We really loved our three and a half months in South America, from the tropical shores of the Caribbean in Colombia, to snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands to hiking among 6000+ meter peaks in Peru. It's an immensely varied continent, and we barely even scratched the surface. We found nothing but warm and friendly people everywhere we went, and the wonderful food, comfortable accommodation, and quirky, unique things to stumble upon around every corner made it a perfect place to start our trip and one we hope to return to many more times. We wanted to share some of our favorite moments with you, and if you ever find yourself backpacking in South America, keep this list handy!
Best quirky restaurant/bar: The Alamo, Tupiza, Bolivia
Most gorgeous bar: Ayahuasca, Lima, Peru
Best night out: dinner and spontaneous live music at Las Molinas del Casona, Salta, Argentina
Best national beer: Bolivia
Best artisenal breweries: Argentina
Best microbrewed beer: Las Cascadas IPA, Baños, Ecuador
Best national drink: Pisco Sour, Peru
Best wine: Argentina
Best coffee: Colombia
Best cappuccino: anywhere in Argentina
Best meal: La Mar, Lima, Peru
Best meat: Argentina (interestingly enough, Argentina also has the worst napkins- they have the same absorbency as a magazine page)
Best ice cream: Ferrucio Soppessa, Mendoza, Argentina
Best chain restaurant: Crepes and Waffles (Colombia and Ecuador)
Best overused ingredient: dulce de leche/manjar (everywhere!)
Best tropical fruit: maracuya (passion fruit)
Best accommodation: our San Telmo apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina (honorable mention: hammocks in Tayrona National Park, Colombia)
Best hike: Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Best wildlife viewing: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Best waterfall: Pailon del Diablo, near Baños, Ecuador
Best buses: Argentina (honorable mention: Peru)
Best bus ride to gaze at scenery: Riobamba to Cuenca, Ecuador
I think our posts generally do a decent job of describing where we've been, what we've done, and what we've been eating, but I'm not sure we've given you our general impressions of the countries or their culture (although you can often probably gather some of that). In any event, the last two countries we've been to--Bolivia and Argentina--are quite different from each other in many respects.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. We read one article that said it has the same GDP as Sudan, which sounds pretty bleak if you ask me. But despite the poverty, the people seem generally content. Mostly everyone we encountered was pleasant, friendly, and extremely respectful. I would think that a country so poor would have high crime rates and that foreigners would have to take extra care not to get robbed, especially in big cities. We were only there for two weeks, so all our observations of course have to be taken with a huge grain of salt, but we really never felt unsafe, we never had any aggressive or uncomfortable encounters with 'salesmen', and we never felt ripped off. While La Paz was quite modern in some respects (modern architecture, international food, and a lively bar scene, for example), it was the only capital city where the vast majority of the women we saw were dressed traditionally. Sure, Bolivia suffered from painfully slow wifi and lower-quality buses and roads compared to other countries, but that is to be expected given that it is so poor. La Paz also had a surprising German influence, mostly visible in the restaurants and cafes with their excellent pastries. We talked to some Bolivians who said that many Germans came to Bolivia (and Argentina) after WWII.
Bolivia has some of the most spectacular landscapes we've ever seen. In the southwest region of the country, there are high-altitude deserts, endless salt flats with coral islands, multi-colored mountains, brightly colored lakes, and strange rock formations caused by high winds over the years. In the east of the country is the rainforest, quite unexplored in some places. Bolivia has also been heavily mined, and the adventurous tourist can still tour some of these huge mines at his or her own risk (from what I hear, these tours are the kind that would never exist in the US because of the dozens of inevitable lawsuits that would ensue due to safety hazards). Overall, we found Bolivia widely varied, beautiful, extremely affordable, and friendly.
