Tag Archives: South America

Travelling: You’re Doing it Wrong

I wrote most of this post while we were in South America but never put the finishing touches on it and published it. I came back to it today because it still resonates with me, and I thought it was worth posting. Enjoy! 

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The title of this post is something that I find myself thinking every once in a while. I try to push the thought away as quickly as it appears, but there are times when I just can’t help myself. Before you think that I’m constantly judging others for their choices, I’ll clarify that I’m talking about the way that I think about my own travel. With so many different places to go and things to do, and an even bigger variety of ways to do them, it’s hard not to second guess myself and feel like we’re maybe not doing things in exactly the way they should be done.

When we were in Cusco, I had a brief conversation with another Canadian traveller about our plans for heading to Machu Picchu. He asked me which trek we’d be doing, and I let him know that we weren’t going to be doing any trek at all. Instead we’d be making our way up there by train and bus. He was completely shocked by this, and said to me “No way. There’s no way you can come to Cusco and not do one of the treks to Machu Picchu”. While I know that hiking through the Sacred Valley would be an amazing experience, for various reasons it just wasn’t going to work for us, and I attempted to explain this to him. At that moment I felt like I needed to justify our choices so that we wouldn’t somehow seem like “lesser travellers”, whatever that means. There was no convincing him, though – we were most definitely doing it wrong.

I’m giving this guy more screen time than the space he really took up in my head. Look me in the eye and I’ll tell you without hesitation that his attitude was ridiculous, and that no one should make those kinds of judgements about their fellow travellers, or fellow human beings for that matter. But the hardest voice to silence is the one in my own head. Zevi and I have realized that we just aren’t “museum people”. They honestly aren’t a lot of fun for us and we rarely feel like we’ve gotten our money’s worth when we go. We’d rather spend our cash eating at a great restaurant or seeing a cool show or doing some kind of outdoor activity. Even with that knowlege, it’s hard not to feel like we’re doing it wrong when we talk to people who rave about Bogota’s Botero gallery, which we skipped, or Arequipa’s Museum of Andean Sanctuaries, which we gave a pass to as well. Are we missing some sort of key experience if we don’t check these things off our list? In my heart I know that we’re not, and we’re doing our trip in exactly the way that works for us, and that’s the only thing that matters. That doesn’t mean I don’t have moments of irrational self-doubt where I question the choices we’re making, though.

I’ve realized that the worst thing we can do is take someone’s else version of “doing it right” and try to apply it to our own trip. We love hearing about things that other people have loved along the way, but the fact that our newfound friends tell us that we just have to go somewhere, seriously does not mean that we do. We’ve made the choice to skip Iguazu Falls. It’s a real shame that we won’t be able to make it there, because everyone we talk to tells us it’s a showstopper, but it just isn’t going to fit within our budget and our itinerary. With a month in Argentina, many would be shocked that we won’t be making the trip there, but that’s just the way things are going to work out. And that’s ok.

In Puerto Maldonado we met a couple who decided to skip Machu Picchu altogether. For a second, I found myself feeling incredulous – how could they miss out on what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something so iconic? I quickly stopped myself when I realized that I was thinking about their journey in the same way as that guy in Cusco was thinking about ours. As strange as it might seem to me, the choice they made was the right one for them, and it’s not my place to declare that their somewhat unorthodox decision is the wrong one. As with most things in life, it’s best to just worry about what we’re doing and appreciate that everyone is doing what they’re doing for their own reasons. I’m going to keep on spending hours in farmers markets and leave the must-see museums for everyone else. When that doubting voice in my head starts to creep in, I’ll take another bite of ceviche and remember that as long as we’re being true to ourselves, there’s no reason for regrets.

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That Time We Got Stuck in the Argentinian Salt Flats – Part One

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When you get back from a long distance adventure, there’s generally one story that gets told over and over again. It’s the one that your closest family members and friends have heard numerous times, because every time you’re with someone who hasn’t heard it they insist that you tell it again. For us, the story that everyone has heard is about the time we got ourselves in a pretty bad situation during our road trip in Northern Argentina. Zevi does a pretty good job of telling it, but I’m going to give it a go myself, because no account of our trip would be complete without it.

