29 Aug

We Had One, One Night In Rio

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
We had two…two glasses of champagne. Well, we do have champagne tastes but, unfortunately, a beer budget….so we substituted with beer on the beaches of Rio. And it was actually four nights…

To say I was anxious as the bus made its way to Rio de Janeiro would be an understatement. Every guidebook and website I had read talked about how dangerous it was. Stories of pickpocketing and muggings…even in the light of day. What was I expecting? A lawless state where armed gunmen stood on every corner just waiting for tourists to exit their hotels? It turned out to be fine and, with the usual precautions, we didn’t feel uncomfortable even once.

Christ The Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, BrasilRio is absolutely stunning. The combination of the water crashing on long, crescent shaped beaches with the city buildings studded amongst green, green hills is what puts it amongst our list of most beautiful cities. I love cities that are on the water. I don’t find the juxtaposition of the beaches with the cityscape jarring, in fact I like the way the city is a little more relaxed because of it and the beaches, because they are so accessible, always have something going on.

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, BrasilBoth Copacabana and Ipanema beaches lived up to their reputation. Long expanses of fluffy sand punctuated by futbol scrums, volleyball courts and games of futevolie (volleyball played without the use of hands!). Although the beaches did not fill up (it is winter here after all) there was still plenty to see, and by that I mean that yes, the beachwear here does not leave a lot to the imagination and body type is no excuse not to don that bikini! I think that my favorite part, though, was the beer stalls that regularly dot the pedestrian walkway alongside the beach. Cheap, ice-cold beer right next to the beach! Canada needs to seriously work on its liquor laws!

From the Christ the Redeemer and SugarLoaf mountain lookouts, the city looked like a LegoLand version of itself. The beaches, the high-rises, the mountains, the islands in the distance all appearing as if in some diorama in an architects office somewhere.

Favelo, Rio de Janeiro, BrasilWe did not go on a favela tour. The slum areas of Rio are very visible as they climb the hillsides amongst the city. Tours of favelas are common and popular but was just not something we wanted to do. It’s not about not wanting to face up to the poverty that exists in these countries we are visiting, but more about not wanting to intrude on the lives of those who are living it. How would I feel if tour buses of people came through my neighborhood, looking in my windows, taking pictures and wondering aloud ‘how they live like that’? I understand that the tours are organized, that the money paid goes toward change, and that they are a reality but it just wasn’t something I wanted to be part of.

Paratay, BrasilWe left Rio to finish out our time in South America at a small beach town between Rio and Sao Paulo. Paraty is exactly what we were looking for. A super chill hostel (our room looks out onto the beach!), beer shacks on the beach and warm water to swim in. Here we are doing nothing…seriously, nothing. We’ve managed to pull ourselves back and forth to town to eat a couple of times but mostly we’re just chilling, relaxing….chillaxing…ahhhh……

25 Aug

The Amazing Power Of Nature

Rainy Day Bus Ride We arrived in Iguazu Falls in the middle of a rainstorm, not knowing that the worst of it was yet to come. That night I saw biggest thunderstorm I have ever seen. The storm cells circled the town for hours on end, flashing lightning, crashing thunder loud enough to shake the house, and dropping rain harder than I thought possible. I’m from the West Coast of Canada so I’m used to rain, but this was like the skies just opened up and poured out what they had. I was mesmerized and, like a little girl, kept running to the window to have a look.

The next day dawned calm, although overcast. We made our way to the falls easily on the local bus and set about a plan to view them from all possible angles.

Iguazu Falls, Argentinean Side We started with the Upper Walkway which would give us a view of the falls from above. The first view of the falls was stunning but, literally, every footstep revealed even more falls and an even better view. The water level was high resulting in even better waterfall viewing than expected, and was a reddish brown color due to the storm runoff picking up the richly colored soil as it made it’s way to the falls.

The catwalk walkway wound it’s way over several of the falls allowing views down to the tumble of water below. From here I could also see the lower walkways and how close they got  to the falls from the bottom – that looked like even more fun!

