unexplained sponge bobs, creepy metro men, and battling inertia

13 Apr

….And I’m back!

As promised, I am posting much less frequently these days.  Basically now that I’m in one place, my life isn’t too exciting.  But in a lot of ways, it’s better!  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Buenos Aires for over a month and a half.  It has been one of the fastest in my life.  And despite not having a full-time job, I feel incredibly busy.  Not sure how I’ve managed that.  I also managed to walk 16 blocks looking like this without getting heckled (hey, it was raining…I have limited resources):

A lot of my time and effort has gone into my new blog, Buenoseria.  There are a ton of Buenos Aires blogs out there–I’m one of about two million expats who got sucked in the Bs As vortex–so to make mine stand out from the rest, I’ve decided to create neighborhood-wide guides.  If you’re curious, you can check out my first stab, the guide to Palermo Soho: http://buenoseriauxiliar.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/all-thats-good-in-palermo-soho-intro/.  It’s a cool neighborhood right next to mine.  My favorite find is the unexplained Sponge Bob on a roof, facing away from the street, but I also came across a number of hole-in-the-wall places I would have never known about otherwise.  To create the guide, I literally walked every block of the neighborhood.  Like most projects I totally underestimated the amount of time it would take to complete, but I’m happy with the result and am picking out my next barrio to attack. 

Aside from operating a travel writing sweatshop for one, I’ve been busy working on my Spanish.  With just two private lessons a week I’ve made a huge improvement, though I’m nowhere near to fluent.  I have also managed to meet a bunch of cool people in the city, mostly expats.  They are all great, interesting folks!  But if I thought Florida was transient, this is something else entirely: most people I meet are in the city for one to five or six months.  For example, I met an awesome girl named Jeanette from Virginia, but she is returning home in a few weeks.  Boooo….

As for settling into life as a Portena, things have been relatively smooth.  There’s stuff that still baffles me–such as the disturbing pants trend illustrated below–but there are many things I love, such as free delivery of awesome food right to your door, awesome pastries, and wine that’s cheaper than water.  A lot of locals warn me that the city is dangerous, but frankly it doesn’t feel any worse than Philadelphia.  The main difference is that the sense of personal space here is different, so you have to be a little more vigilant about if people are just in your grill, or if they’re actually angling for your wallet. 

In fact, I’ve only had one creepy experience so far, and it was an abornomal one according to my local people.  One evening I took the subway back to my place around 6pm.  It was busy with people going home from work.  Generally I like to people watch on public transportation,but there was no one particularly notable on this train.  I get off at my stop, and on a whim I go into a housewares store (read: girly!).  I’m going through a bin of ugly napkins when I look up and see a man from the subway.  I recognized him as the guy next to me, but there was really nothing out of place about him–just your normal middle-aged guy on his way home from an office job.  It surprised me to see him there, and it immediately raised my red flags.  I left the store immediately and turned down the next block.  I looked back after a minute or so and sure enough, he was a half block behind me.  This is when I started to get concerned.  I picked up the pace, turned the corner, and scuttled quickly into a small grocery store with fruit crates stacked in front of its windows so you couldn’t see in.  I waited in the back for a few minutes, confident I shook the weirdo.  I turn the corner on an aisle about to head home and there he was, about six feet away.  He didn’t say anything, he just stared at me.  Super creepy!  At this point I was flat-out scared so I turned around and went to the front of the store where a beefy employee was stacking vegetables.  In broken Spanish I explained that the “man in yellow” was following me.  The employee responded, “quieres papas?” (you want potatoes?). 

Clearly, my Spanish hadn’t improved as much as I thought.

A woman working at the store could see my distress, so she came over to suss out the situation.  I tried some different Spanish words and got it across that this guy was being a creepster.  They understood me, and formed a human wall to block the guy from following me as I ran home to my place.  So even though it was a sort of scary incident, the ending is cool: a store of people who had never seen me before rallied to save me from the creepy metro man.  And I’ve never seen him since (whew). 

The Forgotten Country

Ask an American to name all of the countries of South America, and they would probaly come up with Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile…and maybe Ecuador and Venezuela.  The others definitely get a bit lost in the shadow of their larger, more famous neighbors.  For the shallow goal of adding another country to my list, I decided to visit Uruguay for a week or so. 

It’s literally only a one-hour boat ride from Buenos Aires.  Somehow though, it required an epic effort to get here.  Not in reality, but in my head.  The past six weeks of not traveling have been great.  I was so over being constantly on the road, and frankly I don’t know if I’ve recovered yet.  But seeing as how I had to vacate “my” apartment today, I figured this was a good time to take a vacation.  From my vacation.  Yes, it’s a tough life.  It’s pathetic to admit, but it was surprisingly difficult to battle the inertia of staying in place. I do wonder if Buenos Aires has some sort of weird gravitational pull that bends time and space.  I’ll be honest: I had to make myself go.  Even so, I barely made the boat departure; in the back of my mind I thought, see? I wasn’t meant to leave…

But now that I’m out of the city, I’m finding it to be a nice break from the craziness.  Right now I’m in Colonia, a beautiful historic town from the 1700s with a lot of cool architecture and a relaxed shoreline.  Apparently the place gets crazy in the summer and on weekends, but now that it’s the beginning of fall (but still warm!) and in the middle of the week, it’s quiet and relaxing. 

