4 Shopping Meccas of Ecuador and Peru

By Melissa Ruttanai

Shopping is often an integral component of any travel itinerary. You’ve malls, kiosks, and street fairs where locals showcase everything from handcrafted silverworks to traditionally stitched clothes and one-of-a-kind woodcarvings. In our first five months in South America, Neil and I were able to visit four of the most famous shopping meccas of Ecuador and Peru.

Northern Ecuador’s Otavalo Saturday Market
Ecuador marketLauded as South America’s biggest market, the Saturday Market in Otavalo, Ecuador is more like a melange of three markets: textiles, fruit, and live animals. During the week, vendors sell their wares on a smaller scale (and often with competitive prices) that includes hats, scarves, and jumpers. But as the weekend reaches full swing, the usually tame fruit, animal, and textile markets swell into each other, blurring the borders between each other so that shopaholics can stroll between the three without much effort. Furthest from Otavalo’s central plaza, the animal market, located just past the soccer stadium, is an open lot of mewing calfs, bagged guinea pigs, playful kittens, and giant hogs lounging in an open field or beside their owner’s pickup trucks. Early risers may catch a glimpse of street-crossing ducks as they clog traffic, much to the amusement of gringo onlookers.

Cuenca’s Weekend Market in Southern Ecuador
Peruvian Fruit JuiceBursting at the seams with produce and indigenous locals, the Feria in Cuenca is located west of the historic center, a short bus ride from the city’s Old Church. It seems like everything here is a dollar: toilet paper, local honey, grains, rice, and juices. As you walk into the complex, fruit vendors praise the freshness of their wares as two-month old puppies yip for attention. Fish mongers stack tilapia, trout, and catfish in high mounds and as locals cluster for the best cuts, young apprentices sweep and spray the walkway to the stalls. Wrinkly faced grandmas sell whole roast pigs with skin so crisp they flake off into luscious chicharron chips. As a seafood lover, I had to admire the beautiful baskets of purple river crab sold just off the main avenue. Each little crustacean had its lavender-black claws tied up with a cream-string bow. I only wish I had time to have a crab boil in my hostel.

San Blas Artesian Market of Cusco
Buying art in CuscoArtists and artsy admirers will fall in love with the San Blas district of Cusco. Not only is the city renowned for its Incan past but it currently (and rightfully) boasts a bohemian culture that produces works across media including oils, brass, gold, bronze, and weaving. Uphill from the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, San Blas is lined with little workshops, most family owned and handmade to souvenir-perfection. While many pieces are religious and encompass the Virgin and Child as well as the Nativity, the artwork in general pays homage to the life of the campesinos, or country people. Two shops that must not be missed are the Merida Art Gallery and Mendivil Family Wokshop. Both are located at the top of the steep hill, a nice reward after the ascent. If you have time, stop by the Coca Shop where the sacred coca leaf is transformed into decadent treats like brownies, bon bons, and tea.

Larco Mar In Lima, Peru
With upscale shopping and unparalleled views of the sea, Larco Mar is Lima’s Disneyland for commercial consumerism. In an open-air environment, the seaward breeze moves in and the Larco Mar dominates the seaside like a beacon calling in serious shoppers. All the usual suspects are here. Jewelers, name brand apparel makers, and even an iStore jockey for your Peruvian Soles. International movies are played in the cinema and a food court satisfies fast food cravings. High end restaurants cater to businesspersons and their retinue, while at the fountain middle-class skateboarders practice their curbside kicks. The scene is a cross section of wealth and fashion which even boasts a proper humidor bar where you can enjoy a Cuban cigar and a glass of your favorite distilled liquor. At night, grab a smoothie and stroll along the cliffside walkway to watch the lights of Lima reflect over the Pacific Ocean.
Souvenirs aside, shopping or window browsing is another way to see the true culture of a country. In Otavalo, Neil and I saw the commercial success of many indigenous peoples. In Lima, we saw the ultra-modern success of present-day Peruvians. Neither mall nor market is better than the other. They are different windows into modern day Andean culture. Where the former showcases reverence for the past and its traditions, the latter hints at the overall commercial success of its countries and the wealth of its people.

Backwater Adventures in the Peruvian Amazon Part 1

Exclusive for Vagobond by Matthew Barker

The Peruvian Amazon that most visitors get to witness is not the wilderness it once was. Iquitos, the one-time frontier town in the first rubber boom has bloomed into a small metropolis; the river as busy with traffic as a highway, luxury jungle lodges stretching for hundreds of kilometres into the once virgin jungle.

