Chile and Argentina: The Last 10 days

After catching the collectivo across the border to Chile we landed in San Pedro, where we boarded a 1 hour bus to Calama to head to the airport to try to catch a quick flight to Santiago, as otherwise it would be a 24 hour bus. We landed at the airport and the flights were not nearly as cheap as we had hoped, but we were able to get a flight within half an hour of arriving and it did give us an entire extra day extra. We landed in Santiago, caught the airport transport bus to the center, and wandered until we found a hostel with availability. We lucked into Landay Hostel which is very close to where the buses depart Santiago for Mendoza, Argentina. We treated ourselves to sushi that night and hit the hay early. The next day we woke up, packed our daypacks, and headed for the bus terminal for Mendoza. We barely made the bus as Argentina now charges Canadians $75 USD for a one time entry into the country, which is only available to purchase online (gah), meaning we had 30 minutes to run around the city and find an internet cafe, try to navigate the Argentinean website entirely in Spanish, buy our entry visa, and book it back to the terminal. It did feel like we were in the Amazing Race, which was somewhat exciting, but given the fact it was 35 degrees out and we didn’t want to miss the bus and waste a day, it was more stressful than fun. Luckily we made it, and the 8 hour bus ride passed quickly as we purchased the first Game of Thrones book as well as The hobbit, so we spent the entire ride engrossed in our books. We arrived late evening in Mendoza, and we were a bit surprised by the city as it is known as the wine capital of Argentina, so we expected a quaint little town. It was much larger and busier than that, and it took us 2 hours of walking from hostel to hostel to finally find a place for the night (that is partly our fault for not having booked one in advance). We wanted out of Mendoza as soon as possible, so we spent the next day researching where is best to stay to experience the wineries in the area. We discovered staying 30 minutes outside of Mendoza in Maipu is much better, as it is closer to the wineries and you are able to rent bikes (insert eye rolls here) and bike from winery to winery. We booked a hostel ahead of time (learning from our 2 hour debacle the previous night) and headed to Maipu on the city bus the next day. We arrived to Hostel Wineries midday and were immediately welcomed by Maria, the owner, and her sons Gabrielle and Alexandro. They spoke very little english but we could tell how sweet and caring they were immediately as they sat down with us and made recommendations for 3 days worth of winery visits. They offer a traditional Argentinean roast asado night which we opted for that evening to save ourselves from having to cook or find a restaurant. We relaxed most of the first day and planned our route for the next, as it was a bit late in the day to head out on bikes. The asado night was truly an experience, they start a fire on a clay pit using local oak trees, and allow the fire to burn down to only embers. They then transfer the embers to a second pile, place a grill over top of them, and place the meat on top of the grill. They then slow-cook the meat over several hours, keeping the fire going to the side to add embers as needed. The resulting meat is extremely flavorful and tender, and unlike anything we have tasted in our lives. We chatted (as best we could, Chris was much better than I) with the family and got to know a little bit about them and vice versa. They have 2 dogs and a cat, so it very much is a family atmosphere and almost felt like we were doing a homestay rather than guests at a hostel. On our last night we went to the supermarket and bought cuts of meat and sausage, potatoes, leeks and onions to share a meal with Maria, Gabrielle and Alexandro. We prepared mashed potatoes with fried leeks, and sautéed onions to go with the meat. They loved both, it was a very enjoyable evening and ended our stay on a memorable note. Our 4 day stay turned out to be an unexpected highlight of our entire 4 month trip!

The next day we walked to Orange Bikes and rented 2 bikes for the day. Now, let me clarify. My bike had an adorable basket on the front and was in no way shape or form a mountain bike. The town had bike lanes on all main roads, and was entirely flat. If ever there was a time biking was semi-okay for me, this was it. The first winery we went to was Domiciano which is a small scale winery that produces less than 100 000 bottles per year. It was a lovely winery and a great way to kick off our tour! We also stopped at an Olive Oil Boutique and sampled numerous types of oils and balsamic vinaigrettes, which we purchased as one of the 4 souvenirs we invested in, only to have the bottles shatter on the way home making a giant mess of Chris’s bag. Womp womp. One our favorite vineyards was Trapiche which is the largest producer of wine in Argentina. As an added bonus, it exports to Canada and you can find most of its varietals in any NSLC. I highly recommend the Malbec, it is exceptional and only $12-15 dollars per bottle. We also toured Tempus Alba, which is a small scale family run vineyard. It had by far the best atmosphere, with a gorgeous balcony where you could have lunch. We spent one afternoon enjoying a tasting, lunch, and the free bottle of wine that went with the purchase of lunch. Quite the life! 