Will post more later in the trip!


So What’s Next?

27 Mar

It’s the end of March, and technically I should be returning to the States next week.  Well, that’s not going to happen…

I have decided to become a temporary resident of Buenos Aires for the next few months.  I came back here at the end of February, thinking I will stay maybe until the end of March or so.  When I stepped off the plane from Peru, I breathed a sigh of relief: I felt like I had returned home!  It was a wonderful feeling and I’m going with it.  

Since arriving, I have found an apartment (but will be switching again when my lease is up in a few weeks), have my neighborhood bakery I stop by every day to buy facturas (delicious pastries) and empanadas, and therefore now have bought running shoes and some workout clothes.  Every week I take about six to eight hours of private Spanish lessons and I’m rapidly improving, though I still sound like a mega-gringa. 

The view from my terrace

My temporary digs...not exactly "my" style, but it's nice!

The best part though is the people here.  Buenos Aires is a magnet for interesting, cool people from around the world–it’s so dynamic!  I have my friends that I met here before, but have also met a bunch of other really cool people in the past few weeks (mostly expats).  

My Must-Have: Fun Girlfriends!

Other than feeling fulfilled and happy–and isn’t that what this trip was about?–I have also decided to stay longer because it’s more fun to be unemployed here.  Project work is still scant back with my job as a city planner, and at best I’d be employed part-time…some of which I can actually do from my terrace here in Buenos Aires anyway.  Basically I’d be going back to a situation where I have sporadic income and no health care…but higher expenses.  Plus, the plane tickets back to the US are prohibitively expensive.  At least $1,000 ONE WAY.  Ouch! 

So I’m now one of the thousands of expats who have been sucked into the Buenos Aires vortex.  It’s been great, and it has also inspired me to pursue my interest in travel writing (thank you for the encouragement Mr. Barth!).  It’s not necessarily the most lucrative career, but it’s fun and I love it.  I never thought at the beginning of this trip that I’d end up living in Buenos Aires in my own apartment, tapping out travel dispatches…but it’s much more of the lifestyle I always envisioned myself having when I was younger. 

I will still update this blog once every week or so, but most of my energy is now going into a new travel blog I started, buenoseria.  It’s not as personal as this one, but more of a showcase of the cool nooks here in Buenos Aires and a general guide to life and culture in Argentina. 

Until my next dispatch in a week or so, chau chau!

The Bathroom Face Awards – Worst of South America 2011

27 Mar

I laughed, I cried, I’d do it again and again.  But not everything.  Although 95 percent of my trip was wonderful, there was a certain 5 percent that I could have lived without…but then I wouldn’t have the good stories!  In no particular order, the much-anticipated 2011 Bathroom Face Awards.

Biggest Rip-Off: Kayaking in Chepu, Chiloe

The source of the Bathroom Face moniker, kayaking in Chepu was a major waste of money, time and hard-won muscle mass.  I spent $100 (US!) to ride in some guy’s Jeep for 45 minutes, put on a weird neoprene suit, and kayak a miserable three hours through a monotonous, cold landscape.  I swear I paddled upstream both ways.  The guide wasn’t much of a guide either.  Supposedly we had to be quiet to not disturb the nature, which as far as I could tell consisted of bugs.  Where were the cute penguins that I thought lived here?  And the enchanted landscape that my Lonely Planet raved about?  Oh, absent.  Kayak = Fail. 

Most Overrated Destination: Chiloe, Chile

Initially I was going to skip Chiloe.  It was pretty far south of the other places I wanted to check out, and I was already cold many kilometers north.  But when my plans changed and I had four more days to kill I thought it was a sign that I should not miss Chiloe, this magical unspoilt island of indigenous culture and unique architectural gems.  First off, it’s far away from most of the other main attractions in Chile.  Second, the island is so big you don’t really get the sense you’re on some island…just a big hilly place that’s cold and rainy.  You can’t get around easily unless you have your own car, and the villages seemed like most others in Chile, with the exception of a few funky churches.  Had I not expected it to be amazing, I probably would have liked Chiloe just fine, but it’s really not worth the detour to be honest. 

Most Bizarre Mishap: Falling through the Bridge, Isla Mechuque, Chile

Notice a pattern in the locations?  You would think I would have learned my lesson about looking down before I walk here in South America…but I thought this mostly applied to the big cities where you have to sidestep broken tiles, holes, and giant piles of dog poop.  A pretty bridge on a rural island?  That too.  My leg fell through a hole, no joke.  In front of about forty people.  The hole was so big by the time I got my foot out, you could clearly see the river rushing by underneath.  Thank goodness I’m up-to-date on my shots.

Moral of the story: don’t go to Chiloe. 

WORST BUS TRIP: Tacna, Peru to Arequipa, Peru

The second part of what was already a frustrating journey, the eight-hour bus trip between Tacna and Arequipa was an exercise of tolerance.  Of stretching the reach of my comfort zone.  Prior to Peru, I was very spoiled by long-distance buses.  I always had enough room, and sometimes even had two seats to myself.  Well, I got greedy and gave up the plum front-row second level seat on the double-decker to a seat further in the back.  I thought I could nail two seats for the price of one.  This strategy backfired, as I had a very large seat companion.  To make matters worse, the seats reclined to almost 60 degree angles, meaning the guy in front of me leaning back effectively cut off access to anything below my torso.  Add to this the two worst in-trip movies of the entire adventure, and I was one unhappy customer.  Plus the scenery wasn’t good, which is almost unheard of here.

