Friday, October 29, 2010

Falling for Floripa

And we're back! Sorry for the long lag between posts. We've been.... well ... not busy per se, but....ummm.... oh wow, this is getting awkward. Let's just pick up from the where we left off, post 23-hour bus ride. Good? Good.

Tired of the rivers and lakes that we were used to, we ignored TLC's well-known advice and went chasing waterfalls. What we tracked down was Iguazu Falls at the intersection of the Argentinian, Brazilian and Paraguayan borders (and visited the Argentinian side of the Falls). How good was it? Well, I love waterfalls, so I would have been school-girl giddy with whatever we happened to find there. Kristin, on the other hand, doesn't particularly care for waterfalls [Editor's note: honestly, who doesn't like waterfalls?], told me she had been unimpressed by Niagara Falls [Editor's note: tough crowd, though I note she did have good things to say about the nearby wineries] and appeared to be feigning interest prior to her arrival after I made her promise not to ruin the visit for me. When we finally got there, however, Kristin was a convert - snapping photos like a crazy person and giggling after all of the good mistings. Not even the scolding she got from a park ranger for feeding wildlife could dampen her enthusiasm. Conclusion? Either Iguazu Falls > Niagara Falls or Kristin was still loopy from the big beer I made her split with me the night before we visited. Either way, it's good to have her on our side now. On to Brazil!

Other than a couple of bus rides, five nights in Florianopolis (or "Floripa" to those of us who are in tight) was responsible for our first impression of Brazil. I think we chose wisely. The whole of Santa Catarina Island (of which Floripa is a part) has a population in the neighbourhood of 400,000, who were the fittest and, objectively, probably the most beautiful people we've come across on our trip to date. Organic and other healthy foods dominated most menus in town and visiting outside of the high-season for Brazilian tourism meant that everybody was incredibly laid back and one could find hikes and beaches without any other people during the weekdays. I'm giving the whole town one gold star since it was one of its hostels that finally granted my wish of an all-you-can-eat South American barbecue, but then taking the gold star away because board shorts in town (which I am in dire need of) cost between CDN$90-160.

By my count, it took us about three days to figure out the right mix for the Floripa coastal experience.

Day 1: Hit some popular beaches. Verdict: Good.
Day 2: Hiked through some tropical forest. Verdict: Good.
Day 3: Hiked through some tropical forest to deserted beaches. Verdict: Booyah!

Having mastered the program so early, I could focus my Day 4 efforts on trying surfing for the first time (Floripa is generally regarded as Brazil's surfing paradise). My take: It's tougher than I had imagined and the beach we were at wasn't exactly for beginners. I got up'ish a few times, but never coasted all of the way to the shore as I had envisioned. Kristin's take (after watching from the shore): For the blog, she recommended that I emphasize pictures that showed me with the surf board on the beach rather than the ones that showed me with the surf board in the water. Ouch!

You can check out some of our pictures from Iguazu and Floripa here. What's next for us? We're heading up the coast to check out some more beaches and take some yoga lessons. Hopefully then we'll feel more rested. I know, I hate me too.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

There Can Only Be One

Move over Arequipa. Salta, Argentina is taking over as my new home away from home in the Southern Hemisphere. First off, I'd like to say that I'm very disappointed in Arequipa for only being able to hang on to the crown for a month. Frankly, I had expected more. Secondly, I'd like to apologize to our readers for the oversight of annointing a city in the first place that didn't come from a wine-growing region. You can be sure that I won't make that mistake again. So, why Salta? In addition to the wine (which has restored the healthy black glow to Kristin's teeth that we all know and love), the weather is warm, but comfortable (we were strolling around in t-shirts past 1 a.m.), the people are friendly (which is why we weren't afraid to walk around past 1 a.m.), there are lots of parks, shops and pedestrian-only streets (which make for great people watching) and the food options/prices make it seem like the town was created for thrifty, beef-loving Italians (which are my kind of people). The last item may prove to be more of an Argentina thing than a Salta thing, but I'm willing to give Salta credit until I see that it is otherwise.

