January 19, 2008

 

VANCOUVER to BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – 20 HOURS IN TRANSIT!

Today we started our 30-day trip to South America with an early morning alarm and a lengthy check-in line at YVR.  First of all, American Airlines does not allow online check-in for International flights, and so everybody has to line up at the airport.  Once at YVR, AA has 4 self-serve kiosk machines but after checking yourself in, you still have to get back in the regular line-up (1 hour long!) to drop off your bags.  It sort of defeats the purpose of having self check-in!   Further, the kiosk does not allow one to select the “good seats” (with extra leg room), which in this instance worked to our advantage, as we were able to get Emergency Exit seats without problems on both flights!  Our first flight was a short 4-hour trip to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), after which we had almost a 5-hour layover.  Luckily, the newly completed Terminal D at DFW was modern and had excellent facilities.  We enjoyed lunch at T.G.I. Fridays, and at the bottom of the receipt was a code for a free appetizer on our next visit.  This was very welcome because in 30 days we would have another nearly 5-hour layover at this great airport.  Well-fed, we then boarded our gruelling 12-hour red-eye flight to Buenos Aires.

 

Often called the “Paris of South America,” Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina and the most European-feeling city on the continent with its rich Italian heritage, Parisian cafés, and French architecture.  The city sits on the mouth of the Río de la Plata, the widest river in the world.  Prior to the economic crisis and devaluation of the Argentine peso, Buenos Aires was Latin America’s most expensive city.  At that time, the peso was pegged 1:1 with the US dollar, but has since fallen to one-third of its former value.  As a result, many things such as transportation and food are of high standards equivalent to that in North America but are of remarkably great value (the exception being hotels, which are expensive again).  The city is celebrating its bicentennial in 2010, and therefore the city is renovating to renew its wealth of architecture (for example, the historic Teatro Colon is closed for renovations).  We were greatly looking forward to this first stop in Latin America (and just not being on a plane!).

 

January 20, 2008

 

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – SAN TELMO

We landed in Buenos Aires airport on time, grabbed our luggage, dispensed some Argentine pesos from an ATM, and then took an "official taxi" to our downtown hotel, the Sheraton Libertador.  We napped for 5 hours and then headed out to San Telmo by taxi.  This barrio (neighbourhood) is said to be the most atmospheric in Buenos Aires, especially on Sundays.  The main street, Defensa, and its nearby arteries are closed to traffic on Sundays and the neighbourhood becomes one large pedestrian walkway (for 10,000 people!) and flea market.  Defensa is so named because when the British invaded in 1806 and 1807, they were turned away back to their ships by locals who formed an impromptu militia and poured cauldrons of hot water and oil from the rooftops in defence of their city.  At one end of Defensa is Buenos Aires’ second oldest square, Plaza Dorrego, the heart of the neighbourhood.  On Sundays, Plaza Dorrego becomes Feria de San Telmo, an antiques fair.  This was just ending as we strolled through.  We walked around the neighbourhood and then enjoyed helado (ice cream) at Freddo, a chain of local ice-cream parlours.  Thanks to its Italian heritage, Argentine ice cream is reportedly some of the best in the world.  We also stopped at the Mercado San Telmo, a historic produce market, where we bought enormous (and tasty) mangoes.

 

Feria de San Telmo at Plaza Dorrego

Tango Statue

Refreshing ice cream at Freddo

 

For dinner, we stayed in San Telmo and had another Argentine specialty – steak!  Argentine beef is different than the beef we are used to in North America due to how their cows are bred.   In Argentina’s agricultural heartland, the Pampas, cows live in free-range estancias (grazing estates) where the grass is so thick that a cow never has to move.  It just stands there, head in the ruff, getting fatter and softer!  The Argentine cows eat mainly nutritious Pampas grass (and more recently barley and alfalfa), rather than corn feeds with growth hormones like their bovine cousins elsewhere.  Further, Argentine beef is not aged like the beef we are used to in North America which gives it a distinct flavour. There are many parillas (grill restaurant) in San Telmo, and we chose to eat at La Brigada.  At this very popular parilla, we started with empanadas (baked pastries stuffed with ground meat or ham and cheese), and enjoyed bife de chorizo (sirloin) and bife de lomo (tenderloin).  The waiter brought out the grilled meat on one plate and then trimmed it with a spoon (yes, I said a spoon).  We thoroughly enjoyed our super tender steaks, called it a day, and headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

 

The cowhide menu at La Brigada

Bife de chorizo (sirloin)

Bife de lomo (tenderloin)

 

January 21, 2008

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – EVITA AT RECOLETA, MICROCENTRO, AND TANGO

We enjoyed a nice breakfast at the hotel and then headed out by taxi to the upscale barrio of Recoleta where we visited the famous necropolis.  The Cementerario de la Recoleta houses many famous Argentines, the most recognized to tourists being Eva Duarte Péron (Evita).  Her story is of course featured in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and subsequent movie featuring Madonna (1996), which depicts her humble beginnings in the Pampas to her rise to power beside her husband, president Juan Péron.  The land in Recoleta’s cemetery is so scarce and expensive now that finding a burial site today is basically impossible and it’s said that it’s cheaper to live lavishly one’s entire life than to be buried in Recoleta.  Thankfully, for the living, entry is free.  Unfortunately, we were not in town for one of the guided English tours (on Tuesdays and Thursdays), so instead we just strolled around ourselves, following the self-guided itinerary.  The necropolis is like a miniature city, with enormous mausoleums designed in many different architectural styles.  Feral cats roam the cemetery which adds an eerie Gotham-like feel to the place.  Surprisingly, the most visited grave in Argentina is not that of Evita’s, but rather is located in Argentina’s more egalitarian and largest cemetery – Cementario Chacarita.  That grave belongs to Carlos Gardel, the famous tango baritone whose charisma and voice made him a legend in the golden years of tango (1920s and 1930s).

 

The mausoleum is like a miniature city

Many feral cats roam the cemetery

Doug's map & itinerary

The Duarte Family   

The tomb of Eva Péron (Evita)

Mausoleum statue

 

From the cemetery we walked into the adjacent Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, a small baroque colonial church which is a national historic monument and one of the last remaining colonial buildings in the city.  Next door is the Centro Cultural Recoleta (Recoleta Cultural Center), which unfortunately was closed until the late afternoon.  Instead, we strolled around inside the Buenos Aires Design, a high-end interior design mall, before walking through some nice parks past the Museo Nacional de Belles Arts (National Museum of Fine Art) (sadly, closed on Mondays) to Floralis Genérica, one of Buenos Aires’ most stunning landmarks.  Designed and funded by architect Eduardo Catalano in 2002, this enormous metallic flower opens and closes its petals daily.  From the Floralis Genérica, we walked past the Feria de Plaza Francia, down the ritzy Avenida Alvear, with its designer boutiques (think Robson Street) and 5-star hotels, and then took a detour to the local eatery El Sanjuanino.  For less than $1, one can enjoy delicious empanadas at this eatery which has been voted one of the best eating bargains in Argentina by Epicurious.com.  We kept walking a few more blocks and soon found ourselves at the upscale shopping mall Patio Bullrich.  We stopped at McDonald’s in the food court for a drink and fries (Gloria has to try McDonald’s fries from every continent – only one more continent to go!) where the friendly staff asked us for a Canadian coin.  We also had more Freddo ice cream and then took the complimentary hotel shuttle back to our hotel.

 

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Floralis Genérica

Empanada at El Sanjuanino

 

We walked one block from our hotel to the Galerías Pacífico, a large shopping center built by French department store Bon Marché in 1889 and fully refurbished recently.  It features an impressive vaulted ceiling painted by five renowned Argentine artists.  We enjoyed the free espresso offered to tourists and then used the Internet café to check-in for our flight to Iguazú the next day.  From the mall, we turned down the pedestrian-only Calle Florida all the way to Plaza Mayo, the oldest square in the city.  Several sights border the square – Casa Rosada (Pink House), the equivalent of the White House in Washington, D.C.; Cabildo de Buenos Aires, the colonial base of government and the birthplace of the struggle for independence from Spain; and Catedral Metropolitana, the city’s most important cathedral and also containing the guarded tomb of Argentina’s greatest independence hero – Liberator general José de San Martín.  The balcony at Casa Rosada is where Evita addressed her adoring fans.  We then detoured a bit and passed by Café Tortoni, the city's oldest café (opened in 1858), which was in the past frequented by Argentina's greatest artists and is now beloved by both tourists and locals alike.

 

Casa Rosada

Cabildo de Buenos Aires

Café Tortoni

 

From Plaza de Mayo, we headed out onto the Avenida 9 de Julio, a behemoth 16-lane(!) street the world’s widest boulevard (yes, it takes a few lights and a bit of time to cross it!)  At one end is an obelisk, Obelisco, which marks the independence of Argentina from Spain.  Towering 68m high above the oval Plaza del la República, it was inaugurated in 1936 on the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement on the Río de la Plata.  Teatro Colon (Columbus Theatre) nearby is an historic theatre which was unfortunately closed for refurbishment until February 2008.  The Theatre is noted to be one of the world's best opera houses with impressive acoustics and beauty, and when open, the guided tours frequently sell out. 

 

For dinner, we skipped the steak (although tempted by a great looking asado (open BBQ) en route to our hotel) and ate at a Thai restaurant and bar named Empire Thai.  We had tasty $2 appetizer satays (with tender Argentine beef, of course) and calamari plus a tasty green curry and chicken stir-fry.  The owner of the restaurant, a banker originally from New Jersey, told us that he was reluctantly assigned to Latin America 20 years ago by his employer but he fell in love with Argentina and never left.  He opened the restaurant in 2001.

 

Obelisco on Avenida 9 de Julio

Teatro Colon (closed for renovations)

Asado (open BBQ)

 

At 9pm, a mini-bus picked us up and we were off to see Señor Tango.  The dance style known as tango originated with a guitar and violin in the 19th century in brothels of the Buenos Aires barrios of La Boca, San Telmo, and the port area.  At that time, it was danced by poorer, immigrant men since it was thought to be too obscene for women.  It was not accepted by the wealthier locals who felt it vulgar and characteristic of the lower classes.  However, the dance eventually made its way to Europe, where it caught on in Paris.  It was then brought back to Argentina and blossomed under the voice of Carlos Gardel who brought it to Broadway and Hollywood (prior to Gardel the dance was accompanied by instrumentals only).  There are now dozens of tango shows geared toward the tourist in Buenos Aires.  Señor Tango, the city’s most popular “tango show” (loosely phrased, as it has singing, dancing in other styles such as native and flamenco, and other theatricals) is not particularly authentic (like El Viejo Almacén or El Querandi) but we found it entertaining nonetheless.  The show is characterized by over-the-top spectacle, including live horses and an outrageous finish with flashy confetti falling to the sound of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” (sung in Spanish).  Sure, it's touristy, but heck, we're tourists!

 

Outside Señor Tango

CD Salesperson

Waiting for the show

 

January 22, 2008

BUENOS AIRES to PUERTO IGUAZÚ, ARGENTINA – CATARATAS DO IGUAÇU (AN UNEXPECTED VISIT TO BRAZIL) AND THE FALLS BY MOONLIGHT

After taking breakfast in the hotel, we checked out of the hotel, stored one of our bags, and then headed to the domestic Aeroparque Jorge Newberry Airport for our flight to Puerto Iguazú.  We had checked in online at LAN.com and at the airport we had the easiest 30-second check-in.  Our flight was delayed slightly as the aircraft was late arriving at the airport due to air traffic delays.  However, we were soon on our way and less than two hours later we arrived at the Puerto Iguazú Airport. 

 

Iguazú Falls, located in a subtropical jungle, consists of 23km worth of 275 deafening waterfalls plummeting into a giant gorge over precipices up to 5km wide and 81m high.  Created by 120 million years of geological history, the Falls form the border between Argentina and Brazil, and were first written about by European explorers in the 1540s.  The word "Iguazú" comes from the local Guaraní language and translates to "big water," and this name could not be more appropriate for this natural spectacle.  On both the Brazil (Parque Nacional do Iguaçu) and Argentine (Parque Nacional Iguazú) sides, the land around the Falls is designated national parklands and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.  The park’s environs are a jungle with over 200 species of trees, 448 species of birds, 71 species of mammals, 36 species of reptiles, 20 species of amphibians and more than 250 species of butterflies.  There is lots of debate about which side – Brazilian or Argentine – has the better views of the Falls, but most would agree that the Argentine side gives much closer views (you can literally stand on top of waterfalls as they rage over a rock face) while the Brazilian side gives nicer panoramic, postcard views. 

 

From the airport, we grabbed a taxi to take us to our splurge $300/night hotel – the Sheraton Iguazú Resort & Spa, which is the only hotel located inside the Iguazú National Park in Argentina (there is also a 5* hotel in the Brazilian park).  We checked in and then went to see the “concierge” (slick tour operator/salesperson) immediately.  When we first planned this South America odyssey, we had wanted to see Brazil – the Amazon, Río de Janeiro (Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Cococabana, and Ipanema), and the Brazilian side of the waterfalls – but for numerous reasons had to omit the country from our itinerary.  Firstly, Brazil the country is almost as large as the U.S., with an enormous diversity of places and climates that cannot be visited in a few days only.  Secondly, to enter Brazil, Canadians must obtain a tourist visa which takes about 3 weeks to process (more time than we had available).  And finally, it’s not particularly easy to get to Río de Janeiro from Vancouver – there are basically no carriers that can do it with fewer than 3 flights and less than 24 hours of travel.  However, we had heard of others who had traveled to Iguazú Falls and had someone “guide” them to the Brazilian side “without requiring” a tourist visa.  We were very thrilled to hear that such a thing was possible and regularly done by hundreds of tourists, despite it being not particularly “official.”  We quickly booked a remise (private, unmetered “taxi”) and driver who would take us to the Brazilian side and hoped for the best.  Our driver, Omar, was professional, had lived in the area for 20 years, and spoke English (as well as Spanish, Portuguese, and the native language Guaraní) fairly well.  We drove past the town of Puerto Iguazú and then to the border between Argentina and Brazil.  We handed our passports over to the immigration officer who looked at them, input our information into the computer, and then stamped them with an exit stamp from Argentina (no entry stamp to Brazil).  We never saw a Brazilian immigration official!

 

Once in Brazil, we headed a short distance past the Foz do Iguaçu airport and then entered the Brazilian National Park.  Adjacent is a bird park which we didn’t have time to see.  We entered the park and took the park bus from the Visitor’s Center to its one and only trail, the Trilha das Cataratas (Waterfalls Path).  The trail zigzagged down the side of a gorge and passed along the cliff face, providing views across the narrow gorge at water cascading down from many different waterfalls.  At the end of the trail, an elevated walkway led us out in front of the Brazilian Falls with views of Garganta do Diabo (Devil's Throat; the grandest waterfall at Iguazú) the wind and exhilarating spray coming off the falls had us soaked in seconds.  From this walkway, we went up elevators that lifted us up to a large platform for a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of the Falls.  Words, photos, and videos cannot do this place justice – we have never in our travels seen anything so naturally spectacular!  Iguazú Falls is a definite must-see and is alone well worth the time and expense for the flight to South America!

 

At the beginning of the trail

Panoramic views of innumerable falls

The Falls from Brazil

The Brazilian lookout platform

The Brazilian Falls

Beautiful rainbow at Iguaçu

The powerful spray was incredible!

Yup, we got pretty wet!

A friendly bat in the Park

 

We were starving and had our only Brazilian meal of the trip at the cafeteria in the park – a bacon cheeseburger.  Yes, the only food they served was American fast food!  After gobbling down our meal, we took the park bus back to the Visitor’s Center (which was closed already) and then located Omar who took us back to Argentina (another Argentine entry stamp) without incident.