We’d had a beautiful and adventurous day of driving a tiny rural highway that wound up and down high mountain passes, and after conquering that crazy road, we were feeling pretty relaxed about the rest of our day. The salt flats had been something we’d been excited about for a long time – they were one of the first things we’d pegged as a must-see in Northern Argentina. Since we knew that a lot of tourists visited them, we didn’t really think much about any risks that might be involved in checking them out. We figured that we’d drive out, take some cool photos, and be at our hotel in ample time to grab some dinner.

After driving about an hour and a half from the small town of San Antonio de los Cobres, we were super excited when we looked to our left and saw a white expanse of crusty salt glistening not too far in the distance. We were keen on securing ourselves a prime picture taking spot that wasn’t too packed with people, so we decided to take an unmarked side road towards the flats. As we bumped and rolled our way on to the salt, we were excited to see that we would have the entire area to ourselves. It was so beautifully secluded, which we thought was strange given that it was a well-known tourist attraction, but we were happy to be solo.

We really wanted to recreate those cool reflection photos that people take on salt flats that I’m sure many of you have seen, so we were excited when we saw a small blue lake on our GPS. We decided to drive towards it in hopes that we could get some amazing shots of our own. Between our excitement about being on the amazingly expansive salt flats, the promise of capturing some top notch photos, and the euphoric high from having conquered that risky mountain road, we weren’t even a little bit worried about the fact that we were driving kilometres upon kilometres further from civilization. The salt appeared to be solid, and it seemed unthinkable that we could run in to any sort of trouble.

That is, until we did start to run in to trouble. We’d arrived at the area where the GPS told us that there would be water, but there was no water to be seen. All of a sudden we heard a splash, and felt the truck lurch downwards as it cracked through the salt in to the muddy water below. We had found the lake, but it was under the salt, rather than on top of it. This was the first moment when I realized that being so incredibly alone might not be such a great thing after all, and I told Zevi we needed to turn around and get out of that area ASAP. He was in complete agreement, but as he turned the truck around, we sank in again. At this point we were both starting to panic even as we popped out of the mud and continued on our way. Our fears were validated when we sunk in a third time. This time we didn’t pop out. We were seriously stuck.

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I don’t think I realized the true gravity of the situation at first, or at least I wanted to remain optimistic. We had experience getting ourselves free from Calgary’s snow banks, so I figured we’d be able to maneuver ourselves out of there with a little a little rocking back and forth and pushing. Unfortunately, none of our tried and true techniques got us anywhere. In fact, we may have actually been making things worse. Finally we surrendered to the fact that there was absolutely no way we were getting ourselves out of there. Suddenly our solitude was a serious problem.

People always say that if you run in to trouble the thing to do is stay with your vehicle until help comes to you. We had driven so far out on to the flats, though, that no one was going to be coming our way any time soon, so we had no choice but to trek towards the road and try to flag down a passing car. It was a scorchingly hot day, so we made sure to slather on the sunscreen and bring all of the water we had for our walk to the gravel highway. Using his GPS app, Zevi figured that the walk would be about five or six kilometres, which we thought would still give us enough time to find help and get towed out that evening. That dream started to dwindle as we walked on and on, crunching our way through the seemingly never ending salt only to arrive at a muddy swamp where one false step would suck us in to our hiking boot tops (Zevi learned this the hard way). Every so often I’d exclaim to Zevi that I could see someone in the distance, but my hopes were dashed when I realized that the wild donkeys looked an awful lot like people when you looked at them from just the right angle. Honestly I think I could have tricked my mind into thinking that almost anything looked like a human at that point – I wanted so badly to find the saviour that would bail us out of this increasingly dire predicament. We walked on and on towards what we thought might be buildings, looking for any sign of civilization.

Stay tuned for part two where I’ll wrap up this story.

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Road Tripping in Northern Argentina

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After spending twelve wonderful days in Buenos Aires, we were off to see a completely different side of Argentina. We headed up north to Salta, and from there we rented a truck and headed off on one of the craziest and most memorable road trips I’ve ever been on.
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Graffiti in Buenos Aires

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So many of the cities we’ve visited so far on this trip have had a wealth of amazing street art, and Buenos Aires is no different. To get some more insight into the art we were seeing as we explored the city and learn more about the culture surrounding it, we signed up for a tour through graffitimundo. We did the North City tour, which started in Colegiales and ended in Palermo.
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Ten Things You Should Know Before Going to Argentina

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We spent a month in Argentina, and I still have so much more to say about most of the places we visited there (how am I ever going to get to Chile??). I would highly recommend visiting this beautiful country, and I hope that all of you get a chance to experience it! Before you go, here are a few things that you should know.

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The Dreaded Sunday

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You’re fresh off the airplane, ready to explore a new city. As your taxi winds through the one way streets and shop-lined thoroughfares, you notice that most stores have their shutters pulled. Maybe this is just a quiet part of town, you think to yourself.

You check in to your hotel or hostel or apartment and drop off your mammoth bag. This routine is nothing new. The leaving and arriving and rediscovering has been played out so many times over your trip that you’ve lost count. That’s not to say you’re sick of it, it’s just a part of the game that is long distance and long duration travelling. You actually relish the chance to walk out your door to a sight that you’ve never seen before. Yes, you’ve read the TripAdvisor reviews and the Lonely Planet tips and heard about THE BEST cafe in town from your newest, and now former, best hostel friend, but discovering a city is so personal that you don’t know what you’ll think of it until you get out there yourself. As tempted as you are to maybe just stay in the comfort of your room, the one place where you don’t have to attempt to navigate a foreign language and wave off sticker sellers and tour hawkers, for a few more minutes, you know it’s time. It’s time to get out there and find out what the city has to offer. It’s time to discover your version of the latest stop on your travels.

As you walk out the hostel door, you’re confused. All of the reviews on HostelWorld said that this place was in the heart of the tourist district, that there were a ton of things to do just steps from your door, and that THIS was the place to be if you really wanted to have a good time in your temporary hometown. So why is there no one walking the street? The main square is so deserted that you could probably hear a two peso coin drop. The snack sellers and vegetable vendors have left their stalls deserted. The only restaurants open have ten page long menus and are clearly only geared towards the desperate tourist. It turns out that that’s you right now, and suddenly you figure out why. It’s Sunday.

When you don’t have the five day work week and two day weekend rhythm dictating your life, losing track of the days is a regular occurrence. Friday’s no longer your holy grail, and there’s no reason to wait for Saturday night to party when you could just as easily live it up on Tuesday. You don’t fear Monday morning unless it involves trying to dig your truck out of the Argentinian salt flats. Sunday, though… Sunday is the worst day to be a traveller. Yes, there may be an antiques fair here or a market in the park there, but that’s no consolation for the fact that your first eight restaurant choices are closed, and every shop except for a couple of corner stores has its doors barred. If you want to turn the most bustling downtown into a ghost town, just tell everyone it’s Sunday.

You walk back to your apartment and remind yourself that tomorrow is Monday, and tomorrow the streets will come back to life. Tomorrow is a better day to form your first impression of this place. It’s a good thing you’ll still be here tomorrow, because today is Sunday, and the city is asleep.

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The Peruvian Cooking Experience

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On our last day in Arequipa it was time for some learning of the culinary variety. We participated in a cooking classs called the Peruvian Cooking Experience, hosted by hotel that was, conveniently, only a couple of blocks from our hostel. I’d been looking up cooking classes in almost every stop along our way but they’d all been way too expensive, so I was pretty excited when Zevi said he’d found one that would fit our budget. We had a lot of fun making two traditional Peruvian dishes with instruction from Lady (Lady is a legit name in Peru, as we were told a few times), the head chef.
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Exploring the Colca Canyon

As Cusco equals Machu Picchu, Arequipa is practically synonymous with the Colca Canyon, and many travellers treat it as a jumping off point for treks in to the second deepest canyon in the world. Although we thought we might do a longer hike, and I know that it would have been great to do so, we were pretty exhausted from our time in the jungle, so we decided to make things a little easier on ourselves by opting for a single day excursion.
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The Peruvian Amazon – Part Two

This is the second of two posts about our stay in the Amazon. Find part one here.