Backwater Adventure in the AmazonMeanwhile in the south, Puerto Maldonado, the most popular access point to the jungle, has transformed from a small logging town into a chaotic outpost of mass tourism. Five-star jungle retreats, luxury spas, global cuisine and a chance to witness a small, tamed parcel of the rainforest without getting your feet wet.

Fortunately for the more adventurous travellers, there are still a few chances to get up close and personal with the real and undomesticated jungle.

Amazon DolphinsFollowing the road east to its final conclusion, the last stop before the river finally takes over is the town of Pucallpa. From here I set off into the jungle with my guide Achiles on his narrow riverboat. We were heading deep into the Amazon for five days to visit Achiles’ friend Don Luis in the village of Nueva Utuquinia, roughly halfway between Pucallpa and the Brazilian border.

Tourism is a barely developed industry in this stretch of the central Amazon; there are no five star lodges in sight, I would be hanging my own mosquito net in abandoned riverside huts and if we wanted to eat anything other than the rice and eggs we had brought with us, we would have to go fishing first.

Matthew Barker is based in Peru where he is writing about his life. 

Biking and Drinking in Argentina’s Mendoza Wine Country

By Melissa Ruttanai

biking in MendozaMendoza was made for wine and traveling winelovers. With street grid construction and verdant parks, this city steeped in viticulture offers great walking boulevards, outdoor cafes, and of course, wine at every corner. Visitors cannot walk 200 feet without passing a wineshop or restaurant with a display case. Even the fountain at Plaza Independencia is tinted red so that spouts shoot water up into the Argentine sky resembling sparkling wine rosé. At most restaurants, a wine list includes most of the vintners in the area and prices them starting at 40 pesos (US$10) for a 750ml bottle. In town, Vines of Mendoza presents a formal tasting room for tourists looking to sip their way through the regions wares. While here, most visitors will be compelled to see at least one winery. Some perhaps via the 200 peso (US$50) tours offered at high end hotels. But for more adventurous, DYI wine lovers, head over to the circuit of Bikes and Wines.

Bikes and Wines in Maipu, Mendoza
A cluster of wineries are located off the main drag in Maipu, a small town in Mendoza province. Each are a few minutes bike ride from each other. Alongside parking lots for cars, visitors will find designated bike racks and even VIP signs for Bikes and Wines. Truck drivers seem more lenient toward 2-wheeled traffic, giving them wider berth than their counterparts in Buenos Aires.

When you come off the bus ramp, employees from rival bike companies will offer you flyers. Take them and feel free to browse. When Neil and I visited, we preferred bikes with baskets so we could carry all our goodies. Each shop offers a full day rental for around 25 Argentine pesos (US$8). They provide a map for the day and when you return, there are refreshments. We were really surprised with our rentals with Orange Bike. They offered us a 10 peso discount for the day and when we returned for our snacks we expected some potato chips and a thimble-full of wine. The workers set up a table with three types of snacks and a full bottle of red wine. In the shade and with music in the background, Neil and I relaxed, chatting with the other travelers on the patio. The owner Mario is a jovial man, making sure all was well and introducing us to other bikers on the wine trail. At the end of our day, he and his assistant walked us to the gate, sending us off with a kiss on the cheek. Crossing the street, we waited no more than 10 minutes for the return bus back to Mendoza.

Wine tour in ArgentinaWineries and Other Sites in Maipu
Wineries of all shapes and sizes dot the landscape around Maipu. There are artesian shops and hi-tech ultra modern behemoths as well. Trapiche is one of the biggest producers of wine, exporting to the US, Canada, and Russia. But as you pedal around the countryside, enjoying the green vines stretching on either side of the road, smaller vineyards will post signs if they are open for visitors and tastings. So you can weave in and out of these orchards all day. One of the best aspects of this self-guided tour is that their is no set itinerary.

Each winery will have prices for tours and tastings. They are mutually exclusive of each other. So, while you may think a simple tasting should be less expensive than a full tour, this is not always the case. At Trapiche, a tour costs 35 pesos for video, walk-through of the winemaking buildings, and 3-4 tastings. Their tasting menu is by the glass, starting at 50 pesos for three samples and a souvenir glass.

If you have time, stop at the Beer Garden located off Mitre Street. It is a simple outdoor seating area with three choices of microbrewed beer. Their menu includes 6 empanadas and 2x 500ml beers for 55 pesos (about US$14). The veggie versions taste like fresh pizza bites. Nearby is another artesian shop called Historia and Sabores offering homemade chocolates and liqueurs extracted from regional fruits and cocoa. There is outdoor seating for tasting breaks and shade as well as a bathroom.