Unfortunately, on our third day of biking I had troubles parking my bike which resulted in a large cut that has scarred nicely for life. That my friends, was the grand finale of 4 months worth of biking. I have come to realize that I really do need to keep to my word of “never biking again.” Luckily the scar will serve as a ahem, gentle reminder of that.

Therefore on our fourth day we opted to take the city bus, which was an excellent option in the 40 + degree heat as the buses were air-conditioned and very cheap. We headed to a lovely vineyard (I forget the name now, started with a “C”), that you were able to have lunch among the vines. It was one of my favorite afternoons, it was so beautifully picturesque and the food was delicious. The wine of course, as always, was impeccable.

After our relaxing week in wine country we headed back to Chile to the small port city of Valparaiso, which is a world heritage site. We had met numerous other travelers who highly recommended a visit there and it did not disappoint. We stayed at a family run B&B called La Nona (the husband and wife live in the house as well) which again had an excellent atmosphere and definitely the best free breakfast of the entire 4 month trip. They make their own yogurt, have delicious deli meats, goats cheese, homemade jams, and homemade breads. They were excellent with making recommendations of places to see around the city. They city has beautiful cobblestone streets and very interesting elevators (highly inclined cable cars) as it is built on dozens of very steep hillsides. The city encourages graffiti and the alleyways are full of incredible art. It was a much cooler climate than Mendoza, and much less busy than Santiago, so it was an excellent place to spend our last few days relaxing. We then headed back to Santiago to catch our flight out the next day. We were very apprehensive about this as we had been keeping a close eye on the weather and it was not looking good for us. Many flights in the days leading up to our flight had been cancelled or delayed, and the weather looked questionable at best the day we were flying in. With crossed fingers and toes we headed home to surprise both of our families, who thought we were not coming home until January 15th. Santa must have wanted our surprise to happen as we had absolutely no problems with any of our flights. I hopped off in Halifax and Chris continued on to PEI. I pulled into the yard and Mom poked her head out the kitchen window, which made me believe that she had seen me and my surprise was spoiled. When I walked in the front door she was not waiting for me, so I continued onto the kitchen where she was distractedly working on a pie. As soon as she heard my voice she whipped around, and looked like she was having a heart attack which made me question my surprise, but she then tearfully spoke “You’re home.” Which was a really great moment, but was followed with “There’s no lobsters?” Lol. I asked what they were having for Christmas Eve dinner about a week earlier (as I was selfishly hoping for one of my favorites when I arrived) and when she told me ham I said “Oh…really???” She then said they were thinking of getting lobsters, which I proceeded to try to encourage without being obvious. Unfortunately, she interpreted that as I was having lobsters delivered to her for her Christmas gift. It was a very comical moment as I pointed out I just travelled almost 24 hours to surprise her on Christmas eve and she was disappointed with the lack of lobsters. It was absolutely a Christmas to remember. (We invested in lobsters for New Years Eve).

Chris and I are now living in Halifax and trying to get settled back into “real life.” It is quite the change of pace, but in many ways a welcomed one. Thank you for joining in our travels, I hope that you enjoyed the blog. I really enjoyed writing it and Chris and I are going to have the blog made into a memory book. It is a great way to document all that happened so we can look back fondly at our memories some day. We are committed to work year contracts, and after that our next big adventure (tba). Until then..