Gillian Under The Falls The Lower Walkway was way more fun! The largest waterfall had a walkway almost to the base – I pulled my raincoat tightly to me, tugged on the hood strings and made my out. The wind created from force of the water whipped around me. The sound was deafening and the spray got heavier and heavier as I got closer to the base. Once there I stared straight up at it, amazed at how much power was there. I got soaked but had a huge smile on my face!

The Devils Throat is the main attraction at the falls. A catwalk more than a kilometer long reaches out over the river to get to the lip of this tight horseshoe shaped behemoth. It is stunning and awe-inspiring. We couldn’t even see to the other side of the horseshoe as the spray was so thick. Needless to say, there are no close up pictures and yes, we got soaked. But happy again.

There is a border that runs directly down the middle of the Iguazu River and the falls  themselves. On one side Argentina, and on the other, Brazil. It was an easy day trip to get to the Brazilian side.

Iguazu Falls, Brazilian Side-3 The difference between the Argentinean side and the Brazilian side were described to us by some fellow Canadians as being like Niagara Falls…Canada owns the falls, but the States has a better view. I don’t know if I  would say Brazil’s view is better, but it certainly is more panoramic. From here we were able to see the full majesty of the falls on the other side.

The White Smurfs In Front Of The Falls They too have a catwalk and it pushed out across a fast moving section of the river, in front of a wall of water cascading from above and ending at the edge of the fall as it made its final descent. The wind and spray were like being in the middle of a storm and, as I reached the end of the catwalk I gasped at the view of the water plunging over the edge. So much water, moving so quickly right under my feet…truly, a fine display of natures power.

It’s impossible to decide whether the Argentinean or Brazilian side of the falls are better. The Argentinean side will forever be remembered for the first amazing views, but it was the Brazilian side that literally took my breath away.

22 Aug

The Dreaded Overnight Bus

Some backpackers take overnight buses to avoid having to fork over the cost of a room. Some use them as a time saving device, to quickly get from one place to another. And some must take them just for the bragging rights of how many hours they’ve clocked in a darkened, rolling funhouse.

I’m not a fan. I’ve come to quite like bus riding. It’s a great way to see the country and watch the landscape slowly change. On a night bus, there is no seeing the country  or the landscape…it’s dark.  And, in this part of the world at this time of year, it’s dark about 12 hours a night.

But, as we have found, sometimes they are inevitable. And so, here I am, on the dreaded overnight bus. And tonight, as a special treat, there are three children under the age of 5 right in front of us. It’s a 23 hour ride….twenty three hours!!

There are varying degrees of buses in South America but it’s been a bit of a crap shoot as to which level we’ll end up at (I should probably do more research). Our first, from Lima to Cusco, sucked the big one. The second, from Mendoza to Buenos Aires, was sweet heaven. The third, from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu was mediocre but passable. And tonight…well we’ll see but this is the longest ride we’ve done and there is no meal service on board…we just stopped at a truck stop restaurant for ‘dinner’ (it’s 10PM)…who knows what breakfast will hold?

They all start out fine as it’s still light outside and I can pass the time staring out the window – which I’ve become quite good at. There might be a movie playing – if it’s not an action movie, or violent, or dubbed only in spanish, I might watch or I might just keep staring out the window. I save all my reading, writing, game playing and other such activities for after dark…there’s a lot of ‘dark time’ to pass.

I always hope that dark will fall later than I expect…but it never does. Night always falls and the familiar pattern begins.

Just before dark, as the temperature outside drops, the windows will start to fog up. I hate that as it robs me of precious staring out of the window time. And so the windows and I start our night bus fight – I ritually aim all the air vents at the windows and pull out my ‘window rag’ to wipe the condensation of as quickly as it forms. I’m usually pretty successful and manage to keep a clear hole until nothing more can be distinguished in the dark.

During this time, if there is an attendant (and there isn’t tonight), he/she will come around and close all the curtains as if we riders could not decide when or if we wanted our own curtains closed. There is no disputing that this should be done – it’s best to let it happen and then open them again once they leave. The reverse happens in the morning.

Depending on the level of service dinner may be served. Keep in mind that even the best service offers airline type food…the worst serves a box with a stale sandwich and a juice box. If not, then it’s now that Jason and I pull out our snack/dinner which is usually tastier and somewhat healthier than either above option – except tonight as we’ve had potato chips, peanuts, pop, and an ice cream bar to get us through the night.