[Aside #1: The only thing which detracted from my Salta experience was the bit I read in one of the guidebooks before arriving which said that travellers should really try to get invited to an asado (an Argentinian private barbecue, where copious amounts of fire-roasted beef and wine are typically served). What does that mean .... try to get invited? I can't get my best friends back home to invite me over for a barbecue, but now I'm supposed to try and get Argentinian strangers to invite me to one of theirs? I think the best offer I've received to-date was a drag off of somebody's cigarette. Until I find one, I'm compensating by ordering beef at every meal.]

After three days in Salta, we headed a few hours south to the town of Cafayate - in Northwest Argentina's canyon and wine country - where day-to-day life seemed to largely revolve around the main church and evening dinners out with family and friends. Our plans for Cafayate were ambitious - we wanted to mix a modest amount of exercise into the rigorous eating and drinking schedule we developed in Salta. The exercise included hiking around local vineyards and was highlighted by a 50km bike ride through the red canyons and desert of the Quebrada de Cafayate. In anticipation of the bike ride and after much searching, Kristin managed to procure what I'm convinced were the only two bicycle helmets in town. The man who rented the helmets said two things which turned out not to be in my favour: (1) We could only rent his helmets if we also rented his bikes (which meant that I was stuck with a bike seat from the 19th century which violated me so badly that I am still walking gingerly); and (2) we had to pay the full-date rate in advance, but if we got the bikes back to him by a certain time - which he didn't think would be possible - he would refund us 40% of our money (which got Kristin's competitive fires going and ended any possibility of the romantic, Wedding Crashers-like bike ride that I had been envisioning). Kristin happily turned a portion of the inevitable refund we received into 250 grams of ice cream at a local parlor.

[Aside #2: Presumably because Argentina seems so modern in comparison to some of the places we've visited, Kristin informed me a couple of days after our arrival in Salta that we are no longer really travelling.... we are vacationing. Now, I'm not sure that there is a need to differentiate, but if "vacationing" means that I won't be sprinting to the washroom after meals and the showers won't give me mild electric shocks from time to time, vacation suits me just fine. I note that I am writing this post in the middle of a 23-hour bus ride. No word yet from Kristin on whether this constitutes vacationing or travelling, but my aching back tells me that it is still probably the latter.]

Our pictures from Salta and the surrounding area are here. We're heading into Brazil in short order. If I discover there is more travelling to be done there, I hope to post another blog in the next few days. Otherwise, I'm sorry to inform you that I don't blog while on "vacation"...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kristin's Corner - Bolivia

We left Bolivia more than a week ago, so I guess it is about time I wrap up our time in Bolivia with, once again, the top things that Kevin missed (he actually missed a whole entire city this time - I know, shocking).

1. Overview

I absolutely loved our time in Bolivia. As Kevin said in an earlier post, when we first decided to go on this trip, La Paz was the city I was most excited to visit out of all of the cities in South America. I am not entirely sure why - maybe because it is the highest capital city in the world or maybe because I did not have a clear picture of what it would be like in my mind - but it did not disappoint. From the moment we drove into La Paz, I felt so excited to be back in a big, bustling city, but one that seemed very traditional at the same time. Since I had spent so much energy being excited about La Paz, I did not really think that much about the surrounding areas of Bolivia, but they definitely held some of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen. It is amazing how 300km north of La Paz is the amazon basin; 50km west of La Paz is Lake Titicaca; and 500km south of La Paz is the salt flats and the gateway to the driest desert in the world.

2. Parades

The bizarre parades are something I will miss about Bolivia. At the most random times, huge parades of people, usually dressed in costumes, would go singing and dancing down the street. One morning in Copacabana we almost got knocked over by a parade of people where everyone was dressed in ghost/goblin types of costumes. That same afternoon we heard the sound of a marching band and pulled to the side to have a parade of people dressed up in recycling-type costumes (i.e., newspapers and bottles glued to them) go dancing and chanting by us. The best part about these parades was that Copacabana is a small town and these were fairly significant parades - basically the whole town must have been partaking in them. Here is a picture of the recycling parade coming towards us:

3. Poverty

Travelling in Bolivia was more difficult travelling than in Peru or Colombia, which I guess makes sense since it is the poorest country in South America, but I also felt that it was more "untouched" than some of the countries we have visited. One of the most notable signs of the poverty is the garbage. Everyone just throws their garbage wherever they want, which means that the surroundings of each town is basically one big garbage dump. I had a tough time understanding why these people just dump their garbage everywhere and anywhere when it is so obviously ruining their environment; however, after seeing the way certain Bolivians live (actually, I lie, after talking about it with Kevin - he seems to be a bit more sympathetic and insightful than me!), my opinion changed. Garbage disposal is less of a priority than other more basic infrastructure projects that many of these towns are still working on. It was pretty sad to see... Below is a picture a few kilometers outside of one Bolivian town, where the garbage disposal started:

4. Sucre

In between our time in the amazon and our time in the salt flats, we visited the beautiful city of Sucre. The city was very different from the other cities we visited in Bolovia, and had a greater aura of sophistication to it. The people seemed noticeably wealthier and we felt very safe at all times of the day/night. Our trip to Sucre also came at the 3 month anniversary of the start of our trip (which sadly also means we are halfway done our trip) and we used it as a base to get ourselves organized and for me to get over a chest cold. We had a tough time leaving Sucre, partly because it was such a nice, easy town to stay in, and partly because of the hostel we were staying in. We were some of the only guests in this hostel, our room was fantastic and we have never gotten so excited about a breakfast as the free breakfast in this hostel. As Kevin said "this is not only the best breakfast of our trip, this might be the best breakfast of my life". Here is a picture of me having a glass of Bolivian vino in the loft that we even had in our room (yes, I know, maybe not the best way to get over a chest cold!):

Click here for a few pictures of our time in Sucre. Note that Kevin wanted me to mention that the captions are mine, not his. I'm assuming he isn't expecting much and doesn't want anyone to confuse them with his own.

Thanks for reading and I hope that all is well with everyone back home! xox

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

With a Terrain of Salt

As long-term travellers in South America, we are spoiled with a seemingly endless supply of picturesque surroundings. So far, we have hiked through deserted jungle forests and canyons, gawked up close at towering, glacier-covered peaks and whittled away lazy days on pristine Caribbean beaches. Arriving to each of these places for the first time can feel almost spiritual, yet I am ashamed to realize that after a certain amount of time in one place (it might be hours, it might be days) I often become numb to the beauty which surrounds me. Perhaps that is why I found our jeep trip across the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (the world's largest salt flat and the remnants of a prehistoric salt lake) into the Atacama Desert in Chile (the world's driest desert) so amazing. Just past the horizon or around the next corner seemingly lurked some surreal object or colour which had no apparent connection to the one previous to it. It felt like a three-day drive through a natural amusement park and it had my undivided attention throughout.

Just mentioning some of places we visited along the way (i.e. Laguna Colorada, Fish Island, Laguna Verde) is still enough to bring smiles to our faces. If I had been commissioned to paint the various landscapes we encountered (pretending for a moment that I had been blessed with any artistic ability), I would have coloured them just as they were. The blinding whiteness of the salt contrasted magically with a deep blue and nearly cloudless sky, yet wispy clouds seemed to appear just in time for sunsets and to accentuate the orange hills, pink flamingos and red lakes (yes, red lakes) that came next. Volcanos, geysers, hot springs and wildlife? Check, check, check and check. Yes, it could get very cold and, yes, it could get very windy, but it just added to the whole experience. I just don't have enough good things to say about all that we saw.

The best advice we received from other travellers before setting out on the trip - and one that I would commend to future visitors - was that we should be prepared to be astonished by the setting and hopeful that our tour operator wouldn't ruin the experience. Indeed, finding travellers willing to recommend the tour group they used is sort of like trying to find a rational Toronto Maple Leafs fan - they pretty much don't exist. I'd crudely lump the typical complaints into one of two categories: the scary (bad, careless or drunk jeep operators and jeeps in very poor mechanical condition) and the uncomfortable (over-crowded jeeps, bad food, food which might make you sick and basic accommodations). Given that our guidebook noted that a number of tourist lives are lost each year in jeep accidents, we focused on trying to find a company that offered less "scary" and crossed our fingers that we would dodge the "uncomfortable". We succeeded in accomplishing the former but couldn't pull off the latter. While I would say that we have now joined the ranks of backpackers who wouldn't recommend their agency, as hard as they tried, I'm happy to say that they were not able to ruin the experience for us.