 

During the four nights around a Full Moon, the Argentine National Park operates a very special Paseos de Luna Llena (organized moonlight walks) of the Falls which includes dinner at the restaurant inside the Park.  We were very fortunate that this day was the last of the four nights.  However, when we entered the Park and inquired about the availability of tickets, we were informed that we were out of luck.  We asked again at the front desk of the Sheraton and were also told that the tickets were sold out for all three walks that night (8:00pm, 8:45pm, and 9:30pm).  However, the “concierge” who booked us to go to Brazil also somehow managed to procure tickets for us for 8:45pm!  We didn’t ask nor care how all this was possible – we just bought the tickets and ran with it! 

 

We were taken to the park at 8:45pm and then took a train to the Garganta Station.  Our guide led us on the trail to Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat) – the mother of all waterfalls at Iguazú.  The water arrives calmly down the Iguazú River but then picks up speed as it approaches the gorge.  Water comes in from all directions and creates an furious avalanche of water and spray that is the tallest waterfall in the Park.  After getting sprayed by this mist in the moonlight, we took the train back to the Park entrance where we had dinner at La Selva (Spanish for “jungle”) restaurant inside the park.  The dinner was buffet style, and included various cuts of meat from the parilla – all you can eat Argentine meat!  We tried extremely tasty beef ribs, tenderloin, a lovely sirloin, and sausages.

 

Paseos de Luna Llena

Gloria in the Moonlight

More beef (all-you-can eat) at La Selva

 

January 23, 2008

IGUAZÚ FALLS, ARGENTINA – GETTING DRENCHED BY IGUAZÚ!

We were awoken by the wake-up call too early for our liking (necessary since we had such a full day planned) and had breakfast at the hotel before heading out into the park.  We walked a short distance to the Cataratas Station to take the train 3km to the Garganta Station.  From here, we walked again on the 1.1km trail to Garganta del Diablo.  Having seen this the night before with the moonlight, it was a different experience seeing it in the daytime.

 

Bird in the subtropical jungle

The Devil's Throat

The furious spray lifting Gloria's hair

 

After walking through the new Visitor’s Center (with its displays on the history and ecology of the falls) and having a quick lunch of cheap empanadas, the office of Iguazú Jungle Explorer, the main operator of tours inside the park, was our next stop.  Our “concierge” had booked us on a tour called Gran Aventura (The Great Adventure) which took us on an open-air truck trip 8km through the jungle to the Puerto Macuco dock.  At the dock, we baked in the sun for what seemed like an eternity on about 100 steps before finally getting smelly lifejackets and then boarded our zodiac boat with its twin 225hp outboards.  We were told to take off our shoes and socks and put anything not waterproof into the provided sealable bag, and to “enjoy the shower!”  We were taken a total of 6km on the Lower Iguazú River, of which 2km were in rapids, before going into the flow of the Salto Tres Mosqueteros (Three Musketeers Waterfall) and then into the Salto San Martín (the park’s widest falls, which has a spray reaching a height of 30m).  We got mercilessly pelted with water and completely drenched, but it was oh so fun!  We got off the boat in the middle of the Lower Circuit where we dried off a bit, and then walked to good views of Salto Bosseti, Salto Ramírez, Salto Chíco, and Salto Dos Hermanos.  Unfortunately, due to high water levels, the free boat to San Martín Island was closed today, so we were unable to explore the island.

 

Before we got taken into the falls

Slowly drying off on the Lower Circuit

Salto Bosseti

 

We had initially planned to walk the Upper Circuit but exhausted, we instead took a nice long nap and then had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Garganta del Diablo, aptly named after the Devil’s Throat which it overlooks.  The buffet dinner included the usual all you can eat parilla but also some interesting local foods, such as pacú (a local fish from the rivers feeding the Falls), feijoada (a typical Brazilian stew of black turtle beans with pork and beef products), locro (hearty Argentine stew and the country’s national dish), and carbonada criolla (spicy Argentine stew made with meats, vegetables, and fruits).

 

January 24, 2008

 

PUERTO IGUAZÚ to BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – THE UPPER CIRCUIT

After taking breakfast in the hotel, we headed out to walk on the Upper Circuit in the National Park.  On this short 650m walk, we again saw Salto Dos Hermanos, Salto Chíco, Salto Ramírez, and then took a long walkway out on top of Salto Bosseti, Salto Eva, Salto Adan, and Salto Bernabé Méndez before arriving at views of Salto Mbiguà and Salto San Martín.  It was pleasant to be out and about before it got too hot in the subtropical humidity.  It was certainly a very satisfying luxury to stay at the Sheraton hotel inside the park as we saved on park entrance fees (three separate days in the park) and also had the convenience to be able to return in the middle of the day for a break.

 

A façade of waterfalls

On top of Salto Bossetti

On top of Salto Bernabé Méndez

 

We checked out of our room at noon and then spent some time using the free computers at the hotel.  We took a taxi to the domestic airport where we once again bypassed the long check-in line since we had checked-in for our flight online.  Once back in Buenos Aires, we took a taxi to our hotel, the Esplendor de Buenos Aires.  We didn’t feel like going anywhere far for dinner, so we just ate cheap tapas again at Empire Thai and then walked around the Galerías Pacifico mall.

  

January 25, 2008

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – LA BOCA AND PUERTO MADERO

We had breakfast then hopped into a taxi to the barrio La Boca (“the mouth”).  This area was historically the city’s Little Italy and was the main port of entry for new Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The immigrants “borrowed” colourful leftover paint from the nearby port to decorate their haphazardly constructed boarding houses made of sheet metal.  Today, La Boca is Buenos Aires toughest neighbourhood, and most of its citizens come from poorer rural areas of the country, rather than Italy.  Just the day before we visited, the riot police were called out as the crowds who were trying to purchase a limited number of tickets for the first fútbol (soccer) match of the season between the Boca Juniors and their cross-town rivals, River Plate, got very unruly.  Buenos Aires is really crazy about their Boca Juniors soccer team!  Even those not particularly familiar with soccer will have heard of Diego Maradona, the Boca Juniors player who rose to fame from a humble beginning as a poor boy in a slum in Buenos Aires to scoring two goals (one an illegal handball) for Argentina against the U.K. in the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

 

Our first stop in La Boca was the overtouristed El Caminito Street.  This was a pedestrianized roadway with overly colourful buildings, tango demonstrations, vendors selling art, and typical souvenir shops.  We didn’t spend too much time here as it started raining a bit, but instead walked down a very sketchy street to the stadium of the Boca Juniors.  Here, we went inside for a look around the stadium before visiting the adjacent Museo de la Pásion Boquense (Museum of the Boca Passion), where we learned more than we ever wanted to know about the Boca Juniors – past and present.

 

Spontaneous tango in La Boca

Colourfully painted for tourists

Stadium of the Boca Juniors

Nice and peaceful unlike on game day

Huge soccer ball theatre inside museum

South America Cup 2006

 

From La Boca we took a taxi to Puerto Madero.  This port was created in the 1890s but less than 20 years after its completion, it had already outlived its usefulness as a port and fell into disrepair.  For many years it was a dilapidated neighbourhood full of abandoned buildings until the area became revived in the 1990s.  It is now filled with restaurants, residences, and luxury hotels in renovated warehouses and reminded us of the rejuvenated Coal Harbour area in Vancouver.  The western shore was ignored until this century, when the first major revitalization project on that side was completed in 2005: The Faena Hotel + Universe, an odd warehouse converted into a luxury boutique hotel designed by French designer Philippe Stark and bankrolled by local mogul Alan Faena.  We strolled through the hotel, but there really wasn’t much to see there, and we weren’t quite sure why it had made it into our guidebook.  From the hotel, we walked along the eastern waterfront, past the Museo Fragata Sarmiento (a former naval ship that had sailed around the world 40 times before being converted into a museum) and then viewed the Punte de la Mujer (Bridge of Woman) designed by Santiago Calvatra.  The bridge is said to be inspired by a couple dancing the tango.

 

Faena Hotel + Universe

Museo Fragata Sarmiento

Punte de la Mujer

 

For dinner, we ate at Cabaña Las Lilas in Puerto Madero, regarded by some as the best parilla in Buenos Aires (this is debatable according to the locals – the place was filled with tourists when we dined).  The service was top-notch and it felt like a high-end restaurant in a North American city overlooking the waterfront.  They started by charging a significant table fee which included tasty appetizers (beef, salmon, mozzarella, and vegetables), warm breads, and soup.  We ordered a beef tenderloin brochette, rib-eye steak, mushrooms, and cream of corn.  Everything was cooked to perfection, the way we like it and oh, so delicious too!  The beef is raised in the restaurant's own estancia in the Pampas and is said by some to be the country's best.  In Latin America and in particular Argentina, steak is enjoyed with Chimichurri sauce, a pesto-like sauce made of parsley, oregano, salt, pepper, onion, paprika, and olive oil.  Its unusual name is thought to have come from an English-speaking colonist but the exact name of origin depends on whom you ask.  Some say the name derived from Jimmy McCurry (an Irishman), while others say that it was from James C. Hurray (a Scotsman) or Jimmy Curry (a Brit).  Some contend that it just came from English-speakers saying "give me the curry!" 

 

Serious about grilling meat here

Steak knives available for purchase

Non-optional starter plate

Chimichurri sauce

Beef tenderloin brochette

Rib-eye steak

 

The bill at Cabaña Las Lilas was robbery by Argentine standards - $85 for the two of us including tip – but still cheap by North American standards and it made Ruth’s Chris or Morton's seem way overpriced.  We had left the hotel with little cash today because we had heard stories about how La Boca was potentially unsafe, and so we literally used every last Argentine peso we had on us to pay for the meal!  Good thing we didn’t order dessert!  Almost penniless, we walked back to our hotel and rested a bit before walking down pedestrianized Calles Florida and Lavalle to the gorgeous Panamericano Hotel, where Princess Cruises was having pre-cruise check-in.  We then finished the day by walking back to Galerías Pacifico where we bought Alfajeros (a cookie snack with Argentine caramel – dulce de leche – sandwiched in between) for Cousin Mimi and Jorge.

 

January 26, 2008

 

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - ALL ABOARD STAR PRINCESS!

I don’t usually waste vacation blog space talking about hotels, but could not help myself from describing the terrible Esplendor de Buenos Aires “boutique hotel” we stayed at for the last two nights.  I first found this hotel on Travelocity, read some positive reviews on TripAdvisor, and saw that the Lonely Planet Buenos Aires Encounter book listed this hotel as the “most unique stay” in Buenos Aires.  Since the Sheraton Libertador 2 blocks down Av. Cordoba (where we had a wonderful 2-night stay when we first arrived) was expensive for the two nights before the cruise, I figured that I would give the Esplendor a try at $150/night.  The hotel is attached to the historic Galerías Pacifico building originally built in the late 1880s but was recently renovated into a boutique hotel.  It is indeed distinctive – there is unique art everywhere in the hallways, and the small lobby has an image of Evita made out of bread!  Upon check-in, we were even upgraded from a regular room to a much larger suite, easily twice the size of a regular room.  However, the people who designed the renovation obviously cared more about form rather than function.  The doors that overlooked the street – San Martín, a major thoroughfare – had no soundproofing whatsoever.  All day and night we heard street noise – engines raging, brakes squealing, and even sewage work!  It was like sleeping on a park bench in the middle of Times Square!  The plastic chairs inside the room looking like they had come straight from Ikea had odd pink rugs(?) on them and were the most uncomfortable to sit on.  The air conditioning barely worked, even when turned to the lowest setting.  And the bathroom was the most idiotic.  The shower had no base or tub, and one stood on a wooden crate to shower.  The shower’s drain, underneath the wooden crate, was not  the lowest point in the room!  That honour belonged to a drain at the opposite side of the room by the toilet!  So every time we took a shower, the entire bathroom flooded and soapy water left a residue all over the bathroom floor.  Needless to say, we were very glad to check out of this hotel and go onboard the ship.

 

After breakfast, we walked the short distance to the Sheraton Libertador where we met up with Gloria’s Uncle and Aunt who happened to be also on the same cruise as us.  We asked the hotel to get us a large taxi that could accommodate all 4 adults and 6 pieces of luggage.  We got what we requested, but when we loaded everything into the taxi, the driver refused to start the meter, instead insisting that the fare to the cruise terminal was a flat rate of 25 pesos ($8).  We knew that the distance travelled would be short (less than 10 minutes) and should have cost about half of what he quoted!  This was the first dishonest taxi driver we came across in Buenos Aires, but we knew that it would have cost about the same calling two taxis (and more hassle), plus the amount we were being overcharged didn’t amount to much converted into Canadian currency.  We think they prey on older tourists, as we were never overcharged on 10 taxi rides in the city, but Gloria’s Uncle and Aunt had been driven in circles from the airport and their meter had come to 30 pesos when it should have been no more than 20 pesos.  When in a metered taxi, it’s probably always wise to open up a map and at least pretend you are following the route that the driver is taking, and to learn a few words of protest in Spanish if a suspicious course is taken.

 

We arrived at the port around 12:30pm and check-in did not start until 1pm.  The Star Princess, the same ship we took on our honeymoon to Scandinavia, had docked in Buenos Aires over 4 hours late due to high winds that would have made docking unsafe.  The pre-cruise check-in at the Panamericano Hotel the day prior turned out to be completely useless, as we were asked to present the same information as we had done yesterday, and the check-in was no faster.  After passing through Argentine customs, we got on board, asked for an upgrade (didn’t get one), and then relaxed.  The ship pulled away from Buenos Aires late at 7pm instead of the scheduled 5pm, as many passengers had not made it onto the ship on time.  We were amazed how many people flew into Buenos Aires the same morning as the cruise.  We never do this as there are frequent horror stories about people missing the ship when flights are delayed or cancelled.  In fact, for the cruise prior, many people missed the ship due to an American Airlines flight cancellation from Denver to Buenos Aires.  The second reason is that the embarkation city is almost always interesting!  What a shame it would have been to fly all the way to Buenos Aires but not experience the city!

 

As we sailed away from Buenos Aires, we had some time to reflect on our 4 days in town (a long stay by our travel standards!).  We can say that we were very pleasantly surprised.  All the talk online about sketchy neighbourhoods, decrepit old buildings, and the consequences of the 2001 economic collapse were not really noticed by us.  Most people spoke or understood English, smoking in all public places has been banned since late 2006, transportation and delicious meals were cheap (by North American standards), and in general, the standard of living and cleanliness seemed the same as to what we are accustomed.  There were at least 2 people on our cruise who had their watches or wallets stolen violently by petty thieves, but we never ran into any problems and felt fairly safe in general.

 

January 27, 2008

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY – A WALK THROUGH THE OLD CITY

Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America (about the size of Washington state) but boasts a high standard of living, literacy rate and excellent social services, and is therefore often called the “Switzerland of South America.”  Sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil and bordered by the sea, much of the country is grasslands (the Pampas).  The two most important cities in the country are its capital Montevideo and the internationally-famous, chic beach resort of Punta del Este, which lies 190km from the capital and is particularly popular with wealthy Argentines. 

 

Montevideo city is thought to have gotten its name when a Portuguese sailor saw the Cerro, the highest point in the area, and called out, “Monte vejo eu!” (I see a mountain!).  The Spanish formally founded the city in 1726 as a fortress from which to attack the encroaching Portuguese.  Today, Montevideo is home to 1.8 million residents, about half of the population of Uruguay.  Just like in Argentina, the majority are Caucasians of Spanish or Italian heritage.  It is not a particularly attractive tourist destination, especially on a Sunday when pretty much everything of interest is closed, but today there were three cruise ships in port and so the city was flooded with tourists.

