Journey to Delhi, or good-bye America, hellooo Asia

December 30, 2017
by Christina

Checked in and waiting for our flight at the Santiago Airport, we were looking down the barrel of the grueling transit planned for the entirety of our trip: Santiago, Chile, to Delhi, India. What you don’t realize looking at two dimensional map of our planet, as we so often do, is that these two cities are almost exactly on opposite sides of the globe.

Because of this, it took us ages to decide how to get to Delhi. We could go east or west, and it wouldn’t dramatically increase the travel distance. So of course there were quite a few options, and when you give two scientists trained in optimization too many parameters you get a long forestalled decision. Ultimately though, we did what you would expect of backpackers, and optimized for cost.

We found a flight for only ~$500 that would get us to Seoul, South Korea from Santiago. This isn’t pretty. It involved a 12 hour flight to Auckland, a 5 hour layover there, followed by an 11 hour flight to Seoul. But the trick is, once you’re in Asia, getting around it isn’t nearly as expensive as getting there. From Seoul we used our Kris Flyer miles with Singapore Airlines to book one ticket, and paid for the other at $455. This got us to Delhi for a total of ~$1500 total, while booking an equivalent ticket from Santiago to Delhi would have easily cost that amount per person.

The catch of course, was that we left in the wee hours of Monday morning, and with three planes, three layovers, five cities, 33 hours of flight time, and the assistance of crossing the international dateline east to west, we weren’t scheduled to arrive in Delhi until almost 10 pm on Wednesday night.

Now, you might be wondering why we would haul our butts all the way around the planet instead of say, stopping in New Zealand, then Australia, and making our way over to India more progressively. The answer is: seasons. That was one of the biggest factors in scheduling our destinations. And we really didn’t want to be in India for the intense heat or rain that it can produce, among other conditions that could prove unpleasant elsewhere later on in the schedule.

The first flight from Santiago to Auckland was with LATAM, which has some reasonable food and is moderately generous with the (free) wine. Of course we still ended up hungry, and the cheapest filling food that we could find in Auckland airport were cheeseburgers at Burger King for $3.5 NZD.

 

The next flight to Seoul was on Korean Air, which I had never flown before, and proved delightful. Their food is pretty good, a step above LATAM (bibimbap? yes plz!), and they also serve ramen as a between-meal snack. I just punched the service button and got beer and ramen brought to me. That, my friends, is living the high life, literally and figuratively.

archermeme

With three long flights, we planned in a bit of a break for ourselves, with about 17 hours in Seoul so that we could leave the airport, get dinner, sleep in an actual bed, and stretch our legs a bit before heading back for our final flight.

Now, remember how we just left Chile? Late sunny spring in South America? Well. It turns out, its bloody cold in South Korea in December. The high our last day in Santiago was 33 C. When we got off the plane in Incheon, it was -10 C. While we aren’t prepared to be out and about in weather like that for long, fortunately we had enough cold weather gear to get us to the hostel without dying (Dan had just bought a sweatshirt in Chile otherwise he would have been left with just a dress shirt and rain jacket as his only warm things).

Note that there’s an express train to Seoul from Incheon airport, but that fares can only be purchased with cash. There’s an ATM not too far from the train station entrance in Incheon, and the fare per person is 4650 Won, 500 of which is deposit you get back when you return your reusable fare card upon exit. The hostel we reserved was near the Hongik University metro stop, which was conveniently one of the stops on the Airport Express line, so we didn’t need to transfer.

 

The Easytrip Guest House where we stayed won several “strangest” awards, the first being that there was no one to greet us upon arrival. There was however, computer displaying all check-ins for the day, identifying our room and beds. It also mentioned a “handsome, but strict room manager” who it said was housed in our room.

 

As we were settling into our room, he showed up, and when it appeared it was going to be difficult to communicate with us in English (he didn’t speak much), he asked if we spoke Spanish.

What?

No, no. Stop right there.

Remember how were on the exact opposite side of the planet now? How much more probable it is to find someone with English as a second language, than Spanish? And how we just coincidentally spent six months in Latin America practicing our Spanish? Where is 3PO, because I would like to know the odds on that one. Seriously. (Dan here: I would personally opt to ask K9 from the Tom Baker years of Doctor Who)

It turns out the room manager (who’s name we never got in the ensuing shock) had lived 15 years in Argentina and had just gotten back to Korea (his native country) three weeks prior. He also was totally unconcerned that we had done no official check in, not paid, or had a tour. He just showed us how to use the air conditioning, and left with his guitar slung across his back.

We found our way out for a tastey dinner nearby at Donsubaeg, where we ate a dish that involved putting meats and veggies into a bowl of hot broth (called what I can’t remember). On the way home we hit up a convenience store for some extra snacks. Never in my life have I seen so many types of ramen assembled in one place, let alone in a shop so small.

 

In the morning the computer screen at the entryway said that the included breakfast could be found a three minute walk away from the hostel, on the second floor at the given address. Feeling more and more as though we had been lost in a Korean Murakami novel where the hostel breakfast would be located in an alternated dimension that we would have to access my a magical elevator, we walked to the address, and finally found the hostel owner. The space on the second floor was a cafe that he also owns, and uses as co-working space and a common space for the hostel. Coffee though, had to be purchased, but with a 50% discount.

 

After breakfast we hopped the Airport Express back to Incheon, and to our plane without much fuss. It had started snowing heavily, but aside from a delay for de-icing the plane, it wasn’t a big deal. This last flight was on Air India. While AI doesn’t offer beer and ramen, it does have the best combo of filling and tasty for its meals, though the wine and whiskey are kind of terrible. Also, somehow it appeared to still be the 1970s on our airplane, which I kind of loved.

 

After a quick stop in Hong Kong where we weren’t allowed off the plane, we finally made it to Delhi a few hours late. And I thought the airport was maybe on fire? No. It turns out it was smog. The smog in Delhi actually has its own Wikipedia page. And it’s not just Delhi, the smog covers most of northern India during the winter due to urban pollution, agricultural burning, and a lack of wind and rain. It blankets everything, and in Delhi it’s considered to be a levels which are classified as hazardous or “airpocalypse“. Some of the best advice I found for coping with the smog, was to stay inside and keep the windows closed, and to walk on side streets instead of arterials.

IMG_20171220_235022_493

The airport express train had closed for the night, so we took an Uber to our AirBnB in East Delhi. While we waited for our car, a persistent taxi driver kept telling us that Uber couldn’t be called from the airport, which was a load of BS. We had to cross to the metro station to meet our ride (entry to the airport proper is an extra fee), but its just a short walk within view of the arrivals area. Our Uber driver wasn’t very talkative, but he was very helpful when it turned out we had an incomplete address, and he called our hosts for us to get more specific instructions.

After a brief check in from our very patient hosts (we arrived past midnight), we showered and hit the hay… and proceed to sleep for over twenty hours straight. I didn’t even know my body could do that without being ill. We just slept the entirety of Thursday.

The place we got was lovely. With Christmas-gift money (a big thanks to my in-laws!) we splurged on an entire apartment for a few days.

 

Up and awake way too early on Friday (I was up at 1 am, Dan at 4 am), we made plans for the day, including getting our Japanese encephalitis vaccine. This was recommended to us by the travel doctor when we left DC, but its immunity only lasts for a year, so we waited, perhaps a bit too long, to get it done. We found a metro accessible travel clinic and headed over.

The metro was a bit different in Delhi. If you don’t buy a reusable fare card, the single use fare is a token that acts like a prox card. You can buy tokens or recharge your card from a person at a window. And queuing is… a little more loosey goosey in Delhi. What I learned is that if you aren’t hugged up to the backside of the person in front of you like a bridesmaid in a strapless dress on an unseasonably cold October day whose only hope of surviving the ceremony is unceremoniously cuddling the matron of honor’s butt… then someone is going to jump you in the queue. And someone may just jump the whole queue entirely anyway.

 

You also have to put your bag through and x-ray and go through a metal detector wand inspection to enter the metro. There is a separate line for men and for women for this procedure, and once through, then you can use your token to enter through the fare gate.