After dinner, maybe another movie or some reading, or writing, or card playing…anything to fill the time and wait for sleep to come.

Now the bus is really dark. No aisle lights, no illuminating tv, no reading lights and, if we’re really out in the country, no street lights either. Just complete darkness, the sound of the engine and the wheels and the feeling of the bus hurtling down the highway.

I hate this time. Usually I am tired but just can’t drift off. The movement of the bus simultaneously lulls me to the edge of sleep and then pulls me back from that edge…it’s exhausting. At best I can sleep an hour at a time, waking up regularly for I-don’t-know-what-reason, at worst the cycle continues and I count down the hours until dawn will break and I can see outside again.

Eventually, thankfully, dawn does break, the windows and I start our battle again, and I can resume staring out the window until we arrive at our destination. First stop? Find the hostel and have a nap!

PS…there are no pictures with this post…because it’s dark!!!

19 Aug

I Heart Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires At first, I was a little scared of Buenos Aires. I mean it’s a city of 13 million people! I worried that we would get lost, that we would get mugged, that we would be overwhelmed. I needn’t have worried – we spent 10 days and could have stayed longer we loved it so much.

We started our stay with a couple of walking tours by BAFreeTour. The excellent, and funny Sol and Maca showed us the best of the city and gave out advice and recommendations easily. I highly recommend them – they helped us realize that the city doesn’t have to be overwhelming and can be conquered.

Our apartment was located in Palermo, a fabulous neighborhood filled with cafes, shops, restaurants and apartment blocks – a city of 13 million lives a stacked life! We loved it, wandering around for hours, finding something new every time we went out. We were able to walk everywhere we wanted to visit but, once we mastered the subway we took advantage of it also – piece of cake.

Buenos Aires Cafe Coffee culture is huge in Buenos Aires, and I upped both my coffee intake and my ‘cred’ when I discovered the cortado – a mix of espresso and just a hint of milk, definitely stronger than any coffee I’d been able to consume at home (I’m a Starbucks latte kind of girl…no longer). Here, coffee is not consumed in take out cups while hurriedly running off to attend to something else. No, here one goes to a cafe and leisurely sips while chatting or just watching the world go by. Linger for a while…no-one minds. Fabulous!

One BIG Steak My beef and wine intake also increased substantially. I think I’ve eaten more beef in Argentina than we normally eat in a whole year. Seriously!! And it is as good as advertised. Our big ‘steak dinner out’ was had at  La Cabrera, a restaurant I had read was a touristy but worth it. It was totally worth it. I have never seen a steak so big, and accompanied by 13 small side dishes! We were absolutely stuffed…but happy. And wine…I think we’ve drank a bottle of wine every single day…it really is like water at this point!

Wandering Through Recoleta Cemetary We took in the city at our leisure, enjoying art galleries, regular neighborhoods, fancy neighborhoods, markets and, of course, the famous Recoleta cemetery. It really is stunning! The tombs were built to honor the people within them but also must have been built with a keep-up-with-the-Jones kind of mentality as every one is grander than the next. There are sculptures, and spires, and chapels, and monuments everywhere. Quite the sight to see.

Tango. How could one go to Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, and not see a tango show? It is possible to see tango in the streets, although the weather and time of year did not bode too well for us and we only saw one or two couples shilling it for tips. Tango shows can cost a fortune and we were not nearly ready to go to a milonga where one can dance tango…there are strict ‘rules’ around dancing and ad-libbing is not encouraged!

More Tortoni Tango Fortunately I like cheese. You know, campy…put-on…over-the-top…Vegas-like. In fact, one of my favorite shows ever was the Follies Bergere show at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Pure camp…feathered headdress, topless, mirrored ceiling kind of entertainment. But, back to the tango…we found that the cheapest show in town was at Cafe Tortoni, which also happens to be the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. It was perfect. Live tango music by an aging band, a Sinatra-like singer, and a stunning couple dancing tango on the smallest, red velvet curtained stage around. I loved it!!

