Friday, December 23, 2011

Vina del Mar, Chile

Vina is a short subway ride from Valparaiso. You can catch the train at Estacion Puerto and you have to buy a subway card. The ride is only about 25 minutes and Vina is a world away from Valparaiso. Where Valpo is working class, Vina is the Chilean version of posh.

I exited at Estacion Vina which is near the Parque Quinta Vergara, a nice park with horse drawn carriages. I chose this exit because it was the closest to the Corporacion Museo de Arquelogio e Historia Francisco Fock (or the Fock Museum). The Fock Museum is quite small but focuses on the inhabitants of Easter Island (Isla Pascua) and actually has a Moai head outside. It was surrounded by a by a bunch of bushes and I had heard that people had vandalized it. WTF?

Anyway, it was a great little museum and it also featured a section on Shrunken Heads (not sure why) but very informative.

Vina is also famous for a Flower Clock (Reloj de Flores) but it wasn't that exciting to me.

Overall, I much prefer Valpo to just seems more alive.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Valparaiso, Chile

The first time I ever heard of Valparaiso was Valparaiso, Indiana. I thought what a weird name---little did I know years later I would read some Isabel Allende novels.

After I read Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia by Isabella Allende, I fell in love with the idea of Valparasio. A port town built on a hill, full of adventure and excitement, longing and heartbreak.

The real Valparaiso lived up to it's expectations. I took a bus from Santiago (about an hour) and ended up at the downtown Valparaiso bus station. I stayed at the Da Vince Hotel which is located on Cerro Alegre.It's close to everything. And the owner was lovely....he actually gave me a hug after I left.

Be forewarned, to live Valparaiso is to have super strong calf muscles. They aren't joking when they say there are a lot of hills. I mean it's a workout just to get to the store. But it's so worth it.

I went to a couple vegetarian restaurants (who knew there would be so many?). I went to Bambu, where there was this super cute little kid in a Ramones T-shirt. And also went to Jardin del Profeta where they made the best pumpkin soup.

There was a lot of walking around since Valpo isn't high on museums (although the poet Pable Neruda had a house there). But it was just amazing walking all the hills. It really put San Francisco to shame.

This city reminded me of Guanajuato, Mexico.,_Guanajuato

I hope one day to be able to go back. There was a fabulous walking path that encompassed the who port and it was amazing. This is one of the towns you dream of but I'm not so sure I'd like to live there, Did I mention how steep the hills were?? It made it difficult just to run to the local market.

Crossing the Andes by bus...

It's actually fairly easy to catch the bus from Mendoza to Santiago, Chile although I was a little apprehensive since we had to cross the Andes Mountains (aka the mountains where the Uruguayan soccer team crashed and had to eat each other, aka the movie Alive).

You leave Mendoza from the bus terminal (there are plenty of companies offering this trip and you can buy tickets the day of but get there before 10 a.m. because the buses only leave once a day in the morning).

The Argentinian part of the trip is a fairly gradual ascent and you pass by vineyards on the way up the mountains. I went in early November (the beginning of summer there) but I think they close the pass in their winter.

After about 3 hours, you get to the Los Libertadores border crossing. There are tons of cars, buses and trucks all waiting to cross the border (having grown up crossing the Detroit/Windsor crossing to Canada it was nothing new to me but a lot of people seemed bored/annoyed/in urgent need of a restroom.

You have to go through the exit visa line from Argentina, then go to the enter Chile line and then get everything searched and then they put everything back on the bus (BTW, the people who load your bags back on to the bus expect/demand a tip (una propina). They don't work for the bus companies so I guess this is free enterprise at it's purest.

It reminds me of Danielle's story about the guys in Brazil who, for a tip, watch your parked car and "guard" it against thieves. Yeah, right like they're going to risk getting jacked up from some car thieves for a $1-2 tip!

The Chilean side is much steeper and there were a few times I actively cringed but it wasn't as scary as I thought...a few hairpin turns and tipping to one side worries.

You arrive in the downtown Santiago bus station which is a bit dodgy so definitely take a cab.

All in all, it was much preferable to flying (again with the Alive scenario) and I'm actually not sure if there are flights?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mendoza, Argentina

Wine country!!! I thought I'd be right at home but I didn't enjoy Mendoza as much as I thought I would. On first glance, (taxi from the airport) I thought it looked like California...dusty, warm, dry. And I guess it is, what with all the vineyards and olive oil production, but something was still lacking.