The TravelSafe clinic was actually located in the apartment of the doctor, an office being set aside from the doctor’s residence. From the signs we saw during our walks, it seems pretty common to have medical practices in apartment complexes like this. We were seen almost immediately as walk-ins and we paid 1500 rupees for each vaccination. We’ll be back to see this guy in a month to get our second round.

IMG_20171222_115702_326

Wandering around Delhi was quite and experience. We had been told that Delhi was “crazy”. Crazy traffic, crazy dirty, overwhelming. Well, dirty it is, but crazy dirty? Not so much after what we’ve seen in certain parts of Latin America. But the traffic is legit nuts. It’s not just cars and trucks, its scooters, motorcycles, cyclists, pedestrians, vendors with carts, all moving along fighting for space on the same streets. It is easily the worst traffic we have seen so far, and the most constant honking (Peru comes in second for the honking). Thank goodness there’s metro to get around!

 

Also, they also call the metro drop off area for the metro a “Halt & Go,” which is so much more sensible than the “Kiss & Go” terminology used for the DC area metro.

 

Back in DC Dan had been working at the National Institute for Standards and Technology or NIST. They’re the people who tell you exactly how long a meter is, make atomic clocks, and sell things like standardized peanut butter and cigarettes. So the both of us had a little chuckle once when getting off the metro we saw a sign for NIFT, the National Institute for Fashion Technology.

IMG_20171223_152537_480

And of course we did a bit of grocery shopping and discovered this fascinating substance called “shrikhana”. It’s basically cream (“milk solids”) and sugar (40% sugar in fact, yikes), and the particular one we got was cardamom flavored. It’s super viscous and very delicious, but definitely to be consumed in moderation, or per manufacturer instructions “anytime… or directly from the container”.

 

One evening our AirBnB hosts took us out to dinner, which was incredibly sweet of them and totally unexpected. They live in the apartment below the one we were staying in, and the invited us down to meet the family before heading out for a meal. This seems to be a mark of Indian culture: very generous hospitality.

They took us to the Salt Cafe where we had our first traditional Indian meal in India. Very exciting for us. India seemed like such a daunting change of pace for us, but of course, it wasn’t so scary after all. In fact, it was very friendly! A big thank you to Hershi and her family for their warmth and generosity.

 

On Sunday it was suddenly time for another change of pace: the beginning of my 4-week 200 hour yoga teacher training course at Rishikesh Yogpeeth. Since Dan doesn’t have much interest in yoga, we decided that he should go adventuring about on his own while I attended my course in Rishikesh. So for the month of January, Dan will be posting his adventures, while I will compose a single post detailing my experiences at the end of the training. Stay tuned for Dan’s next post!

Advertisements

Santiago & Valparaiso: hills, street art & the Last Jedi

December 26, 2017
by Christina

Our journey back from Easter Island was uneventful, as we hope all our plane flights to be. In the baggage area, I noticed the first of many advertisements for something I was very excited about: Star Wars, the Last Jedi. Do you see that? Opening day for Chile was December 14th, and opening day in the US was on the 15th… Oh. Snap.

IMG_20171205_171303_291~2

Our bags collected, we found our way outside to the buses and hopped on a Centro Puerto bus for $1800 CLP a person back to town. Off the bus and finding ourselves hungry after our journey, we got a classic Chilean dish: chorillana.

This is a dish that consists of a bed of french fries, topped with a saute of meat and onions, and a fried egg. There are a lot of variations available, but Dan wanted to try the classic version first. Assessment: excellent drunk food.

After a long debate we hopped the metro to Hostal Salvador near the Salvador metro station on the red line. It’s a large old brick building with one of the best hostel kitchens I’ve ever seen. The person who built the house must have had a large cooking staff. The breakfast included a fried or scrambled egg, yogurt, toast, and a cookie, with coffee (instant) and tea fixings available all day. The common areas are nice and include a billiard table! It is located on a busy street, so there’s a lot of street noise as well as the wood floors creaking a fair bit, but overall it’s one of the best places we’ve stayed on our journey.

After our whirlwind Rapa Nui (Easter Island) trip, we mostly just chilled around the hostel, cooking and catching up on email, work, and the blog. There are two things that make a good hostel great in my estimation: proximity to both a grocery store and a good park. And for Salvador that park was Parque Bustamante, about a 10 minute walk away. To my delight, there was a lot of buffness and gymnastics happening there. While I did my simple ring exercises, dudes were doing back levers and flipping around the bar like gravity didn’t exist.

On another day we went for a run in Bustamante. Santiago in December is the cusp of summer and it’s lovely sunny weather. The most northerly part of the park is exactly a 1 km loop, so it’s good for a short to medium length run, but gets a little repetitive for a long run (going further south involves annoying traffic lights). We also wandered over to the park on Sunday just to play, and found it quite empty. We had a nice teeter totter sesh, and managed to balance ourselves perfectly for a few moments, nerding out about the weight distribution the way physicists do…

And we had been hearing a lot about a city near Santiago called Valparaíso. This is a port city on the coast less than two hours from Santiago which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2002 due to the extensive amount of street art. So we decided to give it a go!

To get to Valparaíso, or Valpo, we were given the advice to depart from the Pajaritos metro station. The disadvantage to departing from Pajaritos is that if its a busy time to travel, its the last stop out of town and you have less seat selection. We were also told to take the “Orange” or “Purple” bus, but not the “Green” bus. I liked this method of referring to buses as flavors.

The flavors turned out to be that Orange is Pullman, Purple is Condor, and Green is Turbus. Turbus evidently has a bad track record with driver’s working too long and falling asleep at the wheel. While it’s probably not a big issue on the 1.5 hour drive between Santiago and Valparaiso, we took the purple bus for $3800 CLP per person, Pullman wanting $4000 CLP.

The final piece of advice we were given was to purchase a round trip ticket. Under the circumstances, it ended up being better that we ignored this, because when we purchased our return trip tickets from Valparaiso, on a weekday and not a weekend, the cost was $2400 per person instead of $3800.

The main bus terminal in Valparaíso is located east of the main action, and it’s a bit of a walk to the more happening part of town. We got warned repeatedly that because Valparaíso was a port town it was less safe than Santiago and to hide our phones and the like. While it may be true that it is less safe than Santiago, we had no trouble. I think it’s a safer town than some others we have visited in other countries, but because Santiago is a very safe town, Valparaíso suffers by comparison.

We went to stay at Casa Fischer Hostal, which was located on the side of the famous Cerro Concepción. Valparaíso is famous for being a hilly place, and the Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre are the two of the most famous hills, where they have a lot of street art. Both murals and graffiti abound in much of the city. Some walls are tagged with such profusion it looks like a mural.

Casa Fischer was in an old building with really epically high ceilings, probably the highest I’ve seen outside a church, with nice views of the city from the dorms. However, the common space is incredibly limited (the one photo below shows the entirety of it) with just “eh” level kitchen and bathrooms, so we went hunting for cheaper alternatives.

We got an AirBnB in a different part of town for a bit less than Casa Fischer was costing us (though leaving meant bye bye to the included breakfast). The new place was up a hill (surprise) with some beautifully decorated steps, tiled colorfully on the vertical edge, so that it’s a lovely view ascending the stairs, and of course, lots of art.

Due to the steep hills, there are several “elevators” around, which consist of a small car that runs up what looks like train track on a ~75 degree incline. Kind of scary and cool. I assumed it would just be a tourist thing, but it seemed like half our car were just locals who didn’t want to climb the stairs.

Slides are also a thing in Valpo. Several of the concrete inclines have been painted and smoothed, and we witnessed a pack of children gleefully running up the stairs over and over again to slide down one, juice boxes in hand. There was also a metal slide that we found, which I enjoyed myself.

IMG_20171210_121423_427

An interesting feature of Valpo is that not only were there tons of street vendors offering a wide variety of goods (clothes, shoes, sunglasses, phone accessories, Christmas decorations, jewelry) there were some very large ferrerías set up in the parks. There were a lot of them, varying in size, made of temporary construction materials, but clearly kept up for the long haul. There was also Charleston going on in the park, to live music! This actually turned out to be a theme, as several days later we ran into more Charleston dancers in Bustamante Park back in Santiago.