Most Boring Town: San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina

Argentines rave about this place, but I don’t get it.  Yeah there’s a nice lake.  So what?  There are about 5,000 nice lakes in Argentina.  I found the town to be sterile and lacking in soul…not to mention lacking in good hostels, restaurants, and other young independent travelers.  This part of my trip was entirely saved by rafiting Hua Hum with an adopted family.  Had this chance encounter not happened, I may have cut my trip early and gone home.  It really made me question my decision to travel solo around a continent I was unfamiliar with.  Luckily I hung in there and perservered, but San Martin was a serious speed bump of immensely boring proportions.

WORST HOSTEL: The Black Fly Lodge, Tilcara, Argentina

Ok, so I don’t actually know the name of the hostel…it was something very generic (but if you ever find yourself looking for a bed in Tilcare, do NOT go to the hostel closest to the bus station!).   This place was rank.  The bathroom was so dirty I couldn’t shower, and half the toilets didn’t have flush mechanisms (why not just build an outhouse in the back guys?)  Plus, the primary decorative scheme was fly paper strips hanging from the walls. COVERED in dead black flies.  Still, somehow there were about 10,000 other ones hanging out at the hostel too.  There were also other bugs of mystery, one of which bit my upper lip while I fitfully slept, leaving me with an unattractive welt for a few hours.  This was sort of place that worried me before my trip. 

WORST ANIMAL ENCOUNTER: Horseback Riding in Urubamba, Peru

I thought it wouldn’t get worse than Llana the Llama, but it did.  Much, much worse.  Horseback riding for five hours in rural Peru sounds bucoclic and lovely, but frankly it was probably the scariest, worst five hours of my life.  I really felt lucky to get off that horse without any sort of injury, though it’s safe to say I was mentally harmed by the excursion.  Next time, I go by foot or colectivo! 

Considering I was on the road for over eight weeks, it’s amazing nothing went all that wrong.  Sure, falling through a bridge is embarassing and no one wants to be called “Bathroom Face”, but this was a fantastic trip with relatively few things…in fact, I sort of hand to brainstorm for these awards.  

Buena onda!

Best of South America 2011

10 Mar

Ok, Best of South America may be a bit grandiose, considering I visited only one fourth of the continent’s countries.  But in no particular order, here are the winners of the much-coveted Allison.Goes.Sud awards:

BEST MAJOR CITY: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso grabs the Best City award on account of its uniqueness: nowhere else has such an interesting combination of colors, topography, and…smells.  For the traveler, there is an excellent mix of affordable places to stay and eat, and the city is great to wander around.  Plus, you basically get two cities in one:  the bohemian hill-city and the flat, commerical, uber-Latin city.  If that weren’t enough, you are within striking distance (less than two hours) of a huge array of other destinations like Vina del Mar, Santiago, wineries, and serene fishing villages. 

Honorable Mention: Buenos Aires

BEST SMALL CITY: Tigre, Argentina

Tigre has a lot going for it.  First, it’s easily accessible from Buenos Aires–just about a 45-minute train ride away.  Second, it has a lot of different experiences packed into a small area.  The German-esque architecture is neat to gawk at during a stroll, and it’s just a pleasant place for a wander.  But you can also hop on a local boat and venture into the watery passages of the delta, where colorful houses linked by rickety bridges poke out of the trees.  You can get off at any number of docks, and then venture further into the magical landscape on foot.  You will find friendly dogs, delicious secret restaurants, peaceful weekend homes, and boaters happily punting along.  As I walked through the area, the the word that kept coming to mind was “paradise.”

BEST TOWN/VILLAGE: Ollantaytambo, Peru

Maybe it was the fact that it was the only day in Peru that I wasn’t cold, but Ollantaytambo was the highlight of the country for me.  The enormous ruins are an awesome backdrop to the city, and provide for at least a couple of hours of exploration (and countless moments of realizing, “man, I am walking among Inca ruins in PERU!”).  But don’t miss out on the town itself.  Though tiny, its streets are charming with water rushing through the irrigation ditches, stalls selling handicrafts, and some legitimately good restaurants.  Well worth a night en route to Machu Picchu, assuming a mudslide doesn’t wipe out the train.

Honorable Mention: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

BEST DO-IT-YOURSELF ADVENTURE: Spanish Forts near Valdivia, Chile

The city of Valdivia is not a blockbuster destination–once you see the giant honking sea lions, you’ve pretty much seen it all.  However, the surrounding area is breathtaking and filled with history.  You can take the cheesy boat for tourists–which may, or may not, include mariachis–but a more fun and infinitely cheaper option is to do it yourself.  This involves catching a dicey pint-size bus to Niebla (don’t depend on the driver to tell you where this is, you’re on your own), then a rickety ferry across the water to Corral.  Once in Corral you can check out the old Spanish fort (very cool), or even better eat like a local at the only place open in town: a covered deck surrounded by a half dozen local kitchens.  Here you can choose from all sorts of local specialities, including delicious ceviche.  You can also walk around the village to the promontory, which reveals more villages and fortress ruins.  Be warned in bad weather the ferry is like an unhinged carnival ride.