 

We arrived into Montevideo port at around 8am and headed off the ship.  Immediately we were greeted by representatives from Tourist Information who gave us a walking map of the Ciudad Vieja (old city).  We were then approached by staff from the local leather store Casa Mario, who offered to take us by shuttle to their store near the old city.  We took the shuttle, browsed for a few minutes, then walked up a very shady-looking street (Juan Carlos Gómez) to Plaza Constitucíon.  Here we saw the city’s oldest public building, the Catedral Metropolitana (also known as the Iglesia Matriz), which was erected in 1804.  Also in the square is a McDonald’s (unbelievably closed on Sundays!), Museo Gurvich, and El Cabildo (the old town hall built in 1804, which also served as the city’s jailhouse, and now a museum).  In the Plaza, vendors were starting to set up for the Sunday antiques fair.  We walked down the pedestrianized street Peatonal Sarandi to Plaza Independencia, which marks the end of the old town and beginning of modern Montevideo.  En route, we walked past the Museo Torres Garcia, which was closed except for the tours from ship (how rude!). 

 

Plaza Constitucíon

Catedral Metropolitana

Mural by Torres Garcia

 

At the western edge of the Plaza Independencia is the only remnant of the original fortress wall that encompassed the citadel of Montevideo – a gate named Puerta de la Ciudadela.  Inside the actual Plaza is a large, 17m high equestrian statue of Uruguay’s hero of the independence movement in 1814, General José Gervasio Artigas.  Underneath the statue is an eerie stone mausoleum containing his ashes, and as we arrived the guards were just changing.  At one corner of the square is the Palacio Salvo, a building designed by Italian architect Mario Palanti which is often referred to as the “symbol of Montevideo.”  This was once the tallest building in South America when it was completed in 1928, but its 26 stories are not nearly as impressive today.  We walked across the street to the Montevideo Leather Factory, a competitor to Casa Mario, which had less square footage and an inferior selection. 

  

Puerta de la Ciudalela

Equestrian Statue of General José Artigas

Palacio Salvo

 

From the Plaza, we walked a short distance to Teatro Solís, the city’s main theatre and opera house which opened in 1852 but underwent extensive renovation recently.  Passing the theatre, we headed down the street Ciudadela to the waterfront street – Rambla Bretaña, which overlooks the Río de la Plata.  Some people were sunbathing, others were playing in the water with their dogs, and there were also fishermen.  We walked westward along the waterfront and turned up Calle Misiones back to the Peatonal Sarandi.  Soon we were at Plaza Zabala (named after the founder of the city, Bruno Zabala), at one corner of which is located Palacio Tanarco (now the Decorative Arts Museum).  We walked back towards the ship to the Mercado del Puerto, which is not really a “market” at all.  Instead, it is a building housing a number of parillas all serving large cuts of meat for bargain prices.

 

It was still not quite noon, so we decided not to return to the ship yet.  We took the Casa Mario shuttle again so that Gloria could buy a pin for Uruguay from their souvenir store adjacent to the leather store.  When in Rome, you should do as the Romans do, so we ordered a chevitos, a Uruguay-only sandwich, from their chain-restaurant Don Peperone.  This sandwich is made with ham, beef, eggs, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise on a toasted bun.  It wasn’t particularly tasty and was expensive, at $7.50.  We got change in Uruguayan pesos which was essentially useless since this was our only stop in Uruguay, so we spent it buying a very tasty ice cream cone.  En route back to the ship, we passed by the Museo Histórico Nacional and Museo Romántico (both closed on Sundays) which are housed in two adjacent houses - the former residence of a wealthy merchant of the 19th century and the home of Fructoso Rivera, the first Uruguayan president.

 

Teatro Solis

Rambla Bretaña

Chevitos - only in Uruguay

 

The ship left Montevideo 2 hours later than scheduled due to delays in getting the ship refuelled.  By evening, we sailed out of the Río de la Plata into the Atlantic Ocean and the water started getting choppier, but not to the point of making people sick.  We hoped that the wind would calm down and we would be able to make our next port of call – Stanley, Falkland Islands.

  

January 28-29, 2008

 

AT SEA – ENJOYING THE PRINCESS CAPTAIN’S CIRCLE ELITE PERKS!

This was Doug’s 16th cruise with Princess Cruises which qualified him for the highest tier in their loyalty program, Captain’s Circle – the Elite tier.  Only 100 passengers had Elite status on this cruise (of which at least 5 were in our same hallway, curiously).  In addition to Doug’s black-coloured card, he had access to a number of great perks including: 10% off at the boutiques on board; complimentary shoe-polishing, laundry, and dry cleaning; complimentary mini-bar set-up in the room ($40 value); upgraded stateroom amenities; 250 minutes of free Internet time ($100 value); priority tender tickets; priority disembarkation and use of lounge on disembarkation day; traditional afternoon tea daily in the stateroom; complimentary wine-tasting; and choice of deluxe canapés on formal nights delivered to the stateroom.  We made sure to take advantage of nearly every one of these perks, especially the laundry and Internet!  How nice it is to have finally reached Elite!

 

In general, cruise entertainers are to be forgotten – often popular stars of their day who are past their prime or mediocre performers who need and have a captive (literally) audience.  Usually there is not much to write about, but on January 29 and February 3, we enjoyed two very special performances by West End vocalist, Philippa Healey.  This little 5’3” young lady from Manchester, U.K. was belting out opera and popular songs from musicals like we have never heard before.  Kudos to Princess Cruises for bringing such a great performer on board.  You can learn more about Philippa and her "voice of an angel" here.

 

January 30, 2008

STANLEY, FALKLAND ISLANDS – PENGUINS EVERYWHERE AT VOLUNTEER POINT!

Just last week the Celebrity Infinity and Norwegian Dream were unable to call on the Falkland Islands because high winds made tendering to shore impossible.  The weather in the Falklands is so changeable and the winds pick up so quickly, it’s always a hit or miss situation when it comes to being able to see this port.  So when we awoke at 6:15am and saw nice calm seas with light winds, we were excited.  We quickly ate breakfast and grabbed tender tickets at 7:15am, and the ship dropped anchor at 8:10am.  We looked out onto deck and saw the brightly coloured roofs of the houses in Stanley, East Falkland, and we were elated to be one of only 60,000 annual tourists to these islands (compare to Antarctica, with its 20,000 annual visitors).

 

The Falkland Islands were made famous worldwide by the 1982 Falklands Conflict between the U.K. and Argentina (where most Argentines still refer to the islands as Islas Malvinas).  A bit of a history lesson explains why that conflict arose.  On August 14, 1592, the islands were sighted by an English Captain, John Davies.  The first documented landing occurred by another English Captain, John Strong, in 1960.  He named the channel dividing the two main islands Falkland Sound, after the then First Lord of Admiralty, Viscount Falkland.  In 1765, Captain John Byron was dispatched by the British Government to take formal possession of the Islands at Port Egmont on West Falkland.  However, what Britain did not realize was that a year earlier, a Frenchman established a French settlement on East Falkland at Port Louis.  In 1769, the Spanish Governor of Buenos Aires bought out the French and ousted the British from West Falkland in 1770.  However, after a diplomatic flurry, Spain claimed that the Governor had acted on his own initiative and handed Port Egmont back to the British.  By 1811, both the Spanish and the British had left the islands and they remained largely uninhabited until Port Louis was resettled with the blessing of the Buenos Aires Government in 1824.  In 1831, a United States naval ship, the USS Lexington sailed by, declared Port Louis a pirate settlement, and destroyed it.  Since 1833, the Falklands have been under continuous British Administration.

 

In 1982, the military dictatorship of Argentina was losing its grip on the country and wanted to draw attention to a national cause to rally and unify its countrymen.  Therefore, on April 2, 1982, an Argentine force of 12,000 soldiers invaded the Falkland islands and occupied the Islands for the next 74 days.  In fact, our tour operator, Patrick Watts, was the voice of the local broadcasting station at the time and was commanded at gunpoint to announce the Argentine claim to “Las Malvinas.”  Argentine helicopters dropped land mines on much of the Islands, of which 10-30% lie still unexploded (UXO = unexploded ordinance) on 117 (well-marked) land mine fields.  The Argentine government didn’t anticipate too much of a fight but the U.K. promptly dispatched a massive military force of 8,000 troops which traveled over 8,000 miles to the Falkland Islands.  They arrived on May 21, 1982 and by June 14 (now Liberation Day in the Falklands) they had fought their way into Stanley and forced the Argentines to surrender.  The military dictatorship of Argentina fell shortly after.  The British are now well-prepared for another potential conflict – while the Falkland Islands have about 2,500 inhabitants (mainly sheep farmers and fishermen), there is a garrison of armed forces numbering 4,000 on the Islands, along with significant military vessels and equipment.  Despite its geographical proximity to Argentina, the bad blood runs deep – there are no flights and no import of goods from Argentina.  Good diplomatic relations are only with Chile, the only South American country that did not support Argentina’s occupation of the Islands.  Each week there is one commercial flight to and from Santiago, and medical emergencies are flown to Chile or even to the U.K. instead of nearby Argentina.

 

Once off the ship, we met our guide and driver for the day, Val.  Born and raised in the Falklands like his parents, he was a retired paramedic.  I couldn’t help but ask about the situation of medical services in Stanley.  Val told me that there are 5 GPs in Stanley, who also look after the Emergency Department.  The town’s one surgeon, originally from India, had been there for a number of years.  Unlike in Northern B.C., they didn’t seem to have much of a problem with retention.  The Falklands currency, the Falkland Pound, is pegged to the British Pound in value and all citizens get very similar benefits to a regular British citizen living in the U.K.  Academically-inclined students even get to go to the U.K. for College or University with their overseas course fees and living expenses paid for by the Falkland Islands government.  Stanley is so crime-free that Val told us that he never locks his car or house!

 

Our tour would take us to Volunteer Point, a remote part of the island (2.5 hours from the town of Stanley) where there are numerous large penguin rookeries.  Volunteer Point, like most of the land on the Falklands, has been privately owned by Berkeley Sound Farm Ltd. since 1870 and all visitors are required to get permission and pay £15 each to enter the property.  More importantly though is the fact that there are almost no tarmac-paved roads in the Falklands.  To get to Volunteer Point, we had to take 4x4 vehicles and travel half the journey on gravel road and the other half off-road on grassy terrain, underneath which are peat bogs.  It was like riding a roller coaster, but fortunately none of the vehicles got stuck (although one did fall off a “bridge” which was made up of two planks).  The landscape of the island can best be described as rugged.  Rolling grassy hills, low-lying mountains, and ground cover typify most of the island.  Outside of the town there is hardly a tree to be seen!

 

However, the trip to get to Volunteer Point was entirely worth it.  What started out as a place for one breeding pair of King Penguins in the 1950s is now home to over 2,000 penguins of different species who come back year after year to breed.  This is the only place outside of Antarctica to see King Penguins (well, other than at a Zoo).  It is the most northerly and most accessible (hah!) colony in the world.  King Penguins look very similar to their larger cousins, the Emperor Penguins found in Antarctica (and featured in March of the Penguins).  They also have similar breeding patterns.  For example, they do not build nests but rather sit with their eggs nestled between their legs until the chicks hatch.  At this time of year, some of the chicks start to hatch and there is lots of activity in the rookeries.  Not only is Volunteer Point home to the gorgeous 3ft tall King Penguins with their stunning orange highlights, but also to a smaller population of Gentoo Penguins and also Magellanic Penguins.  I’ll let the photos do the talking…

 

Magellanic Penguins close to their burrows

 

Enormous colony of fascinating King Penguins

 

These very curious young Gentoo penguins kept coming closer to us

 

Gentoo Penguins on the move!

 

The beach with its dozens of penguins coming in from the ocean

 

After spending 2 hours at Volunteer Point, we got back into our 4x4 and headed back to Stanley.  We had about an hour before the last tender returned to the ship, so we drove past several of the town’s buildings and the Whalebone Display.  Put together by an anti-whaling campaigner, this display of whale skeletons was impressive.  We walked around the town of Stanley where we saw the Whalebone Arch (constructed from the jawbones of two blue whales in 1933), Christ Church Cathedral (the world’s most southerly cathedral), Victory Green, and the very British Post Office before we headed back to the ship.

 

Whalebone Display

Whalebone Arch

Falklands Post Office

 

The only negative of the day?  My goodness, we had a lot of penguin poop stuck to our shoes and they smelled really bad!!!

 

January 31, 2008

 

CAPE HORN – SAILING THE DRAKE PASSAGE AND STRAIT OF MAGELLAN

Cape Horn was discovered by the Dutch explorer Willem Cornelis Schouten (1580-1625) who named it after his hometown of Hoorn, Netherlands.  It is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of Southern Chile, which is a large island about the size of Belgium.  Widely considered to be the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn is the most southerly of the great capes and marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, which is named after Sir Francis Drake (who never actually sailed the passage!).  For many years this area carried trade around the world despite its reputation as being particularly hazardous due to strong winds, large waves, and icebergs – thus making it famous as a sailors’ graveyard.  In fact, the Falkland Islands have many remains of shipwrecks of vessels that failed to make it around Cape Horn.  Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had little choice but to make the challenging journey around Cape Horn.  Today, along with some cargo vessels, cruise ships carrying tourists make the scenic voyage and it is also regarded as one of the world’s major challenges in yachting.  It is also the closest point to the Antarctica peninsula – just 640km from the icy continent.

 

We had wonderfully calm winds, slight seas, and the sun was just peaking out as we arrived at about 5pm today.  At Cape Horn is the divide between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which is marked by two rock formations known as the Twin Towers.  The Pacific Ocean was actually named by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in his ship’s journey around the world (he never made it home – he died in the Philippines), who arrived at the Twin Towers after blustering weather on the Atlantic to find serene and peaceful seas on the other side, and therefore named it according – pacifico.  Also in this area around Cape Horn is an albatross monument (not well seen from the ship) which was erected in memory of all the sailors who died trying to round South America.

   

Tierra del Fuego

Chilean flag

The Twin Towers

 

February 1, 2008

USHUAIA, ARGENTINA – WE MISSED "THE END OF THE WORLD!"

We knew it would happen someday… we just hoped it wouldn’t be today in Ushuaia.  After the beautiful, calm seas and light ocean breeze we had in the Falklands and rounding Cape Horn, we thought we had the weather fairy on our side.  Sadly, it wasn’t true.  Yes, that’s right… on this, our 16th cruise together, the weather finally got to a ship and we weren’t able to call on a port.  We heard a lot of loud rumbling at 4am (the ship was dropping anchor to embark the Chilean customs and immigration officials), and when we woke up just before 7am and we were not alongside Ushuaia’s pier as scheduled, we could smell trouble.  When Captain Pickford went on the P.A. and announced that due to gale force winds (at 60 knots = 115km/h that would not die down), it would be unsafe for the ship to attempt to go into Ushuaia, it was the biggest disappointment!  Despite it being sunny with relatively calm seas today, this area is the windiest in the world, with the Antarctic winds blowing in a clockwise direction unimpeded by any land masses.

 

Ushuaia (pronounced oo soo-AYE-ah) is a Yahgan Indian word meaning “a bay penetrating westward.”  Originally a mission town, then an Argentine naval base, then a convict settlement, it is now a town of 80,000 people.  Ushuaia is commonly called Fin del Mundo (End of the World) because it is the most southerly town in the world.  At 54.8° S latitude, it is also the closest town to Antarctica (1100km away) and the South Pole.  There is a small Chilean settlement further south – Puerto Williams – but with a population of less than 2,000 inhabitants, it does not get this nod.  Puerto Williams does have the continent’s southernmost flag, though!  Today we had planned on travelling on a catamaran wildlife cruise of the Beagle Channel (named after Charles Darwin’s ship of 1831-1836, the MV Beagle) where we would see fur seals, sea lions, and cormorants (which look something like penguins, except they can fly).  We were then going to take a taxi into the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, which quite literally marks the end of the road for the Panamerican Highway.  This highway runs from Fairbanks, Alaska all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina with only one interruption for several kilometres in Panama.  The Park itself is said to resemble the Alaskan panhandle. 