How to Get There
Argentine Bike and Wine TourFrom Mendoza City, catch a Line 10 Bus to Maipu. This line has several routes, of which #170 and #173 will take you to the right place. All bus stops are numbered with the lines, so you can just queue up. Ask the bus driver if he goes to Bikes and Wines. They all know it and will drop you off at the appropriate spot where all the bike companies are located. You pay all fares in coins, so make sure you have enough for a round trip. The ride is 30 minutes and takes you through Godoy Cruz for most of it.

Mendoza is 1040km from Buenos Aires and 155 km from Santiago. Neil and I took a daytime bus through the Andeans from Santiago. A 7-hour ride, the route covers some of the prettiest parts of the the mountain chain. Between Mendoza and Buenos Aires, several bus companies service the long 14-hour trip. Whether you take Cata, FlechaBus, or any other, know that service levels are all the same. In fact all the buses are owned by the same company. That said, book early to lock in lower fares and then sit back to first class, cross-country service that begins with Mendocino sparkling wine.

Top 5 Beaches in the World You May Not Know – Sun Travel

A beach vacation is one of the most beautiful, relaxing and fun trips to have, and there certainly is no shortage of incredible beaches to visit in the world!

There are all kinds of beaches – private beaches, white beaches, coral beaches, black beaches, nude beaches, and pet beaches . Here, guest blogger Paul Johnson, gives his list of the five best beaches to visit in the world. These should not be taken as an official guide, however, as each person has their own unique personal preference. The decision as to which beach is the best is a judgment which can be made only by visiting in person. So, go to the beach!

5. Tulum Beach, Mexico

This beach has the specialty of housing one of the earliest resorts in Mexico. Estimates say that its history goes back to a few hundred years ago. Featuring a Mayan pyramid in the background (yes, a pyramid), this sparkling-white beach is very calm and peaceful, and is one of the best travel experiences you can get.

4. Horseshoe Bay, Bermuda

One of the most visited beaches in the world in spite of being high in cost to visit, Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda is a treat that truly deserves a place in the top 5. It has got everything you need: clear water, amazing weather and pink sand. It is incomparable to any other beach, and surely is a must visit.

Top beaches in the world3. Boracay, Philippines

Situated at a distance of around 200 miles from Manila and just about a mile from the north-western tip of the Panay Island in the Philippines, Boracay has had a history of being among the world’s best beaches, with BMW Tropical Beach Handbook naming it among the best beaches in the world twice.

2. The Maldives, Indian Ocean

Regarded as the number one “calm” beach in the world, the Maldives are located in the Indian Ocean and are very close to India and Sri Lanka. The islands, a country in themselves, are very beautiful and secluded too. Peace and quiet come by default with a visit to Maldives.

1. Fernando De Noronha, Brazil

Located at a distance of around 220 miles from the Brazilian shores, Fernando De Noronha is actually an archipelago of 21 different islands and islets which combined have some of the best beaches in the world in them. Fernando De Noronha is renowned for its selection by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and it is aptly described as “the most beautiful marine park in the World”.

 

A Magnificent Galapagos Cruise

By Melissa Ruttanai exclusive for Vagobond

Galapagos Cruise“There is no predation here.” My guide Rafael Pesantes swept his arm across the landscape on our Galapagos Cruise. “Animals are not aggressive because there is no need to fight.” On the beach, sea lions lounged on organic, white sand, soaking up the equatorial sun. Iguanas clustered near by. Red crabs scuttled across black rocks. In the Galapagos Islands, everything was peaceful and quiet. As I made my way along the marked path, blue-footed boobies barely opened an eye to question my presence on their nesting grounds. Animals live in diverse communities, accustomed to each other and the occasional curious human prowling through the brush. And so, I got close, real close to the wildlife.

Yellow land iguanas moseyed past me on a path. Giant tortoises mashed grass in their ancient jowls. At night on the boat, I witnessed sharks, sea lions, and pelicans swim to our ship, drawn by the white lights off the bow. Baby albatross chicks cocked their heads at me focused on my camera and red-breasted frigates puffed out their chests, enticing females around them. The Galapagos is the perfect place for tight portraits of wildlife. With a 200 mm lens, I was able to zoom in for detailed shots.

But the best scenery was underwater.

Scuba in the Galapagos“Snorkeling here is a good way to see how you handle the water.” Rafael leaned over the side of the dinghy, called a panga. To the right, a black rock promontory rose from the ocean waters. Ten-foot waves slapped against it, spraying white water halfway up the precipice. “Just be careful of those rocks.” He shrugged, and one by one people around me plunged into the choppy tide.

