on my whole trip. So goodbye for now, time to explore the land of wine and fernet… Oh boy.

My Return to City Living in Santiago

After spending weeks in small towns and natural wonderlands, I was a bit weary of heading to the metropolis of Santiago de Chile. I was loving these out of the way destinations; on my 24 hour bus ride between San Pedro and Santiago I had a lot of time to think, and I had come to the conclusion that maybe those types of places were where I should be in life. I’ve been living in big cities for the past five years, maybe I’m done with cities now, maybe my future will be more rural. So with these thoughts running through my head I got off the bus and onto the subway.

And to my surprise, I felt like I was home. I breathed a sigh of relief to be back in a functional city, on efficient public transportation that would drop me off a mere block from my hostel. In what world is a subway comforting? Whatever world that is, that’s where I felt I was that day. This feeling continued as I got out of the subway and walked the busy streets.

I liked Santiago. This may not be a popular opinion, but the parts that I saw were all positive (except for the abundance of pollution, that part I hated). The first thing I did was hike up Cerro San Cristóbal. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself – here I was thinking that I was happy to be back in a big city and the first thing I did was go for a hike on the biggest mountain in town. The hike was fairly vertical but not bad; it took about 30 minutes to get up the path and another 10 or so up to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top. The view was spectacular. The whitewashed city is surrounded by snow-capped Andes mountains. To add to the visual contrast between nature and concrete, there were palm trees at the top. So you’re looking at snowy mountains, big city, and tropical foliage. It’s crazy in a great way.

I spent the afternoon wandering around the city. The pedestrian park and paths by the river struck me as feeling very Parisian. I stopped for lunch at the Mercado Central, home to tons of seafood stalls, where I had a delicious seafood stew and local Chilean beer for very cheap. The people who worked at the stall were so incredibly friendly. We had a broken Spanglish conversation about where I was from and if I liked Chile, and they even gave me little gifts of a tiny mug depicting San Pedro and a Valparaiso magnet. Such friendly people.

That afternoon I did the Tours for Tips walking tour. This is just what it sounds like: the tour itself is free, but you tip your guide at the end based on enjoyment, budget, or whatever other reason you have. It’s entirely up to you. This afternoon tour was a general overview of history of the city and I thought it was fantastic. Our tour guide Antonia was so knowledgeable and another example of the friendliness I’d come to experience in Chile. I have recommended this tour to everyone who’s going to Santiago. I learned a lot about the culture and history of the city and country, from the military coup in 1973 to what on earth Coffee with Legs is. It even ended with a local sangria-like beverage.

I’d met a few cool people on the walking tour, so we decided to check out the nightlife of Bella Vista, supposedly the hip fun neighborhood. What we learned was that there is no nightlife on a Tuesday. It was still cool to get to know Julia and Andrew over a few beers and dulce de leche-filled churros, and we made a plan to meet the next day for the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights).

It was good we decided to do this together. It’s a fascinating museum that focuses on human rights violations during the military regime from 1973-1990. It tells about prisoners, torture, disappearances, protests, and ultimately the end of the dictatorship. It is a lot to handle; I don’t recommend going if you’re hungry or tired. It’s a bit mentally and emotionally draining, but it is entirely worth going to.

We rewarded ourselves with a local lunch of a hot dog covered with avocado and tomatoes, and some market shopping. We said our goodbyes and I made my way to a late afternoon bus to Valparaiso.

I left Santiago with a very positive feeling. I had a good mixture of cultural, historic and social activities, with a healthy dose of wandering around. I ate some good local lunches and some decent included meals as well; my hostel Chilli Hostel Santiago had both breakfast and dinner included! It will make for an interesting entry into the “meals included” photo project I’ve been doing. Not only was there finally fruit again with breakfast, but I had a dinner of spaghetti one night and quiche and rice the next. Not a bad deal!

San Pedro de Atacama

Add San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to the list of places that I almost didn’t leave. Much like Minca and Baños, San Pedro is a small town in the middle of nowhere with a plethora of outdoor activities. I’m sensing a theme.

I arrived in San Pedro after the Salt Flats high on the nature that had just surrounded me for three days. San Pedro was an extension of that wonder – more desert, lagoons and volcanoes that looked like another planet. It was amazing to continue seeing this unique land, but it also meant that most of the attractions in San Pedro were repeats of what I had just seen in Bolivia. So I went for the two new, and in my opinion best, activities.

Night one I did what they call the Astrological Tour, aka stargazing. My timing was good since it was still early in the moon’s cycle so we could see more of the sky. We were taken out of town, far away from any lights, and out onto a wooden platform in the middle of a field. In the center of the platform was a large high-power telescope. Through this we were shown individual stars, groups of stars, different colored stars, stars that sparkled like diamonds, and planets. The highlight was supposed to be clearly seeing the rings around Saturn but due to its position in the sky it was pretty blurry; I could just barely make out the rings. After a hot chocolate break our guide used a Burning Man-strength laser to point out galaxies and constellations. Because we’re in the southern hemisphere the sky is so different from what I grew up with. I had never seen the southern cross, nor had I seen the two smaller galaxies that accompanied the Sagittarius leg of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Did you know the Milky Way has 8 arms but we can only see two from Earth? It was a very educational, and beautiful, night.