Honorable Mention: Biking through the wineries of Cafayate, Argentina

BEST ADVENTURE ACTIVITY: Canyoning in Pucon, Chile

Canyoning is one of the coolest things you can do in your life.  Even if you don’t really like nature, you should do it.  Find a reputable operator, strap yourself in, and go for it.  It’s like being in a photoshoot for National Geographic.  The concept of canyoning is that you follow the course of a river by foot wherever it goes. This means over boulders, down waterfalls, and deep into canyons where you can touch both walls at the same time (maybe not the best activity for claustrophobics).  It was cold, and obviously you get wet…but it is an amazing experience.  Pucon has a lot of opportunities for this, but I recommend going on the Rio Correntoso.  Unforgettable! 

Honorable Mention: Rafting Hua Hum, near San Martin de los Andes, Argentina

BEST SCENERY: Colca Canyon, Peru

The Colca Canyon is stunning, and absolutely worth the 2:30am wake-up time that most tours there require.  It is unbelievably verdant with beautiful terraces, serene villages, distant waterfalls, and rushing rivers.  Although you can get the gist of it from a bus, the trek–which is gruelling–is infinitely more rewarding, and aids you in burning off all of those bread-and-marmalade breakfasts.  I recommend the two-day hike rather than the three-day option, since it takes in the same sights but without boring downtime.

Honorable Mention: Everything else, except the Argentine Pampas (a strong contender for the Most Boring Scenery in South America)

BEST HOSTEL (OVERALL): Wild Rover, Arequipa, Peru

Overall, I was pretty happy with the quality of hostels I encountered.  Some were a little dingy and hot, but some really impressed me.  Probably my overall favorite is a newer hostel in Arequipa called the Wild Rover.  Wild Rover is a chain of a few hostels in South America (typically owned by Irish or British guys I think).  The WR in Arequipa is the latest addition to the group.  The location is perfect: a few blocks from the main plaza, and close to good restaurants, bars, and the most interesting sites in the city.  The building itself is a beautiful old structure with cool courtyards and super spacious rooms.  Even the beds are oversized and incredibly comfortable!  I think the bathrooms were self-cleaning too…you could take a shower and half an hour later there was no evidence of it.  Best of all, the hostel has a laid-back bar/restaurant run by the staff, who are super friendly and helpful.  Two thumbs up!! 

Honorable Mention: Hostal Sonchek, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

BEST HOSTEL (FOR SOCIALIZING): La Casona 120, Iquique, Chile

Sometimes a hostel experience is all about timing.   The weekend I spent in Iquique just happened to be a weekend when La Casona was full of cool, fun, and interesting young people from around the world….and the hostel was celebrating its third birthday with a huge party (including the most delicious octopus I’ve ever had).  The facilities weren’t the best, but the people made up for it–and more. 

Honorable Mention:  Hostel Inn, Bariloche, Argentina

BEST PIECE OF ARCHITECTURE: Mapocho Station, Santiago, Chile

I have something embarassing to admit.  I have a crush on older man.  Way older.  So old, he’s dead.  Gustav Eiffel, if you were still alive, I might make a play for you to be my sugar daddy, that is how much I love your work.  Mapocho Station in Santiago took my breath away.  It was elegant, simple, beautiful…and not to be a total  pretentious architecture nerd, luminous.  Kudos to Santiago for taking a building that had become obsolete in its intended function, and turning it into a chic cultural center. 

BEST MEAL: Curanto, Chiloe, Chile

Chiloe was a bit of a disappointment for me.  The days there were not a total waste though: it provided me with my most bizarre accident, and my most memorable meal…curanto!  Or as my Argentine friend says, “asado in a hole.”   The process gave me pause–definitely made me double-check I had my Immodium on hand if needed–but the results were delicious, especially the mussels (out of this world!!!) and the starchy patty things.  Polished off with some wine and Spanglish conversation with Chilean tourists, it was one of my most memorable meals.

BEST COUCH SURFING: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Simply put, the Couchsurfing (CS) community in Buenos Aires is unbelievable.  There are thousands of members, and things to do almost every day and night of the week.  It’s a great mix of locals, temporary residents, and travelers…and if you have a question, you can post it to the forum and get the inside scoop.  The CS community is so good in Buenos Aires that it completely spoiled me; I never found such an active, friendly group of surfers anywhere else, and it inspired me to return to the city for the last part of my trip. 

Honorable Mention: Santiago, Chile

BEST BUS TRIP: Salta, Argentina to Cafayate, Argentina

This is one of the most tightly contested categories–with so much phenomenal scenery, and the huge number of bus trips I took, it was tough to narrow down.  But the award ultimately has to go to the journey between Salta and Cafayate in Northern Argentina.  The mountain landscapes constantly change and just get better and better as you approach Cafayate.  Even better, it’s only about a four hour journey so just as soon as you have the need a little something more to eat than the crumbly alfajore they give you for free, you are getting off the bus. 

Honorable Mention: Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina

It was a good trip.  A really good trip.  But not perfect.  Stay tuned for the Bathroom Face Awards–the Worst of South America 2011.