Bolivia

After Machu Picchu we boarded a night bus to La Paz, Bolivia and arrived around mid-day the next day. We stayed at Adventure Brew Hostel, which was a microbrewery that served its own beer on tap. We spent most of the day relaxing and then headed to Restaurant Gustu, owned by some big-wig that owns the best restaurant in the world and chose La Paz as his next endeavor. (Read more about it: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/jun/13/gustu-restaurant-la-paz-bolivia-review) La Paz is a gigantic city, so it was a 45 minute cab ride to the restaurant, during which we lost our way several times, but arrived in what seemed like a suburb with houses all around it, but there it was. We walked in to an absolutely stunning interior complete with an exposed kitchen to watch the chefs work. We opted for a 7-course tasting menu this time (who knew we were such foodies) along with the wine pairing. They started us off with delicious rolls along with artisanal butter, one of which was a coca leave butter that was delicious. We had an outstanding dried llama salad, the most mouth-watering lamb I have ever experienced in my life, and ox-cheek which is the most tender meat possible. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the other courses right now (why blogging at the time is so important), but all of the mains were just outstanding, the deserts were nothing to call home about, but were not bad by any means. The wine-pairings were impeccable, and certainly not on the small side (may be why some of the courses have eluded my memory). Compared to our 24-course experience at Astrid y Gaston, I have to say I much preferred this experience. Mostly because the portion sizes were bigger and you were able to truly explore the flavors in each dish. Also,the flavors were not blended and all mixed together, there were definite distinctions in each dish which I enjoyed. So the ruling (for me) is Gustu is now officially, the best food experience of my life. Chris disagrees, he still says Astrid is number one for him.

From pure enjoyment we moved to pure horror, as we left to bike down the death road the next day. Yes. I am aware that I am receiving many eye-rolls from friends as they read this due to my hatred of biking, but I felt that it is something I should do while in Bolivia. We went with the company Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking for its outstanding reputation with quality of bikes as well as overall safety profile. The bikes were absolutely fantastic, but they did not make up for my extreme dislike of biking.

What is the death road you ask? It was deemed the world’s most dangerous road by the inter-american development bank in 1995 and is a 64 km downhill ride. An average of 16 vehicles go over the cliff while driving the death road, claiming hundreds of lives each year. This is mostly due to the fact the road is only wide enough for one car, so if two cars meet, the car that is driving downhill must reverse uphill until they reach a widening in the road that they can safely pass. Sadly, tourists on bikes also have lost their lives while biking the road, the last of which was last year while trying to take a selfie. You descend over 3600 m throughout the ride, beginning in the mountains with snow, and ending in tropical  jungle. The first 22 km or so are on paved road, allowing time to adjust to your bike. Then you hit the official death road, and the “fun” starts.

After finishing biking the death road we ended at an animal sanctuary for a delightful meal and well deserved beverage. Our tour guide then asked if our group wanted to take the old death road home or the “new” death road home. The new death road is still dangerous as people drive faster on it, even though it is equally as windy and narrow. We opted for the old death road, as neither were true good decisions we might as well have the bragging rights of having survived it. It was much more terrifying in the old, beat up, dilapidated “bus” we were in as it was scarcely wider than the bus, and when you looked out the window there was nothing but cliff-face. All was well, until we suddenly came to a halt. Believe me, this was not a road you wanted to be stationary on for any longer than possible with the blind turns at every turn and all. It turned out that the cable that connects the accelerator in the engine to the peddle snapped. “Don’t worry, the driver dealt with this same issue just last week!” assured the guide. Sure enough, we were in motion within 10 minutes with a rather crafty solution to the problem. The drive attached a cable to the accelerator and fed it through the dashboard to his seat, so that he could hand-accelerate by pulling on the cable. Meaning, he had to hand accelerate, steer (with no power steering), and shift whilst we drove up the death road. There was a collective sigh of relief when we turned back on to the paved road. We were pretty certain the brakes on the bus also went as he seemed to be trying to coast back to La Paz, and any time he needed to brake he shifted down…It was a slightly stressful day. Worth it? Definitely.

Also, the day we were riding death road our tour guide told us about a crazy Kiwi that for his 40th birthday was having a ramp made off death road so he could ride a bike off and base jump from the side of death road, on Friday the 13th. I looked up the youtube video when I arrived home- needless to say it did not go as planned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=db2vv6Vl98I&noredirect=1

The next day we left for Uyuni to start our 3 day Salar de Uyuni (salt flat) tour. The salt flats in Bolivia are the worlds largest, and provide exceptional photo opportunities. It was 3 days in a jeep, with a very enthusiastic guide (we later found the source of his enthusiasm was not a pure source) who was extremely knowledgeable. We had heard horror stories of people going on tours with guides who spoke no english, or with drivers who drove drunk so we went with Red Planet who had an excellent safety reputation, and luckily we had no issues at all (besides the enthusiasm).