Even with a life vest, I was tossed against the waves. In my head, Rafael’s words rattled around: be careful of those rocks. Water swelled and dripped into my mask, slid down my air tube, and pooled in my mouthpiece. I’m a terrible snorkeler and harbor a fear of drowning as well.

But I’m also a decent actor. I kept up with the group, followed the guide into the waves, and forced sweet smiles as we saw multi-colored fish and neon coral. After twenty minutes, four swimmers called it quits and signaled the panga. Seeing my opportunity to retreat with honor, I allotted myself two more minutes before joining them.

“Come! Follow me!” Rafael said as the others obeyed and my husband encouraged me to swim on. The panga remained where it was, with four swimmers lounging in the sun. As I spotted the guide, I saw that he was leading us directly toward the rocks. I hesitated, still contemplating my escape. But then I heard: “This is amazing! It’s my favorite place!” Rafael pointed. Past the jetty of rocks, a black cave emerged from the surf.

Underwater GalapagosI hesitated. I locked up and leaned into my life vest. I’ve snorkeled in a cave before and didn’t like the claustrophobic memories. Other snorkelers moved into the mouth of the cave, swallowed by darkness. Then, Rafael was beside me. “Give me your hand.” I trusted his smile and clutched his palm. Together, we cut across the water and entered the darkness.

My eyes adjusted. Green rocks lined the cheeks of the cave. Waves pummeled stonewalls like thunderous applause. But when I submerged my head, everything muted. Underneath the surface, thousands of fish fed on the stone floor, swirling in the current and clustering in a knot of yellow tails and blue fins. Rafael released my hand. Unafraid, I floated atop the tide and swam with the fish in their underwater world.

Visiting the Galapagos
Visitors to the islands have two options: a multi-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands or an island-hopping trip.

Prices vary greatly depending on the service level you choose. The cheapest cruises, a four day trip on a tourist-class boat, start at around $1,300. Diving, sailing or luxury cruises can cost many times that.

Although most people arrange their Galapagos cruises in advance, it is also possible to arrange a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos and organize your trip once you arrive.

Five Far Out Wildlife Retreats in Costa Rica

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai

In recent years, Costa Rica has emerged as a premiere destination for wildlife lovers and ecotourism. People pull their kids out of school early to vacation here. Celebrities hoard beachfront property like marbles in a shooting out. Though some places may have become “gringo-cized”, Costa Rica maintains its mission to preserve the biodiversity on which its reputation is built. No matter where travelers disembark, a wildlife retreat is never far.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

monteverde costa ricaCalled bosque nuboso, Monteverde Cloud Forest stretches over 35,000 acres in northern Costa Rica and is home to over 1200 species of wildlife, including all 6 cat species: jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis. In all the woodlands of the world, only 1% hold the cloud forests designation. Existing in Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Costa Rica, these ecosystems sit above the regular rainforest. Mist and fog roll through the vegetation, settling on leaves, and hydro-fueling the biosphere. The coating of fog prevents the sun from drying the forest and the entire area blooms in emerald hues.

Visitors to Monteverde come for nature and adrenaline. Birding is a leading activity. Tours can be arranged from any hotel. Nature hikes range from well-marked easy trails no longer than .2 miles (.3 km) to challenging trails over a mile long that traverse several elevations of the cloud forest. For the lionhearted, zip lining and repelling are also available.

Tortuguero National Park

iguana in Costa RicaMeaning Turtle Catcher, Tortuguero National Park is dedicated to the preservation of its various turtle-residents. Sitting on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is serviced by a village of the same name, where tours and boats help travelers access the park. The admission fee at the gate is $7. But it’s advised to hire a guide or join a tour group. At 8am, visitors cross the narrow waterways and enter Tortuguero. No camping is allowed in the park. However, you can set up camp by the administration offices and the ranger station for $2 per day.

While fishing and kayaking are big draws here, turtle nesting is the main attraction. Between July and October, Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles come ashore during the waning moon while Leatherbacks prefer the February to April season. Called arribados or the great arrival, the mother turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, and slip back into the sea to the sighs of international tourists. Admission at night is prohibited without a guide. Make arrangements well beforehand and please remember that you are a guest. Shield your camera’s flash, and do not touch or interfere with the arribados.

