The Road to Ecuador

We had debated for a long time how to get from central Chile to Quito in north-central Ecuador, about 3,000 miles away. Trains barely exist in South America, plane tickets are outrageously expensive, and the distance was daunting by bus. We’ve done more than our share of overnight buses in our world travels, but shooting across most of a continent with as few stops as possible is not our usual MO. Still, it was our only really feasible option if we wanted to stick to our budget, so we resigned ourselves to a heroic journey camped out in an assortment of buses. The longest was 32 hours straight, sitting next to the malfunctioning restroom, with an attendant that seriously had it out for us (his angry admonition to “put your shoes back on, you’re not in your home!” was a highlight). Even that only got us as far as the Peruvian border, and we still had to cross another whole country. In 20 hours more we made it to Lima and made a pit stop to see our friend Rachel, before continuing ever northward through the desert and finally back into a land of mountains and jungle.

Crossing into Ecuador held immediate differences. The Chilean dialect of Spanish is by far the most distinctive, slang-filled, and difficult to understand, and our weeks there had affected my accent and lingo. Ecuadorians, on the other hand, speak much more slowly and clearly, with an accent more familiar to the Spanish I learned in school. The national currency is US dollars, though there are only as many $1 bills as American tourists bring in, and change including $1 coins are minted in Ecuador with their own designs. The food, at least of the Andean region, has many similarities to the cuisine of Peru and Bolivia, but includes some surprises and innovations that Mika will detail on her ongoing South American vegetarian food blog.

Our first stop in Ecuador was the village of Vilcabamba, a tranquil mountain pueblo with a reputation for the perfect climate, a hippie vibe, and beautiful surroundings. Banana trees, tropical flowers, and great views of the region’s verdant valleys and famous Chambala and Yambala Rivers are other draws. Ecuadorians claim that water from Vilcabamba is so pure and clean that residents of the town commonly live to be over a hundred years old. This legend has been repeated so many times that many people seem to genuinely believe it, which may account for the number of Americans and Europeans that pick it as a place to retire. Life in Vilca is easy, and nowhere exemplified that as much as the “hostel” where we stayed. Free yoga classes every morning, a swimming pool in the garden, massage treatments, a German-run restaurant, and new friends from around the world kept us content over Christmas. We even got to do some fire spinning in the hostel bar, which we take advantage of whenever we get the opportunity. All in all, it was a nice welcome to our newest adopted home.

The Jewel of the Pacific

Perhaps the most captivating city we’ve encountered on our South American journey so far was the wonderfully alluring coastal hub of Valparaíso, Chile. Fondly referred to as Valpo, the city is a magnet for street artists and bohemian types that have painted over its winding streets to create a technicolor maze of surreal murals and passageways all across the city. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, Valpo is considered by many to be the grittier and artsier relative of nearby Santiago, and was once the South Pacific’s principal seaport prior to building the Panama Canal. The city’s unique architecture is defined by colorful houses stacked upon steep hills along the coastline, with a series of 15 ascensores (funiculars) providing pedestrians quick access to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible by public transit. The character of the city has evolved from its “golden age” in the late 1800s when the influx of European immigrant communities left their mark on various neighborhoods. After a subsequent period of economic decline, the city has been revived in recent years with a renaissance attracting many artists, musicians, intellectuals, and cultural entrepreneurs to its cobbled streets. Congress has since deemed Valparaíso to be Chile’s “Cultural Capital,” which is evidenced in its many music festivals, cultural preservation projects, vibrant nightlife, and flourishing urban arts scene.

During our regrettably short time spent in the Pacific Jewel, Neil and I were inspired to incorporate the city’s canvas into a creative endeavor of our own…

We spent several days wandering aimlessly through the atmospheric hilltop neighborhoods around Cerro Concepción, blissfully surrounded by the infusion of street art that is plastered on virtually every surface. The grand scope of imagination and creativity, as well as politically-charged messages, displayed in these murals has essentially turned the city into an open-air gallery that continues to attract renowned artists to paint its walls. While making our way through this eccentric metropolitan maze, we admiring the candy-colored building clinging to the hills, panoramic harbor views, labyrinthine alleys, boutique hotels and restored mansions filled with antiques, and a vertical ride up the Artillería Ascensore. In the evening we explored the city’s collection of quirky cafes, portside pubs, and innovative music venues. One of our highlights was reconnecting with a friend from our cabin trip for a warehouse concert of a Peruvian electronic-Andino band called Dengue Dengue Dengue (highly recommended)!

In addition to experiencing Valparaíso’s charms, we also made a day trip out of the city towards the beautiful beach resort town of Viña del Mar. Instead of lounging on the beach, however, we visited a mutual friend that I’d been in contact with to pay a visit to her organic farm. Making our way into the verdant countryside along the coast, we couldn’t help marveling at Chile’s natural beauty and climate. We met Carolina at her lovely piece of property which she inherited after her father’s death and has since developed to foster permaculture and organic agriculture. Neil and I spent the day with her and the current crop of volunteers and friends, helping to assemble a floor using earthen materials. We had a wonderful visit and I would have loved to volunteer with Carolina had I been able to stay in Chile longer. I can personally vouch for how genuine and committed she is, and would recommend Pio Pio Farm to anyone interested in this type of work that finds themselves near Valparaíso.