Final Week on the Road: The Sacred Valley

27 Feb

My final week of on-the-road travel is about to wrap up.  You might think I feel sad about this, but in reality I’m excited.  In just a few days, I will be back in Buenos Aires in a place of my own.  And one where I hopefully won’t have to wear flip flops in the shower.

This week has been intense!  My friend from college, Mary-Margaret, flew in from Houston to have a week of Peruvian fun and explorations.  A major theme was bad weather.  This wasn’t a surprise, as we both knew it would be the rainy season here in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley. 

For our first day together, we moseyed around Cusco to get a sense of the city.  Honestly, it’s not one of my favorites.  The level of tourism here is crazy, and is accompanied by people every three feet trying to sell you something. “Lady! Massage! No? Later Maybe? Lady!”  Or a little doll, or postcards, or woolly hats…anything you can imagine.  There are also tons of women around in traditional dress dragging llamas or alpacas (“photo?!?!”) or holding the cutest lambs you have ever seen.  Many of the lambs wear the Peruvian version of a yamakah.  Once I got pasty this onslaught, there were some really beautiful spots to seek out such as this monastery built on Inca ruins:

Monastery built on Inca ruins

On our second day we decided to get out of town and have a DIY adventure to the nearby ruins.  The clouds cleared and we thought we were in good shape…for about twenty minutes.  For the next three hours, we walked in the rain and took in the more minor Inca ruins around Cusco, which were pretty cool.


Cool stonework at Sacsaywaman

Even though we were wet, the walk was fun.  By the time we reached the fourth and final ruin, it looked like we had fallen in a river.  My ankles were bleeding.  The women at the ticket office were like “what HAPPENED?”  Hey, we’re gringas.  We walk in the rain and think it’s fun.

That evening we hopped into a shared taxi (colectivo) to go to the village of Ollantaytambo, about 1.5 hours away.  We had a delicious dinner and tucked in early. 

Dinner by candlelight...oh la la!

Ollantaytambo was awesome, definitely a highlight of the trip.  The landscape is dominated by a large ruin carved into the hillside.  I couldn’t take enough photos here, and we were thrilled to not be in the rain. 

Ollantaytambo Photo 4 of 283

Ollantaytambo Photo 23 of 283


last one, promise

The town itself is really fun to explore; most of its roadways are flanked on one side by irrigation channels full of rushing water, giving the the village a unique flavor.  We also stayed at a guesthouse with charming owners, and two cats that both answered to the name “Julieta”.

in town

My favorite photo of the trip

MM with Julieta I

All was going well until we went to board our train to Aguas Calientes, the village where Machu Picchu is.  Turns out, a mudslide wiped out the train tracks.  PeruRail is unsurprisingly not known for its customer service.  They didn’t know when the next trains would be. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe not.”  Awesome.  Could we get a refund?  Not there, we would have to get one at the office in Cusco.  Ugh. 

Disappointed, we decided we needed to regroup and figure out a new gameplan.  Our options seemed the greatest if we went back to Cusco, so we loaded into a van colectivo–and paid more for extra seats so we could get going, a great strategy–and went back.  We toyed with the idea of bouncing down to Puno at Lake Titicaca, but the weather there was no better and there was an equal chance of getting stuck due to mudslides.   So we decided to hang out in the Sacred Valley and take it at an easy pace.

Mary Margaret splurged for us and got us a beautiful hotel just outside Urubamba, the main town of the Sacred Valley.  After two months of air-drying my short locks, the hairdryer was a major luxury. 

Living the dream

We arranged to take a horseback ride the next day, and hopped a bus to the nearby town of Pisac. Pisac is a market town with a large ruin.  Lonely Planet warned that it would be crazy and probably annoying, but we found it to be pretty nice.  We also made essential purchases there: coordinating ponchos for our ride the next day.  You can’t go into those things wearing just anything.  After bargaining our way into alpaca wool heaven, we decided to explore the ruin above town.  LP also failed to mention the walk up is gorgeous, with plenty of waterfalls and beautiful terracing. 

Market day in Pisac

Eat your heart out Tyra Banks!

We returned to our resort, too lazy to find dinner and ordered room service.  We Skyped, watched Love Actually dubbed into Spanish (Realmente Amor), and had a comfy night of sleep.  Well, almost.  Something I ate caught up with me, and I was not feeling so hot the next morning.  I drugged up, determined to wear my poncho, and look oh-so-elegant astride my horse. 

I’m Sticking to Cats and Dogs

You would think after Llana the Llama I would be a bit wary of excursions involving animal interaction.  But no.  I’m an animal lover, and this tends to override my memory of unpleasant experiences.  Just an aside, I have also counted 87 dogs here I want to adopt and start a dog ranch with. 

We show up at El Rancho (real name, not me being an ignoramus).  Mary Margaret gets her horse: a nice, tame, and occasionally prissy girl horse.  I get mine: a big dude who wasn’t having a good day.  And who gets spooked by cars, dogs, and the other horses. Awesome.  Did I mention this was a six hour ride?