As always, my Salt Flats experience by the numbers:

Number of times I thought I was going to die: 1 (when I realized the plate of food they put in front of me the first night was meant to be dinner for all seven of us)

Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: Zero (yeah, I know it was a jeep trip, but this is progress, people!)

Number of times I thought Kristin was going to slap our jerk driver: 5

Number of times I saw our jerk driver drinking before 8:00 a.m.: 1

Number of tourists in our "six-person jeep": 7

Number of seats that left for the cook we were promised: Zero

The rest of our pictures from the Salar de Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama are here. I think they speak for themselves and I didn't even attempt to post any funny comments to go alongside them. Okay, that's not true... the captions are my very favourite part of blogging and I couldn't resist. That said, the pictures are beautiful and I hope my words don't do them a disservice. Now on deck: Kristin, with her Bolivia wrap up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Arrival to the Freedom29 Family

It is my great pleasure to announce that on October 7, 2010, four days after returning from Rurrenabaque, Kristin's hip gave birth to the Amazonian Jungle Tick pictured below (still unnamed). It was a difficult delivery, highlighted by squirming, screaming and gagging on Kristin's part, but the Tick finally emerged healthy and hit the ground running (literally). Mother is recovering (emotionally) and, several days later, can now be considered to be resting comfortably.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kristin's Grumble in the Jungle

In another last minute Bolivia planning move, we passed on doing a high-altitude, multi-day trek and decided instead on a three-day boat ride into the Amazon Basin and the town of Rurrenabaque. In my mind, the boat offered a chance to encounter scenery unlike any we have seen on the trip previously and a totally unique way of getting to the Amazon. It also incorporated hiking (which Kristin likes) in the jungle (which Kristin likes less) and camping in the jungle (which Kristin doesn't really like at all), all in the heat and humidity one would expect of such a setting. Basically, we had all of the ingredients for an interesting couple of days. I enjoyed it and thought it was a good experience. Kristin at one point on the trip uttered the words, “this is my hell,” which suggests she probably remembers it less fondly. Let’s go to the video replay...

The trip for me got off to a bit of a rocky start. We had spent the two nights prior to shoving off in the sub-tropical town of Coroico, which the Lonely Planet describes as a "Bolivian Eden". We enjoyed the town (especially after switching hostals after the first night), and it did get us used to being around some of the creepy-crawlies we were expecting in the Amazon, but it wasn't the paradise we were hoping for. The "Eden" analogy might have held true, however, in the sense that I definitely ate some sort of forbidden fruit (or, more likely, forbidden meat) that introduced me to Bolivia Belly the night before the boat ride began and sent me running into the sweet embrace of anti-bacterial medication for the first time on our trip. With a four-hour taxi ride to the boat and three-hour river cruise scheduled to begin early the next morning, the timing was less than ideal and the first day of the Amazon trip was not entirely pleasant.

Stomach issues aside, I found cruising in the boat to be remarkably peaceful, maybe with the exception of the torrential downpour which lasted most of the third day. It was also a great way to see isolated towns that would have been inaccessible via any other form of transportation, and to see the locals out on the water and along the banks of the river sifting for gold. In this last respect, some of the convenience stores even had scales where people could bring in the tiny nuggets of gold that they found and be paid for it on the spot. I don't remember the exact rate per gram, but it sure wasn't very much. The landscape in the basin was pretty, even though it was largely covered in a smokey haze from intentionally lit fires in the area, and the boat plodded down the river at a pace that was leisurely enough to ensure we didn't miss anything noteworthy. We filled lulls in the time by chatting with those around us and drinking beer we bought in the riverside towns. I never managed to look up the effects of alcohol in combination with anti-baterial meds and malaria pills before we set off, but, as I'm still standing, I'm willing to give it the Kevin Long Seal of Approval.