It was difficult for us to leave Valpo after the city’s distinct personality left an impression on us. Luckily, the ever-changing city canvas means that there will be a completely new collection to explore the next time around.

Note: To see the full collection of photos from our street-wandering, please click here.

Sunny Santiago

The nation of Chile is one of the oddest shaped we’ve been to. Stretching more than 2,650 miles north to south but only averaging 110 miles across, it is a tiny ribbon of land between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It has some of Argentina’s European charm, but packs more diversity into a smaller area. From the northern desert of Atacama to the far southern Tierra del Fuego filled with glaciers and penguins, its landscape varies greatly. We didn’t have enough time to see as much of it as we might have liked, but we did get a good introduction.

The capital, Santiago, is modern and crowded, with almost 40% of the country’s population. Coming from idyllic Mendoza, it was a little bit of a shock to be surrounded by the traffic and skyscrapers of such a large city. It still retained its charm though, especially when we took a free walking tour of the downtown area and got to know some of the sights better. Santiago was the scene of some of the most important political dramas of recent South American history, including the power struggle between Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. We saw Allende’s governmental residence that fascist troops surrounded and bombarded in 1973, where he took his own life with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro rather than be captured. On the more peaceful side of things, we also walked through the artsy neighborhood where the renowned poet Pablo Neruda kept one of his several homes (and mistresses). Passing through parks and bars filled with students, we got to appreciate some of Santiago’s appeal.

More than seeing the city, though, we were excited to spend time with Will, one of our best friends from when we lived in Thailand. Will and his business partner earned a grant to come to Chile and work on a mobile app that they’ve been developing, and have found a niche in a group of locals and expats in the startup community. We spent a lot of time getting to know these people through various dinner parties and rooftop BBQs, and really enjoyed their company. We were invited to spend a long weekend with them at one of their family homes about nine hours south of Santiago, which was one of the highlights of our trip so far. As the house was more of a cabin, off the grid and far removed from any real town, we brought supplies for 11 people for about four days, filling our bags with enough food and booze for an army. One of the guests, Davíd, is a professional chef, and had planned out meals for the entire weekend. We enjoyed gourmet pizzas and pastas, artisanal burgers and sauces, campfire-roasted pork, and even a strawberry cheesecake, all in the setting of a cozy two-story house without electricity in the middle of nowhere. We kept beer and boxes of wine cold by storing them in the well that we drew water from, and spent long afternoons lounging in the grass and having sing-a-longs. Mika’s birthday and Finland’s independence were both celebrated, many games of cards and dice were enjoyed, long walks through cow pastures were taken, and by the end of the four days no one really wanted to leave. On our way back to civilization, we stopped at a Mapuche restaurant. The Mapuche are one of Chile’s most enduring indigenous groups, and are a symbol of the country’s pre-colonial roots. Eating lunch in a traditional thatch and mud building, we learned a little bit about the history and identity of the Mapuche. The food was pretty standard Chilean, with the addition of one dish—horsemeat. Temporarily setting aside arbitrary American cultural views of which animals are acceptable to eat and which are not, I had my very first horse steak and have to report that it was unexpectedly delicious.

Back in Santiago, we spent more time with Will, his lovely Venezuelan ladyfriend Maria, and their little gray she-devil of a kitten. Reminiscing about the olden days of Chiang Mai living and our now far-flung friend group, we felt a lot of nostalgia for our time in Thailand. It was great to reconnect with Will and that period of our travels, and we hope to see more of that social circle next time we’re in the States. As we left Santiago for the coast, though, we got an immediate reminder of how awesome South America can be. Valparaíso, overflowing with colors, is our hands-down favorite city we’ve seen on this continent so far.


It’s Raining Mendoza

Mendoza is the wine capital in a country renowned for its Malbec. I was looking forward to this leg of the trip for obvious reasons, but also because it marked a reunion with one of my dearest college friends, Molly, and her partner Nicol. Molly and I became close on a study abroad program to East Africa, and have remained tight with the group of friends we made on that trip. She has been living in Mendoza for the past three years with Nicol, who grew up there, and they were even featured on an episode of House Hunters International (from which I stole the title of this blog). Needless to say, I was stoked to visit the apartment I had watched them pick out on TV.

We arrived in Mendoza province a few days ahead of schedule, so instead of going directly to their place, we veered a bit off course to the sleepy hamlet of nearby San Rafael. Sunny, tranquil, and surrounded by copious vineyards, we didn’t mind killing a few days in Argentine wine country. Our long days there consisted mostly of lounging and reading, walking along the wide open streets and plazas, and picking up good bottles of local $3-4 vino before watching films from my favorite genre: bad Nicholas Cage movies (is there really any other kind?). One highlight from our time in San Rafael was taking the standard vineyard tour to the next level by visiting the Bianchi Champagnerie. Even they acknowledged that the bottles can’t officially be called “champagne” because of a trademark issue in France, but we all knew and appreciated it for what it was. Another day trip outside of town, Neil and I took a white-water rafting trip down the Rio Atuel which was a relatively mellow class 2, and afterwards I taught an impromptu hooping lesson to a little girl on the river bank. Our experience around San Rafael reminded me that some of the best parts of a trip are often completely unplanned.