Although I would love to give it another chance because I feel it could grow on you.

It's a sleepy town with not much else to do besides tour/bicycle the vineyards. I didn't see a building higher than two stories. A big change from BA.

I did a wine and olive oil tour. Also walked around alot. It is a nice city for walking and I stayed at two different hotels. Ibis Hotel when I first got there---great hotel but not near the city center and Argentino Hotel which is adjacent to the main plaza, Plaza Independencia. The plaza has a small museum, a nice fountain and tons of market stalls. I bought some fernet as a gift for a friend. For some reason, Argentinian people are obsessed with this drink. It tastes basically like Sambouca, which is iffy at the best of times.

The town is a little sleepy but I wouldn't mind going back and checking it out again. I went there in order to be able to take the bus to Santiago, Chile and avoid the $140 airport fee if I had flown into Chile. Plus I wanted to be able to say I had taken a bus across the Andes (aka the mountains where the Uruguayan soccer team crashed and had to eat the corpses to survive).

You can take a bus across these mountains very easily and very cheaply, although they weren't nearly as big as I thought they would be. In fact, I felt a little jipped. But it still was beautiful scenery and hairpin curves at points. You go through customs half-way and as is usual, you are expected to tip all the bag handlers. Travel time to Santiago is about 5 hours or so.

Friday, November 18, 2011

La Boca

One of the obligatory tourist stops in Buenos Aires is the area called La Boca (the mouth) which was the original port. This is the area of brightly colored tin sided houses you see in all the postcards and photos.

The area surrounding La Boca is completely dodgy but the main tourist street La Caminita is ok. I've read some reviews of this area where people were told they could walk there and were promtply mugged in the middle of the afternoon. Seriously, don't walk here. If you want to go the economical way, take the subway to the last blue line stop, Constitucion and take a cab the rest of the way. Even our cab driver warned us how sketchy the area is, but it is pretty.

Known as the birthplace of the tango, there are plenty of couples willing to demonstrate outside of restaurants and shops. If you take your picture with them you have to tip but little did Danielle and I know that even if you sat at the restaurant and didn't have anything to do with them, they will still expect tips. Although it was worth it watching the guy dancer having to pick up every overweight tourist and pose with them in his arms.

All the shops just sell tacky tourist crap and as you walk down the street, you will be accosted to come in to whatever restaurant you happen to be walking by. We decided on one which had a guy who was sporting the famous Argentinian man bun. See below.

Obviously that's not the real pic of the guy we saw but when I google imaged "man bun" I learned there's apparently a whole sub strata of women who dig this 'do. They should just go to Argentina...just about every guy down there is rocking the man bun.

I know it sounds like I didn't like La Boca, but it is pretty and I had a good time. Will I ever go back? No. But it's a place you should definitely see if you're in town.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ushuaia, Argentina...The End of the World

Danielle and I took another side trip from Buenos Aires; this time to Ushuaia which is the most southerly city in the whole world and the jumping off point for Antarctica. Port Williams, Chile disputes Ushuaia's claim, as technically P. Williams is farther south but apparently it consists mostly of a military base and the few stores that services said base. Ushuaia's argument is that does not constitute a city.

It truly is "El Fin de Mundo" or the End of the World.

It is about a 2 or so hour flight from BA and not too expensive. If you go, I would plan on spending 2, maybe 3 days.

A taxi from the airport to town is cheap (you definitely don't need a car here) and we stayed at Hotel Austral which was one of my two favorite hotels in South America. It's a good price and very near the downtown area.

One of the things we were most excited to do was do a penguin rookery tour. We used Pira Tour, which is the only tour that is allowed to let passengers out on the island where the penguins live. Others have to moor off-shore. You can book this tour at the pier, although space is limited and it is popular so you may want to book in advance or online.

The tour begins with a 1.5 hour bus ride to an estancia (ranch) where you board a boat to go to the penguin colony. DRESS WARM! It is seriously freezing and the boat is open air. The winds that come off Antarctica are serious and face numbing.

But when you get there and get to walk among the penguins (penguinos in Spanish) it is truly amazinfg (although a bit stinky). You can get about 3 feet away from them and Pira Tours really emphasizes conservationism. In Spanish they say, "Tocamos con los ojos no con los manos"--We touch with our eyes not with our hands.

During the tour, you also get to stop at the famous bent tree that's in all the National Geographic photos and postcards. See what I mean about it being windy. Look what it did to that poor tree.....