 

Chile, nicknamed “the Shoestring Country” has very fascinating geographical features.  The country is 24 times longer than its average width and is in no place wider than 350km, and at its narrowest is only 16km from east to west.  Over 70% of the country is mountainous (the Andes mountains).  Stretching 4,500km (the longest north-south country in the world), the north features the parched Atacama Desert (annual rainfall 0mm, with rain falling every 5-25 years!), the area around Santiago contains fertile coastal plains (where grapes grow well), the south (Chilean Lake District) boasts dense rainforests, and the far south where we were these few days highlights continental ice-caps, fiords, and glaciers.

 

At about 11am we passed by the first of many Chilean glaciers and headed up on deck where the wind was blowing at 35 knots and the wind chill made the temperature 6°C.  All the glaciers are receding.  Once sailing past Devil’s Island, we passed the Hollande Glacier, Italia Glacier (the only glacier still touching the sea), Francia Glacier, the poorly visualized Allemagne Glacier, and finally the Romanche Glacier.  We didn’t find any of the glaciers that spectacular, especially when compared to Glacier Bay in Alaska (which is basically a sheet of glaciers everywhere and ice breaking away and falling into the water); however, the Romanche Glacier was interesting in that due to the effects of Global Warming, it has been melting at an alarming pace.  The amount of water rushing down as a waterfall from the glacier was indeed startling.

 

Hollande Glacier

Italia Glacier

The rapidly-melting Romanche Glacier

 

So unfortunately, we were not able to visit Ushuaia or Tierra del Fuego today, but we did see a few glaciers.  We will have to wait until we return on some future trip to do all these fun excursions – perhaps years from now we will come to Ushuaia to sail to Antarctica!

 

February 2, 2008

 

PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE – MORE PENGUINS AT A SOMEWHAT DISAPPOINTING PORT OF CALL

Punta Arenas, a city of 110,000 people, is located at the southern tip of the main South American continent and is Patagonia’s most important city.  Sheep ranching in the late 1800s brought wealth (in particular for two families – the Braun and Menéndez clans) initially, and this was followed by gold fever which brought immigrants from Europe (many of German and Yugoslavian descent).  Up until 1914 when the Panama Canal was completed, Punta Arenas was the most important refuelling and supplies outpost for ships passing from Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa.  In the days since the Panama Canal, Punta Arenas has reinvented itself with tourism.  It is also a major gateway for voyages to Antarctica and is the nearest city to the stunning Torres del Paine National Park, often called a “mini-Alaska.”

 

Today we awoke to lousy Vancouver-like weather.  Although the temperature was forecast to be a pleasant 15°C, it was overcast with misty showers all day.  At least it was not windy as it usually is in Punta Arenas (the locals have to put ropes around the main plaza in the summer to keep people from flying away!).  We had planned to see more penguins – this time only Magellanic Penguins – while in Punta Arenas.  About a 2 hours' ferry ride away from Punta Arenas is Isla Magdalena, home to a single colony of about 150,000 penguins.  While we haven’t been on an overpriced ship’s organized tour in nearly a decade, we had little choice other than to book through the ship for this excursion as the only ferry traveling to the Island during our stay was chartered by Princess Cruises.  We met at the Theater at 8am and then went with our group to the tenders to go to shore (it’s strange that a major shipping port like Punta Arenas doesn’t have a dock large enough to fit our ship, thus necessitating tendering).  Once on shore, we got onto our bus, at which point a Princess Tour Desk representative came on and told us that the ferry, which had been in dry dock last week, was still not up to par and therefore could not sail!  Our tour had been cancelled!  How infuriating!  As if they did not know that the ferry was inoperable before 4 busloads of people were ready to go?

 

Luckily, we had a Plan B to see penguins.  The other option in the region is a small 3,000 penguin colony (Seno Otway) about one hour’s drive from Punta Arenas.  We jumped off the bus and found a taxi to take us there, along with a city tour, for $140 (plus admission) – about half the price of the ship’s tour.  The drive to the penguin rookery was on a dangerous gravel road and we were surprised that the ship’s tour buses took the same route.  The place was a genuine disappointment, especially when considering how we got literally within an arm’s length to all 3 different types of penguins in the Falklands.  At Otway, everybody must walk along a marked wooden path for about 1,500m, and all the penguins are a significant distance away, are not particularly playful, and the experience was further ruined by the hordes of tour buses and tourists from the two cruise ships in port in Punta Arenas.  The Magellanic Penguins are also not as fun to photograph and watch compared to the Kings and Gentoos in the Falklands – they are smaller, are not colourful, and scamper into their underground burrows easily.

 

Seno Otway

Magellanic Penguins

A breeding pair

 

From Seno Otway, we headed back on the gravel road to Punta Arenas.  En route, we passed the Instituto de Patagonia/Museo del Recuerdo (The Patagonia Institute and Museum of Remembrances) which featured historical exhibits from the colonial days.  It looked something like Fort Langley so we decided not to stop.  Our taxi driver, Pedro, spoke very little English and we didn’t get much of a “tour” of the city.  Mind you, there really isn’t anything to see or learn about in Punta Arenas in any language, so perhaps it wasn’t his fault!  He took us to the highest point in the city to view the harbour and city below, and then we went to the Plaza Muñoz Gamero, the main square.  Here sits a bronze sculpture of Ferdinand Magellan which was donated by the region’s wealthiest former resident – José Menendez.  Magellan is surrounded in the sculpture by bronze figures of the area’s natives.  One of the natives has a particularly shiny right big toe.  The reason?  Local folklore says that if you kiss the toe, you’ll be lucky enough to visit Patagonia again.  Surrounding the Plaza are the usual Catedral as well as the 19th century homes of the extremely wealthy Braun, Nogueira, and Menéndez families (Palacio Sara Braun and Museo Regional Braun Menéndez).  Today their homes – preserved in their original state – are museums and national monuments in Chile.  No expense was spared to create these opulent dream homes of yesteryear – French architects designed the neoclassical belle-époque exteriors, and craftsman, tapestries, furniture, and fixtures were all brought in from Europe.

  

View of Punta Arenas from Cerro La Cruz

Magellan sculpture

The native with the shiny toe

Gloria laying a wet one on the toe

Palacio Sara Braun

From the balcony of Sara Braun's mansion

 

For lunch, we decided to try some of the local Chilean food and went to the restaurant Sotitos near the pier.  It's said that seafood is to Chile what beef is to Argentina!  This restaurant had the most worn-down exterior but was like fine dining inside.  It was packed with locals and tourists alike.  We tried some local specialties – centolla parmesana (king crab served with cream and parmesan cheese), calamares en su tinta (squid in ink juice), and sopa marisco (seafood soup).  For entrées we tried chupé de centolla (a king crab casserole made with bread crumbs, milk, cheese, and seafood) and also local congrio (conger eel). 

 

Centolla parmesana

Grilled conger eel

Chupé de centolla

 

After a very filling (and expensive) meal, we walked back to the Plaza to stroll around.  There were lots of department stores, pharmacies, groceries, and stores selling cold-weather clothing and gear, such as a North Face store.  There were lots of tourists as well as locals in town as it was Saturday.  We strolled around until 4pm then headed back to the ship.  Overall, it was a day of disappointment and we were glad that we had been one of the lucky few to have visited the Falkland Islands to see their penguins.

 

February 3-4, 2008

AT SEA – MOST INTERNATIONAL CRUISE WE’VE BEEN ON

During our cruises in the Caribbean, Mexico, Panama Canal, and even Australia/New Zealand and Europe, we always noticed a preponderance of American, Canadian, and British cruisers onboard.  While this was again true of this particular cruise, this was easily the most international bunch of passengers we have ever seen.  Important announcements were made both in English and in Spanish (including the Bingo numbers!) and we were more likely to hear Spanish or Portuguese spoken in the buffet line than English.  Some passengers complained that all the library books were in English, with none in Spanish.  Fortunately, many of the staff spoke multiple languages.  Of the 2,500 or so passengers on board, over one-quarter called South America home – in particular Argentina (198), Chile (190), and Brazil (152),  – plus there were significant groups from Mexico (72), Australia (37), and even from as far as Germany (43), Israel (34), Turkey (23) and Finland (20).  In the southern hemisphere, this is the summer holidays for the students, and this contributed to the number of Latin families on the ship.  In total, the passengers on board consisted of over 50 nationalities!

 

February 5, 2008

PUERTO MONTT, CHILE – THE CHILEAN LAKE DISTRICT

Puerto Montt, a port town of 180,000, was founded in 1853 by German immigrants.  It is the capital of the Chile’s Southern Lake District, which is the area south of the Biobío River to Puerto Montt.  This area, also called Forest Chile, features emerald forests, raging rapids, snow-capped volcanoes, and eight beautiful large lakes and scores of smaller ones nestled in rolling Andean foothills.  Rain is frequent in this area, much like in the Pacific Northwest.  It was once the home of the Mapuche First Nations group who intensely defended the land against the Incas and then later the Spanish, but eventually lost the battle.  Only in the mid-1880s did Chile manage to integrate the Lake District into the country.  At around the same time, many German-speaking settlers were enticed to come to the Lake District and the very typical German towns and houses in this area indeed led us to remember the Black Forest in Germany.  Interestingly, the German influence has not been limited to just architecture and city planning – German pastries have become so prevalent in Chile that the German word for cake (kuchen) has replaced the Spanish term for cake (pastel) in everyday use.  Everywhere on the roads were signs for kuchen and strudel!

 

Our ship was again tendering into port at Puerto Montt, although this was not advertised at the beginning of the cruise.  So once again we were up bright and early to grab our tender tickets to shore.  Once off the tender, we joined our private tour that we had booked online, along with about 40 others.  We left Puerto Montt and we were on our way on the highway to our first destination, the quaint German town of Frutillar.  This small and pretty town on the western shore of Lago Llanquihue (Lake Llanquihue; pronounced yahn-KEY-way), the second-largest lake in Chile and the fourth-largest in South America, is one of the Lake District’s most expensive towns (but a nice home here still only costs $100,000).  The lake itself stretches 60 kilometres across at its widest point and covers an area of 580 square kilometres, and being one of the first resort areas in southern Chile, the area around the lake is a well-developed tourist destination.  The town of Frutillar, with its immaculately maintained shingled homes, churches and inns, had lots of German-inspired architecture.  Nearly all the buildings in the area were constructed entirely of Alerce wood (similar in quality to the Californian Redwood tree) with characteristic wooden shingles.  Apparently, when the Germans settled the area, the Alerce forests were extremely dense, but so many forests have been cut down that the trees are now considered endangered.  On a clear day, one can see the Volcán Osorno (Osorno Volcano) from Lake Llanquihue in the background, but it was still early and a bit cloudy.  The still-active Osorno Volcano last erupted in 1850, is always snow-covered at its peak, and has nearly perfect symmetry.  For this reason, it’s often called the “Mount Fuji of South America.” 

 

Lake Llanquihue

Gazebo overlooking the lake

Frutillar Church

German Club in Frutillar

German handicrafts store

Puppenhaus = dollhouse in German

 

From Frutillar we traveled a short distance to a slightly larger German town – Puerto Varas, known as “The City of Roses.”  This town, with its rose gardens and rose-encircled plaza, has a population of 26,000 inhabitants and also has one of three casinos in Chile (another one is in Viña del Mar, where we will stay on February 7).  Unfortunately, this charming village was very crowded with tour buses from the ship, and the casino would not let anyone in.  We also only had 20 minutes here.  We left Puerto Varas and passed by a Chilean rodeo – a medialuna (literally translated “half-moon”; not to be confused with a croissant which is also called the same).  Unfortunately there were no Chilean cowboys – huasosin attendance (also not to be confused with a gaucho, who is the cowboy of Argentina and Uruguay).

 

Puerto Varas sidewalk

"The City of Roses"

Lake Llanquihue

 

From Puerto Varas, we drove around the eastern shore of Lake Llanquihue towards Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales.  Chile’s oldest park is named after the man who brought the Germans to settle.  It is the site of the impressive inky-green waters of Saltos de Petrohué (Petrohué Falls).  The river which feeds the falls runs over volcanic rock that has been sculpted over hundreds of years by the water.  This area was also extremely crowded with tourists as well, but the emerald green water reminiscent of Lake Louise was certainly worth a photograph.  This area is home to terrible biting flies called tábanos in January; however, fortunately they had all disappeared by the time we visited (but we had Deet wipes on hand just in case).

 

Field of llamas en route to Petrohué

Osorno Volcano

Petrohué Falls

Volcanic rock from eruption in 1850

Inky-green and blue water of Petrohué

Petrohué Falls and Osorno Volcano

 

We left Petrohué and headed to the nearby settlement of Ensenada, a tiny place at the base of the volcano just outside of the Park.  We had a typical Chilean lunch of hot fried bread (similar to Chinese donuts), salmon, and a berry dessert made of the local berry (la murta) for which Ensenada is famous.  Doug also tried the national drink of Chile – the Pisco Sour (also Peru’s national drink, but apparently their version is slightly different).  This drink is similar to a margarita and consists of white grape brandy, egg whites, lemon juice, and sugar.  A review from this non-drinker: for an alcoholic beverage, it wasn’t too nasty but probably quite flammable nonetheless.  It’s a good thing that neither of us are coffee drinkers, as apparently ordering coffee in Chile can be quite the adventure.  If you ask for “cafe” you will get hot water, to which you are supposed to add Nescafe instant coffee from the table.  If you ask for “coffee with milk” (cafe con leche) you will got hot milk, into which you are expected to spoon the Nescafe.  To get brewed coffee, one must ask for “cafe-cafe.”  Confused?

 

From Ensenada, we were driven back to Puerto Montt and then dropped off at Angelmó, a neighbourhood characterized by a large fish market and Feria Artesanal de Angelmó (a street market lined with stores selling alpaca knitwear, souvenirs, and wooden handicrafts).  It was way too hot (almost 30°C) for us to feel particularly inclined to visit the fish market, but from one of the vendors Gloria purchased an alpaca scarf made locally by hand (we think!).  We took a photograph with the llama outside the tender terminal before heading back to the ship.

 

Osorno Volcano and Lake Llanquihue

Feria Artesanal de Angelmó

Llama at the tender terminal

  

February 6, 2008

 

AT SEA HOW TO GET FREE STUFF ON BOARD

Veterans of cruising on Princess, we have learned many tricks to get free stuff on board.  The first is the Morning Show, which has daily trivia questions.  Since almost nobody watches this show, and those who do usually don’t bother answering the trivia questions using the forms provided in the library, it’s fairly easy to win the prizes.  We never know the correct answer but thankfully there is free Internet, Google, and Wikipedia!  On our honeymoon cruise we won two “Reflections – Cruise in Review” DVDs and actually had to give one away.  On this cruise, the prizes were fairly lousy – Princess luggage tags or lanyards.  We won a total of 4 prizes.  Nonetheless, free is free!  The casino also runs a raffle one day of the cruise.  To get raffle tickets, usually one only has to ask for one or pretend to be playing the slots.  The raffle draws three times each hour at 8:30pm, 9:30pm and 10:30pm with a choice (in sealed envelopes) of over $1,000 in onboard prizes.  The key is that one has to be present to win, and most people are too busy doing something else to be in the casino at the time.  We were the last raffle ticket number to be drawn, so didn’t have any choice of prizes, but the last envelope happened to be the Reflections DVD ($34.99 value).  The casino also has complimentary gaming lessons, usually at least twice on a longer cruise.  Not only is it educational to learn how to play craps for example, but at the end of the lesson each participant receives a $5 chip to try his/her hand at one of the table games.  With an easy game like blackjack, there is a fairly good chance at making $5, and if you lose, it was free to play anyway!