While the trip was a chance to enjoy time with friends (naturally, Veit and Meike were there), it was also an opportunity to renew acquantainces with an old enemy from our jungle time in Colombia - the sandfly. For those that are not familiar, sandflies (or at least the ones here) are a lot like mosquitoes, except that they are much smaller and more difficult to see, don't have any sort of adversion to insect repellent and leave a bite that looks, more than anything else, like someone performed amateur surgery on the affected area. Oh, and the bites itch like crazy and tend to scab and scar. Anyways, they were out in full force, particularly at our swimming holes and when we camped on the beach the second night. Kristin's legs have once again taken the worst of it and, combined with her sandfly scars from The Lost City trek, look a lot like a pepperoni pizza from a distance. She is still in a state of mourning.

Insects and birds aside, we didn't see much of the wildlife (pink river dolphins and sloths, for example) I was hoping for. This was somewhat expected because the river tour is not the area one goes to see the most animals (it's better to book an additional tour to a different area once arriving in Rurrenabaque, which Kristin was having none of). Also, our group ballooned from six to 14 persons when a rival operator cancelled their tour, which made us a very noisy bunch when hiking through the jungle. Ironically, we did end up seeing one animal that we were all very much hoping to avoid. [Editor's note: I don't actually know if this is an example of irony or not. I've been totally confused by the definition ever since that Alanis Morissette song came out 15 years ago.] The body of the snake pictured below was largely covered by grass and leaves which had fallen from the trees, but the grey area behind its head was the walking path from our boat to the tents. We were incredibly lucky that it was our guide who happened down the path first and heard the snake, which does not retreat from people, before it was too late. He said that if the snake had gotten a good bite on one of us, that person would have been dead within three hours. When he called some of us over to have a look, even though he was pointing to the spot where it lay, I couldn't see it until I was about six or seven feet away. Ultimately, the snake was given the bouncer treatment with a couple of long sticks and shown back to the river, while our group went the other way to begin a hike in the jungle and consider what could have been.

Our pictures from our Amazon trip are here. We’re heading to the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian salt flats) tomorrow for a three-day jeep ride and then on to the Atacama desert in Chile, so we'll wish our Canadian readers Happy Thanksgiving a bit early and hope to see everyone again here for a new post early next week.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bolivin' the Dream

We're a little bit behind in our blogging, so this is going to serve as an Intro to Bolivia/Lake Titicaca/La Paz combo post. I know, I'm excited too.

Intro to Bolivia

We have only been in Bolivia for a short while, but have really enjoyed the few places we've had an opportunity to visit. The country offers a seemingly endless variety of landscapes and we are doing are best to take in a fair cross-section. Planning a route through the country has been a head-scratching experience, though, as towns that appear to be located close to one another on a map often take a disproportionately large amount of time to reach on account of the unforgiving terrain. Because of this phenomenon, we never seem to know where we are going until the day before or the day of our actual departure. I'm not much of a planner, so I'm finding travelling here really fun in that respect. Kristin, the consummate planner, is probably ready to snap-lose-it.

Crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia was one of those times when, even though you can't necessarily put your finger on what it is, you get the feeling that you have definitely arrived in some place new. There was just something about the way the first towns operated and our interaction with people that suggested as much. An example of a less subtle difference is the quasi-formal system of taxes and tariffs that we have been subjected to since our arrival. Some places place a tax on tourists the moment they arrive in town; most have some sort of tax to leave (in addition to what you are charged by transportation company). Some places have taxes to access different parts of the same town/island; different people on those towns/islands often try to make you pay the tax more than once. In Rurrenabaque, for example, after we paid for our flight and corresponding taxes, we were pointed to a man at the next counter to pay an extra airport tax, who in turn pointed across the corridor to a stand where a lady charged an additional municial tax to leave the town. Everybody seems to want their ounce of flesh (at these prices, "pound of flesh" seems like exaggeration). Depending on our mood, this can either be mildly amusing or mildly annoying.