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

basilisk lizard in costa ricaThe largest of 5 volcanoes, the Rincon de la Vieja sits on the northern Pacific side of Costa Rica. Still active but deemed calm, the Rincon reaches a height of 1895 meters. The national park surrounding the volcano encompasses over 14,000 hectares. Hikers who’ve a penchant for heights can climb the Pacific flank of the cordillera between February and April when the weather is drier. At the summit, you’ll be able to see the Guanacaste Plain, Nicoya Peninsula, and Lake Nicaragua on a clear day.

Nature seekers can walk the moderate trails surrounding the park headquarters. These trails intersect with more difficult trails to Las Pailas. In the 50 hectares surrounding this area, hikers can find thermal springs, waterfalls, vapor geysers, and coldwater pools. Along the paths, wildlife burgeons with quetzals, toucanets, eagles, howler monkeys, and sloths. Guides are recommended since cloud coverage often obscures trail blazes and markers.

Manuel Antonio National Park

costa rica wildlifeOne of the smaller national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park ranks among the most popular in Costa Rica. The park contains 1700 acres of land and over 135,000 acres of marine reserve. Before Christopher Columbus, ancient societies lived here. Along the shore, you can still see the remains of their turtle traps. Now, the primary and secondary forest is home to species ranging from squirrel monkeys and capuchin to sloths, hawks, and kingfishers.

Whitewater rafting and sport fishing are core activities in the park as well as snorkeling and kayaking. Besides hiking, visitors can arrange for canopy, horseback, and bicycling tours. Many head to the mangroves for day-long explorations. But keep in mind that only 600 visitors are allowed admission during the week, 800 on weekends and holidays. On Mondays, Manuel Antonio is closed. Park rangers often state that if the quota is met at 9:15am. They close the gates at 9:15.

Marino Ballena National Park

Nestled on the southern Pacific coastline, Marino Bellena is a small national park, teeming with wildlife that often roam free from the flood of tourists that other ecosystems must endure. South of San Jose, Marino Bellena boasts 9 miles of white-gold sands, quiet mangroves and the largest coral reef on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Officially, a $7 admission fee is required upon entering but the gate is often unmanned, reflecting the relaxed and more remote feel of the park.

From December to April, lucky visitors may glimpse humpback whales tossing in the tide as they make their way to traditional mating waters just off the shore. During low tide, the marine life is abuzz, unconcerned about human faces in the waters. Nocturnal visitors in May through August can view mother turtles nesting and laying eggs in the moonlight. Unlike other parks, authorities do not monitor these activities closely. Please be aware of your surroundings, keep your voices down, and shield your camera’s flash.

Since the 1980s, traveling options to these wildlife retreats have exponentially multiplied. Visitors from around the world converge on Costa Rica’s national parks to see animals unique to these biospheres. Accordingly, the travel industry has grown. But, whether you’re flying into Liberia to visit Monteverde or into San Jose for a long stay in Manuel Antonio, please remember to respect the ecosystem and leave the grounds as you found them.

Thanks to its compact size and well developed transport infrastructure, all of these national parks can be accessed with ease. Contact a Costa Rica tours operator for suggestions on itineraries.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 2

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco

Jerry offered me a glass and I took it. Almost everybody did and as soon as I drank it my body relaxed, my stupid laughter stopped, I warmed up and began to breathe properly.

Peruvian bridge jumpersSuddenly, it was my turn. I stood holding the rail; I could see the mountains covered in green vegetation for miles. The blue sky was speckled with clouds spreading around as if they were daring the sun to show its face. The only thing in my life at that moment was the idea of jumping into an abyss, like if I were given the opportunity to fly.

The first three steps were crucial. Freddy and the assistant were go to hold me steady. Jerry would be on the other side of the bridge to check me after I had jumped. All I had to do was focus on jumping as if into a swimming pool, stretching my arms as much as I could and literally intend to fly.

The only thing in my mind was then Freddy’s words, he went on motivating me, telling me how easy and amazing this would be. His words were just part of the wind, I couldn’t pay attention anymore. I just held his shoulders and took my first step. Then, not even in a second, I knew there was not going back, just upward.

At the precise moment of jumping from the bridge I didn’t see anything other than the landscape flowing around me. The feeling of pure adrenaline invaded my body, replacing the panic that I had accumulated.

My heart raced briefly but then, just as quickly, I felt an overwhelming sense of sheer calm. Everything was over; I was swinging on the ropes like a little girl, lying on the sky, at 150 meters in the air and without a worry in the world. Someone passed me a rope and pulled me back to the ground. I went up the bridge where everybody was waiting and clapping for me.

 

I sat on a rock next to the other jumpers Miguel, one of them, showed me some photos he had taken. He also told me how he had done this several times before.”No matter how many times you do it, the feeling of fear never goes away.”