 

Today, we also participated in the ship’s “Amazing Race” against 6 other teams, all older than us.  We had to gather a total of 6 clues and complete one Roadblock before crossing the finish line.  We started at the Skywalkers Nightclub on deck 17 aft and had a hard time finding our first clue around the dance floor, and therefore we were second last out of the gate.  We deciphered our clue and ran to our next stop, the Cyber Golf simulator on deck 15 mid-ship.  We saw two other teams there, but there were still many clues remaining.  Our clue led us to the Captain’s Circle Desk on deck 7 forward but to our surprise the other team in front of us ran in the opposite direction (more on this later)We were told by the Captain’s Circle Host Jennifer that we were the first to get a clue from her desk!  Winded but competitive, we sprinted to our next stop, the Ceramics @ Sea station on deck 15 mid-ship, where we faced our Roadblock.  Gloria had 10 seconds to look in a box filled with 10 items and then correctly recall 6 items.  This was a piece of cake for her and so we got our next clue, which took us to the large checkerboard on deck 16 aft.  Nobody had gotten a clue from the checkerboard so we knew we were now in the lead.  Our final clue was located around the putting green on deck 16 mid-ship – Princess Links.  We grabbed it and rushed back to Skywalkers and finished first, in a time of just less than 20 minutes (a record!).  We won medals and a bottle of champagne.  The next team, a competitive couple from Phoenix, AZ, finished 10 minutes after us and were upset that they had a different, “slower” Roadblock (they went to Shooters Bar on deck 6 forward and then had to identify a Dior perfume in the gift store).  Since we had no use for the champagne, we just gave it to the 2nd place couple to enjoy.  They certainly tried hard enough apparently they had spent all morning scouting locations on the ship in an attempt to get the upper hand on the other teams!

 

February 7, 2008

VALPARAÍSO/VIÑA DEL MAR, CHILE – DISEMBARKING TO A FASCINATING WORLD HERITAGE CITY AND RESORT

Valparaíso, a major port in Chile, is sometimes called the penniless older brother of San Francisco, and with good reason.  The city was created on a flat downtown (el plano) surrounded by steep hills (cerros) on three sides and the ocean on the other.  As the city grew, there was really no option other than to build upwards onto the hills.  The minute we looked outside from the ship’s deck we could see this – a remarkably busy container port (Chile’s largest; made VanTerm look tiny), naval ships everywhere (Chile’s main naval base), and a fascinating city with multicoloured buildings and Victorian-style mansions clinging to the sheer cliffs, serviced by old ascensores (funiculars).  Once one of the wealthiest port towns in the 19th century and called "the pearl of the Pacific" by sailors, the opening of the Panama Canal was followed by significant decline and the city became increasingly run-down.  However, the city is experiencing a bit of a rebirth with tourism driving the creation of new boutique hotels and first-class restaurants, and its historical significance and character led to the city being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

 

We were called to disembark the ship at about 10am.  We proceeded to the very strict Chilean agricultural inspection, which meant standing single file in line with our bags at our feet for the sniffing dogs to investigate.  Chile, especially the fertile central region, is particularly dependent on export of produce and wine, and they make it very clear (with threats of a $500 fine and possible detention) that no unpackaged food, soil, animal or plant material are to be brought onto land from the ship.  We got some maps and information from the cheerful representatives at the Tourist Information booth (who spoke English very well) inside the terminal, then grabbed our luggage and walked outside to the train station.  The Metrotren (known to the locals as the “Merval”), is the local train/subway that opened in 2005.  We took the Merval to the station closest to our hotel, and then walked up a steep incline in the heat to our hotel, the beautiful Sheraton Miramar Hotel & Convention Center.  Our room was not yet ready so we received vouchers for two complimentary drinks at the bar (Pisco Sours again, so we didn’t bother).  We left our luggage in storage and then headed back to the Merval station.  En route, we had a great view of Valparaíso and the docked Star Princess from the beach adjacent to the hotel – Playa Caleta Abarca – and then we visited the other nearby attraction, the Reloj de Flores (flower clock; Swiss-made, but apparently always undergoing “maintenance” and never displaying the correct time!).  At the station, we paid our fare to go to the final station, Estácion Puerto in Valparaíso.  After going through the turnstiles, we watched as a middle-aged woman lost her footing on the steps and fell face-forward onto the stairs, slid down a few steps, and then lost consciousness.  The station’s personnel quickly ran to her attention and she regained consciousness without any obvious serious injuries, but it was a very disconcerting sight nonetheless.  We’re not sure what it is with our luck, but just last year we saw a Korean man face down in a pool of his own blood on the steps of the subway in Seoul!

 

Playa Caleta Abarca (Valparaíso behind)

Reloj de Flores (and lots of tourists)

Notice the time? It was actually 11:37!

 

We arrived at Estácion Puerto, which is the stop for the old part of Valparaíso.  We walked outside and we were at the Muelle Prat (Prat Pier) where the Star Princes was docked.  Apparently, the port has changed little in over a century.  Across from the port is Plaza Sotomayer, where a large monument sits – Monumento a los Héroes de Iquique (Monument to the Heroes of Iquique) the base of which was brought from Rigoleto, Italy.  In the 1879 War of the Pacific, Chile was led by three national heroes – Prat, Condell, and Serrano – to defeat a Peru-Bolivia alliance and capture the mineral-rich north and extending Chile’s size by nearly one-third.  It also made Bolivia a landlocked country (more on this later in Lake Titicaca).  We visited the small free museum underneath the Plaza, which displayed artifacts such as anchors, ballast, and cannons.  These remnants from shipwrecks were discovered when land was being excavated to build a parkade near the Plaza.  Across the street from the Monument was an enormous building, the Naval Command Headquarters, which was once the summer residence for Chilean presidents.  We walked just behind the Plaza past the Palacio de Justicia, and got on our first funicular – Ascensor Peral – which was built in 1902.  All of the funiculars in Valparaíso have been dedicated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

 

Plaza Sotomayer/Naval Building

Monumento

Ascensor Peral (constructed 1902)

 

The short ride took us up to the top of Cerro Alegre, where we found ourselves in front of Palacio Baburizza.  This Art Nouveau palace built in 1916 now houses Valparaíso’s Fine Arts Museum, but it was closed for renovations.  The palace sits on Paseo Yugoslavo, a terraced walkway named after nitrate baron Pascual Baburizza’s heritage and this entire area had stunning views out into the ocean.  We followed a number of narrow, winding alleyways and up stairs to Paseo Gervasoni, another gorgeous walkway with stunning views at the top of Cerro Concepcíon. 

 

Valparaíso as seen from Cerro Alegre

Palacio Baburizza

Viña del Mar in the distance

 

At Cerro Concepcíon lies a stately Victorian mansion, now a museum, dedicated to a local cartoonist and satirist and adjacent to that our stop for lunch – Café Turri.  On the top floor of this French-Chilean restaurant with its stunning view of the ocean and beaches, we enjoyed locos (Chilean abalone), machas (Chilean clams) au gratin (like Arctic surf clams), and a very tasty seafood stew which featured reineta (a local white fish which looked like a pomfret and had nice texture like sea bass), Chilean clams, scallops, mussels, and shrimp.

 

Locos con mayonesa

Machas à la parmesana

Sopa de mariscos

 

After lunch, we went down the city’s oldest funicular – Ascensor Concepcíon.  This rickety funicular was built in 1882 and originally was steam-powered.  It took us back to the waterfront where we walked along Calle Errázuriz back to the Merval station.  En route, a huge bag of construction material came crashing down from the 3rd floor of a building undergoing construction, landing about 3 feet from our heads!  Boy, was that a close call!  If we had walked just two steps faster it would have landed directly on us and crushed us (the bag basically exploded on impact)!  After recovering from our near-death experience, we took the Merval back to Viña del Mar one stop past our hotel into the downtown core.

 

Founded in 1874 as a weekend retreat and garden residence for the wealthy elite from Santiago and Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, or just Viña to the locals, is today a stunning oceanfront beachfront resort – Chile’s largest.  The area by the ocean struck us as just as beautiful as the best beachside resorts in Hawaii, California, Florida, or the French Riviera.  The lovely palm-tree lined boulevards, hanging flower baskets, manicured lawns, white sandy beaches, modern shopping centres, and clean boulevards made us want to come back some day for a sunny vacation.  And indeed, this is where the wealthier locals from inland Santiago come during their summer holidays to vacation.  Only 8km from the graffiti-filled walls and ramshackle streets of Valparaíso, this city of Viña and its neighbouring beachfront areas of Reñaca and Concón provide a staggering contrast.

 

We got off the Merval right in the heart of downtown.  To our left was the Parque Quinta Vergara and Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores (a parish church), and to the right the pretty Plaza José Francisco Vergara, where there were a number of horse-drawn carriages (and people asking us if we wanted to ride) and a nice fountain.  We walked through the Plaza and onto the bridge Puenta Libertad, underneath which there was no water.  In the summertime, the waterways dry up and the land is used for large tents (like at the PNE) and parking, of all things.  A few blocks from the bridge was the Feria Internacional de Artesania Viña del Mar, a temporary arts and crafts market running for only a month.  We took a quick stroll around until we reached the Palacio Carrasco (which now houses the cultural centre and public library) and behind it the Museo de Arqueología e Historia Francisco Fonk.  Busloads of people were here for the main attraction – one of only six Moai sculptures from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) found outside of the island (the others are in England, the U.S., Paris, Brussels, and La Serena in Chile).  Easter Island, the world's most isolated inhabited island, was settled in the 4th century by Polynesians who built these enormous stone structures probably between 1100 and 1600.  The island was discovered in 1722 by Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday (hence the name).  We didn’t have time to tour the museum but inside apparently houses the most complete collection (1,400 pieces) of Easter Island indigenous art and archaeological artifacts which is much better than the museum on Easter Island itself.  From the Fonk Museum, we walked back along Avenida Libertad past the Teatro Municipal to the Merval station and returned to our hotel to freshen up.

 

Horse-drawn carriages - Plaza Vergara

Moai sculpture

Teatro Municipal

 

At 5pm, we took the complimentary shuttle from the hotel to the city's shopping centre, Marina Arauco.  The mall had a LAN office with kiosks so we checked in for our flight the next day.  We then walked towards the beach, past the Plaza O'Higgins and a few blocks later we were at Playa Acapulco.  This beach was completely packed from one end to the other, with more people than we’ve ever seen on a beach!  Nearby, in front of the Muelle Vergara (Vergara Pier) were stands selling handicrafts and jewellery where Gloria looked for a pin, but could not find any.  We walked northwards along the beach and soon were at another pretty beach – Playa El Sol.  We turned back towards the mall and soon found ourselves in front of a temporary fruit stand.  Here we each had two pieces of super-sweet and juicy pineapple, and the owner of the fruit stand kept talking to us in Spanish and we just kept on nodding despite having no clue what he was saying!  We walked back into the mall where we looked for something to eat and a drink.  The information desk gave us a map of the mall and inside was a coupon for 2-for-1 Smoothies at Dunkin’ Donuts, of all places.  We enjoyed our 50% off Smoothies and then grabbed a German-inspired sandwich at Fritz before hopping back on the shuttle to the hotel.

 

Pretty palm-tree lined boulevard

Gorgeous Playa El Sol in Viña

German sandwich at Fritz

 

February 8, 2008

 

SANTIAGO, CHILE – THE OLD CITY, SEAFOOD AT THE MERCADO, AND SAN CRISTOBAL

The day started off cloudy which was a relief, since we had to take our luggage from our hotel to the bus station.  We walked to the Miramar Merval station and took it one stop to the Viña Station, then walked about 6 blocks to the bus station.  We spotted the office of Tur-Bus, one of the reputable bus companies, and purchased two tickets for the 10:30am trip (they run buses every 15 minutes to Santiago).  Soon we were on the 90-minute journey to Santiago, en route passing Chile’s wine country, which looked much like Napa and Sonoma in California.

 

Santiago, the capital of Chile, is easily the largest city in the country with over one-third of its inhabitants (population 4.7 million).  It’s also the cultural, civic, and historical center of the country.  That said, it’s not particularly popular with tourists who use it primarily as an international hub to go to other locales in Chile. 

 

We got off the bus at the Parajitos Metro station and then hopped onto the Metro towards the Tobalaba Station, close to our hotel located in the World Trade Center.  Once at the station, a very nice lady directed us to the escalators to the street level (Santiago’s Metro is not wheelchair-accessible and carrying our luggage up three flights of stairs would have been a daunting task) and then she even pointed us towards our hotel.  We checked in (they gave us yet another free Pisco Sour welcome drink) and then headed back out on the Metro towards the center of the old city.  Once out of the Metro station, we were at the bustling pedestrianized Paseo Ahumada (very similar to Calle Florida in Buenos Aires).  Soon we found ourselves at the Plaza de Armas, the main square.  This plaza was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia, who conquered Chile for the Spanish Crown.  One of the grandest squares we’ve seen, it is surrounded by a number of towering buildings: Catedral Metropolitana and Museo de Arte Sagrado (Metropolitan Cathedral and Museum of Sacred Art), Correo Central and Museo Postal (Central Post Office; formerly the colonial Governor’s Palace and post-independence Presidential Palace), and Palacio de la Real Audiencia/Museo Histórico Nacional (the Natural History Museum which is housed in the former Royal Court of Justice).

 

Chilean wine country en route to Santiago

Palacio de la Real Audiencia

Catedral Metropolitano at Plaza de Armas

  

From the Plaza de Armas we walked a short distance until we reached Mercado Central, a fish market which has turned into a tourist mecca for eating seafood (we ran into more than a few people from the cruise here).  We ate a late lunch at Donde Augusto.  We started with baby eel with garlic and chillies, then ate the traditional Chilean dish pastel de choclo (a casserole of chicken, ground beef, and onions mixed with corn) and grilled reineta (the local white fish we had yesterday in Valparaíso). 

 

Mercado Central

Catch of the day

Conger eel and reineta

Enjoying our meal at Donde Augusto

Baby eel with ginger and chilli pepper

Pastel de choclo

 

After enjoying our meal, we strolled through the local markets selling produce and meats and soon found ourselves in the Recoleta neighbourhood.  In Santiago, just like in Hong Kong, stores selling certain goods are congregated into neighbourhoods and Recoleta is the women’s clothing neighbourhood.  Past Recoleta is the bohemian barrio of Bellavista, famous for its artists and nightlife.  We made a brief stop at La Chascona, one of three homes once owned by Chile’s most famous and Nobel Prize-winning writer, Pablo Neruda.  Just one block away is the entrance to the Parque Metropolitano, also known as Cerro San Cristobal.  Here, we climbed onto the 1925 funicular that took us to the top of the hill for views of Santiago and the Andes (partially covered by clouds and smog).  At the lookout point is also a statue of the Virgin Mary – Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcíon, and we enjoyed a cool Chilean drink – mote con huesillo (an untasty sweet concoction of corn and rehydrated peaches).  We headed to the teleférico (cable car) to take us back into the city and grabbed some frozen fruit bars en route, since we knew that the enclosed cable car could be like an oven in the summertime!  The cable car made one intermediate stop where we were asked something in Spanish, then told to get off.  We looked around and found that we were in the middle of nowhere and not even close to our final destination.  We soon realized that we had been asked to present our tickets for continuation of our journey.  Once having produced our tickets for the onward journey, we were back on the cable car whose termination was close to our hotel.  From the cable car station, we walked about 15 minutes back to our hotel through a very nice residential area.

 

La Chascona

Pablo Neruda's signature windows

Mote con huesillo

View from San Cristobal

Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcíon

Descending the teleférico

 

At the hotel, we asked the concierge, an ex-resident of Montreal who spoke English perfectly, about transportation to the airport the following morning.  He said that the “only” way to go was by “taxi” (he meant the hotel’s private car), and it would cost 24,000 Chilean pesos (about $50), charged to the room.  Something sounded fishy so we went online to check the scoop, and found that we could book shuttle service for $20 or our own car for just $35 through TransVip, a reputable airport shuttle service.  Taxis were even cheaper but a bit riskier since we were on a tight time schedule.  We got the receptionist, who didn’t have such a vested interest in ripping us off, to call the shuttle company and make a reservation.  It’s terrible when you’re being lied to by a fellow Canadian!