Argentina, the eighth largest country in the world, feels very different from the rest of South America (or at least from the countries we've been to on this trip). As soon as you get to any city of notable size in Argentina, you start to feel that you could almost be in Europe between all the croissants, cappucinos, and old Peugeots everyone drives around. Argentinians seem to enjoy a high quality of life: the wine and meat is excellent and plentiful, their capital is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the continent, their beloved tango is a world-renowned dance, they've got world-class skiing and trekking in Patagonia, and continue to have a strong gaucho (cowboy/ranching) culture which one can still experience by visiting one of the many estancias throughout the country. Especially in Patagonia, there is a visible German and Italian presence, especially in architecture and food (Argentina can't seem to get enough of their Milanesas: breaded and fried meat that is cooked much like a schniztel). Unfortunately, Argentina isn't blessed with the tropical climate that its northern neighbors experience, so the fruits and vegetables are much less plentiful, fresh, and readily available. Whatever they lack in fruit and vegetables, they more than make up for in the meat department; I cannot stress this enough! And they don't waste too much time with sides: rice and potatoes are generally side dishes that are ordered seperately; meat simply comes on a plate on its own, no need for anything else! Empanadas are delicious and eaten as an appetizer or a street snack. Everyone drinks mate all the time (herbal tea that is made with loose leaves and consumed out of a gourd with a silver straw).
Transportation in comparison to the other countries is luxurious, if more expensive: long-distance bus rides include a host, several meals, wine, games of Bingo (?!), and very recent movies. Highways are actual highways: multiple lanes and paved! No longer do we have to endure hours of bumpy rides in umcomfortable seats with extra passengers crammed into the aisles and salsa music blasting.
Argentinians operate on a different schedule than most countries we've been to: siesta is observed religiously, so stores and some offices are closed from about 1:00 to 5:00 or 6:00 pm, when they open back up until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. After siesta, Argentinains can be found at a cafe, drinking an espresso and having a pastry. Happy hour starts around 8:00 or 9:00 pm, dinner doesn't begin until 10:00 pm at the earliest, and people don't really go out until after midnight. I still don't understand how they manage to get to work at the normal hour of 9:00 am!
I hope that gives you some feel of what these two countries are like. In the three months we've spent in South America, we've definitely started to feel at home, we have appreciated the similarities between all these countries, and enjoyed spotting the differences. Now we're looking forward to forgetting all that and learning about a whole new set of countries in Africa!
We're always on the lookout for new street food, especially if the locals are eating it, so after seeing stands in La Paz selling glasses of amber liquid with a strange round object at the bottom, we eventually worked up our courage to ask what it was and try a glass. Despite our best guesses for what the strange object was: bread, chocolate balls..., it turns out that they're merely dried peaches which are then used to flavor the sweet peach juice.
When our turn came up, we tried the drink timidly, then quickly finished it. It was tasty: sweet and fresh, but nothing lifechanging. More than the taste, the best part of the drink was taking part in an experience we saw all over Bolivia, and South America in general: instead of putting takeout short order food in plastic or styrofoam containers and exchanging as few words as possible with the cook, as might be common in the US, street food is a social affair here. The juice was given to us in the type of glass you'd find in any of our cupboards, and the patrons just stand around for a few minutes sipping it and chatting with each other and the women running the stand. We've also seen full meals served this way: rice, some stewed meat, and perhaps some veggies served out of huge pots onto real plates and eaten family style at stools at a picnic table under a tent.
Bonus: the untreated water didn't even make us sick!
Here are a few videos we've taken that haven't found their way into our last few posts.
First, the most pigeons we've ever seen, at Plaza Murillo in La Paz Bolivia. Also, there were people selling bags of corn with signs saying something like: "Sterilization: instead of a cruel death". We think they irradiate the corn to make the pigeons infertile, but we're all ears on other explanations.
Next, lots of beautiful and weird scenery from the Southwest Bolivia trip:
Pique Macho, roughly translated, means man-snack. It may not look that appetizing, but Pique Macho is a classic Bolivian dish containing beef, french fries, onions, peppers, 'sausage' (i.e., hot dogs), and hard-boiled egg. I suppose it's kind of like an American casserole, which I have always thought of as a dish that just contains whatever you happen to have in the fridge. As Nick put it, it's something that you would make for an American four-year-old's dinner. But after a long and tiring day in the high-altitude desert, it hit the spot!