The tour was a highlight for us, the scenery was stunning and we were able to see lots of wildlife as well as different landscapes. Our last night we took in hot springs at an altitude of 5000 m, so the stars were out of this world and we were able to see several shooting stars. The tour is a must-do! At the end of the tour Chris and I were able to catch a collectivo to the border of Chile, while Patrick and Christine made their way back to Cuzco for their flights home. We would have liked to spend more time in Bolivia than we were able to as it was absolutely incredible (and cheap!), but we wanted to get to wine country for our last 10 days in South America.

Cuzco and Machu Picchu

We headed to Cuzco to meet up with my brother Patrick, and his friend Christine, who flew in to join us for the next 2 weeks. Our first order of business was booking our hike to Machu Picchu, which we decided to do the 5 day 4 night Salkantay trek due to the diversity in ecosystems along the trek as well as the fact it is much less popular than the Inca trail. We were set to leave in 2 days, and spent our time enjoying the fine cuisine of Cuzco, including the sister restaurant to Astrid y Gaston in Lima (only 1 course each) and heading to Pisac to browse the local handicrafts at the extensive market there.

The day of the hike began at 4 am with a few hour drive to where we had breakfast, and began hiking. Our first day had some tough uphill sections for the first few hours, but after lunch it was mostly flat to our first campsite. Unfortunately, it began raining with an hour left to camp, so we arrived rather soaked and very tired. Hot coffee, tea, and chocolate as well as snacks helped raise our spirits. It was an early night for us as it would be an early morning to begin hiking to reach the Salkantay pass.

On our third evening we spent the night in a little town that had hot springs that our guides preferred to those of the town of Aguas Calientes. The were by far the most beautiful hot springs I have ever been in, they were so clean (especially compared to those in Banos, Ecuador) and the setting was so serene. We had a great few hours unwinding in the hot springs, nursing our tired legs.

On our fourth day we had the option of hiking 4 hours with all of our gear, or ziplining and only hiking 2 hours. For us it was a very easy decision. The ziplining was an absolute blast, we did one line that was 1.5 km long and you were able to get going 80-90 km/h, we had one line that was extremely high from the bottom of the canyon, and one line that we landed on a floating platform and repelled down from the platform to the ground. None of us had ever ziplined before so it was a very fun experience, not to mention cutting out a few hours of hiking was a major bonus!

After ziplining we had to walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu where we would spend the night and leave at 4:30 am the next morning to reach the ancient city. We had a few Pisco Sours and a delicious supper, before hitting the hay early. We began hiking a little later than intended, so we hustled hard to reach the gates at Machu Picchu for opening at 6:00 am. There are buses that would drive you to the gates, but after hiking 4 days we felt it would be an injustice to take a bus. So up the approximately 1000 – 1500 stairs we went, the humidity doing us no favors, and reached the gates shortly before opening. It was a very exciting moment, as we had in ways forgot the end goal with all the excitement along the way. Our first glimpses of Machu Picchu, were much like those at the Salkantay pass…..

However, within an hour the rain stopped and the clouds began to dissipate and we were able to begin exploring the city. After seeing so many pictures of Machu Picchu it was very surreal to be there in person, and to imagine the city at the peak of its empire. It would have been nice to do a more indepth tour, our tour guides knew…the bare minimum. Not their fault, we cheaped out. But their explanations consisted of, “Okay my friends, this, is a house. It has windows. Okay friends, lets move on” Lol.

 After a few hours of exploring the city we headed towards Machu Picchu Mountain to complete our final mountain climb. We chose the mountain over Huayna Picchu as it is more than twice as high and we had heard the view is better and far fewer people do the mountain. That was very accurate advice as there were only 16 people who completed the mountain the day we were there. It was another excruciating amount of stairs along some very precarious terrain, but once we reached the top we were able to see exactly how the Inca people integrated Machu Picchu into the natural surroundings. It was incredible.