MM, pimping her ride

Long story short, I’d rather do ten hidrospeeds than ride a horse again.  I was miserable.  I couldn’t anticipate what my horse would do.  I rode in a constant state of stress and anxiety, with thoughts of Christopher Reeves and a future that could entail breathing through a stoma.  About halfway through, my stomach issues began to worsen.  Every bump…which when you’re riding a horse is about once every three seconds…sent my stomach lurching. 

It wasn’t all horrible though.  The scenery was gorgeous, our guide was nice, and we had nice weather for about 2/3 of the  ride.  Still, I was never so relieved to be done with something.  My knees killed and I wanted to vomit, then sleep for 20 hours by the end of it.  Not my best day.  Mary Margaret however is a champ!  That girl is made to ride horses.  I may, or may not, have been jealous.  Also, I should note that the ponchos were awesome!  They really are great pieces of clothing.  Maybe I’ll have enough nerve to wear it un-ironically back in the USA.

On Mary Margaret’s last full day in Peru, we arrived in Cusco for the third time and checked back into our hotel.  We had some business to attend to: we needed the refund for our PeruRail tickets.  We had made an earlier attempt (#2) on our way to Ollantaytambo, when we went to the train station where the Cusco – Aguas Calientes trains depart.  It was abandoned, and the guard told us we could get our refund at the Plaza Mayor in Cusco. Grrrah!  So we went to the PeruRail office there, and stood in line.  This (attempt #3) also failed.  We were then directed to another train station south of town…that doesn’t even serve Machu Picchu.  Agh.  So we schlepped across town in attempt #4.  Finally we were in the right place.  It was, as Mary Margaret put it, a Peruvian DMV.  We took a ticket and waited for over an hour to get a simple refund.  But…success! 

We ended the evening with an “Inka Bath” at a nearby spa.  We had joked about this all week, and had come up with many possible iterations (some inappropriate) for what an Inka Shower might be.  An Inka Bath is basically a square tub in the ground filled with hot water, dense bubbles, and a variety of semi-woody plants and water petals.  The best part was that they gave us bizarre unisex bikinis to wear.  As you can imagine, this doesn’t flatter anybody.  The bath was great though, and we capped off the evening with pisco sours and some tasty Thai food.

And now I’m back to being a solo traveler.  Yesterday I spent the day walking around Cusco, trying to like it more.   If I strayed far enough away from the main plaza, I could find some neat little glimpses of real life.

But I woke up today feeling sick again–the food here is seriously kicking my butt.  I spent the majority of the day in bed, trying to rehydrate and feel better in time for my flight back to Buenos Aires.  I’m definitely ready to be a bit more sedentary for awhile.  No spooked horses, no terca llamas, no intestine-wringing food.  Just back to a semi-real lifestyle for the next month or so.

I´ve Never Wanted to Rent a Mule So Badly in My Life

18 Feb

My first full day in Peru was pretty easy-going.  Right now I’m in Arequipa– it´s a nice, attractive city but aside from one blockbuster site there isn´t a whole lot that I felt the need to see.  I let myself sleep in a bit at the hostel, did some personal admin, and wandered around the city for the day.

Arequipa passage

Fruit aisle at the market

Bustling main square

The major site here is a monastery. Not only is it old, it’s enormous!  It spans an entire mega-block.  According to my guidebook, it was founded in the late 1500s as a sort of Animal House for nuns.  We´re talking parties, servants…and who knows what else.  The Pope cracked down on it after a mere 300 years of hedonism and it became more of a legit place of God. Visiting now, it´s pretty impressive.  Every room in the structure is either white, a brilliant bright blue, or a rich ochre color.  I went at dusk when they were lighting candles in all of the rooms.  I have to say, the nuns’ cells were nicer than some of the hostels I´ve stayed at.

Monastery colors 1

Monastery Colors 2

Rooftop view

My evening was pretty tame and I went to bed early for an obscenely early wakeup call: 2:45am.  The pickup for the Colca Canyon trek was at 3am.  I booked through my hostel which was good, because that meant the other people in my group would most likely be young and fun.  My first surprise came about half an hour into the ride to the canyon.  Despite the fact that I had signed up for the trip that was a 3-hour hike on day 1 and a 3-hour hike on day 2, I got lumped into a group that had picked the 7-hour trek on the first day. What?!?  Nothing I could really do about it at that point.

We arrived at the first village at about 6:30 am and ate a bad breakfast.  We boarded the small bus again and set out for our first destination, El Cruz del Condor.  Apparently tons of condors hang out here.  But since I was there it was foggy of course.  I apologized to everyone in the group for bringing the bad weather with me.

After a botched non-sighting of condors, we began the trek.  The scenery was really stunning.  It was about 2.5 hours down into the canyon.  Our group was a good one: a hilarious Irish guy around my age that had me laughing the whole time; two sweet Chilean cousins and geology students (who were de facto guides), and two middle aged German men who were ready for some trekking business.  I´m pretty sure they judged my poor footwear and $10 day backpack I bought the day before.  But they were cool in my book, and were the first to crack a beer when we finished the next morning at 9:30am.

The start of the trek

Anyway…the first leg was all downhill.  We were passed by a local family with a bunch of donkeys.  What cracked me up was the mother, who had a traditional sling around her back.  Instead of a baby, or supplies, she was carrying…a cat.  Of course cats wouldn´t walk themselves, they would expect to be carried.  It was hilarious to see its little face peek out every now and then to check in on the progress.