  

February 9, 2008

LIMA, PERÚ – A GLARING CONTRAST OF WEALTH AND POVERTY

Up at 6am, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and then went to the SCL airport for our flight to Lima.  En route, we had the opportunity to try the local soda – Inca Kola.  It’s a fluorescent yellow (think highlighter) carbonated beverage that tastes like Bubbalicious.  Pretty awful stuff we thought, but the locals here love it and Perú is probably the only place where Coca-Cola or Pepsi are not the dominant soda!  We arrived into Lima’s Jorge Chavéz Airport at about noon.  This is as far as most tourists to Perú get into Lima, as almost everybody only transits through the airport en route to someplace nicer such as Cusco, Lake Titicaca, or Arequipa.  Once out of the secure area, we were accosted by people shouting “taxi!”  It seems that everybody and their little brother drives a taxi in Lima – it’s completely unregulated, and any Average Joe can buy a “Taxi” sticker and plunk it on their car (in any condition) and call themselves a taxi.  It has been estimated that one-seventh of all vehicles on the road in Lima are “taxis.”  None of the taxis have meters, and prices are set by the open market.  A ride from the airport can cost as little as $10 (I wouldn’t recommend these vehicles) or as much as $40 depending on whom you ask, and negotiation is essential.  More importantly though are safety concerns.  In the past, some unregistered taxi drivers have been associated with violent crime, such as sexual assault, kidnapping, or driving a passenger to an ATM machine to empty his/her account.  For this reason and also because we were on a tight time schedule, we booked a transfer ahead of time for $30.

 

Lima, the capital of Perú, was once the wealthiest capital in South America and the most important Spanish colonial settlement.  The city was founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro (who killed the Incas’ emperor) and became the Spanish Crown’s “City of Kings” in a colonial vice regency that extended from present-day Ecuador to Chile.  Lima also served as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition for two centuries from 1569.  By 1551, Lima was home to some of the finest cathedrals, palaces, homes and even South America’s first University.  However, silver was later discovered in Argentina and the Spanish quickly created a rival vice regency in Río de la Plata and Lima fell into decline.  A large earthquake in 1746 further decimated the city and left few buildings intact. 

 

Today, Lima is the world’s largest desert city and a sprawling metropolis with over 8 million inhabitants, many of whom are poor migrants from rural Perú.  The city’s population tripled from 1919 to 1939, and the lack of affordable housing led to the creation of pueblos jovenes (current day shantytowns), many of which still lack water, electricity, and adequate sanitation.  The number of rural poor has led to a persistent problem with crime, both violent and petty, and even local Perúvians are wary of walking around their capital city.  In stark contrast to the blistering poverty, over 70% of the hotels are located by the ocean, which is fronted not by beaches (the water is not generally warm enough in which to swim), but rather steep cliffs.  These exclusive areas – Miraflores and the ultraposh San Isidro – with their European homes, embassies, and posh oceanfront shopping malls feel like West Vancouver more than any place in a developing country. 

 

We dropped off our bags at the hotel and had a quick lunch of instant noodles before being picked up for our tour of the city.  In Miraflores, we first drove by Huaca Pucllana, an adobe pyramid that dates to 500 A.D. which is similar to ones found in northern Perú.  From Miraflores, we passed by many stately mansions and embassies in San Isidro before entering Lima Centro, the colonial part of the city.  We soon encountered many grand buildings and stopped at Plaza San Martín, where we had a brief 15-minute stop.  At the center of the Plaza is an equestrian statue of the South American liberator, José de San Martín.  The colonial buildings on either side of the statue are mirror images of each other, and across from the square is the Hotel Bolívar, which is rumoured to be the birthplace of the beloved national drink, the Pisco Sour.  Interestingly, there is also a KFC in the square but the logo is in a gold colour.  Our guide told us that when UNESCO made the Centro a World Heritage Site, the Perúvian government made public buses and colourful signs illegal in the area.  It also beefed up security and everywhere we went there were tourist police shooing away the little kids trying to sell souvenirs to tourists.

 

Plaza San Martín

The viewpoint from Hotel Bolívar

Equestrian statue of José de San Martín

 

Our next stop was the Plaza de Armas, also known as Plaza Mayor.  Typical of a colonial square, it has the Catedral Metropolitano de Lima on one side (with the remains of Francisco Pizarro – he was assassinated in the Plaza) adjacent to which is the Palacio Episcopal (Archbishop’s Palace), the Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace), and Municipalidad de Lima (City Hall).   Nearly everything in the Plaza had been rebuilt following earthquakes and fires, with the oldest remaining structure being the bronze fountain in the center of the Plaza, which dates back to 1651.  This could be clearly seen in the center of the cathedral, where there was a mixture of old and new building materials.  Every year on the 2nd or 3rd of February, Perú celebrates Pisco Sour Day, where pisco (brandy) runs freely from the fountain and thousands of people line up for it. 

 

Catedral Metropolitano de Lima

Palacio Episcopal

Moorish balcony

Palacio del Gobierno

Municipalidad de Lima

Pisco Sour fountain in February

 

From the Plaza we walked a short distance to the Convento y Museo de San Francisco (Convent and Museum of St. Francis), one of the few buildings that survived the earthquake of 1746.  On the facade were thousands of pigeons that almost looked like part of the baroque church’s exterior.  The walls of the cloisters inside are lined with Moorish azulejos (glazed ceramic tiles) made in Seville with religious paintings and Moorish wooden ceilings above them.  When the paintings were removed for restoration, the Franciscan monks discovered that behind the paintings were frescoes.  However, most of the faces on the frescoes had been intentionally removed, and then covered by the paintings.  The highlight of the Convent was the catacombs underground.  They were initially dug in 1546 as a burial ground for priests and others, but soon the catacombs became full.  The bodies, only partially decomposed, were disinterred and moved to another room where the process was accelerated by acidic citrus juice.  Archaeologists estimate (by counting femurs) that there were 75,000 bodies buried in the catacombs!

 

Our tour took us back to Miraflores where we stopped at Parque del Amor (Love Park), which looked a bit like Barcelona’s Parque Guell and featured an enormous statue of a couple making out.  Every Valentine’s Day, the park features a kissing competition, and it claims to have the World Record for the longest kiss, lasting over an hour!  We got off at the nearby Centro Comercial Larcomar (Larcomar Shopping Center), which was built below the street level in a series of creative staggered terraces, such that every level was blessed with an ocean view.  This beautiful mall featured restaurants, an arcade, food court, and upscale shops, but what we were really looking for was the Chinese restaurant!  Lima is home to over 200,000 Chinese, the largest Chinese population in South America.  Its Chinatown in Lima Centro features many restaurants and a market, and the community even has two daily Chinese-language newspapers.  We had a delicious (and much-needed after three weeks away from home) Chinese dinner complete with Chinese tea (real tea leaves!) at Pak Lok (formerly Salon Capon) at Larcomar, one of its four Lima locations.  How nice it was to have rice, Chinese vegetables, and spicy deep-fried calamari!  After dinner we took an official taxi back to our hotel and quickly went to bed.

 

Convento de San Francisco

Moorish-style entrance

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Larcomar

 

February 10, 2008

 

CUSCO, PERÚ – OR AT LEAST WE THOUGHT... A DISASTROUS DAY INSTEAD

All the travel guidebooks suggest booking an early morning flight to Cusco since the clouds and fog roll in after about noon and planes often have trouble landing due to visibility, especially during rainy season (this time of year).  So instead of booking one of the two flights departing at around 9am, we decided to book the second earliest flight (6:10am) from Lima.

 

The day started out poorly – the hotel was supposed to give us a wake-up call at 3:30am but it never came!  Luckily, Gloria’s internal clock woke her up at 4am and we hurriedly assembled our bags and checked out.  The hotel shuttle took us to the airport in under 30 minutes and soon we had checked in and were on our on-time flight to Cusco uneventfully.  However, at 7:30am, the flight had still not landed as scheduled (it’s only a 1-hour flight to Cusco from Lima) and the plane was circling.  The captain announced that there was dense fog at the airport and we were waiting for clearance from the airport to land.  After some more circling, the plane started ascending and we knew we were in trouble.  The flight attendant announced that we were unable to land and we would be heading back to Lima.

 

We arrived in Lima and there was no information from LAN at all.  Apparently the first flight of the day was also unable to land, and they had a 40-minute head start on us in getting the remaining seats for the day.  We got in one line, and then were told to get into another.  I say “line” very generously, as most people in South America do not believe in lining up, especially when fighting for limited seats.  Everybody was yelling in Spanish and fortunately, a girl from Toronto who was born in Colombia helped us translate.  We were told that there were representatives in the baggage claim area (they weren’t there when we claimed our bags!) who would rebook us on our flights.  We walked back into the baggage claim area and Gloria got in the line-up for the representatives while I got the fellow at the Tourist Information booth (iPerú) to call LAN Reservations in an attempt to secure tickets for a flight later in the day with no luck.  The LAN agents were rebooking passengers in a completely haphazard fashionMost people at the start of the line got flights for the next day after 9am, but Gloria somehow got assigned the 5:30am flight.  Both the people in front of her and after her in line got later flights as well.  We didn’t understand how the flights were being assigned nor did we really care!

 

We re-exited the baggage claim area and got into yet another line-up to ask about a standby list for the remaining flights (by this time there were only 2 more flights going to Cusco, as they stop flying there by about noon).  People were yelling, shouting, pushing, budging in line, and waving their boarding passes at the ticket agents.  We were initially told that there was no standby list, then found out that there was one, but it already had 10 passengers on it, including a family of 3 who needed to be in Cusco to attend a funeral (or so they claimed).  One group of Brits had flown to Cusco the day before and were unable to land, and then tried again today with the same result!  One group of North Americans paid to change their flights to land in Arequipa where they were to take the 13-hour overnight bus to Cusco (to arrive at 7am the next day)!  Everybody was frustrated and LAN offered nothing.

 

In the end, we were not able to get on any flights for the day.  In retrospect, we should have tried to book tickets on another airline instead of putting our faith in LAN (tickets on Aerocondor Peru, for example, only cost about $100 per person).  We had the additional problem now of our $153/night Casa Andina hotel in Cusco, which was well past the cancellation deadline, plus the problem of where to sleep the night in Lima.  We were already tired from getting up so early, and the prospect of spending the night at the airport was certainly unappealing.  We contacted the Casa Andina Hotels chain and we were told that we would not be assessed a cancellation fee in Cusco if we were to stay with them in Lima for the night.  Of their three hotels in Lima, only their best – the Casa Andina Private Collection Miraflores – was available for the night at $230/night.  So this mishap ended costing us a bit over $120 and a day in Cusco to acclimatize, but at least the hotel for the night was gorgeous.  We grabbed a quick lunch at the airport and then took a taxi to the hotel, where we got refreshed and slept away.

 

February 11, 2008

 

CUSCO, PERÚ – THE SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS 

Our wake-up call did actually come today at 3am, and groggily we checked out of the hotel and our taxi driver from the day before, Alejandro, was waiting for us.  Our flight departed on time at 5:30am, and it actually had 12 empty seats!  Unbelievable!  We felt badly for those who had been assigned a later flight and had clamoured, to no avail, to get onto an earlier flight.  The flight touched down just before 7am to cabin-wide applause.  We grabbed our luggage and checked into the hotel, then went to the PerúRail office located in the Hotel Monasterio.  Our hotel had told us that we would be able to pay for our pre-reserved train tickets for Machu Picchu at this office.

 

The only way to Machu Picchu is via a privately owned and operated train run by the British company Orient Express, and like taxi drivers in Lima, they tend to charge whatever the market will bear.  Each year the price of train tickets has risen dramatically, and especially so in 2008 with the naming of Machu Picchu as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  For a company that charges so darned much, they have the world’s most primitive ticket ordering system.  One has to submit a request by email to their office and they take 2 days to reply.  Then one is told to pay (only in cash – US dollars or Perúvian soles) at their out-of-the-way office at the train station, which is not even the station of the train to Machu Picchu!  When we arrived at the Hotel Monasterio office, there was nobody at the desk and we were told that the representative had gone to the main office at the train station and would return in an hour.

 

Therefore, we walked to the Plaza de Armas to find the Tourist Information Office for a recommendation about a tour operator for a guided tour of El Valle Sagrado de los Incas (The Sacred Valley of the Incas).  We were referred to local agency Cusco Latin Treks, operated by a very nice (and English-speaking) lady named Elizabeth.  It was already 10am and the regular 8-hour bus tours ($20 each) were leaving for the Sacred Valley.  However, we had not purchased our train tickets yet and the train office closed at 5:30pm, before the bus would return to Cusco.  As a result, we were not able to go on the bus tours as we absolutely had to pay for our train tickets immediately or risk forfeiting them (one cannot purchase them on the day of travel).  Therefore, we took a cab to the Huanchaq train station, lined up to pay for our tickets, and then took a cab back to the Plaza de Armas. 

 

At the Plaza de Armas, we tried to hail a taxi and driver to take us to the Sacred Valley, but nobody spoke English!  Therefore, we returned to the travel agency where Elizabeth arranged a driver and guide to the Sacred Valley for us.  She also organized transfers and a guide for Machu Picchu for the 12th.  Since we were getting quite hungry by now, she directed us to the small restaurant down the block where we grabbed a quick lunch.  After grabbing our food para llevar (to go – this was the first time in 4 weeks in Latin America we used the correct term!), we met our excellent guide, Carlos, who would take us to the Sacred Valley.

 

The Quechua-speaking Inca civilization began as a tribe in the Cusco area, where the first Inca (chieftan) Manco Cápac founded the Kingdom of Cusco around 1200 A.D.  The Incas expanded considerably in the 1400s under great military leader Inca Pachacútec and absorbed other communities nearby to become the Inca Empire, the largest in pre-Columbian America.  The Empire would, at its height, extend from present day Colombia and Ecuador in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south and include all of Peru and Bolivia.  Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro travelled south from Panama and reached the northern edge of the Inca empire in Ecuador by 1526.  Pizarro travelled to Spain to obtain funds to conquer the Incas in order to obtain their treasures for the Spanish Crown.  By this time, the great Inca Empire had lasted barely a century and was already beginning to weaken due to internal strife between the 11th Inca leader's two sons Huáscar and Atahualpa which resulted in a disastrous civil war.  Atahualpa eventually defeated his brother but was later captured and executed by Pizarro, which led to the ultimate downfall of the Incas.  The Spanish installed a figurehead Inca to power who eventually did fight back against the Spaniards somewhat successfully, but in the end retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba and subsequently he too was defeated by the Spanish.

  

Our tour started from the city up a windy road past the closest ruins to Cusco Sacsayhuamán (pronounced almost like "sexy woman" in English).  Unfortunately, due to our lost day of the cancelled flight, we were unable to visit these ruins.  Our first stop was therefore a lookout onto the Urubamba River Valley.  The flow of the river was believed by the Incas to be tied to the stars and an earthbound counterpart to the Milky Way.  It also provides, even today, the water required to grow potatoes, corn, and other crops on the terraced slopes. 

 

We continued on to Pisac, a large fortress complex built by the Incas perched on a cliff at 3,400m above sea level.  We later discovered that the usual bus tours often skip the Pisac ruins altogether, which would have been such a shame.  They are said to be one of the finest and largest ruins in the entire Sacred Valley.  Gloria got out of the car, took one look at the terraced slopes and a combination of a fear of heights, altitude sickness and/or motion sickness got the best of her and she turned ashen, felt her knees wobble, and nearly passed out.  She took a seat and recovered slightly and therefore we got an abbreviated tour of the ruins instead of walking all around it.  Briefly, we saw the fortified section at the top called the Quorihuayrachina, the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun; an astronomical observatory), and the Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon; a ritual bathing complex).  We learned that all the Inca construction was done with angulated locking stones, with no mortar the Incas were some of the world's best stonemasons!  Along one side of the mountain we could see small holes which we were told was an Inca burial site whose graves had been ransacked.  It's not really clear for what the Incas used Pisac – city, place of worship, or perhaps military base – but nonetheless the place was fascinating! 