One by one, we watched all the participants jumping, each of them at their own pace but without giving up. Before long, a few drops of water announced the possibility of rain. The sun was hiding behind ominous clouds. We had spent hours there and yet it all seemed to have gone in a flash. I felt completely exhausted and absolutely starving, thankful for the snacks I had saved from earlier.

On our journey back we stopped at Barba Blanca, a tiny village hidden among the mountains. There, the locals rushed to our bus to offer drinks and food. We had corn and cheese, fruit, chicken wings and even burgers. After five minutes of devouring anything edible that came into our sight we resumed our journey home.

fishing in Peru sunsetNobody said a word, everybody was sleeping and my body had stopped responding to my commands. I had exhausted my body and my mind, the adrenaline and extremes of the day had flushed my entire system and I felt ready to face anything. I knew I would be able to succeed no matter how difficult it seemed or how high the jump would be.

A Puenting trip can be organized by almost any tour operator but be sure to check for a reliable outfit with a good safety record.

This specialist in South America tour packages offers various adventure activities.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 1

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco.

I had spent weeks absorbed with the stress of my son’s diagnosis for attention deficit disorder and transfer to a specialist school. “I need a break,” I was thinking when I decided to sign up to go puenting. Puenting translates literally as “bridging”, the perfect way to describe what I was about to do: jump from a bridge into a 170m deep canyon held only by a 20m rope.

jumping off bridges in PeruI didn’t mind getting up before dawn to reach the meeting point in Lima, Peru’s capital city and gateway to the country’s many adventure destinations. A friend was taking care of my son and I was going to spend a day working off the stress.

We headed out of the chaos of the city and up towards the highlands, in the foothills of the Andes, just two hours away from my downtown home. Stopping for snacks along the way I realized I was too apprehensive to be hungry, so I ended up stashing my biscuits for after the jump.

As the road climbed, the polluted city seemed to fall away from behind us, with mountains and greenery replacing the urban grime.

There were two guides with us, Freddy and Jerry, and eighteen people. Most of them were university students, excited by their impending adrenaline rush. The bus was full of nervous chatter and laughter, conversation occupied by final exams, presidential candidates and the elections, although I expected only as a way to put the fear out of their minds.

But for me, the most terrifying prospect was the perilous road and the steady flow of vehicles racing past us, often no more than inches away from our bus.

jumping off bridges in PeruFinally arriving in one piece, we got off the bus and stood on the bridge looking out over the Autisha canyon. The mountains were overwhelmingly high and incredibly steep. The canyon seemed like an enormous throat ready to swallow us whole as we jumped in. At the bottom, rocks pointed out of the earth in forms that seemed purpose designed to scare us, far above. From this distance, the narrow ribbon of river didn’t even look like it was flowing.

Freddy provided a detailed explanation. Basically, the secret of a successful jump lies on not thinking about it too much. “Great!  “I thought to myself, as if that would work. When they asked for volunteers I raised my hand immediately.  Every muscle in my body had tightened and I noticed myself laughing over every meaningless comment I heard.

One of the assistants helped me into my harness and spoke some encouraging words. “My mind hears you, Italo, but my body doesn’t,” I thought.

Then Freddy and Jerry brought over a sports bag that contained the ropes and the rest of the safety equipment. Plus several bottles of pisco, Peru’s famously potent liquor. “Ok,” said Freddy. “How about some pisco to overcome your fear?”

It sounded like a joke but it was true. I looked at the bottles and looked at Freddy smiling. Then I thought:
“First, I don’t drink pure pisco. Second, why would I drink pisco when doing a sport? Third, ok, who cares if I drink a bit?”

No Free Lunch in Montevideo, Uruguay – But This Tour is Free!

Story and Photos by Melissa Ruttanai

Free tours in UruguayCited as one of the “most livable cities” in South America, Montevideo in Uruguay is often an overlooked city. To many, Uruguay sounds familiar… Montevideo rings a bell somehow… But this seaside metropolis is an underrated gem jutting out into the Atlantic, worth a visit especially if you are in Buenos Aires. The city sits on a peninsula with ocean breezes, sweeping positive ions over cobbled streets and the meandering beach palisades called Las Ramblas. Everything centers around the Old City, or Ciudad Vieja, and for visitors new to Montevideo, the best way to learn about the history is on a free tour, given by Alberto Rodriguez of Ciudad Vieja Tours.