Although we were exhausted, we were happy we made the final climb up Machu Picchu Mountain. Not only did it provide a very unique view of Machu Picchu it was a nice ending to an insane amount of hiking and climbing during our trip. I was very happy to hang up my hiking boots and begin the last few weeks of relaxation.

Would I recommend the Salkantay trail? 100%. We started in the mountains amidst freezing temperatures and unpredictable weather, descended into the hot and humid cloud forests, and ended up at Machu Picchu. I haven’t done other trails, and each trail offers its something special of its own, but we did really enjoy the Salkantay for the diversity of the surroundings and the challenge it offered. Certainly you can avoid hiking altogether and take a train to Aguas Calientes, and then a bus to Machu Picchu, but that would just be- easy?

 

Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

I know some people may be confused as to why my blogging mysteriously stopped. No, I was not kidnapped or something equally as terrifying (albeit that would be an interesting story), Chris and I surprised our families on Christmas Eve (full story to come later) and as the end date of the trip neared I did not want to spend time blogging, I wanted to enjoy our last days. So I am writing to you from Halifax, and I have made a promise to myself to finish the blog. As such, there will be pictures in every post (hooray!) and I am aiming to have the blog finished before I start back to work.

After Lima we headed down to Arequipa which is known as the “White City” due to all of the old colonial buildings, and is the second most populated city in Peru as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took in the museum that is home to Juanita the Ice Princess (also known as Lady of Ampato or the Inca Ice Maiden) who was discovered at the summit of Mount Ampato at 6309m by an anthropologist. Her discovery happened after an adjacent volcano erupting and spewing ash caused snow and ice to melt from the summit of Ampato and uncover Juanita. She was found in the crater  wrapped in Inca textiles with various offerings scattered around her. She was perfectly preserved as she had been frozen in the glacier of the summit, meaning her remains and garments were as they were at the time of her death. This was a monumental discovery as it allowed scientists a very unique glimpse into the life of the Inca people. She was just a child, between the ages of 13-15, chosen to be sacrificed to the mountain gods for if a volcano was erupting, the Inca people believed the mountain gods were angry and thus needed an offering to appease them. Juanita made the long journey to the summit on foot, was given a fermented corn drink that would have intoxicated her, and then was struck on the head which was the cause of her death. She was in the fetal position, as the Incas believed she was being reborn into the afterlife. After watching an educational video regarding Juanita, and wandering the exhibit of artifacts found on the summit with her, we were able to see Juanita. She is in a specially designed freezer box (for lack of better term), and it is absolutely astounding how well preserved she is. Her face had been exposed to sunlight over the years of her slow uncovering and tumbling into the crater, so it is slightly yellowed, but still remarkable. It was very surreal to look at the face of someone who lived so long ago. Pictures were strictly prohibited in the museum to preserve the artifacts, and Juanita of course. Chris and I are not huge museum nerds, but this museum was a definite highlight.

The next day we headed out very early (4 am) to begin our 2 day 1 night hike into the Colca Canyon, which is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. We began hiking midmorning and it was explained that we would hike down for several hours, up for a few hours, then slowly down again to an oasis at the bottom of the canyon. It was stifling hot, dusty, and at this point I was very much becoming all “hiked out” so it was a long, long day. We also were able to see where we were going the entire time and the landscapes did not change, so it was a challenge to stay enthusiastic.

We hiked all day through the heat, and at 5 pm just as the sun was starting to descend in the sky we arrived at the desert oasis at the bottom of the canyon. We were greeted with an adorable little hostel with a very inviting pool, but the temperature was quickly dropping and only Chris and Sean were brave enough to jump in the pool. There was no electricity aside from the kitchen area at the hostel, so we spent the evening sitting around the table joking and laughing, and dreading the next day.

The next day we departed at 5 am for a 1000 m in altitude ascent out of the canyon. Our guide assured us that it would take 3 hours, perhaps the “fast males” would be able to do it in 2. Sound like a challenge to you? It certainly did to me. I set the pace out of the canyon for Chris and I, and luckily because we were not at high altitude it wasn’t incredibly difficult, but certainly not an ideal way to wake up.