After a relaxing few days in Coroico, we high-tailed it south to the small town of Tupiza, famous for being near the (possible) final resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and for being the less-popular gateway to the fascinating high-mountain desert of Bolivia. We booked a four day tour and hopped in the Jeep.
This was one of the things we were most looking forward to when we started the trip. Between reports from friends who had been, and looking at other peoples' pictures online, we were excited to see some of the world's most unique and otherworldly landscapes, and we weren't disappointed!
The first day started slowly with relatively normal desert landscapes and a few small towns and archaeological sites.
After a cold night in our spartan accommodations, the second day really started to get weird: floating grass islands at the las bofedales marsh, windblown volcanic rock formations resembling surrealist art at the Desierto de Dali, then a green lake full of arsenic and, after a quick dip in a refreshing hot spring, a flamingo-populated orange lake full of red algae.
The third day was full of more abstract rock formations, eerily reflective mountain lakes surrounded by snow-capped peaks and populated by three different types of flamingoes, then our first salt flat (much smaller and browner than the one we would see the next day), and an ancient burial site with egg-shaped tombs built out of coral from when the land was at the bottom of a great sea. We finished this day in the posh accommodations of a salt hotel on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni: The walls and floor, as well as the beds, tables, and chairs were all built out of bricks of salt harvested from the Salar. The experience was surreal, and reminded us of stories of ice hotels in Scandanavia, but luckily despite the chilly appearance, this was our warmest night in the desert.
The last day started with a 4:30am wakeup, but with good reason: we got to witness one of the most unique sunrises we've ever seen; from the largest island in the middle of the huge salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. This area used to be an enormous salt lake, but as it dried up over the course of many centuries, the salt deposits remained, so while this might just look like an island in a regular mountain lake, what you see is all incredibly flat salt that you can walk and even drive a car on. Driving around on the lake was an especially surreal experience: with really nothing in the foreground (not even a road, only some faint tracks from previous cars) and only distant mountains on the horizon, it's hard to tell that you're making progress, going the right way, or sometimes even moving at all. We were glad to be chauffeured around by our excellent driver, Mario. We're not sure who took the first "foto loca", but ever since it's been one of the favorite pastimes for visits to the Salar, due to the extreme flatness and uniform surroundings.
The tour definitely lived up to our expectations. Before we arrived, our friend described the scenery to us as feeling like you're on another planet, and while it's hard to describe the experience, this is as good an attempt as any. The desolate landscapes, multicolored lakes, and the sheer strangeness and enormous size of the Uyuni salt flats are things we won't soon forget, and are excellent reminders of how varied and amazing the world can be.
When we got to Bolivia, we knew we definitely wanted to do one thing: pick one place and just relax and catch up on life somewhere peaceful that we didn't have to spend a dozen hours on a bus to get to. Bolivia isn't a huge country, but many of its most interesting regions and cities are double-digit hours away from each other by bus. So while we had heard great things about Cochabamba, Toro Toro National Park, and Sucre, the thought of turning Bolivia into a whirlwind six-places-in-fifteen-days affair wasn't appealing at all, especially after doing just that in Peru. Therefore, we picked Coroico, a town much lower in altitude than La Paz (and therefore warmer!), but only 2.5 hours away by bus. Even better, it's very close to where The World's Most Dangerous Road -- a curving, unpaved, cliff-hanging 64 km-long road that is now used as a famous mountain biking route -- ends, so we could essentially bike there and take the bus back to La Paz after a few days. We booked ourselves two spots on the bike ride through Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, packed our bags, and off we went!