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On our second morning in the Amazon we were up bright and early to visit a clay lick in the hopes of seeing some birds eating there. Apparently the clay in their stomach helps them filter out the toxins from the jungle fruit that they eat. We lucked out and managed to squeak in there before it rained, which meant that got to see a ton of macaws and parrots, among others. Unfortunately we couldn’t fit our enormous zoom lenses in our backpacks (even our imaginary ones were too big), so we had to observe as our fellow travellers took pictures of the far away birds. We definitely didn’t have a prime picture taking set up for the jungle, so most of our animal photos are blurry blobs in the distance. There’s only so much room you can devote to photography equipment on a three month backpacking trip. We lucked out on our way back to the lodge and spotted a couple of capybaras, which are the world’s biggest rodents.
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The Peruvian Amazon – Part One

This is the first post of two on our experience in the Amazon. Find part two here

We’d been to big cities and explored ancient ruins, so naturally next on our list was heading to the remote jungles of Peru. That’s the natural order of things, right? Anyways, we arrived in the small city of Puerto Maldonado after about a thirty five minute flight from Cusco. It’s amazing how much things can change in just half an hour. When we left Cusco it was about eleven degrees and quite dry, and we stepped off the plane in Puerto Maldonado into thirty-plus degrees and some noticeable humidity. We’d been expecting a pretty dramatic rise in temperature, but it was still a bit of a shock after spending most of the previous week wearing all of our warm layers.

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Since we were the first of our six person group to arrive, Paul, our guide, had time to take us on a little tour of Puerto Maldonado. With all due respect to Puerto Maldonado it’s not exactly a hotbed of tourist activity, and most people treat it as a jumping off point to the jungle as we were doing, so we basically covered everything in half an hour or so. It was fun to see all of the moto-taxis zipping around, and visit the market, where we managed to find a flashlight among the stalls jam packed with every household item you could think of as well as the usual fruits and vegetables.

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After a short drive to the Tambopata river, we boarded the boat that would take us to the lodge. All of the boats on the river were long and skinny with benches on each side, and even weight distribution was pretty key. Sudden movements were not a good idea, as I found out when I tried to jump quickly over to the other side of the boat to take a picture on one of our boat rides (oops). It was about an hour and a half down the river, and along the way we ate our lunch of vegetarian fried rice out of the large leaf it was wrapped in. It was filled with salty soy-meat, little pieces of squeaky cheese and various vegetables and even as an unabashed carnivore I thought it was pretty delicious! Eating out of the leaf just added another level of novelty – it was fun to pretend for a little bit that we were natives of the jungle, eating the way they might. That fantasy didn’t last long though. We stuck out like a sore thumb with our comparatively pale skin, although you couldn’t see much of it through our long pants and long sleeved shirts. I was pretty envious of the locals in their summer clothes as I sweated in my leggings and thick socks, but the warning of bug bites kept us pretty covered up for the first little bit.

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We arrived in the lodge and got settled in our little bungalow. Inotawa lodge has no electricity, except for between the hours of six and nine PM when the dining room was lit up and plugs were available at the bar to charge any of our various electronic devices. Our bungalow, however, was completely power free, so we relied on candles, flashlights and our questionable night vision when it got dark. Though perhaps a little inconvenient when we wanted to read before our eight o’clock dinner, it was actually really nice to be off the grid for a little while. It’s so easy to stay connected on the road now, which I really appreciate, but I welcomed a few days of truly distraction free living. It forced us to truly slow down and just relax when we weren’t out on a jungle excursion, and I actually managed to read a book or two.

All of our meals were provided for us by a team of cooks at the lodge, and we were lucky enough to get some top notch food. It certainly wasn’t anything fancy, but there were a variety of options and everything really hit the spot after a long day of hiking and being outside. There would always be a meat option, either pork, beef, or chicken, and it was usually in the form of a slow cooked and very flavourful stew. There was always white rice, and I don’t know what they did to that rice, but MAN was it good. I want to know how they prepared that stuff, because it was definitely much better than what I make at home. I’m guessing there was lots of oil involved, but I’m going to claim blissful ignorance on that front. The meal wouldn’t be complete without the ever-present Peruvian second starch, which would come either in the form of potato, plantain, or some sort of sweet potato. The token salad was always super salty and practically inedible, but I tried to appreciate the fact that they at least offered it.

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Getting up before six was the norm, but it really wasn’t all that hard since the darkness forced us to go to bed by nine anyways. Just after we arrived, we went on a creepy night walk, where we saw lots of cool bugs and a spider that was a little too big for Zevi’s liking. We went to sleep under our mosquito netting trying not to think too much about the creepy crawlies we’d just seen mere metres from our bungalow.

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