 

Plaza de Armas Cusco

Urubamba River Valley

Fear of heights?  Apparently not the Incas

The terraced slopes for agriculture

Quorihuayrachina

Templo de la Luna

 

From the ruins, we made a brief stop at the Pisac market, a functioning food and handicraft market used by locals and now frequented by tourists, which was quiet but is usually bustling on the market days of Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (we visited on a Monday).  Especially on Sundays, villagers from miles around pack up their llamas and donkeys in the wee hours of the morning to get to the market in time to set up stalls and sell vegetables and other produce to each other, often in barter for other goods rather than cash, a tradition that has lasted centuries.

 

The next stop on our tour was Ollantaytambo, a tongue-twister of a place, 2,800m above sea level, that houses extremely impressive and massive terraced ruins of a temple-fortress.  It is thought that the Ollantaytambo ruins were a temple for worship and astronomical observation.  The site is also frequently said to be one of the Inca's most outstanding architectural achievements.  From the base, we very slowly climbed about 200 steps to the top (yes, it took a long time and we were really short of breath by the end).  We found ourselves at a typical Inca trapezoidal doorjamb that marks the entrance to the Templo del Sol.  On the next level sit enormous granite blocks – building materials for rooms that were never completed.  Six of these are stacked upright side by side impressively, with faint Inca markings etched into the stone.  The quarry for these rocks is located 4km away across the river!  Can you imagine how the Incas managed to get those granite blocks up to the top without wheels?  We could barely drag ourselves up!  We spent quite a bit of time at these ruins, just enjoying the pleasant view before the busloads of people started arriving.  We had left Cusco much later than the buses, but we didn't bother stopping for lunch and so we actually beat them to Ollantaytambo!  Gloria was feeling fine now, so perhaps it wasn't altitude sickness that had her feeling so unwell at Pisac (we were still at 2,800m).  We descended the terraces and at the bottom was the Baños de la Ñusta (Princess Baths), a place of ceremonial bathing where the water still runs.

  

Temple ruins of Ollantaytambo

Inca face carved into the mountainside

We were pretty short of breath by now

Doorjamb marking entry to the temple

Enormous granite blocks

Baños de la Ñusta

 

After a quick bathroom break we were off again to Chinchero, at a height of 3,800m above sea level.  We passed by many agricultural lands growing potatoes and corn as well as glaciers en route.  Far removed from the Urubamba River, Chinchero technically doesn't qualify as being part of the Sacred Valley, but is included on most tours to the area.  It too has a bustling Sunday market like Pisac.  Once a large Inca city, it is now home to 15,000 mainly rural residents coming from over a dozen indigenous communities.  The main plaza features an Inca wall with ten trapezoidal niches.  It's thought that Chinchero was used by Inca Cápac Yupanqui as some sort of country resort.  As we explored, the rain arrived as well, so we didn't spend too long at the ruins but did spend some time hiding in a nearby shop until the rain died down!

 

Inca wall with trapezoidal niches

Terraced over 500 years ago

The Inca addressed his citizens here

 

Chinchero was the last stop on our tour before our return to Cusco.  We had a wonderful time exploring the Inca ruins of the Sacred Valley, but what really made it fun was interacting with some of the locals who have carried on the same traditions as their ancestors from centuries ago.  Here are some of the people we met:

 

Little girl with her younger sister

These girls knew the capital of Canada!

This lady sold refreshing cactus fruit

 

For dinner, our guide took us to eat some of the local delicacies at our request.  He took us up to the top of the hill overlooking Cusco to the Cuyeria Restaurant Sol Moqueguano.  The first local dish was a tasty rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers with meat, peanuts, and raisins) accompanied by local potatoes (apparently Peru has over 3,000 varieties of potatoes and all potatoes came from a progenitor in Peru 7,000 years ago!).  The second takes a bit of explaining – we ate fried cuy (guinea pig).  Despite its name, guinea pigs are not pigs nor do they come from Guinea.  They are actually rodents that are native to the Andes and have been used as sources of protein for over 7 millennia, and continue to be a major part of the diet.  Perúvians consume over 65 million guinea pigs annually!  For many indigenous people of the region, they play important roles in the folk culture as well.  They are used in traditional medicine and in ceremonies, as well as exchanged as gifts!  Most households in the area raise guinea pigs off the family's vegetable scraps, and then they later become the family's dinner.  As small animals that require little food, they are a profitable source of food and supplementary income for many families.  Cuyes are always eaten with the hands no matter how they are cooked – baked, fried, etc – but never with a knife and fork.  The meat was similar to dark chicken meat or rabbit and apparently it is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol.

 

Fragrant and slightly spicy green sauce

Cuy, rocoto relleno, and local potatoes

Guinea pigs for everybody!

Confirmed real guinea pig

Good thing the restaurant was dimly lit

The leftovers went to our guide's dog

 

February 12, 2008

 

CUSCO, PERÚ – MACHU PICCHU

We were up bright and early again to catch our taxi transfer to the train station for the ride to Machu Picchu.  The ride started in Cusco and through a series of zigzagging switchbacks, the train made it up a very steep hill.  The route follows the Urubamba River to the small town of Aguas Calientes, which is also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.  Aguas Calientes is 6km away from Machu Picchu and is home to many backpackers who take the morning bus to Machu Picchu before the train arrives, giving more time at the historic site.  En route we tried some of the local corn on the cob, which had huge kernels but tasted like freeze-dried potatoes!

 

Once off the train, we followed our guide, Cosmos, through the tourist marketplace to a nearby restaurant and everybody got organized with bus tickets and admission tickets to Machu Picchu.  We took the bus up a very steep and narrow roadway to the entrance and then got separated into English- and Spanish-speaking groups.

 

Machu Picchu was built around the year 1450 at the height of the Inca Empire but was abandoned less than 100 years later, at the time of the Spanish conquest.  The place is still shrouded in mystery, as its original name and purpose are still unknown.  Its current name, machu picchu (Quechua for “old peak”), actually refers to the mountain behind the ruins.  Unlike the other significant Inca establishments we saw yesterday in the Sacred Valley, the Spaniards never found and looted Machu Picchu.  It was forgotten for centuries until 1911 when an American historian from Yale University, Hiram Bingham, aided by the (uncredited) local farmers rediscovered the site which was then covered by jungle overgrowth and teeming with poisonous snakes.  He thought he had discovered “The Lost City of the Incas,” an erroneous title which still remains today.  He was in fact searching for the city of Vitcos, the last Inca refuge from the Spanish, which he actually did come across but he dismissed as minor ruins.  Bingham died still believing that he had found the "lost city."  Legend says that the Incas, when escaping from the Spaniards, took their most important people and valuables into the Vilcabamba jungle and created a heavily-guarded city, stuffed with gold and silver, which today is still “lost.”  To date, multiple expeditions have found several Inca cities but none with the treasures that one would expect.  Truly the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie!

 

Our guide took us around the site and shared interesting anecdotes about Machu Picchu and theories about its history.  As with the construction in the Sacred Valley, all the stonemasonry was completed without mortar in near perfection.  The buildings include palaces, baths, temples, quarries, storage rooms, and about 150 houses.  The small number of agricultural terraces suggests that Machu Picchu was not a heavily populated place.  Therefore, it is thought that one of Machu Picchu’s primary functions was that of an astronomical observatory.  We first passed through what would have been the Main Gate and Guardhouse, past a rock quarry, and into the Temple of the Three Windows, part of the Sacred Plaza and so-named because of three large "windows" constructed of large polygonal stones.  The Intiwatana stone (the only intact one in Perú not destroyed by the Spanish) is a prominent archaeological site at Machu Picchu and is thought to have been used by the Incas to determine the equinoxes and solstices.  Called the “hitching post of the sun” this carved rock pillar has four corners aimed at each direction – north, south, west, and east.  The Temple of the Condor is a temple created from a natural rock formation to resemble a condor in flight.  On the ground is a rock carved in the shape of the condor’s head and its characteristic neck, with the walls made to resemble its enormous wingspan.  The condor is South America's largest bird and is still revered as a symbol of power and majesty by the Andean people today.  Under this temple is a cave which once housed a mummy. 

 

Local corn – tasted like potatoes

The classic view of Machu Picchu

Baby llama at the entrance to Inca Trail

Huayna Picchu in background of the city

The agricultural terraces

Terrace of the Unfinished Temple

 

Our guide Cosmos explained that Machu Picchu has been the site of many a political blunder that brought disgrace to the Perúvian government.  When the Spanish president came to visit, the government knocked down a large Inca stone at the site to create a helicopter landing area!  This brought local and international outrage.  In 2001, a film company shooting a beer commercial sneaked equipment onto the site and the camera crane knocked a chunk of rock off the sacred Intiwatana!  At one point the Perúvian government had thoughts of selling the ruins to the British company that owns the railroad and the hotel at the entrance of the ruins, and also there were plans to build a cable car from Aguas Calientes to quadruple the number of visitors to the site (already at over 400,000 people annually and on some days 2,000)!  UNESCO stepped in and put Machu Picchu on the World Monuments Watch list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World but removed it in 2002, after the Perúvian government agreed to impose tighter regulations.  Another sore point for Perú is the fact that Bingham removed more than 45,000 artifacts for study in the U.S. which have now been stored at Yale University for over 90 years.  Only recently has there been an agreement to bring the artifacts back to Perú – to be housed in a joint-venture museum in Cusco, set to open in 2011.

 

We had some spare time before we had to catch the bus back to Aguas Calientes, so we followed some of the resident llamas around the site for some unique views of Machu Picchu.

 

The llamas at Machu Picchu were left behind after filming a movie, and now roam the site freely

 

On the way back to Cusco, the train made a stop at Poroy and most of the people rushed out.  We didn't know it, but apparently one can take a bus back to Cusco from Poroy instead of going through the switchback zigzags on the train, which saves an hour of time and costs only about $3.  By the time we rushed out of the train the bus was already full, so we had no choice but to go down the switchbacks.  The view of illuminated Cusco was nice, but we were really exhausted and hungry and could have used the extra time to sleep!  Once at the train station, our guide from Cusco Latin Treks met us and transferred us back to the hotel.  We were hungry but too tired to go out to eat, so we just ordered a large Hawaiian pizza from local pizzeria Chez Maggy to be delivered to our hotel.

 

February 13, 2008

 

CUSCO to LAKE TITICACA, PERÚ – THROUGH THE ANDES AND ANTIPLANO

Up early again at 6am, we ate breakfast at the hotel, checked out, then headed to the train station for our 10-hour train journey to Lake Titicaca.  There are a number of ways to get to Puno, the Perúvian city closest to the Lake – by train, by bus, or by plane.  The train is the slowest option and there are two classes of service – the very expensive Andean Explorer trains, which include a 3-course lunch and afternoon tea, and the cheaper Backpacker class with no reserved seats.  The train is, however, the most scenic transportation as many consider the surrounding landscape to be the most beautiful in Perú, and so we opted to take the train.  We didn’t like the seats we were assigned (facing backwards, not together) so we walked around the carriages until we found a spacious table for 4 with no occupants.

 

The journey began in Cusco and followed the Urubamba River through the Andean highlands for the first half, and then the landscaped changed to the highland plateau (antiplano).  The train made two stops: one at La Raya, where we could get off for 15 minutes to buy souvenirs from the locals, and a second at Juliaca, an industrial city.  Over half of Perú's population lives below the poverty line, and of those, one-quarter live in extreme poverty.  In the remote areas of the southern highlands, about three-quarters of the indigenous Quechua and Aymara communities (more than 5 million people) live below the poverty line.  In 2000, 37% of the Perúvian population lived on less than US$2 per day.  Juliaca city is much more impoverished than the usual tourist places like Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno and it was very obvious as we passed through.  Many of the buildings were partially completed, the streets were dirty and filled with sales cart selling used goods, and ciclotaxis (bicycle taxis) and motorcycle taxis were dashing in and out.  In Juliaca we had no doubt we were in a developing country, and felt so out of place on a luxurious train having finger sandwiches and high tea.

 

The Andean Explorer train

Following the Urubamba River

Corn and potatoes are the major crops

 

At about 5:45pm we pulled into Puno, which was only marginally prettier than Juliaca.  It is known as the folkloric capital of Perú and we happened to arrive during one of the largest festivals in South America – the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria (Candlemas).  Similar to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro but on a smaller scale, the citizens of Puno and surrounds dance in the street in traditional costume for nearly two weeks.  The festival is linked to the pre-Columbian agricultural cycles of sowing and harvesting, as well as to mining activities in the region and celebrates "The Dark Virgin of the Lake" (also known as the Patroness of Bolivia) who is the patron saint of Puno.  Fireworks, masses, banquets, music, and dancing fill up the streets in this Catholic and pagan celebration. 

 

The alpaca goods at La Raya

The Perúvian antiplano

Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria

  

February 14, 2008

 

LAKE TITICACA, PERÚ – UROS FLOATING ISLANDS AND SILLUSTANI RUINS

Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable body of water (at 3,850m) and the largest lake in South America (in fact, it’s the largest lake in the world above 2,000m).  Which is the largest lake in the world?  That honour goes to the Caspian Sea, at almost 50 times the area of Lake Titicaca.  Lake Titicaca forms part of the border between Perú and Bolivia, South America's poorest country, and is shared about 50-50 between the two countries.  Until the Perú-Bolivia alliance lost The War of the Pacific in 1883 to Chile, Bolivia had access to the Pacific Ocean through its province of Litoral (current day Antofagasta, now part of Chile).  Therefore, Bolivia is now a landlocked nation (remember the monument at Plaza Sotomayer in Valparaíso?) yet it still keeps a naval force.  How is that possible?  The naval force carries out naval exercises on the waters of Lake Titicaca!  Bolivia is known as the "Tibet of South America" because it is very difficult to reach (the main airport at La Paz cannot handle large commercial jets such as 747s due to the high altitude).  As a result, most visitors to Bolivia travel around Lake Titicaca from Perú (we didn't have enough time to do this).

 

Lake Titicaca has always been shrouded in mystery and folk legend and is thought of as the birthplace of the Incas.  Still thought to be sacred by residents even today, it is said in local folklore to be the cradle of civilization.  According to Inca legend, it was from this lake that Viracocha, god of civilization, rose up to create the sun (Inti), moon (Mama Kilya), and stars, then went to Tiahuanaco to create the first human beings, Mallku Kapac and Mama Ocllo.  These first humans, the "Inca Adam and Eve," were created from stone and brought to life by Viracocha, who commanded them to populate the earth.  The Lake itself is said to be shaped like a puma catching a rabbit!

  

There are a number of islands on Lake Titicaca – some man-made, and others natural islands.  Most tourists visit the Islas Flotantes des los Uros (Uros Floating Islands), while others spend an overnight on one of the further islands – Taquile or Amantaní – living with the locals who don’t use electricity, vehicles, or other modern comforts (i.e., the way that they have been living for over 10,000 years).  Still others prefer to be marooned on Isla Suasi in the solar powered hotel there.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time (the closest remote island is 4 hours away by boat), will-power (one must climb 500 steps from the dock to get to the main plaza in Taquile), nor money (the Casa Andina solar-powered hotel on Suasi costs $400/night) to go to the other islands but we did visit the Uros Floating Islands in the morning. 

 

The Native Uros “create” and recreate the islands by taking large floating soil foundations from the Lake Titicaca National Park and anchoring these to shallow parts in the Bay of Puno.  They then add layer upon layer of totora reeds, a cattail type rush, that are found abundantly in the shallows of the lake.  The top layer rots and must be eventually replaced by stacking more reeds on top of the layer beneath.  The islands change in size and more are created as the need arises.  The Uros people, who pre-date the Incas, first created these islands in the middle of the lake to escape conflicts with the Collas and Incas on the mainland.  Today, all the pure Uros have long intermarried with Aymara-speaking natives, and there are no pureblood Uros natives remaining.  This practice of creating islands (and recreating them as needed) has endured for over 5 centuries, and there are currently approximately 45 of these floating islands in the bay.  Several hundred Titicacans call these islands home, but only a few are set up to welcome tourists.  The main “industry” (other than tourism) on these islands is fishing and birding.  The totora reed is not only used as the top layer of all the floating islands, but is also a source of food (it doesn’t taste like much – we tried it) and also building materials for both shelter (thatched huts) and transportation (gondolas made of totora reed). 

 

The first island we visited – Isla Contiki – was a small floating island home to only six families.  They greeted us with “kamisaraki!” (how are you in Aymara) and then provided a demonstration of how the islands are created.  Walking on the reed island was quite an experience  akin to walking on a waterbed!  Apparently walking on a thin rotten spot can get your foot sunken into the Lake (it didn't happen to us).  We all got to sample a totora reed and some deep-fried bread then of course had the opportunity to purchase some of their handicrafts.  Gloria purchased a miniature replica of one of the gondolas.  We then had the chance to travel to a nearby island on the totora gondola for 10 soles (about $4) each. 

 

Crystal blue Lake Titicaca

Mmm... yummy totora reed

Demonstrating how islands are made

The locals' bowler hat

Gloria's prized souvenir: a mini totora gondola

The locals serenaded us away

The totora gondola we rode

Notice the lack of lifejacket or lifebuoy!

Totora reed houses, island, and boat

 

The second island, calculatingly called Isla Kamisaraki, was much larger and included such niceties as restaurants, a marketplace, a lodge, and even a Catholic Church!  One of the larger Uros islands even houses the community's elementary school!  Keep in mind that all of this is on mushy floating totora reeds! 

 

Isla Kamisaraki even had a marketplace

Kamisaraki "Inn" - $5 per night

"Your hotel room, ma'am"

  

After this island we were dropped off the dock for our hotel, where we had about 15 minutes before our afternoon tour and transfer to the airport.  At 12:30pm, our private guide and driver picked us up from our hotel and took us about 30km to the Sillustani Ruins.  Sillustani in the local Aymara language translates to “long nail,” which describes how the ruins sit on grasslands on a peninsula in Laguna Umayo, a salt lake situated in the midst of the antiplano.  Local folkore tells a story about the Princess Ururi, who lost the love of her life and cried for days and nights, and as a result gave the lake its saltwater characteristic.  This interesting site is home to nearly 100 mysterious chullpas (funeral towers) that pre-date the Incas.  Excavation work in the 1970s revealed that some of the ruins and pottery are believed to date back as far as 6000 B.C.  It is thought that the Colla people, who spoke Aymara and came to dominance around 1200 A.D., created the majority of the chullpas.  The Colla people buried their elite in these giant cylindrical gravity-defying tombs, with a small door facing the sunrise so that the spirit of the deceased could pass on to the next existence.  Each tower contained the remains of Colla nobility accompanied by a plate and spoon (to eat, of course) as well as their riches, and sometimes their women and animals were sacrificed with them also since it was believed their spirits would all be together.  These burial ceremonies could last days.  Our guide overturned some stones and we could see several skulls underneath!  When the Incas came to the area in 1440, they built chullpas as well out of respect for the Colla culture, but used much larger stones of two varieties.  Nowhere else in the Inca empire were their dead buried in these funeral towers.  The Inca chullpas, which were built much later than those of the Collas, were much smoother and constructed with larger pieces of stone brought from quarries far away.  Today, this ancient burial site is still used by Sillustani's chamani, or spiritual guide, who performs an annual agricultural fertility ceremony in the adjacent temple.  This ceremony involves the sacrifice of a pregnant llama, whose fetus is extracted and presented as a symbol of future agricultural fertility! 

 

At the ruins we also had the opportunity to see a rare vicuña.  South America's camelids come in 4 varieties: the domesticated and plentiful llama and alpaca, and the wild and endangered vicuña and guanaco.  The vicuñas are highly coveted for the small amount of extremely fine wool they produce which can only be shorn once every 3 years.  Even in Inca times (when these animals were protected) only the royalty could wear clothing made of vicuña wool.  Vicuñas were declared endangered in 1974 when only about 6,000 animals remained.  Today, it is estimated that there are about 125,000 vicuñas remaining (vs. 500,000 for guanacos).  Our guide explained that some baby vicuñas were being abandoned by their first-time mothers, and that aid agencies have stepped in to nurse these babies to maturity after which they were being reintroduced into the wild.

 

Inca stones at the Sillustani Ruins

Colla and Inca chullpas

Saltwater Laguna Umayo

Reconstructed chullpa

Face of the puma

Orphaned vicuña – to be released into the wild

 

After exploring the ruins, we bought a few alpaca scarves to try to use up the rest of our Perúvian currency.  From Sillustani, our guide took us through the city to Juliaca Airport.  As mentioned yesterday, this has got to be one of Perú’s most depressing cities with an airport.  Our guide likened it to a “mini-China,” filled with many factories that make imitation goods (like knock-off cola – of which there are 15 varieties – and fake North Face clothing).  Many people are unemployed and just sell things on the street.  There are several streets devoted to selling salvaged car parts, many of which a good mechanic could probably not even recognize!  The airport was just as bad, with lots of suspicious-looking people lingering around the departures lounge, and really lax security.  One fellow, who smelled like he was homeless, kept staring at Doug’s laptop, sat next to us, and kept blabbering on in Spanish despite our deliberate attempts to say, “no entiendo!” (I don’t understand!).  He asked for the time – maybe to see what kind of watch or jewellery we had?  Nonetheless, it all turned out to be without consequence but we could clearly see why our Frommer’s guidebook advised not to linger in Juliaca as it is “downright dangerous.”

 

Soon we found ourselves at the airport with which we would rather not be so familiar – Lima’s Jorge Chavéz Airport (again!).  We had a terrible 6 hour layover planned here, as if we had not seen enough of the place during our Cusco flight mishap.  We spent the time watching a few movies on the laptop (thanks Wils!) and had a “romantic” Valentine’s Day dinner at McDonald’s!

 

February 15, 2008

 

LIMA, PERÚ to MIAMI/FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA BACK TO FAMILIAR NORTH AMERICA

Our red-eye flight from Lima to Miami was supposed to depart at 12:30am but was delayed until just after 3am as the plane was significantly late in arriving from Miami, extending our stay at the airport to nearly 9 hours.  Oddly enough, all the outbound flights on American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Continental Airlines to the States (Newark, Houston, and Atlanta) were at least one hour late in departing Lima.  The only exception?  The flight on super-budget Spirit Airlines flying from Lima to Fort Lauderdale which was long gone at its scheduled departure at 11:59pm before our plane even made it into the airport!

 

Groggily, we deplaned at about 8:30am and went through the usual customs and immigration formalities at Miami International Airport.  This was a holiday weekend in the States – President’s Day, and there was also a large Boat Show in Miami Beach.  Therefore all the hotels and rental cars were fully booked and at rates more expensive than usual.  The regular car rental companies such as Alamo, Budget, Avis, etc. were charging $85/day for a compact vehicle!  Therefore, we booked through Ace Rent-A-Car, whose Miami affiliate Global Rent-A-Car had mid-size Nissan Sentras for only $30/day.  We were taken by shuttle to the Global Rent-A-Car office where everything seemed to be going smoothly.  However, we were soon told that at their company, Nissan Sentras come in two varieties: two-door hatchback, which is considered by them to be an economy car; and four-door, which is in their mid-size category.  They claimed that we had booked their economy car.  Conveniently, they had neither two-door nor four-door Sentras and “did not know” when one would be returned.  However, for additional cost, we could upgrade to a full-size Nissan Altima, of which they suspiciously had many available immediately.  We asked to speak to the manager, who boasted that he had been in the business for 6 years.  He claimed that we had booked a “rate,” not a vehicle, and that he had no obligation to deliver a vehicle at the stated time on the reservation (8am).  He suggested that we pay for one of their conspicuously available vehicles or wait for an economy Nissan Sentra to be returned, which “could be” between opening (5:30am) and closing (11pm).  Arguing with him yielded no results and we quickly got on the phone to call Ace Rent-A-Car’s reservations line, the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce Consumer Protection Division, and the Better Business Bureau.  We watched at least 3 other groups (all Spanish-speaking) come in looking for their specified vehicle, only to be told that it was not available, but for additional charge an upgraded class was immediately at the doorstep.  After being in Perú where the impoverished must resort to stealing to get their next meal we came to experience this rotten Miami scam, where a company basically preys on vulnerable travelers in an extortionary manner – it really made our blood boil!  In the end, after an hour of waiting, we got in touch with the reservation service and were promised a suitable resolution within 15 minutes, and lo and behold a four-door “mid-size” Nissan Sentra magically appeared.  It appeared that most of the customers who got duped by this scam agency were foreigners from Latin America, but one other group from Virginia (originally from Viña del Mar, coincidentally), also refused to accept the rubbish that was coming out the manager’s mouth and sat and waited along with us.  They too, were miraculously found a Nissan Sentra after making a fuss.

 

Our hotel was the Westin in North Fort Lauderdale which was about 40 minutes from the Miami Airport.  Whenever in South Florida we try to stay in Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami (those who have been to Miami will understand why).  We checked into our hotel and then headed to the large outlet mall nearby – Sawgrass Mills.  Sawgrass Mills, which is shaped like an alligator, has always boasted to be the largest outlet mall in Florida but it has expanded even more since we last visited in 2003.  An entire new area of restaurants and high-end stores has opened recently, and includes familiar names such as P.F. Chang’s, Cole Haan, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, Escada, Ferragamo, and Burberry.  We ate lunch at our favourite Chinese fast food chain – Panda Express – then shopped for hours.  Eventually we got tired and had dinner at the restaurant Coco Reef in an outdoor area known as The Oasis before heading back to the hotel for a great sleep on the Westin Heavenly Bed.

 

February 16, 2008

 

FORT LAUDERDALE/MIAMI, FLORIDA – BUTTERFLY WORLD, FORT LAUDERDALE, AND SOUTH BEACH

For a change of pace, we decided to do something a bit different in South Florida today.  Our first stop was an interesting attraction – Butterfly World, in Coconut Creek near Pompano Beach.  Voted South Florida’s top attraction, this exceptionally well-run attraction features thousands of butterflies and birds in a heavenly setting.  It was created by an Electrical Engineer who always had a fascination for butterflies and insects.  It was the first park of its kind in the Western hemisphere when it opened in 1998 and is currently the largest butterfly park in the world.  Butterfly World has raised over 1 million butterflies to date in their laboratory and the aviary has over 5,000 butterflies from about 50 different species!  Each butterfly lives only an average 14 days (compared to 7 days in the wild).  We thought this attraction was mainly for kids (indeed, there were lots of kids on this Sunday) but would wholeheartedly recommend it to visitors of any age.  It’s quite the unique experience to have butterflies from 5 different continents flutter about in front of your eyes and land on your clothes or even your hands.

 

One butterfly landed on Gloria's hat

Another on Gloria's shirt

Over 5000 butterflies in the aviary!

About 50 different species at any given time

Butterflies live on average just 7 days

Well camouflaged!

 

Butterfly World also showcases a reasonable flower garden featuring flowering Passion Vines, or passiflora (used by butterflies in the wild), a rose garden, a Lorikeet Experience, a suspension bridge, bird aviaries with finches, honeycreepers, and euphonias, close-up Macaws, and an excellent insect area.  The name 'passion flower' is thought to have come from Catholic priests in Peru in 1620, who cited a resemblance of the blue passion vine's flower to the crown of thorns placed on Christ's head.

 

Interesting flowers from Passion Vines - used by butterflies in the wild, and also produce tasty passionfruit

Colourful Lady Gouldian Finch

Clever Lorikeet thought Gloria had food

Doug had to remove the Lorikeet

 

Close to Butterfly World we found the ever-familiar Costco, where we loaded up on cheap gas, free try-me’s, and tasty Polish Dogs.  Nearby is the Festival Flea Market Market, an enormous indoor flea market with lots of seniors and 800 stalls selling assorted low-priced junk as well as a food court and Farmer's Market.  We meandered around the stalls but didn’t find anything to buy, so we headed down the scenic A1A highway which runs down the coast of Florida.  We started in Hillsboro and worked our way down through Pompano Beach and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, before we exited onto the famous Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.  Las Olas highlights many interesting boutiques, art galleries, and eateries, much like in our Kitsilano. 

 

Our next stop was South Beach (SoBe) in Miami, home of the famous strip of beach and nightlife.  South Beach was the first area of Miami Beach to be developed, starting in the 1910s.  Today, it is as bustling as ever with over 150 nightclubs and bars most open until 5am.  When we arrived, it was starting to get dark and most people were leaving the beach, and the whole Miami Beach area was extremely crowded because of the Boat Show that was taking place in the Convention Center.  SoBe was really not our kind of place – hip, young, and dirty, with homeless people spitting on the streets every which way.  After struggling to find parking, we had a tasty dinner at Cheeseburger Baby and left shortly thereafter.

 

Our final stop of the day was the Dolphin Mall.  The last time we had shopped here, it was basically deserted; however, on this Saturday night it was absolutely bustling with people.  The food court and eateries were packed, and the stores had long line-ups.  They too have expanded the mall since we were last there in 2003, with more restaurants and anchor tenants such as Bass Pro Shops, Victoria's Secret, and Banana Republic Factory Store.

 

February 17, 2008

 

MIAMI, FLORIDA to VANCOUVER – FINALLY HOME!

We were up at 7:30am to get ready for our flights home.  It was Sunday and the traffic through South Florida was excellent.  We made good time from our hotel in Fort Lauderdale to the car rental return in Miami, and to our surprise we didn’t encounter any further problems from Global Rent-A-Car.  We did, however, experience absolute mayhem at the Miami International Airport.  The place was such a zoo, with a check-in line exceeding one hour.  Luckily, we found the self check-in kiosks and eventually we were led to a faster line to drop off our bags.  Our bags were a few pounds overweight, but nobody really seemed to notice in the long line-ups and confused crowds.  We have been to the Miami Airport a few times but have never seen it so crowded before.  There were 20-minute line-ups for food (they couldn't make the food fast enough!) and even the men's washroom!  It probably didn't help that it was President's Day weekend in the States.  Next time we will definitely remember to fly out of Fort Lauderdale Airport or West Palm Beach Airport for our own sanity!

 

Soon we were at the much nicer and less crowded DFW Airport and enjoyed another meal at T.G.I. Fridays, using the coupon discount we had gotten on the receipt from January 19.  It was hard to believe that a whole month had passed and we were back at DFW.  We embarked the flight to Vancouver more or less on time but then sat at the gate for 20 minutes while awaiting 48 pieces of luggage from the later flight from Miami.  When planning this trip, we had considered booking the later flight from Miami but decided against it due to a tight connection time of less than 2 hours.  When transiting through major airports, we always prefer to play it safe rather than miss a flight or have our luggage miss a flight!  After all the pieces of luggage were loaded on the plane, we got to the runway and the Captain announced that one of the three auto-pilots was not functioning.  As a result, we had to wait for a gate to become available, so that we could return to the terminal to embark the maintenance crew who would investigate the problem.  By the time we got back to the gate, we had already been delayed an hour!  After two hours of sitting idly on the plane, we pushed back again and soon we were off to Vancouver.  At 9:30pm, we landed in familiar YVR and we were back to the reality of bills, working, cooking, and cleaning.  We had such a memorable trip to South America and hope one day we will have the opportunity to visit Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, and Antarctica on a future trip!