Our group expanded for awhile, to include the imperious cat

Still smiling at this point. No dreams of mules yet.

After lunch we began our trek to villages in the canyon.  We were using mule paths that I think have to be hundreds of years old: they are the only way to reach the villages, which means that these places are not touristy at all save for the enterprising person here or there who sells drinks to us gringos who PAY to walk up and down the canyon.  One of the more bizarre sites was a soccer field in the middle of all the terracing.  Apparently, the different villages gather here on certain nights and play each other…I can only imagine how far they have to walk though.

Towards the suspension bridge

Over the river and through the woods...

Quote of the day from the Irish guy: ¨Right, shall we go to the CBD and see if we can buy some water, or da ya think it will be roosh hour?¨

We arrived at the ¨oasis¨ by about 4:30pm.  The oasis is a fertile little spot at the bottom of the canyon with a bunch of basic accommodations.  When I say basic, I mean no electricity, but complimentary falling rocks.  Scorpions upon request.  But there was a chilly pool filled with mountain water and it was actually really cool and romantic to eat dinner by candelight.  Seeing as how I only had a little flash light, I borrowed one of the candles for my room and went to sleep under the watchful eye of a bunny fashioned from a 1L Inca Kola bottle .

Guided by Bunnies

The next morning we ¨slept in¨until 5am.  One thing that I didn´t quite understand is that we didn´t get breakfast before the three hour ascent.  Luckily I had rationed out about 15 animal crackers for this purpose, which I shared with the Irish guy. I´m not going to lie: the ascent was horrible.  I knew it would be bad, because the previous day we saw the trail up:


The first hour or so wasn´t too horrible.  But my animal cracker reserve wore off at this point, and I was flagging.  It was harder than any triathlon or swimming practice I´ve ever done.  Just look at the trail!  How much does a mule go for these days? (To buy, 2,000 Peruvian Soles)


But the views were amazing.  By the last hour I was stopping every two or three minutes to gather up more strength to press on.  My only motivation for not stopping for too long was that there was a girl in another group behind us who was super chatty and annoying, and I didn´t want her to catch up and talk at me.  I´m not a morning person, and I´m doubly not a morning person when ascending 4,000 meters on large rock stairs on no food.  Eventually the group thinned out and everyone found their own pace, so most of the time I was walking (relatively) alone.  My mind wandered from everything to my ancestors (how did they cross the Rockies with all that stuff?? My God…) to Suzanne Sommers and the Thigh Master, to a growing craving for a giant Fanta.


Finally I made it to the top.  I was totally beat, and it was only 8am.  We ate breakfast to dance hits of the 80s, and did a little bit of tourist sightseeing, stopping at lookouts and posing with llamas.  I forgot to mention that I made my peace with the animals after eating one of their friends the day before.  I realized, yes, I would have eaten Llana in a heartbeat.  This one here was really cute though.  Clearly he was really enjoying himself.

Making peace with the llama race. And yeah that´s a big bird of prey back there.

Choice scenery

We hit some hot springs to soothe our muscles, ate a giant buffet lunch with some of the finest Jello I´ve ever had, and drove back three hours to Arequipa.

Field of Llamas, Field of Dreams - en route back to Arequipa

Today it´s been cold and rainy, so I´ve just been killing some time while I wait for a nightbus to Cusco.  This marks the end of my solo travel, as tomorrow I meet my friend from college to do a megaweek of Cusco explorations!  She was gracious enough to take on the planning for this trip together, so all of the daily stressors of the last month and  a half–finding a place to sleep, buying tickets, etc–are mostly already taken care of.  Plus, we will be staying in accommodations that will most likely not include scorpions, or creepy bunny luminarias.

Very soon I will make the Incas proud…I can only imagine their satisfaction of two gringas climbing Macchu Pichu in their jeggings!

Iquique: Failure Fantastico!

16 Feb

I left San Pedro in the afternoon for another epic day of bus rides.  The first was a short leg to the disaster city of Calama, where I ate ice cream balls and waited for my eight-hour bus to Iquique, on the north coast of Chile.  The first four hours were depressing… sand hill after sand hill, with all sorts of electrical apparati everywhere.  Finally we reached the ocean, and the feeling that washed over me was relief: it was so good to see the Pacific again, I didn´t realize that I had missed it.

Iquique: Beach City of Chile

I booked a bed ahead of time in Iquique at place called La Casona 120.  The online reviews were ok and  I didn’t expect much, which I´ve found to be a great strategy in general.  I ended up loving it!  The rooms were small and hot, but the location was perfect and the place is a magnet for cool, fun, interesting people.

Casona people!

Almost everything I tried to do or did in Iquique fell sort of flat.  My first morning I wanted to do surf lessons, but a miscommunication with the staff meant I missed the departure.  Argh.  I tried to set up some sandboarding lessons, but the company didn´t do them anymore.  Argh.  So I booked a paragliding trip for the next day (Iquique is a famous spot for this) and was all set and ready to go…waiting for the operator to pick me up…waiting.  Finally half an hour after I was supposed to be gone, they called and were like oh, we´re not coming, the  parachute is broken.  How about tomorrow?  How about I´m not going up thousands of feet in the area with a brokedown parachute? No thanks.

