Summary of the trip: Americas

I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip, but so they stay relevant I am going to do some as I go along. So I’m going to split my trip into thirds. Firstly the Americas, then Oceania and Japan, and finally mainland Eurasia. Then finally I’ll sum up the whole thing.

Best site

Iguazu, Argentina and Brazil, although Machu Picchu was pretty special out didn’t quite take my breath away in the same way.

Honourable mention

Machu Picchu, well that much is obvious. It is an epic site.

Best museum

The Holocaust Museum, Washington DC, it tried so hard to just give the facts. I learnt a lot about the recent history of the Jews and that reflects heavily on the middle east today. Well worth a visit.

Best tour company

Layana, San Pedro as they gave detailed explanations in English of the sites we were seeing. They also weren’t too pricy.

I have to admit in general I haven’t been too impressed and was going to give it to the Sinh Cafe from my last trip to Vietnam.

Best city

New York for it’s incredible range of stuff to do in the day. having half decent nightlife as well and also having excellent transportation.

Honourable mention

Santiago, a hidden gem that I didn’t expect to be great. But aside from all it’s attractions seemingly shutting on Sunday and Monday every week it is actually a pretty nice place. Though its worth noting that even in Providencia it does have a sinister feel sometimes, especially after dark (though nothing personally happened to me or anyone I know in Santiago).

Best non-family accommodation

I’m not ranking my family/free accommodation as you all looked after me well so I’m picking the best accommodation I paid for.

Sunny Days, Arica Chile provided all you can eat breakfasts, excellent rooms and good advice on the city as well as a kitchen and lounge area with good cable TV.

Best food for under US$25 (excluding service)

Just in case I get taken to the local equivalent if La Manior I’ve stuck a price limit on this but the winner is Steak in Buenos Aires at a small restaurant at Defensa and Independencia which was above and beyond anything I’d had before.

Honourable mention

Pacha Papa, Cusco for it’s excellent food and exquisite service.

Best nightlife

Chicago, Buenos Aires is close but frankly it’s too late for me to start clubbing at 2am.

Friendliest People

El Soberio. After falling ill I was looked after really well by the people of El Soberio. And I improved my terrible Spanish a bit too.

Best transportation company

Via Barriloche, Argentina for providing good food, drink and comfortable seats for only a little more than the competition.

Most useful material possession

iPod Touch for letting me write these blog posts when on buses and public transport and having lots of other useful information on it.

Best bargain

Plastic playing cards in Cusco for US$0.67 that are fully plastic so should last well.

Biggest rip-off

Postada la bonita for accommodation worth a generous US$10/night costing US$100/night.

The Patrick Levy award for cinematography

When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.

And the winner is SHOOTER which was an excellent and clever movie about a presidential assasination. I really want to see the end of it as we arrived in Tacna so I missed it.

Honourable Mention

Don’t mess with the Zohan I quite enjoyed this movie about the Israeli superspy Zohan but my friends I was with thought it wasn’t that great.

More adventures in Santiago

On Sunday I again got up fairly late (I clearly needed to catch up with my sleep) and at about 11 I headed back to the centre. First I headed to the national history museum on the Plaza de Armas. Unlike the description n the guide book it was a well organized history in mostly chronological order from prehistory (which was only covered briefly) up to the Pinochet coup. Most of it was only in Spanish but thanks to my lessons I managed to get the gist of most of what was being said. The Pinochet section included a copy of the British Sunday Observer (the Sunday version of the Guardian) from the time. It was also interesting as it also included a lot of coverage of the IRA campaign which had just begun at the time, it was surprisingly neutral on the terrorists aims. Much more so than the press would be today in the UK or US. After that I headed to Cerro Santa Lucia which is a park close to the city centre that winds up the hill to a castle at the top with views of the centre of the city. The park was surprisingly quiet given it’s central location and there were several other buildings apart from the castle to look at so it was pleasant. The only unpleasant thing was that it was full of couples making out. Even though
I’m fairly liberal on these things my innate Britishness did make me feel a little quesy from all these public displays of affection.

After that I took a long train ride round to Provendcia to see what I could see. The train did briefly go above ground and although the buildings weren’t amazing I’ve seen worse in Chicago and I imagine the south-side where Obama worked is worse.

After that I wandered back to my accommodation through the pretty streets of Providencia but as it was a Sunday most of the streets were empty probably because the people were in church making out in a park. In the evening I headed to the Cinema to see Journey to the Centre of the Earth but unfortunately it had been dubbed into Spanish so I didn’t go.

