Saturday, August 30, 2014

Viña del Mar, Valparaiso and my final thoughts

In the evening I took the night bus to Santiago. This was by far the best bus I've ever been on. It was full-on luxury. The seats fully reclined (see premium cama here) and then they put a mattress thing on top of that and gave you a blanket and pillow. This was the first time I've actually slept properly on a bus. Even though it cost a lot more than the regular cama options it was totally worth it. In fact, I'd gotten so used to having a decent amount of room on all my night buses recently, my economy flight back to Australia was horrible. Ah to be rich and fly business class everywhere.

Anyway, the next morning we arrived in Santiago. I'd already decided I didn't want to stay here since I visited it last time. I wanted to stay on the coast instead so I waited about 10 mins for a bus to Vina del Mar. These buses go all the time so you don't need to book in advance. It's about 90 mins away. 


So all up my journey from Bariloche was about 25 hours. I was really looking forward to having a shower!

Viña del Mar

I stayed at the Street Garden Hostel, which is walking distance from the bus station and in a safe area of town. My Dutch friend Josine from our Panana days, and who I caught up with last week in Rosario was here too. She was actually flying back to the Netherlands that night. We met up and went to lunch at this place. As far as falafel and pitas go it was fine. It was also nice to see Josine one last time even though we were both a bit sad our journeys were about to end.


Vina del Mar was quite nice but I didn't like the beach. I am fussy about sand and this stuff was too rough for my delicate feet. Plus the waves were a bit extreme.






Didn't stop all the locals going in though. Vina del Mar is a popular weekend destination for Santiago residents in particular, given it's proximity to the capital.




There are several veggie places within walking distance of the hostel/ beach (listed here). Check out Sanito for the city's one dedicated vegetarian restaurant. There are also a lot of fruit and veg places with decent produce if you have access to a kitchen. This touristy area by the beach is nice, safe, and easy to get around.


I like the flower clock. Also, notice how light it is at 6.40pm? I love daylight savings. Stupid Queensland and it's anti-daylight savings stance. I'm not looking forward to going home to unnecessary early darkness. Grr!






There is a castle here. I don't know if you can go inside. I wasn't that interested so didn't inquire.




There is some weird thing going on with the river. They appear to have blocked the mouth of it off from the sea.




And turned part of it into a carpark.




And a place for homeless people to set up tents.




Plus now the water that remains is stagnant so it's not very nice. I am perplexed by what they are trying to achieve by doing this.


Anyway. Questionable engineering practices aside, Vina del Mar is still a pretty nice place.


Valparasio


The next day I caught the bus down the road to Valparaiso. It is difficult to tell where Vina del Mar stops and Valparaiso starts since it's just one long built up area. 


Historically, Valparaiso is an interesting city. It was home to the Southern Hemisphere's most important port prior before being disrupted by the Panama canal, which decimated the economic livelihood of the city. In recent years it's reinvented itself as an artistic and university city and the port now serves an important function for Chile's mining and agricultural exports.



Oh look, wharfies on strike. You never see that anywhere!




Valparaiso has a great free walking tour. I highly recommend it. It starts at this monument.
  


A lot of artists and architects moved here and helped create the current version of the city. Now they are encouraging graffiti artists. Proper ones. Not so much the vandals.












This is one of my favourites. Not sure why cos I hate pigeons but I find this strangely alluring.




I love this skinny house.



This one is a bit racy but you probably need to enlarge the photo to see it properly.





Yeah! Vegan graffiti. 






This dog joins the tour everyday.








This is looking back towards Vina del Mar in the distance.



Chavez love!




Sure. Why not?




I like these stairs.




The tour lasts several hours and covers everything of note. While I enjoyed it, all the graffiti made it feel a little bit unsafe. Josine said she thought the same. Because of that I'm glad I stayed in Vina del Mar instead of Valparaiso.


I really like Chile cos it is a country that has got its act together and it shows. Thirty years ago they had a dictator socialist president and no one was allowed to do anything, people who spoke out against him would go suddenly go 'missing' in the middle of the night never to be seen again, and everyone was poor. Now it is the second most developed South American country after Brazil and has the most stable government. It’s neighbours could learn a lot from it.


After the tour, I headed back up the road to Vina del Mar for my last night in South America. In the morning I caught a bus back to Santiago and then the airport bus to the airport. 


My next stop: home.

AM's travel tips

But before I finish, do I have some helpful hints for other backpackers going to South America?


Of course!