There were other, smaller misfortunes, such as none of the food recommendations from the LP guide turned out to be good.  I tried to take a nap, but the room was 90 degrees…but just as I finally was dropping to sleep some people began to play pool right outside my room.  Agh!  The final boofoo was my luggage lock getting stuck…while on my locker.  Early in the morning the hostel guy and I had to pry it off with a screwdriver. 

So what did I end up doing there for two days?  Not very much.  Eating, going to the beach, laying in the waves.  It was a tough life.

Beach time....

The Miami of Chile?

Yet, I have great memories of Iquique.  I´d even say, fantastico!  The people at La Casona were so fun.   It is the type of place that sucks you in…you book two nights, you stay two weeks, you work there for two months.  Literally every single person I met there was cool.  I extended my stay for a third night so I could be around for the hostel´s birthday party, which lasted until the early hours of the morning.

What´s on....

Iquique itself is a nice place.  The beach is beautiful, and the water–while still really cold–is at least do-able if you float in the top few inches and don’t go too deep.  The city is also pretty cute and rigged for tourists.  A few people mentioned it was the Miami of Chile, and I have to say I think I would choose Iquique over Florida´s offerings.

Early morning walk on the pedestrian promenade



Random streets



After prying my lock off and saving my bags, I slogged to the bus terminal to catch a lift to Arica, the northernmost city in Chile.  I was sad to leave my new friends at La Casona, but I am now on a timeline and need to be in Cusco to meet my friend Mary-Margaret at the end of the week.  I caught a bus and slept most of the way through the desert.  I´m sort of over the color brown at this point.

Arica itself is not as nice or interesting as Iquique.  Luckily, I bumped into a huge festival going on that featured dances from all over the Atacama desert in parade form.  It was cool!  What I marveled at was seeing guys my age in ridiculously sequined costumes doing choreographed dances…and having a blast.  I can’t imagine any gringo guy I know who would be caught dead in those looks, let along have a great time doing it.  It was really cool to see.


I also was able to check out the one thing I really wanted to see there, the church that Eiffel designed before he became famous.  After falling in love with Mapocho Station in Santiago, I was particularly excited for this.   The structure was designed and manufactured in France, then shipped to Chile.  I’m not sure if Eiffel ever saw it, or what his connection was to this part of the world.  Regardless, it was a cool building with interesting design details, but it’s in bad need of some restoration on the outside.   Luckily the interior seems to be faring better.

Eiffel pre tower

After many fun late nights at La Casona, I decided to treat myself to a real bed in a nice-ish hotel.  The guidebook described it as a place where I could release my inner Dirk Diggler.  I don´t know who that is, but I thought he might want to be released.  I got an awesome night of sleep, but my euphoria was ruined the next morning when I realized I had misunderstood the cost…it was over double what I had thought.  Argh!  Which meant going to the ATM, taking out more Chilean pesos that I wouldn´t need once I crossed the border later that morning.  Grrrr.  I really need to be better at understanding numbers.

The day continued on a lot like this:  nothing disastrous, just everything was harder than I expected.  Crossing the border to Peru took forever…it was one line after another, and people shouting in Spanish.  When I told them I only spoke basic Spanish, they would speak just as quickly and say something similar.  Not super helpful.

Finally I made it to the first city across the Peruvian border, Tacna.  I exchanged some money and bought a bus ticket onward to Arequipa.  I have been so, so spoiled on buses until this point.  This bus was the equivalent to spelunking.  I don’t get claustrophobic very often, but this was miserable.  Basically there was very little leg room between my seat and the seat in front, but the seats reclined A LOT…so the man in front of me basically had his head in my lap, and I couldn´t reach my bag, or anything.  For seven hours.  And we watched wonderful B movies dubbed in Spanish like Damage (tag line: Bring the Pain), and the Christian teaching tool for young couples, Fireproof.  Oi, this was bad.  I put on my headphones to facilitate having an out-of-body experience, but this too failed.  For no apparent reason, the left headphone had stopped working.  Fireproof in one ear and Ra Ra Riot in the next didn’t mesh well. 

At last we arrived in Arequipa.  I should have been relieved, but it was pouring rain.  I gathered my things and managed to find where to get a taxi.  Instead of a queue, it was basically a sidewalk brawl on wet cobblestones to get a taxi.  There were no rules for politeness from what I could see, and after loosing out on about 20 cabs I finally gave in…when in Arequipa…and got in front of a woman with bags of potatoes and got a cab.  Agh.

The good news is that I made it in one piece, and really like my hostel.  It´s in a cool old building in the center of town, and I have nice girl roommates who are about my age.  The easy button returned this morning and I was able to get everything squared away for the rest of the week, including a two-day trek into one of the deepest canyons in the world, and my last big bus ticket of the trip, an overnighter to Cusco.

It´s hard to believe that I´ve been gone for over a month and a half.  It´s been an awesome trip, and I´m continually amazed at how nice people are, and how comparatively easy it is to do this.  Still, I have to admit I´m getting a little rundown.  I don´t know how people travel for months and years on end!  I salute you all.  I´m a globetrotting lightweight.  A welterweight?  I don´t know.  Whatever it is, my stamina is not too impressive, but I´m glad that I now have an idea of my limits for future trips.