The WMDR used to be the main road used by cars and buses linking Coroico with La Paz, but a newer, suposedly safer, and paved road was finished in 2006, so the WMDR is now mostly used as a famous downhill bike riding route. It starts about a 45-minute drive from La Paz at 4700 m altitude, and ends near Coroico, at 1100 altitude. The road takes many turns, is often quite narrow, and hugs the cliffs the entire way (drops of hundreds of meters can be seen on your left if you dare to look down), often with waterfalls on the right (mountain) side. It's not a technically challenging ride by any means (after all, people like me can do it!), and you can pretty much go as fast or as slow as you want. Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking made sure we were more than safe, with many stops along the way. They also took all the photos so that we wouldn't have to risk smashing our cameras if we fell (which means our camera is still intact but the photos are unfortunately of low quality).
The ride was really fun, with gorgeous views, breathtaking cliffs, and overall it was very easy as it was almost completely downhill. It is certainly not for those scared of heights, but if you've got that under control, you'll be fine. My only complaint would be that our guides made the group stop too often, which I think was mostly a safety protocol, but it meant that if you were one of the faster bikers, you spent a lot of time waiting around at each stop for the slowest ones to arrive before you could take off again.
One of the highlights of the ride was actually the ending point, La Senda Verde. This is an animal rescue organization that rescues all kinds of animals from abusive homes where they are often kept illegally. They also take volunteers and allow overnight guests to stay there as a sort of retreat. When we arrived, we were greeted with beers by the volunteers, were fed a yummy pasta and salad bar lunch, and then got to hang out with the rescued monkeys. The majority of the animals are birds and monkeys, but they also have snakes, a large cat, and a bear. We learned that the animals--and in particular the monkeys--have all kinds of life stories: some were trained to be street performers, dancing to make the owner money; some were trained as pickpockets, so you have to make sure you do not have any valuables on you when you're near them, or they'll take cash our of your pocket and run away with it!; some were simply kept as pets and neglected or abused. The animals that play nice with others roam free, but some of the have to be kept in enclosed areas for everyone's safety. I have never really interacted with monkeys like this, and the spider monkeys charmed my socks off. They are so friendly and curious, they come right up to you, and wrap one of their large arms or even their tail around your arm and lead you around (who's the pet monkey now?!). They also like to crawl into your arms or lap and give hugs. Amazing!
After our lovely afternoon with the monkeys, we headed up to Coroico, which was only a 20-minute taxi ride away. The town itself doesn't have too much to offer, so it was a good thing we had chosen to stay about a 30-minute walk uphill and above town at Sol y Luna. We chose a bungalow with a private porch, complete with a hammock overlooking the town and the valley, and an outdoor kitchen, so we could buy all our food to cook our meals and not have to trek into town every time we were hungry. This ended up being the perfect retreat for us: for three days we read in the hammock, cooked delicious meals with fresh vegetables from the town markets, and caught up on blog-writing. Two things I've really missed are having our own living space to hang out in, and cooking dinners. Our bungalow offered opportunities for both of those things. I loved waking up every morning to the sounds of the birds (tucans and parakeets, I believe), walking out to the porch and drinking coffee overlooking the valley. After three days of pure relaxation (and entirely too much condensed milk and dulce de leche consumption--the town was "out of fresh dairy products until Thursday"!), we were ready to hit the road for the long haul down to southwest Bolivia for our 4-day jeep tour around colored lagoons, deserts, and salt flats.
After a somewhat hectic entrance into Bolivia, we were happy to arrive to our hotel in the neighborhood of Sopocachi in La Paz. We didn't really know what to expect of this city of almost two million people and 4,000m above sea-level (the world's highest capital), as most people either love or hate large cities in South America, and we hadn't heard too much either way about it from other travelers. If you enter Bolivia from any of the border crossings near Lake Titicaca, La Paz is pretty much a necessary stop before going anywhere else in the country, even if just to change buses.
We ended up liking La Paz. Neither of us are sure exactly why; we didn't actually visit any museums nor did we get a good feel for the local cuisine, but we did a lot of walking around, strolling through outdoor markets and sitting in parks. I think we were just in a good mood, it was sunny the whole time we were there, and we stayed in a neighborhood full of good restaurants, cafes, and bars (instead of the neighborhood where most of the hostels are, which is somewhat hectic and full of touts trying to sell you just about everything imaginable). The architecture was surprisingly modern, and the people filled all roles from women dressed in traditional clothing and selling produce on the street to trendy 20-somethings dressed to the nines and sipping on craft beers. I think I was somewhat surprised to see how modern the city is in some respects.