At the Visitor Center you can also get your passport "officially" stamped with an Ushaia stamp.

We also did the Beagle Channel tour (yes, it's named after the ship Charles Darwin made famous); you can book this tour at the pier. This tour isn't as cold as the penguins because the boat is enclosed with outdoor viewing areas. On this tour you'll see a colony of sea lions, the "lighthouse at the end of the world" which isn't really the one Jules Verne wrote about but everyone thinks it is and also a really smelly bird colony. Come to think of it, the sea lions were pretty stinky too.

You also get to get out on of the islands and the guide explains about the indigenous people and also about the plant and animal life in the area as well as telling you some of the history of the area. We did ours in Spanish but they speak English.

Back on dry land, Danielle suggested we check out the Yamana Indian museum, which I didn't think I was really going to like but it was fabulous. The Yamana are the original people of that area and they gave the area it's name. Because it's so freaking cold down there, the Yamana would always have a fire lit (even a small one in their fishing boats) so European settlers, who saw all these fires from their boats, named the region "Tierra del Fuego" or Land of Fire.

The Yamana also didn't wear clothes which seems at odd with the harsh environment, but we learned that if they wore clothes while fishing, the clothes would get wet and freeze. So the Yamana would cover their bodies with animal fat and grease, thereby water-proofing themselves.

The last thing we did besides drinking alot of beer in the 2 Irish pubs there was to go to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Foreigners have to pay while Argentinians get in free which is kind of weird. But on the van ride there, we were offered a drink of mate, which is the national obsession there. This doesn't sound weird until you realize everyone drinks out of the same metal straw that is attached to the cup. No one there thinks this is weird. Apparently there are no germaphobes in South America.

The park was really nice although we couldn't do the hike we wanted. Trails were not marked all that well and we were nervous about getting lost and dying in the Argentinian wilderness.

Ushuaia is the farthest I've ever been from home and if you can do it, I highly recommend it. It's amazing to me that people can survive and adapt to such harsh conditions (the town has a population of around 64,000).

One thing that was interesting to me was how angry the Argentinians still are about the Falklands War with Britain in the early 80's. While largely forgotten in England, the Argentinians still have banners proclaiming, "Las Malvinas son Argentina" --the Falklands are Argentina. Kinda strange but we also happened to be there on a local holiday and saw a parade in which trucks had been shrink-wrapped with the same slogan.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tigre, Buenos Aires Argentina

Another popular day trip is to Tigre, which is a seperate town about 17 miles north of Buenos Aires. To get there, you take a local train from the Retiro subway station. It takes about an hour but is super cheap, like $1.50 each way cheap.

Danielle and I got off the train and walked around a little and then the smell hit us. We were walking across the river (the Parana Delta) and it was just a wall of stank that assaulted us. It smelled like a cross between rotting garbage and a backed-up toilet. Eventually, as we made our way down to the river side, we saw what it was. There were hundreds of dead and dying fish flopping around on the banks of the river and along the jetty. I have never seen anything like it before. Andth e dead ones were rotting in the sun, hence the stench from Hell.

I asked a local man who was just kind of hanging around what was happening with the fish and he said it was because of the government, that they don't care about the pollution in the waterways and that's what was killing the fish. It seemed a cop-out answer but it was all we had, so who knows?

Other people I know went there after we did and they say they didn't see any fish (and they were pretty dang noticeable). Maybe it was just an off day for Tigre?

We walked alot but there's not much of interest in the town. There's an outdoor market (which was only functioning at half capacity when we were there) but they were selling old trinkets and junk you could get anywhere.

If you walk along the river (which is a muddy brown) you will get harassed to sign up for a river cruise. We contemplated it, but it's pretty steep price wise and at that point, I think we were done with Tigre.

While I had a fun day out with a good friend, I really don't understand why people like this place. It's super popular (even Madonna and brood took a river cruise during her split with Guy Ritchie--thanks Wikipedia).

Who knew?

Colonia del Sacramento

One of the most popular day trips from Buenos Aires is to Colonia, Uruguay, which is Uruguay's oldest city and was founded by the Portuguese. Danielle and I decided to check it out, if for nothing else than to add another stamp to the old Passport.

I recently read that only 30% or something of Americans even have a passport---neither of my parents do--while mine is one of my prized possessions. We do live in a freaking huge country, but c'mon people!