Today I first had some chores complete before I had another wander through the centre for lunch at a “cheap” Japanese restaurant. I had Sushi which was good and there was plenty of food but US$20 is far from cheap. I did enjoy the walk though, walking through cities isn’t something I generally enjoy but I do seem to find it fun here in Santiago. After lunch I had another wander throgb Provedencia as all the museums I wanted to see were closed as it’s Monday before I get my bus to Valpariso.

Santiago

So I got my flight down to Santiago yesterday morning and arrived at my hostel in the early afternoon. I got the bus in from Santiago airport and then the clean modern and extremely frequent (there are practically trains every minute in the week) metro to my hostel.

After grabbing some cheap lunch I headed over to Cerro San Cristóbal. There is usually a funicular to the top of this hill but it is currently shut for maintainence so I walked up the hill. As the guide book assumes you’ll take the funicular no walking instructions were given so I walked up to the zoo. At which point there was no obvious path but after a short time I resumed my climb. It did seem to take forever to reach the top as the path wound around the hill and I was sweating like a pig by the time I got to the top. At the top there were impressive views of the city as well as a large statue of the virgn Mary making it a little like I imagine Rio is.

Then after a short wander round the top I headed over to the cable car station to get the cable car down the other side of the hill. This is run with bubble cars that are tiny. Just big enough for my bag and me. This then takes you to a car park on the other side which is in the leafy district of Provendencia. After a short walk I landed up back at the river where I first saw boys getting money at the traffic lights by balancing a long pole on their chins. It was very impressive and obviously when the lights changed they had to get out the way so they only had a short chance to get money. After this I headed into the park on the riverbank which was full of statues and lovers kissing, something you don’t see a park devoted to back in the UK. As the sun set I headed in a couple of blocks and got the metro back to my accommodation. This gave me a chance to practice my Spanish to find out where the station was.

Then this morning after a good nights sleep I had breakfast and then found what my accommodation was doing about my room. After an hour of waiting it transpired that they didn’t have space after all so they found me alternative accommodation. By this point it was the afternoon and I headed to the central square the Plaza de Armes and the cathedral which was pretty but not as nice as Cusco’s. After that I went to the local pre-columnian museum which appears to be free today. Even though I have seen several before this one was interesting as it cover most of the Americas including Mexico and that was very interesting to find out a bit about. The pieces were also well explained in Spanish, English and often French too. The flaw with the museum was that it’s layout was a bit schitzophrenic and it was difficult to see the continuity between the different pieces.

Overall Santiago is without a doubt the richest city I’ve been in in South America and it seems comparable in wealth to cities in Europe and North America, though maybe a little poorer as I haven’t found the equivalent of Chelsea in London or the Upper East side in New York yet. The buildngs are very nice and the buses and metro are as nice as those in London. Chile is also apparently the worlds fastest growing economy at the moment which given the number of iPhone ads, especially in Santiago, doesn’t seem a total surprise. But still, I’d be surprised if it was growing faster than Viet Nam, it doesn’t have the same energy that I felt about Viet Nam when I was there.

Iquique

So after a fairly uneventful bus ride from San Pedro with the nice Tur Bus drivers making sure I got on the right buses and stuff I arrived in Iquique. Then I got a taxi to my hostel via waiting a while on the seafront for the chilean football supporters to celebrate their world cup qualifying victory which was random but fun.

Then upon arrival at the hostel even though it was lacking a meter apparantly had non-negotiable fares. Additionally the fare was twice as high as the quote on the hostels website (which apparently only applies to “radio taxis”, which must be a bit like private hire in the UK except with an even larger price premium for taxis on the street.) so I wasn’t particularly happy about it (the matter was further confused by the driver not using standard Spanish numbers as the Chileans love to do and the driver misunderstanding what uno mil means when asking about the price) I just assumed the taxi driver had joined the large number of dishonest taxi drivers worldwide who especially try and rip you off on arrival in the given town.

Anyhow the next day I headed into Iquique itself to see what the town had to offer; it has some fairly nice and free museums on the region. It also has an opera house which wasn’t free but had a lot of decaying British architecture which was interesting to see as a snapshot of what Britain could be like today. Maybe without the EU and the recent British governments it would be like that today.

The reason these buildings (there wee others aside from the opera house) look British is that they were built when Iquique was the worldwide leader in nitrate production and the managers of the nitrate companies were British. From the 1870’s nitrates mined here in northern chile were used for fertilizers before the Haber process for doing it artificially was invented by the Germans in world war one.

One of the old colonial buildings also had an excellent photo collection of modern contemporary photos taken at everything from Pinochet lying in state to government officials looking at scantily clad women to a child running through the police line at a protest.