How to Get a Free Tour on Friday in Montevideo

Every Friday, free tours are held at 10 am and 3pm. No reservations are necessary unless you’d like to hire Alberto for a private tour on a specific day. My husband and I rented a small beach-side apartment in Montevideo’s Pocitos neighborhood. It’s roughly 5 km away from the city center but on the straightforward bus system, we navigated our way through the city without any problems. On Bus 116, we cut westward through town, along the water at some points. The bus dropped us off three blocks from the meeting point of the free tour: the gateway to the city.

 Although we were 15 minutes late, our guide Alberto waited by the stone archway, sipping mate in the morning sun. At 10 am, we were the only two travelers who’d met up for the tour. We couldn’t be happier. Alberto tailored the tour to our interests, waiting for us as we took pictures of stained glass windows and local artisans painting in the market. Two hours flew by.

 Highlights of the Tour in Ciudad Vieja

Montevideo, UruguayAlberto walked us through the old cobbled streets of Montevideo, explaining the architectural influences and the mysterious etchings in town believed to be Free Mason symbols. Great highlights included the Teatro Solis, El Pie de Murillo, and the sidewalk art. Alberto told us that the tour follows a general route past some of the most important sites in the Old City. But he prefers to customize each tour based on the group’s interests. Since we were the only two with him, we skipped around and spent more time in the places we liked.

About Our Montevideo Free Tour Guide

Alberto Rodiguez is a New Yorker, born and bred and educated at Tufts University where he studied Latin American History and Revolution. When he’s not leading tours, Alberto teaches English and studies for his degree in tourism. He’s married to a lovely Chilean, Veronica and together they have fallen in love with Montevideo. With all their dedication and hardwork, please remember to tip US$10-15 per person. It’s worth every penny. If you can’t make it to the free tour on Fridays you can book Alberto for paid tours on other days. Tell them Melissa and Neil say hi!

How Not To Enjoy World Travel – Part 2

world travel tipsThis is the second part in an ongoing series about how to have the worst time possible during your world travels. Here is the link to part 1.

http://www.vagobond.com/how-not-to-enjoy-world-travel-part-1/

4. Don’t Read
To me, reading is an essential part of travel. As far as I’m concerned, if you are one of those people who ‘doesn’t like to read’ than you are one of those people who should stay home and not travel.

Don’t read anything about the country of place you are going to. That way you won’t understand the culture, the traditions, the history, the climate, or anything else. You will be able to have a completely one dimensional experience. If you should read, for example, about how it is rude to point the bottoms of your feet at someone in Thailand, then you’ll miss out on the ass kicking that results when the kick-boxer tells you to stop pointing your feet at him and you continue to do it. You wouldn’t want to miss that.

Or if you read, you might feel compelled to go fifteen kilometers out of your way on the way between Seattle, Washingon and Vancouver, British Columbia and visit the remote and gorgeous Scenic Hot Springs. Wouldn’t that suck?

Don’t read on your trip. Don’t discover that Mark Twain stayed in the same hotel you are visiting in Honolulu (The Moana Surfrider) or that the lovely looking picnic spot in Cebu, Philippines is where Lapu Lapu ate a famous explorer. Who needs to know details like that?

Don’t read when you are stuck at the airport. It’s much better to just sit and get angry at the workers or eat overpriced food. Don’t read at the beach because it’s much better to sit there wondering what to do now that you are done swimming.

Yes, if you don’t want to enjoy world travel, it is essential that you not read.

world travel tips5) Don’t talk to anyone unless you have to

If you want to have horrible and meaningless travels, don’t talk to anyone unless you have to. Don’t talk to the man next to you on the airplane or bus, he might be a Chinese businessman who would invite you to visit his home and stay with his family.

Don’t talk to the guy who works at the hotel unless you need towels or directions. If he thinks “Hey, this is a nice person” he might actually tell you someplace that he doesn’t recommend to every other rude tourist. You might end up going to a tiny temple in Penang, Malaysia instead of going to the big one that has eighteen tourist buses outside it.

Don’t talk to people in the street. They might try to sell you something. They might want to practice English with you. They might want to share a bit of their culture or learn something about yours. Wow, wouldn’t it be a bummer if that Indonesian guy learned that the USA is not just like Bay Watch and Jerry Springer? Don’t talk to him.

If you want to NOT enjoy your travels, do not talk unless you need something.

world travel tips6) Don’t learn any of the local language

Finally, if you want to be absolutely certain that you don’t enjoy your world travel, pretend your a British Colonist and refuse to speak the local language.