We stayed another three nights in Valpo before heading back to Santiago to stay at Salvador. Upon our return to Santiago I headed straight to the ticketing counter at a local movie theater. We had been woefully unable to buy tickets online for The Last Jedi, and I was beside myself over the idea that we wouldn’t get to see it on opening day. So I show up the day before it opens and… they’d just opened sales for a new matinee which was nearly empty! The Force was strong with me that day! We got seats smack in the middle of the theater. And it remained basically empty when we went to see it the next day!

Overall though, I felt like it was a weak script, and a let down compared to Episode VII, which had it’s own flaws, but was definitely superior to VIII. But Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley were fantastic opposite each other, and I got the Reylo fodder I was longing for.

Later that week we went for a run up the Cerro San Cristóbal. This hill is part of the Parque Metropolitano de Santiago, which is advertised as the largest public park in all of South America. It’s a big steep hill, but there are a lot of roads, trails, and bike paths criss-crossing it. We took one of the paved ones that kept the grade to a minimum. There were a lot of cyclists, but some runners as well. It was a hot and sunny summer day, which still feels confusing, and we had some lovely views on the way up and at the top.

 

And I would be absolutely remiss if I failed to discuss Chilean wine! Dan and I did, shall we say, a non-traditional wine sampling: only the cheapest. Because the truth is that Chilean wine is generally so awesome, even their cheap wines are good. There’s really no comparison between a bottle you can get for $3 USD in the US to the 2 liter carton of wine you can get for the same price in Chile. One is probably only fit for making sangria (Three Buck Chuck of Trader Joe’s being a rare exception), and the other is better than most table wines you’ll get served in restaurants stateside.

The final conclusion was that Santa Helena and Gato were the best of the set, though Santa Helena was my favorite and Gato was Dan’s. The Cosecha was a close third, with Clos being pretty unmemorable. The 120 and Amoro were at the bottom of the set, though even they were drinkable if not very interesting.

We also went on a Saturday to see La Vega, Santiago’s central market. It was easily the largest single market that we had seen in the Americas, and it was packed. The market is mostly food related, including vegetables, fruits, meats of all kinds including seafood, grains, pickles, candies, restaurants, cheeses, olives, and on and on. I got some berries called zarzaparilla, which are small globular-shaped fruits with quasi-translucent red skin. They are tart and typically used the way we use cranberries in the US, as part of a sugared sauce or juice. Given my affection for sour things I just ate them like finger food from a bowl.

From La Vega we walked to the Plaza de Armas where we watched children frolicking in the fountain. The weather was great and a lot of people were out enjoying the park.

IMG_20171216_140530_766

Sunday the 17th of December was our last in the Americas, after almost 7 months of travel. This was also the day that Chile was electing a new president, something which happens every four years. Most businesses are closed to make it easy for Chilenos to get to the polls, as well as the metro being free for the day. Watching this develop on the news was fascinating, with votes being hand counted before a live audience as proof of the vote. Towards evening the cars in the street began honking incessantly in celebration of Sebastián Piñera as President Elect of Chile.

That evening we took advantage of a free metro ride and headed to the Los Héroes metro station to catch a bus to the airport. Fortunately, despite the holiday, the Centro Puerto airport bus was still running. It also makes a stop at Pajaritos, but this time we decided to meet it at the start, which is why we were able to get seats. Passengers picked up at Pajaritos we forced to stand in a rather squished space.

IMG_20171217_210543_345

We arrived at the Santiago airport at 10 pm, and go checked in for our redeye flight, and onto the next major chapter of our journey: Asia. Specifically, New Delhi, India!

Guest post on Speak Better Spanish!

December 18, 2017
by Christina

Quick announcement! Christina was invited to write a guest post by her friend Hannah of Speak Better Spanish. Very exciting! It’s live now, and the article is titled “Six Things They Don’t Tell You About Visiting Machu Picchu“. It targeted specifically on the logistics of Machu Picchu, for anyone thinking of making the journey themselves. A big thanks to Hannah for the suggesting the idea!

Our more general adventure-log style post on Machu Picchu is here.

PULQUE MEGAPOST!!!!

December 18, 2017
by Dan

We already mentioned this topic in one of our earlier posts describing our stay in Mexico City, but I wanted to dedicate a full post to the adventures surrounding pulque.

By happenstance we were recommended to go to this most glorious of local drinking establishments in Mexico City. The pulqueria. Pulque is an ancient sacred drink made from the agave plant (see the mugs and murals below that we saw in the anthropology museum). It used to be reserved for certain classes but now anyone can drink it! Well if you are over 18 (because it’s alcohol), and in the general Central Mexico area. The drink doesn’t store well making it difficult to transport very far, as a result it’s a highly regional drink.

At pluquerias you can order the drink (blanco/natural) or flavored (curado) with juice and sugar. The most popular are fruit juices, usually more tropical fruits like guava, coconut, passion fruit, mango. But there are almost always some options that initially seem quite strange. Notably celery and peanut… and oats. Yup, oat flavored pulque with cinnamon on top is just like the those instant oatmeal packets when you add too much water. It has similar taste and consistency.

Sometimes ‘plain’ is sweetened and usually there is a shaker of cinnamon to add if it wasn’t added by the bar tender already. Funny aside, before we left on this trip someone said that people in the US abuse cinnamon. They have never been to Mexico because it’s in everything and everywhere here. But I quite like cinnamon and it’s a goes great with pulque.

My best description for the beverage is slimy, and it has a yeasty/yogurt flavor. I know that doesn’t sound like a great description, but it’s wonderful.  And I personally think that trying the plain version of things is very informative and a good way to compare quality across various establishments. I made a point to sample the blanco everywhere we went.

In our first three excursions Christina and I stuck with fruit flavors. We were both in love with the drink in part due to it’s flavor, but also because of the shear uniqueness of it. In addition to all of that, the actual establishments are some of the most entertaining places we visited, and usually covered in wonderful murals.

Our first visit was prompted by a few serendipitous suggestions by folks at Hostal Massiosare, which is located conveniently close to a pulqueria called Las Duelistas. At 2 pm on a weekday the place was packed! The clientele was a mix of hearty day drinkers and folks in their late 20s wearing lots of plaid and covered in earrings, the place itself was covered in murals. It felt like we were Merry and Pippin, bellying up to the bar at the Tatooine Cantina and trying to order this strange blue milk drink. They come in buckets!? Yes, yes they do. I got a pineapple which came in a glass rimmed with chile en polvo, and Christina got guava. It was like drinking boozey tropical fruit smoothies.

And thus our love affair with pulque began.

Finding new pulquerias became a mission. For any event or part of the city we visited, we would make a list of all the potential pulquerias that we could try to hit. We also started asking around for recommendations. Some folks hate it, and some love it with a passion. It ended up being a fun topic of conversation.

For anyone interested in going on a pulque adventure in Mexico City, here is a list of all the pulquerias that we visited and a brief description, and prices as of August 2017.

Las Duelistas:

Overview: Wall to wall murals and great atmosphere. Probably my favorite people watching (and friend making!). Mix of late 20s alternative kids and old timers. Pulque is solid here and the place has been around since 1912 apparently! I really liked the blanco here. And they serve food for free. We had a stew with chicharrónes served with tortillas (tacos de guisado). The food offerings change by the day.

Good for: What I would call the definition of a pulque experience, but that’s biased, so murals.

Flavors: Usually there are about 4. Two fruits and two ‘weird’ flavors like celery or oats.

Prices:
Size:     Blanco:     Curado:
0.5 L      20              30
1 L         30              50

Insurgentes:

IMG_20170721_175819_186-2

Overview: Hip multilevel bar. Went here twice and the first time we stayed on the ground floor which was kind of boring, just a typical bar lit with dim hand-made light bulbs. The flavors of pulque were not very exotic, but pretty tasty. The second time we went was for language exchange and we met on the top floor. It’s a terrace and it’s much nicer. This time they had some much more interesting flavors. Still there wasn’t much in the way of murals which was a big let down for me. It’s probably the most expensive pulqueria we visited, but you can pay with credit card here. Also it’s open late.

Good for: A very approachable and clean pulque experience or drinking with people that don’t like pulque (menu with lots of options).