1. Learn some Spanish. Even basics like numbers and greetings will make your life easier. Alternatively only hang out with people who speak better Spanish than you and can do all your translating.

2. Read this website. It's excellent.

3. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS have earplugs and an eye mask. Get a mask off the plane. Better still get one from business class. These items are critical for dorm room sharing.

4. Remember this: everything you take you have to carry. Often considerable distances. So once you've packed your bag take some stuff out. Do you really need that expensive leave-in conditioner? No. If you are away for long enough accept that you will become a festy backpacker and roll with it. You're not alone. It's what everyone looks like. And on the bright side, it only takes you five minutes to get ready each day.

5. Don't take any good clothes. They will get permanently stained or torn just by you being a backpacker. Or laundries will lose them. Laundries lost at least half my underwear, some socks, and spilled bleach on two of my t-shirts. If your clothes make it home they will look like they belong to a homeless person and you will be sick of looking at them anyway. 

6. Don't take anything white or light coloured. This will not last. Dark colours are your friend. It also means all your laundry can be done in a single load saving you money.

7. If you aren't going anywhere cold then cycling jackets do an excellent job at providing a wind/ rain barrier and have the advantage of rolling up very small compared to normal jackets.

8. Don't take heavy hiking boots unless you absolutely need to, and even then, question it. Pretty much everyone I met regretted it. Get something like these Merrell shoes which are light, comfortable for lots of walking, and dry quickly. Having to put wet shoes on is the worst. Also, normal trainers don't have gortex and get destroyed very quickly once they get wet a lot. I learnt that lesson in Asia.

9. If you're a girl get a menstrual cup one like one these unless you want to be like my friends and have tampons consuming 50% of your luggage space. And they're right, tampons can be a bit more difficult to come by depending on where you are. Plus cups are much better for the environment and your health so get one anyway. Once you go cup, you won't go back!

10. Contrary to popular belief, you can buy toiletries and pharmacy drugs easily overseas so don't stock up unnecessarily before you leave. Regular health issues aside, just take some paracetamol and bandaids and just get other stuff as you need it. Plus drugs are generally cheaper in South America anyway. This includes the pill and you don't need a prescription in most places. Stupid Australia making us pay more to visit a doctor first.

11. For mosquito repellent, the higher the DEET the better. Although you might be trading off malaria/ dengue for cancer at some point.

12. Weigh up whether you need to take anti-malaria pills. Most of them are expensive and have shit side effects. Most people (including myself) rolled the dice on this one and didn't take them. I didn't meet anyone who got malaria.

13. Things will bite you anyway. Get used to being insect food and scratching a lot.

14. Papaya seeds kill parasites. Papayas are cheap and everywhere. If you get an upset stomach go buy one or two and eat as many of the seeds as you can. Water helps them go down. Your stomach should be fine in a few hours. Obviously I did not test this on meat based food poisoning, but for dodgy fruit or water, it worked every time.

15. If you want to save money and lower your environmental impact then drink tap water. Just ask people at the hostel first. Unless you're in Bolivia or somewhere poor the water is usually fine.

16. Brushing your teeth with tap water is also usually fine. You're going to be exposed to the local water anyway, either through washing dishes or having a shower and it going in your mouth so get used to it. Plus it helps strengthen your immune system.

17. Steripens are awesome. I used mine in all the places of dubious water quality. Stock up on the batteries before you go cos they are a weird size that no one has. Online stores tend to sell the batteries cheaper. I found the batteries lasted about a month treating 2L a day. 

18. A sleeping bag liner is a must. If you go have to go camping you can safely rent a sleeping bag (even though they say they wash them I do wonder) and it's also useful if you stay in a dodgy hostel and question whether the sheets have been washed. You can get them off ebay for less than $5. 

19. A sarong is better than a towel since it can be a sarong, a skirt, a towel, a sheet, a blanket (in air con) and a curtain. It also dries a lot quicker than a towel. Most hostels either give you a towel or you can rent one cheaply (good option if you're staying somewhere a few days).

20. Don't listen to all the nay-sayers that tell you you can't be vegetarian or vegan in South America. This is bullshit. I proved it.

21. Happycow is a vital resource. Use it. Provide reviews. Add new restaurants if you find them. Tell other vegetarians you meet along the way about it cos many of them don't know it.

22. A small paring knife and thin cutting board are super handy. I used mine every day to cut up fruit and veggies for salads. It's especially good if you don't want to use festy hostel chopping boards of questionable hygiene standards.

23. If you see a big supermarket (e.g., carrefour, walmart) go in and look for things like tahini. They usually have veggie essentials that you can stock up on.

24. Always plan ahead and have food with you if you're on a travel day.

25. If you're in a regular restaurant tell people all the things you won't eat and provide suggestions for what you will. There is still a lot of confusion about vegetarianism in mainstream South America and if you're not specific there's a good chance you will get something on your plate that you don't eat. And learn the Spanish words.

26. If you don't have/ want a kindle most hostels have book exchanges. If you have the space, two books is a good amount (the one you're reading and a back up in case you see a better book to upgrade to).

27. Expect to be late. Buses don't turn up, are delayed, don't exist anymore, or you need to get different buses. The sooner you can accept this the less stressed by it you will be. It's not Germany. You can't set your watch by timetables.

28. Take a more expensive bus and/ or one with limited stop bus if you can afford it. A lot of them are super shit, have no air con, and will stop everywhere taking twice as long as necessary.

29. Take an ipod/ ipad etc. Bus music is shit and you will be forced to listen to it if you don't provide your own alternative.

30. Expect to be ripped off. This is going to happen. Probably a lot. It doesn't mean you have to like it but you need to get used to it. Learning Spanish will help reduce this.

31. Never accept the first price offered, especially from taxis/ colectivos. Always bargain with them. Again, some Spanish helps here.

32. Don't let fear stop you. If you want to go somewhere like Venezuela then go. It is scary so do your research first. Don't go there blind cos that's when you probably will run into trouble. Listen to the advice from others. Read travel blogs, Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, etc.

33. Don't be afraid of travelling alone. Most people in hostels are travelling alone so you won't be alone for long.

34. Bras and shoes are excellent places to stash money when you're on the move. Do not carry money in a bag. Someone will try to steal it. They also like stealing phones and expensive cameras.

35. Take some padlocks. All hostels have lockers but generally you need to provide your own lock. I like the number combinations better cos the key is just one more thing you could lose.

36. Buy a universal adapter off ebay or at the airport (the good ones that accept any plug type in don't seem to exist in shops). Then you only need the one. As a bonus many of them also have USB charging ports now.

37. Except for Cuba where you pay a US dollar tax, the US dollar is the one currency everyone accepts. It is also the currency of a couple of countries. Always have some on you but make sure they are in perfect condition and post 2006.

38. Before you leave home, shop around for a bank account/ credit card with no/ minimal international transaction fees. Make sure it has online access. In Australia I recommend the 28 degrees Mastercard (no fees and Mastercard daily rates) and the Citibank Plus account, which is fee free (on their end) including overseas ATM withdrawals and has visa daily rates. Search online for other recent recommendations and check the fees. If you're European or American this site has some useful suggestions.

39. Take a back up credit card/ ATM card (I suggest ING in Australia) but do not keep it in the same place as your main one. If you get robbed then hopefully you will still have access to your emergency fund. If all your cards do get robbed then Western Unions are everywhere and someone at home can wire money to you. It's not super cheap but at least you can get access to some cash.

40. Get a skype account and put some money on it. Wifi is everywhere and you are likely to need to call your bank, credit card company, whatever at least once while you're away. This is the cheapest way although some call centres in bigger towns/ cities also offer cheap rates if you see one.

41. Get used to cold showers.

42. Get used to carrying toilet paper around.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bariloche

My next destination was the Patagonia region, arguably one of the world's most beautiful places. Last time I was here I was a lot further south and it was breathtaking. I was supposed to come to Bariloche, but that stupid volcano in 2011/12 fucked up my itinerary and basically covered the whole town in ash, paralysing the local tourism industry for about a year. Rude!

All good this time though. I checked in for my flight in Mendoza and an hour or two later I was there. 

This wanted poster up at the airport amused me. I like that the dude's last name is Lawless. Seems appropriate.


Flying into Bariloche.


The temperature is a lot cooler here. To give you some idea, it's basically at the same latitude as Wellington, NZ, so it's pretty far south. That means if you're in the shade and a crisp breeze rips though it's not that pleasant. Especially when you've gotten used to >35C every day.

While there are a lot hostels in Bariloche you can't just turn up and hope to get a bed. This place is super busy and you need to book ahead well in advance, especially in peak summer and winter (ski) seasons.

Bariloche is beautiful. It has a strong German influence, which makes sense since they were the ones who first settled here. Let's just ignore the fact that many of them were Nazis escaping from Germany after the war... 





Bariloche is a chocolate lovers dream. Half the shops here are chocolate shops. This is just a small selection.  





Annoyingly, pretty much all of them only make chocolate with milk but I did find one that had some dairy-free options. 

I went here a lot. It's one of the reasons I had to change more money.


Here's some amusing signs.



This sign is a lie. Despite getting my hopes up there is no marmite, or vegemite, or any other kind of yeast-based 'mite' product in Argentina.



On my first day I did a half day tour of the lake. This included going up a chair lift for an amazing view.






Er, you wouldn't catch me swimming in this freezing cold glacial water!



I believe this is the most expensive hotel in the area. I think it's where celebrities stay when they come here.


There are quite a few veggie places In Bariloche. However, most of them aren't open on a Sunday, which is really inconvenient. However, lots of regular places do pizzas and pasta, so you can get something without cheese easily enough. I also saw a Mexican place that looked quite good but again, it was not open on a Sunday.

I loved Covita, which is basically all vegan except for one fish dish on the menu for the unconverted. Also, that is fresh juice not coke.



Just after I ordered, a couple from Zurich came in and I ended up having lunch with them. Afterwards I showed them a (mostly) vegan bakery I'd found earlier.


We were super excited about this place since they bake a wide variety of breads, empanadas, biscuits/ cookies etc., all egg and dairy free! Perfect for stocking up on snacks for day trips. 

The following day (since I was appropriately armed with baked goods), I booked a full day tour to Mt Tronador and the Black Glacier. The scenery was amazing.


The water in these lakes is so clear and an amazing shade of blue that you only seem to get from glaciers.



  

Mt Tronador. I love how you can see the thickness of the glacier. So much ice and snow!



Then it was on to the Black Glacier, which is behind me.



I think it's black cos of the high volcanic activity in the area, which basically causes ash and dirt to get mixed up with the ice. You can see a broken off bit here. It's pretty cool.


Our last stop of the day was the Cascata Garganta del Diablo. It was nice.


It was an amazing day trip. I really enjoyed it.

I ended up staying in Bariloche an extra day since everyone told me that Puerto Montt on the Chilean side of the border was boring. While this was a good decision from a tourist perspective, it meant I now had my longest bus journey yet ahead of me.

So on my third night I went to bed at a reasonable time since I had to be at the bus station at 7.30am. The three guys in the room came in late, pissed, making heaps of noise, and then left again leaving the lights on. Yeah, thanks for that.

Then the other Aussie girl in the upstairs bit near me comes in pissed at 6.15am. I was getting ready to leave. She's like "wow, you're up really early". I'm like "no, this is actually a normal getting up time, you're getting in really late". She seemed confused by this. Then she climbed into the wrong bed. I thought about telling her that wasn’t her bed then decided she could deal with it when she sobered up later. To get the guys back, I turned all the lights on and noisily left the room. It's always satisfying when you can take revenge on inconsiderate room mates.

At the bus station, I met up with my vegan friends Caroline and Ulrich since they were also heading to Chile. They were renting a van on the other side of the border to do some camping, so I donated the last of my emergency vegan food I'd been carrying around, and Argentinian pesos to them.

The journey is about six hours and one of the nicer ones given the beautiful scenery. It's a bit weird that Chile's immigration is 17km away from Argentina’s though.




As mentioned previously, Chile has strict quarantine laws. Caroline, Ulrich and I had our empanadas and biscuits from the bakery in Bariloche but they were all fine. I ate all my fruit on the bus but the dogs still smelt it in my bag so it got searched. The other two had dried fruit and some nuts in theirs. Clearly these are considered weapons of mass biological destruction and they weren’t allowed to bring them in.

At Puerto Montt we said good bye and I went in search of a night bus to Santiago. Since this was going to be my last night bus, I splurged and got the deluxe bus for twice the price as all the others. Being Chile, this was actually quite expensive.

I had a few hours to kill so I went for a walk. Puerto Montt seemed kinda dodgy but it may have been cos I was near the bus station. I didn't make it to the city centre. Everyone along the seafront kept asking me for money. And they weren’t homeless, poor looking people either. One guy had a suit on! I didn't like it and headed back into the bus station to watch tv on my laptop for the rest of the afternoon. 

I'm glad I took everyone's advice and didn't stay here. 


Next stop: my final stop and LAST blog entry, Vina del Mar and Valparaiso.