We also got to experience La Paz's first ever "Day of the Pedestrian", which meant that for an entire Sunday no vehicles were allowed to drive in central La Paz, and the area became a street festival with live music, performers, food, and families strolling down the wide streets and generally just enjoying their city on foot and bicycle. For anyone who has been to La Paz, you know how terrible the traffic is there: in the center, it seems to be 100% gridlocked for half the day, and walking on the sidewalks wasn't much more enjoyable due to all the exhaust fumes. Seeing the city on a break from all that traffic was so enjoyable; we found ourselves wondering why they don't ban all traffic once a week, or at least a couple times a month.
We're glad we got to know La Paz a little bit, and if you ever find yourself there, it's the best/cheapest place on the gringo route to stock up on hand-made sweaters, gloves, hats, and socks, as well as hand-crafted musical instruments. Hopefully you'll happen to be there over a Pedestrian Day, or with luck, a strike that has the same effect of clearing the streets of all vehicles!
One of the things we've had the most trouble with on this trip is our pace: we've budgeted a year for this trip, and we also have set up several intermediate deadlines for ourselves, such as volunteering in the Galapagos and meeting friends in Tanzania and India. Because of these set plans, it's necessary to keep up a certain pace, but sometimes it's hard to move so fast, partly because it's easy to get worn out, and partly because we lament all the great-sounding places we have to skip over.
The product of having both the desire to keep moving and the desire to slow down and see more is a tension that we have felt almost daily. In Colombia, we moved fairly fast because we had to reach Quito, Ecuador by a certain date to start our Galapagos volunteer program, but we managed to see a diverse selection of parts of the country in around two weeks, and in retrospect feel pretty good about our decisions. In Ecuador (the smallest country on our South America itinerary), we really slowed things down, spending 19 days in the Galapagos, and nine in Baños while Claudia took Spanish lessons. We loved Ecuador, and don't regret any of the time we spent there, but on leaving we looked at the time we had left on the continent, and everything we still wanted to see, and began to feel pressure to move faster. As a result we went through Peru at a very fast clip, stopping for more than a couple days only in Huaraz and Cusco, and spending 9 of our 17 days at least partially on buses.
Now, finding ourselves in Bolivia, a relatively small country, but one with fairly slow transportation and, as always, many interesting things to see, we're faced with the decision of slowing things down and seeing more, or only hitting a few highlights and rushing between them (with an eye towards leaving ourselves enough time to see all we want to in Argentina, Chile, and Southern Africa before meeting our friends in Tanzania in mid-December). To give a concrete example, when we arrived in La Paz midday Friday, we were only planning on spending Friday and Saturday here, then on Sunday taking the famous downhill bikeride (on "The Death Road"!) to Coroico, a town a few hours to the North. We learned, however, that the first annual "Pedestrian Day" had been declared for Sunday disallowing anyone from driving cars in all the cities in Bolivia. We've liked La Paz quite a bit, and our biggest complaint has been the traffic and resulting air pollution, so we were excited by the idea of walking around without the noise and smog, and experiencing the markets and celebrations that would inevitably result. On the other hand, we've got this nagging feeling that every extra day we spend now, we're making it harder or impossible to go to some of the places, such as Patagonia, that we've been the most excited about even before our trip started.
In the end, we decided to stay the extra day and push the bike ride to Monday. I think we've finally found the right attitude about this conundrum: that if we spend all our time rushing to the next place, we'll never enjoy the place we're in. To take this attitude, we've also had to come to terms with the fact that we're not going to get to all the places we want to. But the only way to enjoy a trip like this is to take each day as it comes, and make the most of the time that we have. As we were told many times before we left, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey!