The day before my flight from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, I discovered there was a national strike in Argentina. Reportedly 22,000 people missed flights in and out of Buenos Aires. Fortunately, I flew on KLM and not a national Argentine carrier, so my flight was not affected.
As a matter of fact, the airport in Buenos Aires wasn’t crowded at all. My taxi sped quickly to my Airbnb; the streets were almost empty. The strike seemed to have made my travel day much easier.
So far, Buenos Aires seems very nice. Argentina is a country that has gone through many years of financial and political troubles, but the people seem to suffer it well. For the most part everyone seems friendly. A bonus for me is that the Spanish spoken here seems perfectly understandable. I had always believed Chilean Spanish would be easier to understand than the Argentinian dialect, but I was wrong. Sure, they use “vos” in Argentina, but for some reason I don’t seem to have trouble with it.
It’s time to hit the road again and see a new city. Santiago was a good place to relax for a while before seeing more of South America. Sadly, Santiago seems a bit rough around the edges and I didn’t enjoy my time here so much. It was just okay. Maybe it was my bad luck, but the people here seem surly and unhappy. Baristas at coffee shops seem to really dislike their customers and good service here is…lacking.
I suppose the worst thing, from my perspective, was the spoken Spanish here. I just really had a hard time understanding what the hell people were saying. It would be a good thing to study the local dialect at a school for a few months, but that won’t fit into my plans this trip. Adios, Chile.
I finally got my laptop back and I can make a blog entry! Yaay! 🙂 My estimated 3-5 day repair turned into more than three weeks of waiting. Lesson learned. Don’t do that ever again.
Today, the waitress at cafe, C’est si Bon, said something I didn’t catch and she repeated it in English. Wow. That was a surprise. I don’t think English is widely spoken here. I asked her why she was studying English. I assumed it must be for university requirements or work. Nope. She just likes languages; mostly English and Italian. I like to hear that. A fellow linguaphile (a person who loves languages).
After finishing my meal I said, “me he puesto hasta las trancas”. This roughly translates as, “I’m stuffed to the gills”. She said they don’t say that down here, but she understood the meaning. I’m not surprised. I think it’s mostly Mexican lingo.
I’m really surprised at how difficult I find the Chilean brand of Spanish. Yikes! It’s kickin’ my ass! I feel like an idiot when I’m constantly saying, “¿Cómo?” (What?) Or when I have to surrender and say, “No entiendo”. I just don’t understand what the hell you’re saying to me. Argh. 🙁
Oh well, it is what it is.
Speaking of languages, I’d really like to go to an Arab country and enroll in some more Arabic classes. I’d also like to continue with my Lithuanian in Vilnius or Klaipeda. We’ll see how that goes…
Other than the waitress today, I’ve heard absolutely zero English on the street here. I’m sure there are tourists around, but I haven’t seen or heard them.
One thing that’s nice about Santiago is that the main river that runs through the city doesn’t stink to high hell. That’s a real problem in most of the cities I’ve visited in Latin America. Water is not supposed to stink. It’s nice being able to walk the parks adjacent to the river and be able to breathe the air.
What have I done during my four weeks so far here? Not a lot. Sometimes it’s important to just relax and do nothing. Of course, I go for long walks every day. I don’t just sit inside, but I feel the need to do a lot of nothing after visiting every country between Mexico and here. Traveling might seem glamorous, but it’s also very tiring.
I don’t really see the need to do “everything” or see “everything”. Just being in a new country and hanging out with the locals on the street can be just as rewarding.
Another thing that’s nice about Santiago is how little driver’s honk their horns; very refreshing. Blaring horns can wear on you. Oh, and they don’t use a lot of plastic bags here. You’re strongly encouraged to bring your own reusable cloth bag when you go shopping. Nice. I bought one for my own use.
On 1 May I plan to fly to Buenos Aires. That means I have two weeks to plan my trip back north. It’s surprisingly difficult to make those plans. I want to visit Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil as I return north. I’d love to add Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana, but they may have to wait. Working out details for Airbnbs and flights is very time consuming.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention I’ve already been through a couple of earthquakes down here. The strongest was only 5.5, but it really shook my bed and woke me up.
Before I started on my journey through Latin America, I steeled myself for the eventual minor and major disasters I might have to suffer. There have been a few along the way. Yesterday morning my laptop screen was damaged and now it only displays about 6/10 of what it should. For me, it’s a disaster. I can’t see anything along the bottom of the screen or on the right-hand side.
Luckily, Chile is the wealthiest nation in South America and Santiago is the wealthiest city in South America, so it’s good timing for having an accident. My Airbnb rental is just a 15-minute walk to the largest mall in Santiago (Costanera) and it has an Apple store there. Sadly, when I asked for a 13-inch Macbook Pro with one terabyte of storage; no can do. The largest amount of storage you can get on a Mac in Chile is 512 GB. Oh, chicken farts!
That won’t work for me. So, I’m going to have to hand over my laptop and have them replace the screen. They say it will only take a week, but I have my doubts about that. I’ve yet to find a single coffee shop in Latin America that opens when they say they open. I suspect time deadlines are pure speculation at best here. I really hate, hate, hate not having my laptop. I’ll go through serious withdrawals. Arg.
The first hour I was in Santiago I was walking briskly down the street and came upon a crosswalk with a green light. As I stepped into the crossing I somehow wedged my right ankle into a small crevice in the pavement and my ankle twisted away from my body in a way it shouldn’t twist. My momentum kept me going forward and I planted all my weight on my left foot, but it was too late to stop my forward motion. I kept moving forward and sunk down to my left knee which hit the asphalt hard. I didn’t lose my balance. I pulled my right knee forward in front of me and came right back up off the ground in one smooth, if not graceful, motion. I didn’t miss a beat and I kept walking forward.
I acted like it was nothing, but my left knee and right ankle were screaming. I walked about three blocks before stopping at a bench to inspect the damage. Fortunately, my pants were only scratched; they hadn’t torn. My knee was a bit bloodied up in about four spots where the skin had broken, but it wasn’t too bad. The ankle is fine too, it’ll just be a bit tender for a few days.
My Airbnb rental is pretty good. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. I’m on the 19th floor overlooking the city and I can’t hear the traffic at night. It’s barely noticeable during the day. People don’t honk their horns much at all in this city. Very nice.
I plan to be in this apartment for a total of six weeks. After three or four cities, I need a break from traveling. It’s good to recharge my batteries. My last month-long break was in Lima. Since then I’ve hit 1) Arequipa, 2) Puno, 3) La Paz, 4) Santa Cruz and now 5) Santiago. Time to chill.
Santiago is a great place for it. So far, this city seems fabulous. It’s big (5.6 million), but it doesn’t feel super-crowded. I’m in a nice area with dozens of cafés, restaurants, convenience shops and shopping malls. I have everything I need.
Today I took a short trip to the center of downtown on the subway (metro). It was great. I bought a “Bip” metro card and filled it with 20,000 Chilean pesos (30 bucks). Each trip on the metro is only a buck. I made one trip downtown and one trip back, so that leaves me with about 28 more trips to go? That should last me.
I’ve come into the habit of having a pizza and beer every time I visit a new country. The eatery I found was lovely and had a the perfect Italian atmosphere.
One last thing before I sign off and take my laptop to be repaired; I came across a new saying I’ve never seen before. This sign says, “Qué cuernos estarán por abrir aquí?” I know that when anyone is talking about cuernos (horns), they’re talking about a woman placing horns on a man’s head; as in making him a cuckold. But, that’s considered vulgar, so why is this plastered in front of a restaurant under construction? I had to ask. I guess in South America, the expression, “Qué cuernos” can also mean, “What the hell!” So, this sign translates into, “What the hell is going to open here?”
Honestly, the only reason I visited Santa Cruz, Bolivia was because I couldn’t find a flight that worked well for me from La Paz to Santiago, Chile. The flights I found either connected me back to Lima, Peru (no thanks) or through Santa Cruz, change planes, and then on to Santiago. I figured if I had to connect through a new city on my way to Santiago, I might as well spend a few days in that city walking around. How was Santa Cruz?
It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t remarkable. The only interesting thing about it was in how it compared to La Paz. I was honestly happy to get the hell out of La Paz.
La Paz was dirty, grey, chaotic, polluted and you REALLY feel the altitude. Santa Cruz is on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains and it’s cut right out of the jungle. The vegetation is lush and the air is thick with oxygen and moisture. Santa Cruz sits at an elevation of only 400 meters or 1,300 feet above sea level. It’s nice and tropical. Oddly, both La Paz and Santa Cruz are in the Amazon Basin meaning any water here drains eventually in to the Amazon River.
One of my Uber drivers in Santa Cruz was very keen to speak English with me. He was Bolivian, but he had spent three years in Canada studying English and then seven years working in Rhode Island, United States. He said he missed the country badly. He had never wanted to leave, but he met his future wife in Rhode Island (she’s also Bolivian) and after they got married he said she constantly complained about how she didn’t have any friends in the U.S., she missed her sisters and her parents and her culture, etc., so he had to move back to Bolivia to please her. Now he drives for Uber. He said he missed U.S. culture, the adherence to driving rules, the people and the cultural norms. He seemed very sad.
I felt bad for him. I think the trip cost me four bucks. I gave him a five-dollar tip.
I saw almost no gringos in Bolivia. That probably has something to do with the ridiculous hoops a visitor has to jump through just to have the honor of spending time there. Because there are so few visitors in Bolivia, the people really notice you on the street. You catch their eye and they tend to look at you. I’m used to it 😉
When I got on my three-hour flight to Santiago, a guy was sitting in my seat. This happens almost every time I fly. I check in online early, if possible, and I try to get an aisle seat towards the front. Somebody will decide they like that seat as well and when I gently point out they are in my seat, they offer to give me their seat in the middle of the row in exchange. I don’t hesitate, “no gracias, quisiera esta.” – no thank you, I would like this one 🙂 🙂
I’m sitting in the La Paz International Airport in El Alto and it’s a good time to update the blog. I got to the airport at 9:00 for a 12:45 departure. Yes, it’s extremely early, but I had the impression the cafe at the airport was good and if it had wifi and an electrical plug, I’d be golden.
Turns out Alexander Coffee at the La Paz airport is better than expected. I have a great little table, electricity, all the coffee I care to order and strong, free wifi. Sweet!
What is La Paz like? Sadly, La Paz is a city of little charm. Bolivia is the poorest nation in all of South America and it shows. I feel for the people. La Paz is basically unwalkable. There’s nothing to see or do really, and they can barely fit one more “micro” (mini-bus) onto the gridlocked, exhaust-filled battle zones they call streets.
It’ll be good to get out of La Paz. Don’t get me wrong, the people are nice, but this city is chaos.
There is one thing nice about La Paz, their subway system, or rather their cable cars. A subway wouldn’t work here because this city is basically built, and unplanned, on the side of a mountain. You’re either walking uphill or downhill, never on a level plain. The highest part of the megalopolis is named fittingly, El Alto. The poorest of the poor live at the very top of El Alto. The richest of the rich live at the very bottom of the city. Everyone here dreams of moving downhill and thus, obtaining a higher niche in the social strata.
The streets are so packed with vehicles that transportation is a nightmare. Enter the cable cars. They’re brilliant; and cheap! They have something like seven different color-coded lines and they’re extremely nice to ride. I highly recommend a day just exploring the city via cable cars. Other than that, stay inside. That worked for me since the Airbnb I rented actually had a gym in the flat. A bedroom had been converted into a gym with a decent treadmill. How nice is that?
What an amazing day. I had no idea this part of the world was so beautiful. I saw amazing panoramic view after amazing panoramic view. I can’t remember enjoying a long drive more.
I got to Café Ricos Pan in Puno on time, had a small breakfast and coffee, bought four pastries (I like to share) and two bottles of water for the drive. My driver picked me up at 7:00.
The transport service was expensive, $260 USD, but I’m very happy I went to La Paz this way.
A little background, there are two border crossings to choose from on the Puno to La Paz route; Desaguadero and Kasani. If you go online and read about Desaguadero, it sounds like the last place you want to be in for anything let alone crossing a border. It’s a very busy, hectic place with long lines. This is the primary crossing point for all large vehicles, large buses, etc. I had originally purchased a bus ticket for this route.