Flavors: The typical range of fruits plus blackberry, kiwi and vino tinto. Kiwi is great and I wish it was available at the pulquerias that I liked better. Vino tinto may have been mixed with a popular non-alchoholic Sangria soft drink instead of actual wine. They offered samples of flavors which was nice.

Prices:
Size:     Blanco:     Curado:
0.33 L   20              35
1 L        60              90

La Hija de los Apaches:

DSC_1237-2

Overview: We went here on a Friday night and there was a line at the door. The crowd was mostly younger and drinking either pulque or 40s of Indio. Our first round of flavors were melon and piña. The melon was primo. We squeezed our way up to see the band that was coming back from a break. I flipped my shit when they started playing ska. The band is called Los Super Duppers aka LSD, and they were great. I was also welcomed to Mexico by a very drunk individual, we shouted some incoherent praises of how wonderful pulque is and then he fell off his stool. Don’t worry, he was okay.

We didn’t get a chance to go back during not a concert, so it’s tough to say how it usually is. But when I was there it was my favorite atmosphere. I don’t think there were murals, at least nothing that stood out. The curado flavors here are definitely the best, especially the strawberry and cream flavor.

Good for: Curados and amped concerts

Flavors: Melon, Pina, Guayaba, STRAWBERRIES AND CREME!!!

Prices:
Size:     Blanco:     Curado:
1 L        25               35-50

La Rosita:

Overview: Quite a hole in the wall kinda place. It’s very close to the markets of Merced and Sonora. The artwork is great. There are fun murals, including a sexy women maguey (agave) plant. There are also lots of photos from a tv program starring El Santo, the most famousest of all Luchadores. The staff are all pretty rough looking fellas with all sorts of piercings and face tattoos. While I was there they were trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to lash a broken bar stool on a bike rack. They were all super friendly and gave me a bowl of peanuts to snack on along with my pulque. But in general the place was pretty quiet. Natural pulque is quite tart here.

Good for: Chill and standard pulque experience, like where your drunk uncle would drink pulque in the afternoon.

Flavors: Just three that rotate, nothing fancy. Only Avena and Guayaba when I went.

Price:
Size:     Blanco:     Curado:
0.5 L      15              25
1 L         25              45

Spiritu Santo:

IMG_20170812_143147288

Overview: This was probably my least favorite pulqueria. It felt like a vegan coffee shop in the rich part of a college town. There were no murals. Lame. They did serve pulque in nifty ceramic 0.5 L mugs though.

Good for: Drinking pulque instead of coffee.

Flavors: Nothing interesting and the curado is just fruit juice and hardly tastes like pulque, so stick with blanco, which is surprisingly quite sweet.

Prices:
Size:     Blanco:     Curado:
0.5 L     15              25
1 L        25              45

Valhalla:

IMG_20170812_152518957

Overview: This was a little more interesting than Spiritu Santo, the same kind of vibe but more like a pizza shop in a college town. The bar was a narrow space with the front of a an old rusted out ford pickup truck poking out. The bed of the pickup was gutted and served as the bar. The staff was super friendly and let me try samples. Most notably they had aguamiel (honey water) which is smoother and a bit sweeter than pulque, but to me it seemed roughly the same. I had an apple pulque with cinnamon (only place I have seen this), and it was right up there as one of my favorite pulque flavors. It also came in the same type of ceramic mug as at Spiritu Santo. It was mostly just fresh apple juice and very little pulque but still, I love apple juice, so I was perfectly content.

Good for: A bar that’s trying to be real hip with very easy to drink pulque and pretty interesting drink options

Flavors: Nut, Apple, Grape

Prices:
Size:      Blanco:     Curado:
0.5 L      ?                25
1 L         30              ?

La Catedral de Pulque:

IMG_20170811_194426671

Overview: This is the smallest pulqueria that I visited. It has great comical murals, like this reinterpretation of the creation of Adam. The staff was friendly and they claim the bar has been around since 1947. The most outstanding aspect was the flavors that they offered. The craziest was tomato flavored. There was also a sign that said clam flavor. I asked about it and I believe it’s a tomato flavored pulque and they can add clam juice to make it like a clamato (did not try). The blanco here can be ordered sweetened or strong. It was quite smooth and one of my favorites. Despite the variety of interesting flavors, I actually didn’t really enjoy the ones that I tried (pistachio and cajeta). Still very fun for the adventure aspect. The crowd was all a bit younger and there were several couples when I went.

Good for: The craziest flavors

Flavors: Pistachio, Cajeta, Tomato and clam, Piño (pine nut, very popular and just finished when I arrived), Celery, Campechano (I only know of the delicious Campechano tacos so I have no clue what this is, maybe a mix of random flavors)

Prices:
Size:     Blanco:     Curado:
0.5 L     15              ~25
1 L        25              ~50
2 L        50              100
4 L        100            200

Rapa Nui aka Easter Island: stone carvings, volcanoes, and so. much. cycling.

December 11, 2017
by Christina

When I bought our plane tickets from Santiago to Easter Island months ago, I couldn’t quite believe it. Easter Island is simply one of those places you only ever see in pictures, not a place you actually go yourself. It felt surreal. But then there we were, in Santiago, Chile, planning our meals and grocery shopping for our stay on the island.

Let’s talk about the name of the place for a moment. Do you know why it’s called Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish)? Because a Dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, encountered it on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, and prosaically decided to name it that. Which in 18th Century Dutch was “Paasch-Eyland”. So, in other words, nothing to do with the island itself, or what the natives might happen to call it, which is Rapa Nui, btw. So now that you know, I’m only going to refer to it as Rapa Nui.

Rapa Nui is reported to be one of the most remote inhabited places in the world by the official Rapa Nui website. In searching around, it does seem to make a variety of Top 10 lists, though where on the list it falls is variable. The island is triangular-ish in shape, about 25 km by 12 km at its widest points, and has a population of <6000. It’s about mid-way between the coast of Chile and Tahiti (also known as the middle of nowhere), and its nearest inhabited neighbor is the Pitcairn Islands (a very strange place I didn’t know existed until recently).

As I mentioned, we did some grocery shopping before leaving Santiago. Due to the remoteness of the island, food is expensive there, whether prepared or fresh. There is some local agriculture, but not a lot, most everything has to get shipped in. LATAM, which is the only airline that services the island, accommodates this sort of thing by allowing passengers not one, but two, 23 kg checked bags.

Our flight left Santiago at 6:40 am (soooo early, yuck). It’s a ~4.5 hour flight on a Boeing  787 Dreamliner, which is delightful plane that, along with an improved bathroom-door hinge (I can’t do it justice), has optically darkening windows, not physical shades. With the two hour time change we arrived at about 10 am local time.

We had made a reservation at the Cabañas Amar Moana on Airbnb, and they had a taxi waiting for us at the airport. Unfortunately there was some kind of event going on, and it slowed the delivery of the checked luggage. When we finally got our bags, we found the driver bearing a sign with our name, and leis for us (look at me, I’m a walking Osprey advert). We had to wait a bit for some other passengers, but then we got on our way.

IMG_20171130_125933065_HDR

The property was really beautiful, and our hostess Marlene was there to welcome us and give us a tour. Our fellow travelers, though, didn’t speak Spanish and Marlene didn’t speak any English, so I ended up playing translator as we were shown around. The kitchen was actually the family kitchen in the house, but we had a separate guest table and refrigerator. Once Dan and I got settled into our room, we went and cooked the meal that we would be eating for several days: sauteed vegetables and beans, with a side of rice.

That afternoon we took a turn around town. Our accommodation was located about 1.5 km from downtown, and the walk was very pretty. We found an ice cream shop called Mahute with flavors of ice cream like Carrot-Orange, Lúcuma, Passion Fruit, and Camote (yam), that also had WiFi (this later being a rarity). Though there is public free WiFi in many of the parks in Hanga Roa (the big town on the island) it’s not very reliable. There’s also a really beautiful swimming hole in town, formed in the ocean from a break of concrete and rocks. The water was this incredible blue.

IMG_20171130_162208_719~2

We also stopped by the Artisan Market, which is across from the big Catholic church in town. Lots of cool souvenirs. We didn’t want to buy anything until we had touristed the island proper-like, but we were scouting in advance. We stopped by later in the week and picked up our treats.

The next day we went to buy our entry tickets to the park. There is a ticket office in the airport, for which a wicked long line forms as everyone disembarks the plane and passes by on the way to the baggage claim. You don’t have to buy a ticket there, or right away either. We went to the ticket office downtown, which is a few doors down from the pharmacy Cruz Verde. About here, but I forgot to pin it, and there’s no street view (surprise!).

The ticket for non-Chileans is steep: $80 USD or $54,000 CLP. And they only take cash. However, the ticket is good for 10 days from your first entry stamp into one of the monitored park areas. Administration of the park has been given to the locals recently, and the way the park is handled has been evolving. Currently, you are not required to have a local guide (which was requisite at one point), you just get your ticket and show yourself around. Do not lose your ticket. You need to show it to get in to every major site on the island, and they didn’t give us a receipt or take any of our information down when we bought ours, so we wouldn’t have any recourse if they had gotten misplaced.

For lunch we went to sample a local cuisine: tuna empanadas. We went to Tia Berta and got an empanada each of tuna ($3000 CLP), tuna with cheese ($3500 CLP), and hot dog with cheese ($3000 CLP). I really like the tuna with cheese, the tuna alone less so, but neither of them were Dan’s speed. Later in the week I discovered a bakery just down the street that sold tuna with cheese empanadas (along with other kinds) for $3000, with others going for $2500. Better deal, but you didn’t get any of the yummy hot sauce that they have a Tia Berta’s.

In the afternoon we decided to go for a run and visit our first park site, Ahu Vinapu. This is a location where funerary rights were performed, with two platforms and several smaller moai (the carved stone heads). And this was a surprise for me: they were knocked down. The fact is that all the moai were knocked down, and that any standing moai on the island, were put back up by people making restorations. This happened as the Birdman religion began to rise in popularity. There were a lot of internal struggles on the island and the moai, which were part of a tradition of ancestor worship, were toppled. Birdman, though, should not be confused with Rick and Morty’s Birdperson. He had nothing to do with it (I think).

Speaking of birds… we were also dive bombed repeatedly by a bird that I found out is called “Manu Toke Toke” in the Rapa Nui language, or “Thief bird” because they steal other birds eggs. It’s also called “Chimango Caracara“. It had probably nested next to the road and got spooked as we ran by. I will tell you that I learned that waving my arms and jumping at the thing as it dove for me made it give me more room. Poor Dan who doesn’t care much for birds ducked as he fled, and it got very close to him. Though no claw marks were acquired by either of us, thank goodness!

It turns out, there are moai everywhere on the island. We just accidentally happened across one on our route home. When we wrapped up our run, we clocked in at 12.5 km. Not too shabby!

The next day, the big adventure began: cycling around the island! The going rate for bike rental is $12,000 CLP for 24 hours, and we managed to haggle our way to $10,000 CLP per bike per day for two days, for two bikes.

The scenery on the island is gorgeous. This is something I hadn’t really anticipated when planning to visit, I had only been thinking about the moai. But Rapa Nui itself is sunny, green, surrounded by the blue-est of water, laid back, and filled with bird song.

We arrived at our first stop of our ride, Vaihu, which is pretty typical for the island: moai toppled onto their faces with their pukao rolled about. The pukao were actually later additions to the maoi, and researchers aren’t totally certain what they signified (hair tied up in a bun? hats?), or even how they were put atop the maoi without cranes.

The next site was Ahu Akahanga, with more toppled moai and their pukao near the shore.

Then came the first of the two most famous sites on Rapa Nui, Rano Raraku, which is one of three dead volcanoes that formed the island, and where the moai were quarried. Likely if you’ve seen pictures of Rapa Nui, you’ve seen some of Rano Raraku.

There are moai that were never finished, moai that the carvers discovered inclusions in and abandoned, and moai that simply never got moved.

The fact is that the Rapa Nui people suffered a massive population collapse at some point. One of the pervading theories is that they deforested the island, making it impossible to build canoes the way they used to in order to do deep sea fishing. There’s evidently a more recent theory that Polynesian rats are to blame for eating the root structures of trees so the Rapa Nui people just started eating the rats, and that it was the Europeans who brought STDs that were responsible for the population decline. When our Dutch friend Jacob showed up, well after the deforestation is supposed to have happened, the locals evidently wanted to buy his hat, not his food, implying they weren’t starving. Unless someone lost a bet they had to eat a hat for?

You can also go into the volcano crater itself, which is filled with reeds and a small lake (pond?), but you aren’t allowed into the area where the moai inside the crater are.

Then a short distance from Rano Raraku is probably the most famous site on the island: Ahu Tongariki. Like most moai on the island, these were knocked over during the civil war. Then, injury to insult, they were swept out to sea by a tsunami. But the University of Chile and Tadano Limited (a Japanese manufacturer of cranes) made an agreement with the Chilean government and restored the site.

IMG_20171202_151431_869

From there, our cycling route turned to the north side of the island where we saw Pu o Hiro, a whole-y rock that evidently can be blown like a musical instrument (you’re not allowed to though), and Papa Vaka, where the largest stone glyphs are on the island.

We made a stop at Ahu Te Pito, the “belly button of of the world,” which honestly, wasn’t particularly exciting. It’s located next to the largest moai ever transported, but this remains toppled and since the signs say that the sites are more “interesting” when viewed at a distance, there really isn’t much to see.

Next up: the beaches! There are two and Ovahe is the first we came to. This beach is only occasionally sandy (it was not when we were there) and not good for swimming, however, the water was beautiful. Unfortunately though, while we were site seeing, one of the the many many horses roaming the island attempted to take a bite of out of my unattended bike saddle. Fortunately, it did not succeed, but it gave me fits anyway.

The big always-sandy populated beach is Anakena. There is a big camp ground located nearby, a plentiful number of palm trees and picnic tables, and a set of resurrected moai sitting right near the beach. This, finally, was our last stop of the day, and we dug with gusto into the cheese and salami sandwiches we had packed. We were pretty beat.

After sandwiches we took a quick dip in the water, though since it had gotten cloudy, it was a bit chilly. One of the stray, or at least if not stray, wandering, dogs came by and simply collapsed near/on our bags.

Then it was time for the final stretch home. We were 35 km in that point, with 15 km more to get home. Unfortunately this last stretch contained the biggest climb of the entire ride. Fortunately for my brain, I didn’t know it. It was pretty rough getting up the hills, but it was glorious rolling home at the end to a nice hot shower for our nearly ~50 km ride for the day.

Screenshot_2017-12-08_at_19.34.27

The next day, rather saddle sore, we climbed aboard our bicycles for a much less ambitious 25 km loop. This went largely along the west side of the island, but had more numerous smaller sites to visit.

The first and largest stop of the loop was Puna Pao, the pukao quarry, where the red hats were made! There are a number of them still lying around, not yet moved to meet their moai. The red stone they are made of is called “scoria,” which is a type of volcanic rock.

IMG_20171203_112322_994

Next up was Ahu Akivi, where we stopped for a snack. We got really fortunate with the timing because it began to pour rain. As it was I leapt the stone wall surrounding the monument to hide in a nearby shelter because the onset of the rain was so rapid. If we’d been out on the road when it started we would have been completely out of luck. When the rain cleared we got to enjoy the moai at a “more interesting” distance, though this doesn’t seem to apply equally to the backside… O_o

After Ahu Akivi we got to a section of bumpy dirt roads, now occupied largely by cows instead of horses. And then we got to the caves! Oh yes, there’s lots of caves! The first and the biggest of these was Ana Te Pahu. We had brought our lights, so we able to wander about in the darker sections of the cave without any issue. When we finally came above ground again at the far end, we were shocked how far we’d come underground. We had lost all sense of distance in the caves.

After that there we a variety of caves, one of which contained a collection of bones (horse? I hope? Not creepy at all!), but the next notable one was the “The cave of two windows” or Ana Kakenga. It had a tiny claustrophobic entrance, evidently intentional so that in olden-times access was easier to control. And as the name implies, the cave opened onto a cliff over the sea in two locations, with a gorgeous view from each “window”. Since we could tell that another rain storm was coming, we camped out there and ate our lunch while the storm blew over.

From there, our last major stop was Ahu Takai, a large ceremonial complex, complete with three platforms for moai and a boat dock. This was actually built by hauling tons (literally, tons) of rock and sand to build up the shoreline to create the platforms. In the photo of the boat dock you can see how deep this construction goes. This is also the location where one moai has eyes, which are made of white coral and obsidian for the pupils.

Now, really, and truly saddle sore, we bought a six pack for a whopping $5000 CLP (ouch!) and headed home to shower and relax for the evening. We sat on the deck drinking out beers and enjoyed the sunset, which happened well past 9 pm.

Our final day of touristing we performed on foot after returning our bicycles. We walked to the volcano of Ranu Kao, which has an enormous crater full of water reeds, and evidently a small fish introduced just a few years ago to curb the mosquito problem by eating their eggs. It’s beautiful and kind of surreal.

Nearby is the ruins of the ceremonial village of Orongo. This was used for only a short part of the year for the Birdman competition. From what I gather, the high status men of the island had representatives (of lower status) that would swim to the nearby tiny island of Motu Nui, and try to collect the first egg of the of the birds (terns) that nest there. The finder of the egg would then fast while the others swam back en mass, then attach the egg to his forehead and swim back to present the egg to his important guy, who would be the Birdman that year. Only it was not uncommon to drown, get eaten by sharks, or fall off a cliff and die during this contest. Can’t have important people do that! The tribe that the Birdman came from got better access to the islands resources, and the Birdman was considered sacred for a while thereafter.

From there, our touristing complete, we headed back to town and took a dip in the swimming hole we had ogled our first day on the island. We bought some awesome pork kebabs for dinner along with some more beer, and tottered back home to fall very soundly asleep.

The next day we enjoyed our last breakfast on the island, said farewell to Marlene, and hopped in a taxi back to the airport for our noon flight. There, Dan had his last orange confiscated. It’s confusing, they didn’t question us about anything on the way in, while the island would probably be more sensitive to invasive species than mainland Chile. Then on the way out they took our last fruit that had brought from the mainland. SMH.

We also discovered the box of prohibited items box at security; all kinds of cool stuff in there. Fortunately we did not make any contributions! Then when the time came, we filed out on the tarmac with the rest of the passengers, and boarded our Boeing Dreamliner back to Santiago.

 

 

 

Entering Chile: long haul buses, astronomy, and a Japanese garden

December 7, 2017
by Christina

Our original plan for Chile was to make our way slowly down the long country by breaking it up with multiple stops. One of those stops was San Pedro, where there’s some cool salt flats. Unfortunately, with the delay caused by my illness, San Pedro got the boot. With ticket to Easter Island out of Santiago on November 30th, we didn’t want to delay our arrival, lest something go wrong and we miss out flight.

We planned to do the border crossing into Chile from Peru by going to Tacna. This particular border crossing doesn’t have any habitation at the border, with Tacna in Chile and Arica in Peru being the closest towns. Buses from Puno to Tacna are all overnight, taking between 7 and 8 hours in transit. Puno is over 3800 m high and Tacna is much closer to sea level (~500 m), so the trip is a lot of switch backs down from Puno. I was grateful that in my weakened condition that I kept my dinner down. Even if you aren’t recovering from something, expect to get sloshed around a fair bet.

In Tacna, we were dropped off at the Terminal Los Incas, and we had to hop a taxi for S/ 5 to the international terminal ~2.5 km away. You have to buy the terminal fee ticket, which is sold at a window immediately on the right when you enter the station. From there you just proceed straight through to the rear and turn right. There you board your bus, have your terminal ticket checked. You pay for your S/ 12 bus fare on the road to the border, which is about 30 minutes.

IMG_20171123_044931_243

At the Chacalluta border complex, the Peruvian and Chilean administrative offices are combined into the same offices, you just get processed by Peruvian immigration first, then get in line for Chilean immigration. From there you go through Chilean customs, where you just run your bags through an x-ray and get on your way. There are also sniffer dogs looking for fruit, and one went after a plastic bag we had containing cookies that had previously contained fruit. But the officer was super chill about it, just checked the bag and satisfied that it didn’t contain fruit, and let us go.

IMG_20171123_061949_512

From the border it’s a little less than an hour to Arica. Fortunately the international arrivals from Peru were adjacent to the domestic terminal, Terminal Rodovario Arica, so it was just a short walk to get to where we needed to go. This is where we realized we had to abandon San Pedro; all the buses to San Pedro were overnight, and it was only a little after 9 am. We also knew the departures from San Pedro for La Serena, our next stop, were only overnight buses. This would have resulted in spending three out of four nights on overnight buses, and a full day lugging our bags around in Arica. Hard pass. We hopped on a Pullman bus departing at 10 am, with 24 hours transit time directly to La Serena.

The Pullman was… a bit of a let down. Pullman was supposed to be a solid bet, it and Turbus. We bought the fancier seats on the lower floor of the double-decker. The bus might have been nice a decade ago, but the stitching holding the pleather seats together was giving up the ghost, there were no power outlets in the seats, and the meal service…  was not really what you could call “meals”. However, the roads in Chile are pretty nice, with no switch backs (thank goodness!), and I managed to sleep the majority of our journey, occasionally waking to stare at the epic desert landscape.

We arrived in La Serena around 10 am, and after disembarking we took a seat to hunt down a hostel. Fortunately, we found a nice one in short walking distance; unfortunately, it turns out Chile is more expensive than Peru, and more expensive that anticipated. Our original budget projections had Chile being about the same or a bit more expensive than the rest of the countries we visited in South America. Boy was that ever wrong. In Peru a dorm bed cost you S/ 15-20 or $4.60-6.20 USD. In La Serena, we were looking at around $9000 pesos, which is ~$14 USD.

However, Hostal El Arbol was lovely; it deserved the 9+ rating it has on most booking websites. Well, the four bed dorm and the main building does. We moved to the eight bed dorm after a few nights to cut costs ($8500 instead of $9500), but it’s in a cramped  (moldy) outbuilding, and not very nice. Otherwise El Arbol had all the things we look for: good WiFi, a kitchen, a market and a park nearby, decent common spaces and free breakfast. It also had some lovely gardens surrounding it.

In fact, the closest market was Lider, which is how Walmart has styled itself here in Chile. It felt like a bit of reverse culture shock, walking through a shiny shopping mall and into a Walmart. But there were some interesting twists, like packaged seaweed stocked next to the avocados in the produce section, pizza flavored Lider-brand Pringles in the ” international foods” section, and “monkey tail” flavored Christmas beverage. But oh, oh, this was what we had been waiting for: the wine. I picked up a bottle for $1300 CLP or about $2, and it was pretty good. Nothing fancy, but it totally breezed past any $2 bottle of wine I ever bought stateside.

La Serena is located on the beach, but we were… well, let’s say the large seal carcass that had clearly been there for weeks didn’t make the best impression. Nor the several dead birds we saw alongside the jellyfish and sea shells.

Exiting the beach though, we found a vendor selling a quintessential Chilean beverage called mote con huesillo, consisting of peach nectar, preserved peaches, and wheat. It’s a seasonal summer drink. Dan was stoked on it, but I was more or less neutral to slightly “meh” on it.

Also near our hostal was a Japanese garden called “Jardin del Corzaón” (Kokoro no Niwa) or “Heart’s Garden”. It was built by several mining companies, including the Compañía Minera del Pacífico and the Nippon Steel Corporation. It’s got a pretty big foot print, with koi and ducks in the pond, and a special bonsai exhibit. A nice place to take a book and a picnic, with a $1000 CLP entry fee.

On Monday we got to go on a visit of the La Silla Observatory. I have a friend and colleague (Jim, hi Jim! Thank you!) who has got the hook up with several observatories in Chile, and he got me in touch with some folks at La Silla about setting up a tour. To get out there, we rented a car in La Serena and drove the ~2+ hours north. Bernardo introduced us to Duncan, who is one of the telescope operators at La Silla and has been working in the field for over twenty years.

First Duncan took us to see the New Technology Telescope (NTT), which uses a huge adaptive 3.6 m mirror. What this means is that the mirror has an array of little actuators  (pushers) behind it that can press on the mirror, and compensate for errors in the incoming images. These actuators are controlled by a feedback loops that is continually making corrections to the mirrors based on the incoming images. Pretty freaking cool. The entire building that the NTT is housed in can rotate around a vertical axis, and then the roof opens a full 180 degrees, and telescope itself can swing about the horizontal. Ultimately, the design of the NTT allows it to be housed in a much smaller building, as compared to the traditional 3.6 m telescope we saw next.

Look at this thing (below). It’s a beast! Do you see how tiny Dan is in that picture? Not only is the telescope itself larger in structure, the building it’s in is huge. For this one, the telescope itself can swivel about two axes and the roof opening moves to accommodate the telescope. The whole thing is much more space consumptive, but its got the exact same mirror size as the NTT.

We got a nice view of the whole observatory complex from the platform of the 3.6 m telescope. It seems like a really beautiful place to work. I’m not an astronomer, but I interned at an observatory, the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA), and I can tell you that overnight observation trips are pretty cool. Getting to live out there and do research seems pretty magical. This particular location was picked for its high number of cloudless days, distance from light pollution, and its low humidity, allowing for consistent high-quality images. A big thank you to Duncan and everyone who helped set up the visit!

That evening we went to enjoy a viewing at Alfa Aldea, one of the touristic observatories east of La Serena located in Vicuña. Chris of AURA helped us set it up (thanks Chris!). This observatory is actually located in a vineyard, and we got to sample wine made by an adjacent winery with their grapes while we took in the 3D show about the formation of the universe and the various objects in it. Afterward we got to do some star (and moon) gazing in a small amphitheater. I even got to photograph the moon through the objective of the telescope using my phone! Pretty sweet.

On Tuesday morning we went to return the car… and discovered someone had put a huge scratch about a meter long on the side of it overnight. Possibly with a key. Sigh. We planned to use the insurance on our credit card, and so had refused the rental agency’s coverage in order to be eligible for it. Which meant we had to pay the cost to the rental agency (at their request) and submit to the credit card’s insurance for reimbursement. However, the cost we were charged for the damaged was not as bad as we had expected, only a little over $100. We are currently waiting to hear back after submitting our documentation. Stay tuned!

That dealt with, we checked out of El Arbol and headed back to the bus station where we caught a bus to Santiago for $8000 CLP per person. The ride took a little under six hours, and we arrived at Santiago’s main station, which for all the world looks a lot like Union Station’s bus terminal back in DC. We walked a few kilometers and checked into Landay Hostel. Other than the architecture of the building (which is freaking cool, it looks like a German castle), Landay was more or less just okay. It has an adequate kitchen and free breakfast, but the pretty wooden floors in the dorm room were epically creaky, the wifi was spotty, and overall the common spaces were just so-so. Not too bad for a few nights though.

The next day we worked on a few projects and made preparations for our next big adventure: Easter Island! This mostly involved meal planning and grocery shopping. Given its remote nature, food on the island can be very expensive, and we found multiple sources stating that packing food in is a good money-saving strategy. Once we were stocked and packed up, we hit the hay for our heinously early flight the next morning…

The Incan rope bridge adventure & tour of Lake Titicaca

December 6, 2017
by Christina & Dan

Christina first…

During our last days in Cusco, we got to thinking about the very touristy-nature of the city and decided we wanted to try going off the beaten path. Atlas Obscura lists some pretty cool things, and there we found the Incan rope bridge of Q’eswachaka, located just a few hours south of Cusco, and (sort of) on the way to Puno, where we were planning to visit Lake Titicaca.

Now, there are tours of the Q’eswachaka rope bridge, but they tend to be seasonal. Every year there is a big celebration when the bridge is rebuilt. This is a multi-day festival in June. Only we were there in November. And had we gone looking for an official tour, likely it would have left in the wee hours, done a quick round trip, and brought us back to Cusco, when we wanted to go to Puno.

We went looking online for info about how to get there. We found one set of English-speaking tourists traveling by motorcycle who visited the bridge, and expounded on how great having their own transport for the excursion was. Great. I found another in Spanish where the author complained about how the taxi drivers thought they were gringos and tried to rip them off. Fantastic! But we gathered a basic sense of the way the transport functioned and decided to just wing the parts we didn’t know. Definitely a skill that we have learned on our travels, and not something we started out with. “What do you mean we can’t book tickets online in advance? Where does the bus even leave from???” I used to cry. Not so much anymore!

The nearest town to the bridge is the town of Quehue (pronounced more-or-less “Kay-way”), where we planned to stay an evening. The first trick was knowing where in Cusco to depart from in order to get to our first of several stops: Combapata. The post from our Spanish speaker helped us find the Urabamba-Sicuani bus station, where we got tickets for S/ 7 per person.

It was about two and a half hours to Combapata. We had to walk a few blocks and down past the main square to find a combi to take us to Yanaoca for S/ 2.5 a piece, very reasonable.

But from Yanaoca things got expensive. It was later in the day and we were told there were no more combis (which costs S/ 3 per person). The taxi driver we spoke with wanted S/ 30!!! Crrrrraaazzzzy steep. I tried to haggle, but stopped short of walking away. The fact that it was getting late and we still didn’t know where we were going to stay in Quehue weakened my leverage. We agreed (read “caved”) and in about another hour, we arrived in Quehue, our final destination for the evening. Lesson: depart in the morning from Cusco! (We left a little before 1 pm)

We also happened to arrive during the festival celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Quehue, and the town was already starting up the pageantry. They had a big stage set up in the main square and there was music, parading, costumes and horses.

There was a hospedaje in the main square, but since it was located right behind the festival stage (and the massive sound system) we decided to look for other options. When we asked a local at the market about accommodations, she told us there were none in Quehue, that’d we’d have to go back to Yanaoca. Here 12 year old (?) daughter corrected her saying there were hospedajes around the corner, and she promptly pointed us in that direction. This was one of the more confusing interactions I’ve had thus far; given the size of Quehue, I don’t know how she couldn’t know about the hospedajes, so was she lying to get us to leave? Or did she really not know there were at least three hospedajes in town, on the main square even? We’ll never know.

We found lodging easily once we walked in the right direction. The place we stayed is located here, but I didn’t make a note of the name because the lodging was… not the best. Maybe try the place across the street instead. We had a private room with a window, but the unvarnished floor boards had not been swept in who knows how long, there was trash left in the room, and the bathroom was, well, atrocious. Then the water and power went out in the whole city. We were just hiding in the room with our coats on under the covers for a while, hoping our laptop batteries would hold out until the power came back on.

In the morning, we got up on the early side, packed some snack and water, and started off on our hike to the Q’eswachaka bridge. It’s worth noting that starting in Combapata, we were the only tourists we saw. Not just the only gringos, but the only tourists, period. We actually had both children and adults call out “Gringos!” and point at us. So, we definitely succeeded in the off-the-beaten path goal! We passed a lot of locals heading into Quehue for the festival. Most said good morning, some called us gringos, generally all were very friendly, some asking if we were going to see the bridge.

It’s a mountainous (high altitude: ~3800 m) region, and the roads have lots of switch backs. You can cut out the extra distance by following the oft-trodden footpaths over the hills, but even after being at high altitude for several weeks, it was pretty exhausting. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the bridge.

Then there it was! Hanging above the river at the bottom of the valley, was the fabled last hand-woven Incan rope bridge: Q’eswachaka! Achievement unlocked! The bridge keeper was about to depart for the festival, but we crossed paths on his way out and he had us sign into the book. Though there were a handful of foreigners on the register, most all the visitors to the bridge were Peruvian, many visiting from nearby towns. He instructed us to cross the bridge slowly, and one at a time. Because it turns out the bridge is very bouncy, which is kind of terrifying, because it is quite high above the river!

We crossed the bridge and ate our snacks, taking in the view before crossing back and beginning our slow trek back.