At 1 hour 55 minutes we reached the top of the canyon, much to my delight. We had to wait for the rest of group to catch up, so we passed the time with pictures.

Out of all of the hikes we did during our entire trip, we found this to be the most anti-climatic and one that we probably could have done without. OR, if we did it again, we would definitely stay at the oasis for more than a few hours. It just did not seem worth it to wake up crazy early for 2 days, hike for hours and hours in the heat, only to spend a few hours at the destination. It was still an experience and we did enjoy it, but it was a lot of hiking for little reward. Luckily, we had one more hike on the horizon that would be our last hike of our trip and would end the hiking saga on an epic note. 

Lima: Miraflores and Astrid y Gaston

It has almost been a month since my last post. As unacceptable as this is, it is due to the whirlwind of activity the month contained. I promise to get caught up, and where possible include pictures. I will start where I left off.

After our incredible hike out of Huaraz we caught a night bus to Lima where we booked a hostel in Miraflores, which is the more scenic part of the massive city. We arrived very early in the morning and spent most of the first day relaxing and recovering after our big hike. In the evening we went to a fountain and light show in a local park, which was surprisingly well-done and entertaining. The next day the rest of the “Cotopaxi Crew” arrived to the hostel and we headed off to explore Miraflores. We lazily began our day in the park across the street, which was a very interesting park, especially for Chris and I. The park is called “Gato” (which is the spanish word for cat) park, and there are about a hundred cats that inhabit the park full time, and are cared for by park maintainence. You could lay in the grass and cuddle with as many as you could call over. Crazy cat person heaven. After we begrudgingly were torn from the park we went for lunch at Punta Azual, which is famous for its ceviche, a national specialty in Peru (see below for a picture). It was an absolutely massive portion of delightfully fresh fish, snail, octopus, squid, and shrimp, in a perfectly prepared traditional sauce of lime. It was ceviche like none of us had ever experienced, and incredibly well priced. We knew of the reputation of Limas gastronomy, and our first encounter did not disappoint. We continued our day on the cliffs of Miraflores, where we had a spectacular view of the surfers catching waves below, and paragliders in flight above. There is also a mall built directly into the side of the cliff, which is quite unlike anything we had experienced before. We stumbled across a movie theatre in the mall as we browsed, and decided an afternoon matinee was exactly what we needed. We took in Gravity in 3D, which was a spectacular piece of cinematography. After the movie we all remarked how strange and refreshing it was to do something so “normal” The next day we rented bikes (gah) and biked along the cliffs which admittedly, was an excellent way to cover ground and see more of the area. We stopped in a local park for some shade and a siesta, unfortunately there were only dogs (with owners) in this park.

The evening comprised of one of our major “to-dos” while in South America. Our friends recommended it to us ages ago, and the recommendation was reinforced by an article read in a magazine during our only flight to date in Colombia. Around the block from our hostel was the restaurant Astrid y Gaston, ranked #1 in all of South America and #9 in the world. We booked reservations 3 weeks in advance for the 24 (yes, 24) course tasting menu. It was called El Viaje (the voyage), and it certainly lived up to its name. It came with a leatherbound “passport” to guide us through the meal, consisting of short poems or stories explaining each act or part of the meal, and details regarding each course. I unfortunately do not have access to that right now as we brought only our daypacks with us, or else I would detail each course. Instead, I will say few words and allow the pictures to do the talking. Each course was very small, no more than 2-3 bites, but packed an enormous amount of flavor and texture. Some courses were that of molecular cuisine, which none of us had ever experienced before. We tried many things we had never tried before; alpaca, guinea pig, and sea urchin to name a few. There were mixtures of extreme heat and cold, the contrast beautifully paired. It was as much a meal as an art. It lasted 3.5 hours, and I worried I would be so full I would be unable to finish courses or be uncomfortable, but I found I was neither. It was an impressive evening that we shared with amazing friends (photocredit to Sean Maloney, I stole all your pictures). The only downside? It was election weekend in Lima, thus making it illegal to sell alcohol. The wine pairing is meant to be a beautiful addition. I highly recommed this experience to anyone, you needn’t be a foodie to enjoy.