Alternatively, the Kasani route is fantastic. I think we arrived there at about 9:30 on a Thursday morning – after sharing some delicious chocolate pastries. It was cloudy, chilly and there was a light rain. My driver had to park the minivan (nine seats, so I got to spread out) on the Peruvian side. He told me to go through Peruvian immigration control, then walk to the border crossing (five minute walk) and go through Bolivian immigration. I walked in and I was the only customer. Sweet!
A Peruvian immigration officer stamped my passport and that was it. I walked to Bolivia and there was a line of three people, but there were four agent windows. Sweet!
The Bolivian immigration agent took my passport. As I handed it over, I had it open to the Bolivian visa page and told him I already had a visa. In a previous blog post I wrote about getting the visa in Lima at the Bolivian embassy.
The agent handed me a paper form to fill out, top and bottom. I walked out of the building to a table that had a pen (I had one ready as this isn’t my first time at a dance) and spent about 10 minutes working on the form. I went back in, no line this time, another agent took my passport and the form, never asked me a question, never asked me for any documents (which I had ready in paper form), he stamped my passport giving me 30 days in Bolivia and that was it. It was so fast!
If I’d taken the bus through Desaguadero, there would have been long lines of trucks, buses, and I would have had to cross the border along with hundreds of other bus passengers.
Kasani was easy!
My driver met me after I got my stamp and he handed me over to my Bolivian driver. Those are the international rules. My Bolivian driver, Porfirio, was really great. He took me into a small town called Copacabana, arranged for me to meet a couple of his Aymara buddies for a photo and kept saying if I wanted anything or needed anything that he was “at my disposition”. Apparently, part of my travel package included a lunch in Copacabana, but I wasn’t hungry. I’d eaten breakfast and a pastry on the road. I told Porfirio we could certainly stop if he was hungry, but I wasn’t and as far as I was concerned, we could continue to La Paz. Porfirio wasn’t hungry.
I should mention, of course, all the time we’re speaking, we’re speaking in Spanish. I’ve studied the language since high school and kept with it for many years using private tutors, but for the 8.5 years I was in Asia, I didn’t use Spanish at all. So, I’m very rusty. But, due to trips like this one, I get to practice for many hours talking about everything under the sun.
One topic that came up early during my time with Porfirio was, “Oye Porfirio, no hay cinturones de seguridad aquí?” (Hey Porfirio, are there not any seatbelts here?)
Bolivians don’t use seat belts.
He came back to my seat and spent about 15 minutes trying to wrangle the seat belt strap out of the deep abyss it had disappeared into. When he finally got it out, it was pristine. A seatbelt that had never been used. Nice.
The views on the road after Kasani were brilliant. I was in awe of how beautiful this part of the world is. When we arrived at the lazy little village of San Pedro de Tiquina (population 694) wanting to cross to the other side of the Tiquina Strait to San Pablo de Tiquina (population 981), I understood why this crossing is so lightly attended. The only way to get across is by ferry, and by ferry I mean small wood boats that barely hold two minivans each. These boats are called, barcazas. As we drove up to the barcaza ramp one barcaza was about to depart and it only had one minivan on board. Score! No line, no waiting.
We drove on to the barcaza and we were off! The crossing was quite windy and the barcaza rocked a lot on the waves. I made contingency plans in my head as to what I’d do and how I’d do it if we started to go under. Of course, we were extremely high in the mountains and I knew the water in Lake Titicaca must be just barely above freezing. So, you might have just a few minutes in the water before you enter deep hypothermia. Swimming for it would probably not work. I prayed to the Lake Titicaca gods 😉
We made it to the other side and I asked Porfirio about the leaves on the lady’s back. “I assume those are coca leaves?” Coca is of course notorious for its final product – cocaine.
He said sure, coca leaves are everywhere here. He reached into the glovebox and pulled out a bag of the leaves. He handed it to me and said I was free to chew on some. I didn’t take any, but it was nice of him to offer.