On a side note, living near Canada as we do now, they offer a half-price passport (which is more like a driver's license) that will allow you to travel to Canada and Mexico but that's it. Not sure of the point of this...I say spend the extra $50 or whatever and get the real deal.

To get to Colonia you will have to take a ferry. There are 2 types of service: fast (about 1 hour) and slow (about 3 + hours). You will be crossing the Rio Plata, which is one of the widest rivers in the world. In fact, it may be the widest...I'm just too lazy to look it up. Suffice to say, you can't see across to the other side so it looks like the ocean rather than a river emptying into an ocean and the Argentinians will sunbathe and hang out on the banks just like at the beach.

Buquebus is the ferry service and you catch the ferry at Puerto Madero in BA. The terminal looks exactly like an airport and it can get very crowded, so you may want to buy online or in advance. Definitely take the fast save a few dollars is SO not worth being stuck on a ferry all day (although the ferry is huge and super modern, complete with duty-free shopping).

Uruguay is 1 hour ahead, so factor that into your plans. And don't forget your passport.

Unfortunately, it started raining after we got there, which put a damper on our plans to rent scooters and cruise around the city and countryside. Instead, we opted for covered golf carts!

Yes, that is a Uruguay shweatshirt I'm wearing...did I mention it also got pretty cold. That dang sweatshirt cost like $50 and ended up getting holes in it a few months later and had to be given to Goodwill. Still pissed.....

We cruised all around, went down 1-way streets, made illegal U-turns and pretty much made road nuisances out of ourselves but it was SO fun and really recommended. Walking can get pretty blinking tiring after awhile.

We also checked out some museums on the history of the town and the Portuguese influence.

While I had a great time, Colonia for me was a one trip only kind of place. It was cool to see another country (and it's much closer than Montevideo the capital) but it wasn't that exciting that I'd want to go back. You can definitely see everything in 1 day and probably still have time before your ferry is due to depart.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Recoleta Cemetery

This is one of the top rated things to do in Buenos Aires and everyone seems to love it, but for me it was just ok. I'm not into Evita which is why most people seem to go. And I've seen above ground cemeteries before (they have them in New Orlean, Louisiana but they warn you not to go in there since they are a breeding ground for petty thieves).

Alas, Recoleta was no different. My friend Danielle came down and someone tried to snatch her purse while we were walking around the outside (the entrance is very hard to find). Three teenagers walked past us and one of them made a snatch and grab at her purse (Danielle had done everything right in that she had looped her bag across her shoulder and I think it was under her jacket) but they were just stupid teenagers looking for a thrill.

We were both shocked but I managed to yell some English curse words at them until I remembered Spanish and managed a, "Pendejos!!" which according to whoever's translation you trust means, alternatively jerks, idiots or as my mother insists, pubic hair.

We took it in stride but as everyone notes, just be careful. We didn't look like rich tourists, ummm because we're not. But I will say other than this isolated incident, BA was very safe and I took many a cab inebriated and also walked home by myself late at night on quite an occaison (by late at night, read 11 p.m. Sorry I'm old---actually here it's not so much that I was safe but rather than no one else was out yet partying).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

First days in Argentina

Again, in the informative vein of trying to help any other travellers, I wanted to finish the rest of my trip to South America. I also want to keep this as kind of an electronic diary so I won't forget the trip.

When you first fly into the Buenos Aires International Airport, you will have to pay a $140 "visa fee" if you are American. Check for other nationalities. You wait in the customs line and when they see your American passport, they will direct you to another line where to pay. They do take credit cards at least, and no, I don't know of any way around this fee.

When you exit customs, my advice is not to take a cab (especially if you don't speak the language). They have several booths right outside customs where you can book a private driver or get on a bus. I used Manuel Tiendo Leon exclusively. When I first stumbled off the plane at 6 a.m., I booked the private driver, which at about $60 was a bit pricey but I would recommend it until you get your bearings. I also got fabulous views of the city waking up. Later, I would only take the bus (a nice Greyhound style bus) to the airport (about $10) but until you know where you're going, shell out the extra $50 and get a driver.

I rented a studio apartment in the Palermo district which is very close to alot of museums and touristy stuff, as well as the Subte (subway--which at less than $.50 a ride can't be beat).

I used the rental agents ByT Argentina and have nothing but great things to say about them. They speak English and you can do the rental contract in English as well. I met the owner of the apartment I was renting and we chatted for awhile before the rep came to sign the papers.

The apartment was in a 12-story building and there was a cafe/bar on the ground floor. I can't remember the name but it's a super popular (and pricey) chain. They give free wi-fi so that was the main reason I went there. There was also Spring, one of the handful of vegetarian restaurants down ther street. The only thing I don't like is that it was buffet and kind of heavy on cheese, but a nice option.

Renting a studio or an apartment for an extended stay is definitely the way to go. I compared what I was paying with a girl in my Spanish class who was living in a hostel in not so good an area of town and we paid almost the same. Plus, you have your own kitchen and can go to the grocery store, which is named Disco, so not sure why.

You do have pay cash up front, which is the norm in Argentina but it was still scary carrying over $2,000 in cash on me from Panama!

The only downside was the superintendant lady for our building was this crazy troll who wouldn't let you hang out in the hallway (I was trying to get wi-fi) and she would give you the stink-eye when you came in. When she kind of yelled at me and friend Danielle, who had come down to visit, I had enough and complained to ByT who told the owner of the apartment. They had some words with her and she calmed down. But she would still pop out of the basement when she heard people going up the stairs, lol.

My first few days, I just settled in. BA is really a beautiful, modern city but beware the dog poo! Apparently, the idea of curbing your dos hasn't really caught on in Argentina.

I did live very close to one of the biggest shopping malls in the city, Alto Palermo and while I'm not super into shopping, did make for a cheap lunch at the food court

It's so funny when I hear people complain they don't have $ to travel and yes, I know it does cost money but there are so many ways to travel on the cheap. I don't know why people think you have to go to expensive restaurants and stay at expensive hotels. One of my coworkers is considering letting 2 weeks of vacation go to waste (we have a use it or lose it policy) because he has no one to travel with and ,he says, no money. For shame! I'm planning a trip to England in the fall and none of my hotels are over $60---many are much lower. You just have to do research.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Panama City and Drug Tests

I know I’ve been absent for a long time, but I recently spent 2 months in Argentina and Chile and benefited greatly from blogs written about the places I wanted to see. So I thought I’d pay it forward and maybe help someone else out who is planning a trip down South.

When I last left this blog, I was in Boquete, Panama. I was in the process of getting a background check down by the government for a federal job. I got a phone call that they wanted to do my drug test and they could Fed Ex a urine collection kit to a hospital in Panama City and I could do the test there.

I took the bus from David (Panama’s 3rd biggest city and pretty much a dump—avoid if possible) to Panama City (traveled the Pan American Highway the whole time. This is the world's longest road but there is a big gap between southern Panama and northern Columbia. I was told this is to prevent drug trafficking) and booked a room at Hotel Santana near the historic center (Casco Viejo which literally means old helmet—not sure why?). All in all, it was ok for me (being about $40 a night or so). But it’s in a pretty rough neighborhood. If it was my first visit to Panama City, I would have been scared. But it was a clean hotel and near the touristy stuff so you have to make that call yourself.

Here are the Trip Advisor reviews:

I will say, my last day there I was sitting on my bed watching TV and a huge black scorpion crawled out from under the dresser and scuttled under my bed. After I jumped off the bed and went screaming to the front desk, they came up and “broomed” it out the door. Pretty par for the course for the tropics I guess since no one seemed bothered.

They also have free Internet access and a decent breakfast.

Also, if you’re a fan of history, it’s very close to the Coca Cola Bar, which I believe was a hang out for Che or Castro…can’t remember which. It looked a little creepy to me so I didn’t go in.

I had 2 days to explore so I walked around the old town, which is ok but I’m not a huge fan of this town. I had done the Panama Canal before which is pretty cool to see once, but unless you’re an engineer, once is enough.

However, I did see something new this trip. San Jose Church has the Altar de Oro (Golden Altar) which was the only thing saved when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan (yes, "the Captain Morgan" of college-age debauchary rum fame) sacked the town in the 17th century. According to legend, the monks painted the altar with mud to make it appear made out of wood or worthless. I had recently read a historical novel about Panama, which was god awful by the way, but it had a description of the event so it was interesting to see the altar in person.

The Panama City airport is nowhere near the city (although it’s not so bad to sleep in as I later discovered), so you will need to catch a taxi. I think it’s about 20 or 30 bucks.

Having gotten the drug test down (I learned a lot of new Spanish words that day), I caught my flight to Buenos Aires. Copa Airline has the monopoly on air travel out of Panama which sucks but what can you do?