The next day was my adventure day. I went Sandboarding, and I absolutely loved it. I have added to my potential future plans becoming a sandboarding instructor in San Pedro de Atacama. Sandboarding here is literally strapping on a snowboard and helmet and riding down a massive sand dune. The walk back up to the top is a pain in the ass, but every run down was a fresh reminder of why I wanted to go back up. With each run I got progressively higher up the dune, ending with a steep, fast descent to the canyon floor. It. Was. Awesome. It didn’t hurt that the view was pretty incredible too. This is definitely one of my favorite things I’ve done this trip so far. I also had my GoPro strapped to my helmet so I’ll hopefully post a video soon.

After sandboarding they took us to this overlook for sunset and pisco sours. Of all the sunsets I’ve seen in the past 3 months, I think this one might be on top. It was breathtaking.

The rest of my time in San Pedro was spent hanging out with awesome people – on my sandboarding adventure, other guests at my hostel, and the hostel employees and owner. I’m not surprised that people who visit San Pedro never want to leave; I was almost one of them. That Saturday night I ended up out at a local house party with some of the hostel employees. It was a long night with way too much pisco but it was a ton of fun. The next day I nursed my hangover at the hostel, eating lunch with the same group from the night before, and I saw how this could actually be my life. It was sad to leave that night, but like other places before I didn’t say goodbye, only that I would return one day.


Thoughts from Copacabana

August 22, 2014. Watching the sun set over Lake Titicaca from on top of Cerro Calvario.

“Nature. That’s really it. The moments that I’ve felt the most relaxed, happiest I’m doing this, and amazed at the world have all been when I was surrounded by pure, amazing, beautiful nature.

I love cities, don’t get me wrong. I did study architecture. I can be wowed by buildings, towers, skylines, and infrastructure too, and I’ve enjoyed seeing these around South America. But this trip has been different in what I’m prioritizing and enjoying most.

How many times have I sought out a spot to watch the sunset? It was an activity that I made sure I did every time I used to visit LA – watch sunset on the beach – but I didn’t realize it would be such a priority all over the world.

I bent over backward figuring out how to get to the Salt Flats, adding and deleting cities only so that I could get there. Cities became expendable.

Nature. From humid beaches in Colombia to the highest lake in the world in Bolivia, nature never fails to impress. And it’s during these moments, staring at the landscape, when I truly feel at peace.”

When Did I Learn How to Say “Petrified Lava” in Spanish?

Our Salt Flat tour guide, Victor, only spoke Spanish. We luckily had Sylvia with us, a native Bolivian who was fluent in both Spanish and English, but it was still Sylvia’s vacation so we couldn’t expect her to serve as our translator the whole time. So I tried to listen to and pick up on as much as I could from what Victor told us.

I understood more than I even knew was possible. Suddenly I was translating to other people in my group. “We’re at over 3500 m elevation right now. The volcano over there is still active, and the rocks in front of us are formed from petrified lava.” Where the hell did that come from? I only took Spanish in 7th and 8th grade and we did not learn these words.

As I continue to travel around Spanish speaking countries, I’m finding that I’m able to understand quite a bit more than I expected. I have a few theories on why this is. For starters, somewhere in the recesses of my mind the little Spanish that I learned when I was a teenager is still there. That’s a fairly young age to learn a new language so things stuck easier then. And now this has formed a base for picking up more words.

More so, I think having experience with a second language in general has helped. Not that knowing German is actually useful in South America, but I have figured out how to pick up the gist of what someone is saying by knowing some words and contextual clues. Although sometimes I do throw in German words when I’m attempting to speak Spanish. I think my brain defaults to “not English” and chooses the next language it knows.

I also try to speak it whenever I can, even if it is just a few words awkwardly strung together. I would rather try to converse in Spanish than just be another monolingual American. I think because I don’t really know Spanish I am able to throw caution to the wind and try to find any words and gestures I can to convey what I am trying to say. Unlike German, which I’m supposed to know well so I get too self-conscious to speak it.

This is just a theory, but I think it all combined into me becoming a sort of translator on a few occasions. Starting with the Salt Flat tour, when 4 out of 6 of us didn’t understand any Spanish, and continuing on to future cities with other English speakers.

I do still wish I knew more Spanish and had worked on it more before and during my time in South America, but at the very least I feel like I can get around now. It’s kind of fascinating to think about what the mind can pick up – like the three different kinds of flamingos in Bolivia and how to tell them apart.