In the afternoon I sat on the beach and rested in my room. To be honest I’m glad I only spent a day in Iquique as although it’s not the least exciting place I’ve stayed there isn’t much to do in the city itself except what I’ve done and then to take a one day tour of the nitrate towns.

The valley of the moon and the Tatio geysers

Over the past couple of days I’ve been busy here in San Pedro. Firstly two days ago I went to the valley of the moon. The valley of the moon is a deserty valley that is around 10km from San Pedro, as it is so close I decided to avoid the tour companies and go myself on a hired mountain bike.

I set off after lunch to do this, so I’d hopefully have a chance to see the sunset. After cycling down the fairly flat road to the valley itself, the road was the emptiest I’d ever seen and mostly you could see any cars in either direction. Then after paying the entrance fee I got to the first explanation point. From there they explained that there was a cave and canyon nearby to explore and for the cave I’d need a torch. Fortunately I had one with me and I set off to explore the cave, that let you crawl under rocks, and at times I had to take off my bag to make it underneath the rocks. In places you reemmerged into the light and got to see some strange but cool scenery.

After that I headed down the canyon where I had some fun with the timer and tripod for my camera, it took about 6 shots to get it straight and me in the picture, the insane brightness in the canyon doesn’t help you see the display on the camera. After that I headed further into the valley up a steep hill on my boke to see the great dune, the view from the top was incredible. Afterwards I headed onto see some more stuff but that wasn’t that interesting. By the time I headed back the sun was starting to set giving great shadows on the rocks, but as I was getting up at 4am the next day I thought I should be getting back and as I’ve seen more epic sunsets than I’ve had hot dinners on this trip I thought I’d give this one a miss.

Anyhow so the next day I got up at 3.45am and headed out of my hostel to head over to the geysers. We had to get up so early as geysers are more impressive when there is a large temperature difference between the water in the ground and the air temperature, and coupled with pressure below ground that is what causes them to spray water all over the place, as we were so high up and in the desert as soon as the sun appeared from behind the mountains the air suddenly heated up by several degrees so it was good that we had got there so early. After that I had a lazy afternoon and went to bed early at about 10pm. Today I’ve also had a fairly lazy morning as I was still tired, and I’ve had a few too many disturbed nights recently. Later today I’m off on the bus to Iquipe.

The Rest of Arica and San Pedro

So on my last day in Arica I headed to a nearby archeological museum. To get there I cycled up the valley, which although the gradient uphill was subtle it was still hard work. Also I couldn’t get the highest gear to work which I usually use practically exclusively which slowed me down. The scenery on the way was also nice. The museum (aside from some noisy school children who I shared the museum with) was very interesting and had a full English translation.

Then that evening I caught the bus to San Pedro, the journey was more complex than I’d like as the police checked our ID and bags in the middle of the night.

After arriving in San Pedro I had a lasy day and saw their pre-columbian museum which was also excellent. Then the next day I went on a tour to the south of San Pedro and saw Flamingos on the salt plain which I have some great photos of, a pair of fairly saltly glacial lakes and part of the original inca road to Cusco (so if you had 3 months and a huge amount of water you could walk to Cusco) which was still a clear path through the desert.

The next day I went Sand boarding which is like Snow Boarding but slower and on sand (we went down a slope almost straight away which would definitely be a red run for skiing). I did fall over lots but am now unhurt but tired.

I’ve got some more time here in San Pedro to explore the nearby Geysers (but now we are on summer time you’ll leave at 3am!) and the nearby Moon Valley for sunset and possibly the nearby observatory if I go a day later to Iquipe and essentually miss it. Though money is a definite issue here, its almost as expensive as Oxford!

America

Firstly a boring economic note to my UK readers. The pound has weakened quite dramatically against the US dollar since I’ve been away and by xe.com there are currently only 1.75 US dollars to the pound. If Obama wins the presidency so this continues I might even make some money when I convert my US dollars back into pounds.

After paying an excessive amount (US$12 including “taxes”) to enter Chile from Peru by collectivo (ironically the driver seemed to be very trustworthy) I made my way by foot to my accommodation in Arica. It was dark but the area around the bus station was safe (though it wouldn’t have been if it was in Europe). I was then famished so I went to the local chicken and chips shop for some food. Now chicken and chips is also popular in Peru but with all the other specialites to try I’d managed to avoid it. In Chile, or at least Arica, it is a massive phenomenon available in every restaurant.