We had already decided that we would hitch a ride if we got the opportunity. A pick up truck with only a few passengers ignored us when we tried to flag them down. But shortly there after a large truck, already pack full of people stopped for us. The current occupants, many clad for the festival in traditional attired, complained loudly about taking on more passengers, but we just gratefully climbed aboard. We really didn’t want to have to climb the 300 m out of that valley! Back in Quehue we collected our bags from the hospedaje and watched a bit more of the festival.

Then went to find a taxi and begin our journey to Puno. More haggling ensued. We knew the standard fare was S/ 3, but the driver was asking S/ 5. We argued down to S/ 4 and took it, since it was already loaded with other passengers and we wouldn’t have to wait to depart. Then, confusingly, when disembarked in Yanaoca I handed him a S/ 10 bill, he gave me S/ 4 back, with no explanation.

Now, if you look on the map, it looks like we should be able to get directly from Yanaoca to Sicuani. True, if we had our own transportation. But the reality of the situation is no one makes that trip, so we had to back track.

Screenshot 2017-12-07 at 11.15.17

In Yanaoca we caught another combi back to Combapata and got lunch. Then we began the confusing process of figuring out our way to Puno. It seemed the large long-haul buses heading towards Cusco were taking on passengers, but none of the ones heading the other way would do so. Ultimately we ended up on a combi to Sicuani. Another passenger really saved us upon entering the town. I had told him when we were waiting around in Combapata that we were headed to Puno, and he knew where we should get off in Sicuani to go to the main bus terminal to catch a ride to Puno. The combi wouldn’t have stopped where we needed it to without him. So thank you again, fellow traveling stranger! You saved our butts!

It was a short walk to the large, only partially occupied bus terminal. In fact, we thought it was closed or abandoned when we arrived. Don’t worry though, it’s not. There were a number of bus companies offering rides to Puno, and we took the one that left the earliest. On top of the bus fare of S/ 15, which seemed to be standard across all the companies, we had to pay a bus terminal fee of S/ 1 a piece. Why this doesn’t just get rolled into the ticket price, I don’t know, but it appears to be standard practice throughout Peru.

From Sicuani it was a 4 hour 40 minute ride to Puno. We checked into Bonny Hostal, which was a few kilometers from the main bus terminal in Puno. The train tracks run about a block away, and on the night we arrived (a Saturday) the tracks were full of food vendors where we got some tasty meals for around S/ 3, then hit the hay in our dorm room.

While we ended up liking Bonny overall, that dorm room was terrible. It was located facing a busy intersection and oh, did the drivers have a enduring and passionate love affair with their horns. The constant aggressive honking went on late into the night outside our very un-insulated window. On top of that, dorm’s dedicated bathroom was terrible, there was no divider for the poorly-drained shower, so literally the entire 1.5 m x 1.5 m room flooded several centimeters deep, including the base of the toilet and nearly floating the trashcan. I nearly had a heart attack thinking I had flooded the dorm when I realized what was happening. Fortunately, the door had a plentiful step, which prevented the water from entering the dorm. But ugh. Just, no. *shudder*

The next morning we enjoyed the standard Peruvian hostel breakfast (bread, butter, marmalade, instant coffee), but with the addition of made-to-order fried or scrambled eggs! The largest common area in Bonny is the dining area on the top floor, which had a lot of light and was very warm during the day, an exception in the crisp high altitude of 3837 m, our highest stop yet.

After that I asked to be moved to a private room, and we got one with a lovely en suite bathroom that had no flooding problems, and a window that did not face the noisy street. The experience was completely different. If we had gone directly to that room, I would have had nothing bad to say about it (though, okay, there weren’t a lot of common spaces). But I learned a good lesson: if your room sucks, ask what your other options are. With the two of us, the private room only cost S/ 5 more than staying in the dorm (S/ 45 for the private, S/ 20 per bed in the dorm).

Saturday we took a rest day, but made it out of the hostel to check out the epic street market. It was blocks and blocks on the street Simon Bolivar, with the only traffic being allowed on cross streets. Everything was for sale: clothes, kitchen implements, phone accessories, seasonings, fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses, breads, on and on. But hella gringo pricing yo. So many sellers asked us for double what they were selling it for to others. Not all, but most. This aspect of Peru had definitely started to wear on us.

At the hostel we set up an overnight tour of Lake Titicaca for Dan, which cost S/ 70 with transportation, one night’s accommodation on one of the islands, and meals included. I had visited Peru once before, and done the very same tour, so in the interest of saving money, and getting some blogging done, I just decided to book an afternoon tour of the floating reed islands instead.

It was a great plan. Until I woke up sick on Sunday morning.

I’m guessing it was the street food I ate in Quehue, but who knows, I eat a lot of crazy things. It could have been the under-cooked beef kidneys I bought from a street vendor in Cusco (they were kind of delicious tho!). Who knows.

Dan set off for his lake Titicaca tour, but we had reserved the private room for the next several nights, so fortunately I got to suffer in privacy. I held out until night time, and decided to take the Cipro. My last major bout of food poisoning had an acute onset, but I was markedly better after a day of bed rest. Not so with this, if anything I was doing worse by evening time after sleeping all day, and without Dan there to dote on me (something I am not used to after six years of married life!) I didn’t want to risk burning up with a fever overnight.

In the meantime, we will leave off my delightful description of pain and suffering, and turn it over to Dan, and his magical journey upon the waters of Lake Titicaca! (Spoilers: I die of dysentery and never make it to Oregon. Jk, jk, I am not writing you from beyond the grave.)

Dan…

My two-day tour of lake Titicaca was great. The lake is gorgeous, freaking huge and the weather was perfect. The relatively isolated cultures that exist on the lake’s islands are quite interesting, though I felt that the tour did a poor job of actually illustrating that.
The main theme of the tour seemed to be getting tourists to spend lots of money by getting us to buy over priced handicrafts through the power of guilt or just generally overcharging on extras. This sort of thing bothers me on principal, but I tried to not let it bother me and luckily it didn’t affect me in the end. For instance, I was one of the few that had my final lunch included in the price of the tour. Also I brought a water filter which saved me from the exorbitantly priced and scarce water that was available for purchase. I wasn’t warned (thanks Christina! and hostel staff!) about the high incidental costs, and I didn’t bring enough money with me to cover those expenses, let alone souvenirs. Not that I buy souvenirs.
The tour consisted of a visit to several islands on the lake. First was a series of floating reed islands. These were quite fascinating in their construction. The islands are constantly under construction to keep them floating as the reeds naturally decay.  After a brief explanation of how the islands are built, the stop was mostly focused on tourist shopping.
Next we traveled to Amantaní for a homestay with a local. We hiked to the top of a hill to see the sunset with a fantastic view of the lake.
Later that night there was a dance party where everyone was dressed up in traditional garb. This consisted of colorful ponchos and warm hats for the men, which was quite easy compared to the dresses for the women. It was a little cheesy, but my roommate was super excited about it and his enthusiasm made it great fun. See how enthusiastic he is? Also an aside: Peru has the best hats, hands down. Everyone gushes over their food but they have an amazing and varied hat culture.
Then on the next day we traveled to the island of Taquile and did another hike for some more views of the lake. After we went for lunch and were told by the tour guide that people here wear different hats. I’m sure Taquile is more interesting than this, but I’m just conveying the dull nature of the tour during this point. The most exciting thing that happened here was running off for a quick dip in the lake before we left for home. It was frigid but quite refreshing!
In general it’s curious that I had a good time at all. I really loved the lake and there was great weather and I enjoyed meeting all the other tourists. It was a great group of people, and without them the tour wouldn’t have been as good. I could have very easily had a miserable time but just got lucky. I wouldn’t want to recommend the two-day tour to any one else though. There is a common package of a one-day tour that shows the reed islands and maybe Amantaní and that would be certainly sufficient.
back to Christina…
Dan returning after his tour, and doing things like feeding me proper food (since I had only eaten bread and a little fruit in almost two days) was very heartening for me. Still though, my convalescence forced us to stay longer in Puno than originally anticipated. I am convinced that the altitude, and the fact that I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath lying down, contributed to my slow recovery. Happily though, on the fourth day I was able to be out of bed, and we tottered down to the bus station for our next adventure: Chile!