The next stop was Mendoza proper, where we met up with Molly at her work place, Uncorking Argentina, which is a company that organizes personalized winery tours throughout the region. I was thrilled to see her again after literally years had passed, and we had a lot of catching up to do. The very next day after arriving was Thanksgiving and so while our hosts were at work, Neil and I spent the day prepping and cooking the obligatory feast. Instead of a turkey, Nicol made gourmet roasted chicken, but otherwise we had almost all of the traditional staples. We celebrated that evening by initiating two of Molly and Nicol’s Argentinian girlfriends to the holiday (read more about that on my other blog). My 27th birthday was only a couple of days later, so that required more celebrating, and I will admit that I drank my fair share of wine during those few days. Add to that the excursion we took with our French friend, Sebastien, to the Lujon region where we rented bikes and rode from tasting to tasting among the many sun-soaked vineyards concentrated in that area. Molly also surprised us with some gift vouchers for a “flight” at a fancy winery where we tasted possibly our favorite varietals of the entire trip.

Alas, we eventually had to say goodbye to Molly and Nicol, though I look forward to seeing this lovely pair again in the States next time. Fortunately we had another friend reunion to look forward to on our next leg of the journey, so the adventure continues in Santiago, Chile!

Old World Meets New: Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires was perhaps one of the places we were most excited to visit on this entire trip. The Argentine capitol’s name carries a certain romantic reputation and brings to mind the cultural refinement of Europe in the unique setting of South America.

The city feels like a European capitol, from the architecture to the cuisine to the nightlife. It is filled with regal buildings, expansive parks, high-end shopping and dining, and more modern sensibilities than the other major cities that we’ve been to on this trip. At first, it felt almost too familiar for us, and didn’t seem to have the flair or unique character that we’d hoped for. It’s not that we dislike those aspects, it’s just that we intentionally came to South America, not western Europe. The more time we spent in Buenos Aires, though, the more it grew on us as we observed and participated in the way of life of the people. Porteños, as they’re called, are incredibly active and social, and seem to go out every night of the week to artisanal markets, cultural shows, concerts, rallies, and various events. They bike, rollerblade, or skateboard around the extensive paths and parks, and they stay out late eating, drinking, and socializing. Their mid-day siestas, while at times inconvenient for us, mean that whole families stay out until the early morning actively participating in a bustling society. This side of the city is what we came to love.

We were hosted by a Couchsurfer named Javier in a residential neighborhood in middle class Buenos Aires, and got some good insight on how people live there. His friends came over, or we went out to meet others at brewpubs (with good microbrews!). At one of these I was able to organize a reunion with two gentlemen that I went to school with for a semester in 2009 at the American University of Beirut and hadn’t seen much of since then. We spent a lot of time in nearby Palermo, a hotspot for bars and restaurants, including some excellent vegetarian ones (keep up with Mika’s blog to learn more about the food we’ve been eating). Palermo is an artsy district, known among other things for its many murals, and we also took the opportunity to join a street art tour lead by a German graffiti artist who showed us some of the best and most famous pieces, and explained more about the complex culture and social norms of street art. At night, we partook in several large events, including an environmental and organic fair with a surprisingly good Pink Floyd cover band, a free concert of a brass/rock group very reminiscent of our friends March Fourth Marching Band, a weekly show by a talented percussion ensemble called La Bomba de Tiempo (“The Time Bomb”), and a show by Chilean/French rapper Ana Tijoux, one of our favorite female musicians and poets. We were also in Buenos Aires for the annual “Noche de Los Museos,” when more than 200 museums and cultural centers open their doors for free until 2 or even 4 am, and tens of thousands of porteños go out to see them and the associated events (which, of course, include tango shows and milongas, or free dances). This wealth of opportunities to go out and do stuff every night of the week was what really won us over.

During the days, we relaxed or explored small sections of the city. Downtown Buenos Aires is a little homogeneous, but still pleasant. Located on the bank of the very large Rio de la Plata, it manages to feel somewhat coastal even though it isn’t. A ship from the early 1900s that the first Argentine government sent around the world on a diplomatic venture stands as an open museum, and bike paths line the parks and docks. A suburb called Tigre lies at the edge of a large network of canals, where families come to relax on the weekends and go shopping, which we explored with Javier. Another great artisanal market takes place in San Telmo in the city core on Sundays, with all manner of clothes, crafts, delicious sausage sandwiches, and a little bit of live tango.

In general, we found Buenos Aires to be lively and always full of surprises. Two of Argentina’s other largest cities, Cordoba and Salta, failed to interest or inspire us as much, and felt overly commercialized with less character to make up for it. Something about the capitol’s culture gives it a spark that we really loved, and while I don’t think we could afford to live there any time soon, we were sad to leave even after a whole week (a relatively long time to stay in one spot, for us). Luckily we had the wine country of Mendoza to look forward to!