Visiting Lake Titicaca and La Paz also helped allow us formulate the following generalizations which seem to have governed our travels in Bolivia so far:

1. Yes, things are cheaper here.
2. No, buses will not be arriving in accordance with posted schedules, if at all, and those that do arrive will be driven quite quickly.
3. Villagers in the jungle regions use fire to control vegetation, meaning that most every vista is obscured by smoke at this time of year.
4. "Bolivia Belly" is real and coming to a stomach near you early and often.

Lake Titicaca

We raced through the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca and skipped the islands that are reachable from the main Peruvian port of Puno. We had heard various accounts that the Peruvian side had become incredibly commercialized in recent years, which was apparently confirmed when some travel companions told us the locals were singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to them as they arrived to one of the islands. Instead, we set up shop on the Bolivian side in the peaceful town of Copacabana.

After we unpacked, I immediately headed to the shores of Lake Titicaca with my speedo on tight and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” blasting in my iPod, looking for bikinis and a good time. You can imagine my disappointment when I was discovered that not only was this not the Copacabana Barry was singing about, but that the lyrics to the song have nothing to do with the beach and are actually quite depressing. Huge buzz kill. What I found at the beach were people dressed in warm jackets and these peculiar, swan-themed paddle boats everywhere. I switched my iPod over to the Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" and sauntered dejectedly back to our hostal.

Thankfully, the town and its easy vibe proved to be a pleasant spot to begin soaking up the Bolivian lifestyle and my frown was turned upside down. Adding to the enjoyment was the reunion with our favourite German couple, Veit and Meike, whom we hadn’t seen since Colombia. They sent us a rough itinerary of their time in Bolivia before our arrival and, since we never seem to have concrete plans of our own here, we find that we're effectively copying theirs. As such, if we get behind in our posts, you can check out their blog (particularly rewarding if you can read German) to see how we’re doing.

The highlight of our visit to Copacabana was our day/night trip (with Veit and Meike, of course) to the nearby Isla del Sol. According to local legend, Isla del Sol gave rise to the first Inca and is the birthplace of the sun. From what little I know of the cosmos, I believe this to be somewhat in contradiction to the Big Bang Theory, but I'm not looking to choose sides. At 4000 metres above sea level, I think everyone can agree that even if the sun wasn't born on the Island, it likely keeps a summer home in the area, because it sure never seemed to be very far away. In a pleasant seven-hour walking loop, we managed to see most of the Island, checked out some nice beaches where locals swam and washed clothes, passed some small Inca sites, found a hostal with a view of the water, and took in a pretty sunset after a couple of big beers. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday.

La Paz

La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and the city that Kristin, somewhat randomly, picked out several months back as the place that she was most excited to visit. Her excitement reached a fever pitch in the days and weeks leading up to our arrival as she again and again promised me that we would be able to get everything our hearts desired "once we reach La Paz". That turned out to be slightly misleading, but the city had significant charm and we enjoyed our four nights there immensely

We actually arrived in La Paz twice - once by bus and once in a small plane returning from Rurrenabaque (which I'll touch upon in a future post about our trip to the Amazon Basin). I'll never forget either. People use words like "awe-inspring", "breathtaking" or "jaw-dropping" pretty liberally when describing places they visit in their travels, but rolling along the altiplano and through the neighbouring town of El Alto in our bus (at nearly 4150 metres) and then coming across the drop-off into the city of La Paz below (down to lows of approximatley 3000 metres) seems worthy of whichever of those aforementioned descriptions is your personal favourite. We never did head back up to the top to get a stationary picture of the view (and came away with surprisingly few good pictures from our time in the city), but it was more than spectacular.

Maybe my favourite thing about La Paz is that its long, main street (El Prado) managed to provide many of the goods, services and public facilities that one would hope for in any large, international city, but so many of its side streets (particularly where we stayed) managed to maintain a small-town aura and feel completely Bolivian. I'm not sure how many times we ventured up and down the main drag (walking back up the hill was tiring) only to stumble across some sort of fair, market or festival. With the exception of Sunday night, there was always something to see. Also, ducking off El Prado allowed us to venture into different small neighbourhoods where we explored numerous small markets and our favourite Bolivian snacking option - the salteƱa (pictured above).

You can see our pictures from Lake Titicaca and La Paz here.