Don’t say Tarima Kasih in Indonesia, don’t ask where to get the gonggongcheecha in China, don’t say Yvet in Turkey, don’t show the grocer in Barcelona you can understand the uno, dos, tres, don’t speak French in Paris (I found Parisians to be very gracious about my bad French), don’t say shukran in Morocco, kapcun kap in Thailand, daijobu in Japan, bollacks in England, dude in California, wienerschnitzel in Germany, or Mahalo in Hawaii.

Speaking the language encourages people to learn about you, to teach about their culture, to make friends, to have relationships, to even fall in love. There is nothing miserable about any of that. So if you want to Not enjoy the world of travel…don’t speak the local language.
Got more tips about how to NOT enjoy world travel, why not leave a comment below or send your tips to me using the contact form.

Beyond the Hotels – Big City Homestays in South America

By Melissa Ruttanai

alternative to hotelsIn South America, accommodations are classified into categories and awarded stars for service, similar to the way guidebooks and AAA function. But travelers coming to South America for the first time may be a bit confused over the categorization of the sleeping arrangements south of the equator. For example, just because one business is a hotel it is not necessarily better than a hostal, or small guesthouse. Visitors to the region must do their research and investigate star-ratings for each place that they stay. Overall, hostals are a good budget choice where private bath, clean sheets, and family-run service is provided. Hospedajes are also nothing to ignore. They are even smaller establishments than hostals with perhaps 4-5 rooms often with private bath, but lacking in other amenities such as restaurant, bar or communal kitchen. We’ve found some of the best deals via hospedaje in Huanchaco and Nazca, Peru. But a new class of accommodations has emerged in South America and savvy travelers should take note. Private homestays are a fantastic way to relax but also immerse yourself in the local culture.
What is a Private Homestay
homestay peruUnlike hostals, hotels, and hospedajes, a homestay is often a rented room in a private home. In the past, companies would arrange “homestays” with local families in order to allow travelers to see what life is like for the locals. Often, the experience was trite. But now from Ecuador all the way down to Patagonia, private homestays offer more authentic and sincere experiences.
Neil and I have had four homestays overall, two in Ecuador and two in Peru. All have been fabulous. In a homestay, you live in the home of a local, practicing Spanish, taking your meals, and learning about the best places to shop and visit from the insider’s perspective. You’ll receive your own key, sometimes your own entrance. But for 4 days or 3 weeks, you will get an experience that cannot be mimicked in a hostel or hotel. Guests eat and socialize with the host family and other travelers. The experience is not about partying all night or locking yourself in your room. Here, the crowd is diverse—ranging from traveling couples, 30-something backpackers, expats, and even young families with kids.
the good life in travelFor all four stays, we’ve utilized Craigslist and AirBnb. Do your research. Find comments left by previous guests and secure a deal that suits your budget. As two people traveling on the road for over 2 years, Neil and I love homestays. The room is usually slightly more expensive than a hostal guesthouse but less than a hotel. However, security, cleanliness, and warmth of each place have been fantastic, especially in the city. When we stayed in Quito and Lima, our hosts gave us specific information about the city regarding safety, bus routes, and restaurants. Our hosts took great care in making sure we had everything we needed. That doesn’t always happen in the other accommodations.
Every Homestay is Different
homestay Peru friendsDepending on the family, every homestay is different. In Quito, our “Ecua-mama” picked us up from the airport, offered us dinner and even played a very competitive round of Rummikub with us. In Manta, our hosts let us have the run of their waterfront apartment. Dinner was not included but breakfast was a culinary event with homemade broccoli pies and hand-ground plantain and cheese fritters. While in Lima, we had a private apartment with bathroom, TV, living room, and private access to the kitchen. Currently in Cusco, we are in a cozy cottage-like house with flatscreen TV and great WIFI.
So, before booking and after you’ve researched their online reputation, think about asking your homestay hosts the following questions:
Are they renting a private room or an entire apartment?
Are there private bathrooms?
Is there a kitchen to use?
Are there any discounts for multiple guests or longer stays?
Can they pick you up from the airport or bus station?
What meals are included?
Do the hosts live in the house?
What kind of neighborhood is the homestay in?
How far is the walk to the city center?
With four homestays under our belts, Neil and I have had four unique experiences. While some homes were about total integration into the family, others give travelers space to rest and relax. Though you never know for sure which host you’ll have, from what I experienced, both are fantastic with accolades of their own. In April, we will be in Buenos Aires and have already started to research homestays and apartment rentals. Since three friends will travel with us, I’m toying with the possibility of renting a homestay that is an entire penthouse or maybe a multi-level colonial house. Though I love affordable hospedajes and even party hostels, our preference for homestays has eclipsed them lately especially in the big city.

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