Anyhow the next morning at 10am I got up and headed to the supermarket to get some Chilean money and water. The currency in Chile is wonderful actually as there are almost exactly 1000 chilean pesos to the pound so I can really easily see how much stuff costs here. The supermarket was also pretty much like a typical US or European supermarket. That is to be expected as Chile is pretty rich and Arica at least reminds me of the USA. This is how I expected Argentina to be.

So I had a wander around Arica yesterday and had lunch in a Chinese restaurant (they are also good here) and saw lots of buildings in the centre designed by Effel. They were very striking and reminded me of the buildings by Lloyd Wright in Chicago.

At dinner I had some delicious fish (and I don’t mean in a sarcastic way ;)) with an Australian woman travelling around South America. We also had some interesting discussions about our previous travels.

This morning I headed into the mountains above Arica on a tour with my hostel. It was a bit touch and go as to whether it’d be on but in the end the car was full. So we headed slowly up into the mountains through the coastal desert all around this region. After being in the south of Peru for several weeks now I am pretty bored of it to be honest though we did see attractive Grand Canyon esq scenery on the way up. It was amusing as by half way up the mountain my Australian friend had caught up with me on a coach tour.

As we were ascending from sea level to 4500m in a single day we were given Coca tea as well as leaves to chew. Unfortunately the leaves are disgusting and the tea was very poor quality but coupled with my long stay in Peru at over 2500m I was OK.

Then half way up the mountain at our “breakfast” stop our car lost power to it’s electics. I should add that it was a fairly modern Kia and not a run down old banger so we had to get into the coach instead. We then headed up into the park above Arica. It was interesting and we saw a lot of wildlife as well though we didn’t spend long in the park and were soon returning to Arica.

Arequipa again

After leaving Puno I spent a couple of relaxing days in Arequipa. I left there a day later than planned as the accommodation in Tacna was going to be really expensive so I stayed in Arequipa for an extra day. On Sunday afternoon I went to a food festival in Arequipa and tried stuffed peppers which is a speciality while I was there. Other than that I went out on Saturday night and lazed around the hostel.

On the bus to Tacna I saw the romantic comedy “Failure to Launch” which was predictable but still funny. I also saw the Cruz del Sur “tour Peru” (but just point the camera at the attractive female presenter) video that includes a detailed look at some inca baths the presenter in a bikini for the third time. Frankly I’m bored of it now. We did get to see Shooter which was a really good film.

After the bus arrived in Tacna I took a collectivo for the short trip across the border into Chile where I now am. Chile is much richer and nicer but also more expensive.

Puno and Lake Titicaca

So on Wednesday I got the early morning bus with Cruz del Sur to Puno. The bus wasn’t as nice as the ones I’d been on before and it didn’t redeem itself with it’s movie choice of Miss Congeniality. By the afternoon I had arrived in Puno and got a “taxi” (actually a three wheeled motorbike which was a new experience) to my hostel. After a one hour walk around town I had caught all the main “sights” of the town. I’d be curious to know whether it manages to beat Slough in the excitement stakes (though this week it is hosting the APEC summit which means the town was full of policemen). Anyhow like Slough there are more interesting sights nearby in this case consisting of lake titicaca (which means Grey Puma in Ketchua the local language) which I went on a two day tour of.

The tour started early in the morning and was great. First we went to the floating islands near Puno which are made of reeds and mud and are artificial islands that have existed since inca times. Additionally part of the reeds are edible and we got to eat some of them. They have a subtle flavour and are generally similar to the banana. After that we went on a further three hour boat journey to the island where we were going to stay the night and we had an unfortunately late (but tasty) lunch before going to watch the sunset over the island which was very beautiful. After this on the way back to my accommodation in the presidents house I got lost and had to ask for directions in Spanish. As I was staying in the presidents house I assumed this was going to be a trivial process but there were 7 communities on the island and so there were 7 presidents and they were unsure which one we were staying with and neither were we. In the end we figured it out and were taken back to our accommodation.

After that we had dinner and then dressed in a poncho to go to a traditional dance festival which was very interesting and we danced around the fire which was fun. Then the next day we went to another local island with overpriced souvineers for a morning walk followed by lunch. After which we took the boat back to Puno. Back at the hostel I had the pleasure of reading my favourite magazine: Teen Vogue, it is the only magazine I’ve ever read which stops articles in the middle and then starts another article. It also has so may ads that the contents doesn’t finish until page 60 of the magazine! I went out with people from my hostel first to get a meal for only 2.5 soles (US$0.87) and then for considerably more expensive drinks in town. I had a Pisco Sour which is a traditional Peruvian drink and it was considerably better than the ones I have had before.

Today I have just arrived back into Arequipa for the night before heading onto Tacna and the Chilean border tomorrow.