When I handed it back, he said it was actually a good time to have some himself, so he started chewing a few. From what I understand the leaves themselves are simply a mild stimulant. Porfirio told me to never chew on them if you want to sleep. They do a great job of keeping you awake.
I asked at what age he started chewing. He said he was about 30. I asked if children in Bolivia are allowed to have any and he said they were not.
The drive from Arequipa was awesome. I could have taken a bus, but I decided to call an Uber. It was much more expensive, sure, but it’s so nice being able to leave on your own schedule. The driver picks you up where you want to be picked up and he/she drops you off where you want to be dropped off.
Plus, the drive was over five hours long and if you want to stop for a photo or a toilet break, no problem. A private car is the only way to go.
We drove into the Andes Mountains and it was AMAZING! I highly recommend a drive through the Altiplano (Spanish for high-plain). You climb and climb through spectacular scenery and then you enter an open plain devoid of trees and the views are just something else. There are dozens of signs warning of the presence of llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos (as a group; camelids).
No, I can’t tell the difference between the different camelids. But, I saw thousands of them as we drove to Puno. Sometimes they crowd the road and you have to slow way down. It was brilliant.
We stopped once so I could try to get close to them for a photo. They were having none of it. They won’t let you get close at all.
As you get higher into the Andes you also notice the people have a very distinct look to them. These are the descendants of the Inca and other native nations of the region. During the three days I’ve been in Puno I’ve asked if I could take someone’s photo and they have always said no. Rats! Sure, I could walk around town photographing the Aymara people without their permission, but that’s not right. I’ll just keep asking and maybe I’ll get lucky.
I really like Puno. It’s a great change of pace after hectic, crowded, polluted Lima and Arequipa. Puno is chill. The population is only about 140,000 people living on Lake Titicaca. The air here is super-thin. Puno sits at 12,556 feet or 3,827 meters. High altitudes don’t normally bother me, but this city is built on some very steep and tall hills. Just walking from my Airbnb into town (15 minutes) and back (another 15) really kicks my butt. You have to stop once or twice to get your wind back.
As a matter of fact, today I walked down hill all the way to the city center to my favorite coffee shop. I got to my table and realized I had left my laptop in the flat. Nooooooo!!!! I’ve never done that before.
I had to walk back up the hill to get it – without coffee. Ouch.
The place in Puno I love is called, Ricos Pan. It’s a great little coffee shop, bakery, and eatery. They open at 6:30 in the morning which is perfect for me. I love to get up very early to have my coffee. At the top of the stairs, the first table on your immediate right is perfect for one person and it has an electrical outlet and wifi. Sublime. You should visit Puno.
I like Ricos Pan so much, I go back for lunch.
Early tomorrow morning I’ll get up, pack and go to Ricos Pan. I’ll scarf down some coffee (actually a latte), get some food to go and my driver will meet me at 7:00 out front. Yep, time for the next leg of my trip; a seven-hour drive to La Paz, Bolivia.
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. As a matter of fact, here are the three highest capital cities on the planet:
1 – La Paz, Bolivia (2.7 million) 3,640 meters or 11,942 ft.
2 – Quito, Ecuador (1.6 million) 2,850 meters or 9,350 ft.
3 – Bogotá, Colombia (8 million) 2,625 meters or 8,612 ft.
Yep, I’ve been to each one on this trip.
My home city of Denver, Colorado comes in at only 1,609 meters or 5,280 ft.
Like I said, here in Puno we’re at 3,827 meters or 12,556 ft., so it’s all down hill from here 🙂
You can’t take an Uber across a national border. My driver will take me to the border, say goodbye, and a buddy of his will be waiting on the other side to take me to La Paz. One other nice thing about having a private car is that I avoid the pandemonium of border crossings on a bus. It’s particularly bad at the normal bus crossing here called, Desaguadero. Everything I’ve read makes this place out to be a real armpit of a town.
Having a private car allows me to go to another crossing near Copacabana. It’s a nice, lazy, quiet border town that the buses can’t use. The reason (I think) is because on this route you have to take a ferry across a part of Lake Titicaca. You mean I get to avoid the crowds, long lines AND I get a ferry trip on Lake Titicaca? Sold!