We left Buenos Aires wanting more…more time. This was a place we could settle into, enjoy, explore. Not scary at all.

13 Aug

Like A Rhinestone Cowboy

Riding out on a horse, in a star-spangled rodeo.

Gauchos at La Cinacina Much of central and northern Argentina is pampas…long stretches of flat, flat grassland punctuated by estancias and small towns. In the late 1800’s these fertile grasslands were ruled by gauchos. These South American cowboys are held in folklore much like their North American counterparts.

Quiet, stoic, and proud, they were nomadic cattlemen back in the day. Today, they still work the land and maintain some of their mystique, but less so.

Our base is in Buenos Aires but we have had a couple of opportunities to experience the more rural aspects of Argentinean life by traveling just outside the city limits.

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09 Aug

Meh In Mendoza

Seriously, Staight Up Although the drive through the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza was breathtaking, taking us straight up one side of a mountain and then slowly easing back down the other side, we found Mendoza itself a bit lacking.

It seems that, in the summer, there would be plenty to do. But, in the winter, the city is definitely much, much quieter.

There certainly is plenty of wine…it’s good and cheap too. There are lots of cafes and restaurants and squares but not a lot of sights to see. In summer I could see that the tree lined streets would provide welcome shade for the sidewalk cafes where one could wile away an afternoon easily. But in winter it’s too chilly to lounge for too long and, outside of skiing and vineyard touring, other activities are minimal.

Olive Oil Production We did tour a winery (or two), and an olive grove too. We walked and walked and walked and, upon discovering a large park just off the downtown we got a long needed run in too.

Serious About Siesta in Mendoza Mendocinians are serious about their siesta. Come 1PM the shops are shut up tight, traffic slows to a dribble and everyone is heading home for lunch and a nap. Until about 4PM there is nothing open except cafes and restaurants and, as we weren’t in love with either of the hostels we tried out, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do.

I wanted to like it, really I did, but sometimes things just are what they are. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but I certainly will not be rushing back. Sorry Mendoza, but you underwhelmed me.

06 Aug


U.de Chile vs Arg Juniors CHI-CHI-CHI!! LAY-LAY-LAY!!! Universidad de Chile!! Viva Chile!!

6700 strong, they chanted…the entire game!!  A small crowd, too be sure, but passionate none-the-less.

Fair warning: I am not a soccer, errr…football fan. In fact, I don’t exactly know much about the game despite having played a little myself during high school. But, being in Latin America, we knew we had to take a game in just to experience it.

I went to experience the crowd as much as to watch the game, and I wasn’t disappointed…don’t worry mom(s), there was no hooliganism and if there had been there was more than enough riot police around the manage it ;-)

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03 Aug

Settling Into Santiago

Soaking Up The Sun in Santiago We settled nicely into Santiago, even getting ourselves an apartment.

We knew we were going to be here for 4 or 5 days and heard that renting a short term apartment would be possible. It is more than possible and is somewhat economical too, considering we can cook meals (which, after 2 months of travel, is appealing) and generally just hang out.

It’s near the metro, which was super easy to use, meaning we could get everywhere we want to without too much trouble. We easily found the grocery which is also the liquor and beer store, and quickly got to roasting a chicken and opening a bottle of wine…making us feel right at home.

Apartment Living Room, Santiago In The Kitchen, Santiago 

The best part is that it was part of a regular apartment block so it really was just like being at home…in a neighborhood. It was nice to have a small piece of our normal lives in a foreign city.

Santa Carolina Winery Cellar Santiago’s downtown area is quite compact and we were able to wander around very easily. We explored the two closest cerros (hills) both with parks at the top, visited the lackluster zoo, and took the metro out to the closest winery for a tour and a tipple.

Feels Like Fall The weather has been very good to us and, although Santiago suffered a cold snap the week before we arrived, the temperatures were reminiscent of fall at home with bright days and lots of sun.

One of the best things about visiting a city like Santiago, or any city, is that it’s just that…a city. It’s not there for purposes of tourism specifically so it’s easy just to fit in and enjoy the city ‘as a local’ – well as much as any two white kids in hiking gear can.