Author Archives: Megan Ballweber

It is Chile down here too!

For the first time in our entire trip, drinking took precedence on our agenda.  While we’ve enjoyed trying the local specialties now and then, we’ve made sure not to spoil our experiences by being irresponsible or joining those tourists that are a menace to locals.  This, however, was different.  We were entering one of the most famous wine regions in the world and what better way to truly experience it than to visit bodegas by bicycle?

(Wine bottles at Familia Di Tommaso)

We were quite excited for Mendoza, Argentina, where we could kick back and spoil ourselves with high quality, super cheap wines while contemplating the past ten and a half months and the encroaching normality of life.  We lucked out with what must have been the best hostel in the city (and the cheapest), where many free and inexpensive activities were offered.  We started out with a quick walking tour where we learned enough about the city’s history of very destructive earthquakes to make us a little uneasy.  Apparently while rebuilding the last time, they didn’t take the time to make the buildings attractive because they expect them to all be wiped out again soon (comforting, eh?) and only a few newer buildings utilized the earthquake-resistant technology.  Don’t worry; there are plenty of green spaces strategically placed throughout the city to attempt survival while all the buildings come crashing down!

That night we participated in an “asado” at our hostel. Asado is their term for BBQ.  Argentina is known for these and for their delicious meats, so we had to try it.  We had a really great night eating very good food and chatting with everyone late into the night.

We didn’t want to do a package winery tour because we wanted the freedom of spending as much or as little time at each stop as we liked, so we had to catch a city bus to a nearby small town where several good wineries were concentrated.  As we were getting off the bus we met three others with the same agenda, and the bike rental shop grouped us into one group, so we went with it.  We are so glad we did, it was a really great day!  We were with a married couple from Scotland and a lady from Buenos Aires.  At the first bodega (winery) we were the only visitors when we showed up and an owner offered us a full tour in Spanish.  The girl from Buenos Aires also spoke English, so she spent the next hour translating perfectly down to the most technical vineyard terminology.  We couldn’t have been luckier!  By then we were all hungry so we decided to eat lunch at the winery restaurant before doing the tasting.  Three hours later we were still only at our FIRST winery!  The food was good, the wine was great, and the views were beautiful.  The Scottish couple had to hurry back, but the Argentine decided to stay with us for the rest of the afternoon.  Our next stop was a much larger, better known bodega.  Touring the antique facilities was really cool and very different from the smaller, much more modern winery we had just come from.  We only had time for one more stop – an olive plantation!  We got to try all kinds of olive toppings on bread, fresh olive oil, vinegars, and jams.  We also got two shots of their flavored liquors (we passed on the Absinthe).

(Riding toward our first bodega.)

(Wine tasting at Bodega Mevi.)

We had such a fun time that day that we decided to do it again the next day.  This time it would just be the two of us and we wanted to check out as many wineries as we could fit in.  We were not only enjoying it for ourselves, but we were also kind of on assignment to find some good wines to bring back to Missouri for family.  (It was a good thing we took that free wine tasting class at our hostel and learned a little something, for their sake.)  Let me tell you something about riding this route in Mendoza.  First of all, it is a long ride on a bike between each one being that wineries require huge vineyards to grow their product.  Secondly, Mendoza happens to be one of the hottest places in Argentina, and oddly dry being that grapes need a lot of water.  They still use the ancient canals for diverting water to the fields from a reservoir.  Thirdly, the sun is intense, which is why they are able to produce the wines that they do (they even have to provide shade to some of the plants to reduce sweetness).  That first day on bikes was hot, but that second day was about 102 degree Fahrenheit and we biked roughly 25 miles on pavement.  That’s what you call determination!  We began at a much better olive plantation where we fell in love with the most delicious balsamic vinegar we have ever had.  The next bodega was a very cool family-owned one called Familia Di Tommaso that had the oldest vats in the Mendoza area because they were the only ones that survived the last large earthquake.  These vats were made of brick and used to contain the juices as they fermented and became wine, before being aged in oak barrels.  These old ones are no longer used in that manner (they now use stainless steel) but are still used to store the filled wine bottles to keep them cool.  We even got to walk inside one of the enormous vats, down a spiral staircase which they installed after it was retired, to the basement level.  After a few more wineries we ended up returning to the one from the previous day that we had spent three hours at.  We bought a case despite not knowing how we were going to carry it back on bicycles.  Luckily they offered to deliver it to our hostel for free. Score!

(Bryan tasting a delicious Mevi wine.)

(Enormous vats at Trapiche winery. Hint, you can find their wine in the U.S.)

We had enough heat those two days so we spent a third day of tasting at our hostel.  We chose wines that we could buy in town with some recommendations.  That was quite a fun day, as we spent much of it Skyping and messaging family and friends.  That day we also had to make one last money exchange transaction so we could purchase the other bottles we had picked out to bring back with us.  In Argentina there are two different exchange rates – the official and the “blue dollar”, or black market. The locals prefer to exchange their pesos for U.S. currency to secure their wealth as the Argentine Peso is much less stable, but the government tries to restrict access and so the black market exchange has emerged.  That day we went back to the known exchange location, which we had used the first day in Mendoza, and all the exchangers we recognized were lounging around at cafes.  Odd, but we thought maybe they take lunch breaks too, so we came back a couple hours later only to find most had gone home and there were military men at the entrance to the shopping center where some of the exchanges occur.  We still made the exchange, but instead of doing so on the sidewalk as we did the last time, we found only one office open that we knew to exchange and we took a slightly smaller rate for the extra risky service in the back room of his office.  We were a little worried for the exchangers, but of course the soldiers knew exactly why these “gringos” were going in there and they didn’t seem to mind too much.  It was all for show but it was kind of exciting!

(Our favorite Malbec at Tempus Alba.)

We had two reasons for heading to La Serena in Chile after our final excursion crossing borders: Pisco and the night sky.  Pisco is just one of many things that Peru and Chile are always butting heads about.  They argue about which country made it first, which is best, and who makes the best Pisco Sours.  Since we really love Peru’s Pisco and Pisco Sours, we had to try the competition.  The majority of Chile’s Pisco is grown in the Elquie valley, a freakishly man-made agricultural haven.  La Serena is North of Santiago and not too far South of the Atacama Desert (our first stop in Chile and the driest place on Earth).  The terrain is also not that different from the Atacama.  The one major difference: a single river.  The only river.  The dammed river made it possible to grow in the narrow desert valley, which was a really weird sight.  As we were driving through on our Elquie Valley tour, we were overlooking these pinkish-grey, dusty mountains with sharp squares of bright green plots filling the bottom of the valley and slightly creeping up the sides.  Bryan was excited to stop at the dam so we could check out the giant reservoir in the desert, until we found out that the area had been extra dry for the past few years.  The reservoir was only at 8 (EIGHT!) percent of its capacity.  I feel for those people who set up shop in an area with such terrible odds of survival.  For the time being, though, the vineyards and plantations appeared to be getting enough water.

(Reservoir at 8% of its capacity. Look for the lines to see how low it is.)

(Green patches of vineyards in the desert.)

As we were driving down the valley, our tour guide pointed out two observatories that we could just barely see far off on distant mountaintops.  The first was Tololo, the most famous, with 8 telescopes and a radio telescope.  The second was especially exciting because it is still being built and will be pretty amazing when finished.  The LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) is a project by Google and several universities that will potentially be like Google Maps, but of the sky, and will be capable of things that current observatories are not.

We stopped at the old home and schoolhouse of a famous Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, who was the first person in all of South America to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.  At a Pisco distillery, we were surprised to find out that Chilean Pisco tastes nothing like Peruvian Pisco.  We had heard that the Chilean Pisco was better from multiple foreigners, but we have to disagree.  It was like Moonshine.  In contrast, Peruvian Pisco still has flavor, much like wine but with higher alcohol content. We enjoyed an upscale lunch on this tour and met a couple from Concepción, the city that was devastated by the 2010 earthquake. They were fun to talk to as they had unique perspectives – she being a tv newscast member and he a newspaper journalist.

(Antique filtering mechanism at Pisco distillery.)

That night we went on a tour of Mamalluca observatory.  Due to being research facilities, most of the other observatories are closed to tourism, and so Mamalluca was built for the tourists.  It definitely was for amateurs and education, but it was much better than we expected.  We started off in a dome with a high-powered, automated, refracting telescope and I got all giddy when the guide punched in the numbers for a star/planet/cluster and the telescope would spin to a specific spot and the dome would follow.  The views were phenomenal!  We saw many interesting things including Jupiter and the four largest moons and a colorful gaseous cloud.  We then went outside to a large, simplistic, reflecting telescope which we used to see closer stars, clusters, and the moon.

(Powerful refracting telescope and rotating dome.)

(Jupiter and its four moons)

(Simple reflecting telescope)

(Our moon through the telescope.)

When we were checking out of our cute hostel in La Serena, we were telling the owner how much we enjoyed sitting in the beautiful garden, eating the fresh fruit off his trees, and drinking the juice he made us from those trees.  He was so happy he took us into his leather workshop (he also taught people how to make leather sandals) and we each made bracelets for ourselves with four leaf clovers stamped into them.  We’re still wearing them and so far our luck has been pretty good!

(Bryan making a leather bracelet.)

South of La Serena was the beautiful and popular coastal town of Valparaiso, also a UNESCO world heritage site.  We weren’t so sure if we wanted to see another coastal town, but we had the time and it was highly recommended by the mother of our host in Buenos Aires.  We are so glad we did because we were very pleasantly surprised!  The city was a very important stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Straits of Magellan.  That is, until the Panama Canal was built. It was a very prosperous city and there is much evidence of that in buildings and infrastructure, but the city felt the drop very quickly and very hard when the Canal opened, and many of the beautiful buildings fell into disrepair.  It was quite interesting seeing the inside of a home fit for a king, that looks like it came straight out of England, but has been completely abandoned.  I felt like those marble staircases and angel bas-reliefs were being wasted.

(Marble staircase in abandoned mansion.)

(Weathered building in Valparaiso, Chile.)

Valparaiso is built on steep hills and features historical funicular elevators (inclined cable cars) that were built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make travel by foot much easier.  At one time there were 26, but there are maybe 16 still standing and 8 or less still running.  The beautiful city is also known for an artistic culture.  We visited the home of another Nobel Peace Prize (only the second in Chile), Pablo Neruda, a famous poet/collector/politician.  Although we knew nothing about him, his home was impressive with 5 levels built into a hillside, some of the best views in the city, and filled with his collections of antiques and art. We also checked out an area of town known for graffiti art.  Several years back a graffiti competition was held, and that sparked a never-ending culture.  It is so welcomed that most business owners pay local artists to do something on a portion or all of their storefronts. Much of what we learned about the city came from a “Wally Tour”, a type of tour for tips.  It was the best walking tour we have done and we highly recommend it if you are in the area.  In our hostel we met a friendly couple from New Zealand who we spent the better part of three days with.  They were great company and it was nice to be able to enjoy the sights with others.  On our last night there, we bought some Chilean wine together to do our own tasting.  Great fun!

(Our favorite graffiti art pieces.)

(Abandoned funicular elevator.)

(Wine tasting with our friends from New Zealand.)

Our very last city outside of the U.S. (that sounds so sad) was Santiago, the capital of Chile.  We had received an invitation from a Couchsurfing host on the outskirts of the city, but we never met him.   He didn’t plan well for having surfers, and didn’t tell us until right before our arrival that he was working until very late.  After figuring his schedule just wasn’t going to work for us, we found a hostel.  In Valparaiso we had enjoyed the Wally Tour so much we decided to do the two different versions offered in Santiago.  The next afternoon we joined the “city basics” tour where we saw all the major historical buildings, neighborhoods, and the hill where the first observatory was placed (until the city grew around it and light pollution became too much).  That day we were also witness to an important moment in history when the International Court of Justice made the decision on a long running maritime dispute between Peru and Chile.  The coast of Chile is pretty much straight North-South, but Peru’s coast starts out farther West and curves in toward Chile.  If you draw a line perpendicular to each coast to determine the territorial waters, the territories overlap.  Chile stated this was settled in a treaty from the 50’s (of course it was in their favor), but Peru disagreed.  On that day, the Court ruling split up the disputed area.  Chile lost some of the territory but was able to keep its coastal area, while Peru got more territory farther out.  I’d say that’s pretty fair, but not everyone thought so.  That day on the tour we unexpectedly walked through the unhappy crowd near the Cathedral we were aiming to visit.  Unfortunately, this caused the Cathedral to be closed with military guards.  It really wasn’t a large crowd, but I guess it was enough for the government to take precautions.  You can see illustrations and read about the dispute here:

(Unhappy crowd after International Court ruling on maritime border dispute.)

(La Moneda presidential palace, reconstructed after military coup bombed it in 1973)

The next day we took the Wally Tour that visited the less traditional areas outside the center such as the enormous fish and produce markets and a unique cemetery.  The cemetery began as Catholic-only and then was later opened to everyone (and the angered Catholics went elsewhere).  Families began building mausoleums and it turned into a competition between the rich to outdo other families with bigger, fancier, crazier designs.  We could see how this competition morphed from size alone to making miniature replicas of world famous structures and then into unique designs.  Clubs and organizations followed suit, allowing people to be exclusive members of societies even in death.  We had heard mostly negative comments about Santiago but we actually thought the city had a lot of beauty and we were pleasantly surprised.

(Thirteen family members in one grave.)

(Earlier family mausoleums.)

(Mausoleum competition getting serious.)

Our last day in Chile was quite uneventful and our farewell even less so.  We spent the last day car shopping via the internet for cars in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We had a day to find and buy a car before my family arrived for a week vacation in the Keys.  We are so thankful we had the opportunity to spend a week uninterrupted with family after being gone for so long, which also helped us ease back into culture and life in the U.S.  After the time in the Keys we were able to drive through the Everglades and to spend some time with a very good friend of mine from my hometown who I haven’t seen enough since high school.  We sadly didn’t get to spend as much time with her and her family as I would have liked due to encroaching winter storms.  That drive back to Missouri from Southern Florida was my biggest culture shock.  In South America or Asia by bus it probably would have taken three days or more, and we did it in 20 hours.  Thank goodness for our efficient highways!

(Packed for the trip home.)

As we were leaving our hostel in Santiago, a part of me felt like we were missing a big farewell party somewhere; a celebration of our achievement with hugs and well-wishes from all the friends we have made along the way; something to acknowledge how monumental the moment felt for me.  Instead, we received a simple “Chau!” from the front desk.  As we rode the bus to the airport, I thought about the sadness of a great adventure coming to an end, about how much we have learned over the past eleven months, and about how nice it will feel to be surrounded by family and friends.

Now, after three weeks of being back in the States, people ask how it feels for the adventure to be over, but the only answer we have been able to give is that it doesn’t feel like it’s over.

I guess we’re just entering a new chapter.



The Closest We Will Get To Walking On Mars

As the distances between our destinations are spread farther apart and the end of our trip creeping nearer, our time is increasingly spent on buses and less time is spent getting to know the culture, people, and feel of a place.  South America has so many phenomenal sites, natural and historical, that we sadly don’t have time for much else.  It’s not really a choice though, not when you have the opportunity to see some of the biggest, best, most extreme, and most beautiful places in the world.

In Northern Chili we headed straight for the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world full of salt flats, salt mountains, geysers, hot springs, flamingos, adobe constructions, and terrain so similar to the moon’s that one of the mars rovers was tested here.  We based ourselves in the secluded town of San Pedro de Atacama, not a bad little town for being in the middle of the driest place on earth.  Basically the entire town is made of adobe construction and they continue to use this method for most everything.  That’s good because dirt is the only thing they have!  I do wonder what they do with trash though, because a landfill in that climate would just be a mass of well-preserved trash.

(An old church made of adobe)

From San Pedro de Atacama, some of the top sites are within biking distance, but most are too far away or too dangerous in that type of climate to attempt on our own, so we ended up taking a couple of tours.  The first tour was to El Tatio, the site of the third largest geyser field in the world, in a flat basin surrounded by barren mountains.  The best time to see the geysers is at sunrise so we dressed for a cool desert morning and quickly realized that wasn’t adequate.  It turns out the geysers are at a numbing 14,173 feet above sea level.  The sight of dozens of towers of steam rising all around us, near and far, was pretty cool.  However, when we saw the geysers up close, we were a little disappointed.  If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, you’ll understand.  What we didn’t realize is that the El Tatio geysers are much, much younger than those in Yellowstone so they are not nearly as big or developed.  Also, the mineral content isn’t as rich so the El Tatio geysers don’t have all the brilliant colors that we had seen in Yellowstone.  One nice bonus was that these were not blocked off by railings, so we were able to stand within touching distance of most geysers.  Nearby was an area of somewhat older geysers that were a bit more similar to those in Yellowstone.  A thermal pool was built around one geyser and I had to try it out.  It felt warm to my numb limbs at first but not for long.  The only really warm spot was the little cove where the geyser spilled in.  It was comical seeing everyone huddled together in a corner of the large pool!

(A geyser in El Tatio)

Our second tour was to the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Lake).  It began with a stop at a tiny oasis town with an old bell tower, now a National Monument.  The interesting thing about it is that cacti “wood” was used to make the doors (the roof of the old church in San Pedro is also cacti).  Visiting the Chaxa Lagoon National Reserve within the Atacama Salt Lake was the highlight of the day.  The salt lake, formed from evaporation of an underground water system with a heavy saline load, is the third largest in the world.  The crust, which is up to 70 centimeters thick in some places, is extremely interesting to look at closely because the crystallization forms “flowers” with all sorts of shapes and textures.  Really crazy!  Somehow the beautiful Chaxa lagoon managed to form on the surface and is favored by three types of flamingos.  We found out that the pink flamingos we’ve seen in zoos are artificially colored because they can’t eat the same food as in the wild, which here meant a type of tiny shrimp so small we could barely see them.  On this tour we also visited a couple turquoise lagoons formed by the eruption of a volcano long ago.  The lagoons have no outlet and are fed only by rain and snowmelt.  From our distant viewpoint we could make out mounds of dirt and plants in the water made by birds for nests, presumably a tactic to fend off land predators.

(Thick salt crust of the Atacama Salt Lake backed by Chaxa Lagoon)

(Flamingos in Chaxa Lagoon with mountains and more salt crust in the background)

Our last Atacama trip was to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) with an impressive array of colors and textures.  We rented mountain bikes and made our own tour.  Biking and hiking through a desert so dry, hot, and at high altitude was a new experience, but we survived and it was so cool!  The first trail we walked was through a fun cave system which appeared to be carved from wind and water out of almost pure salt.  I know; I tasted it!  There were many drastically varying and really interesting formations that I don’t know how to describe, so you’ll just have to see the pictures.  This is the area where the Moon Rover was tested!

(A salt cave in Moon Valley.  See the glistening walls)

(The extremely varying landscape from a high viewpoint in Moon Valley)

We had seen a couple blogs online that raved about the drive between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Salta in Argentina, so we opted for a daytime bus and managed to stay awake for the long ride.  We transitioned from the gently rolling, desert hills West of San Pedro to rugged desert with the most enormous cacti I’ve ever seen; to a crusty, cracked salt flat; through more hills and incredible cacti; and lastly through some of the most colorful hills we have ever seen.  These last hills were decorated with linear strips quite possibly containing every color in the rainbow.  Of course our pictures through the bus window don’t do a great job of portraying them, but Argentinians are so proud of these beauties that we saw posters of these hills everywhere we went.

(A salt flat on the Argentina side of the border)

(Colorful mountains in Argentina)

We didn’t do much of anything in Salta besides relax in a really nice hostel to recoup from our active days in the desert.  We also took much advantage of a well-stocked supermarket and kitchen.  The one notable adventure in Salta was a ride in a gondola to the top of San Bernardo Hill overlooking the city.  At the top was a nice park with fountains and greenery that gave a peaceful and romantic atmosphere.

The trip from Salta, in the Northwest of Argentina, to Puerto Iguazu, in the far Northeast, took us 24 hours, which really doesn’t seem all that bad anymore.  We had only one goal for this long haul: To see Iguazu Falls and check off another site from a “Wonders” list (specifically New7Wonders of Nature in this case).  The falls are located at the border between Argentina and Brazil and are 1.6 miles wide and are both taller and more impressive than Niagara Falls (at least Eleanor Roosevelt thought so), although Niagara has a higher rate of flow.  We haven’t seen Niagara so we can’t say from personal experience.  There are many pathways that give you several different perspectives of the incredible falls, including up close to a lower section, from an island at the bottom, midway up, over smaller falls, and most impressively right on top of the strongest section, called the Devil’s Throat.  The island was closed due to increased flow, but we were able to get really wet on the trails at a lower section and at the very top overlooking the Devil’s Throat.  At the Devil’s Throat, water is pouring in from three sides with unbelievable force, causing the mist to rise between 100 and 490 feet.  A walkway has been built stretching waaaay out above the falls to a top edge of the Devil’s Throat.  I feel for the brave people who built that trail!  It seemed about every 10-15 seconds a really big spray of mist would tackle the crowd on the platform, making for difficult photo-taking but a lot of excitement!

(Arial view of Iguazu Falls, Image taken by Horacio Belloni)

(Much of the Western portion of Iguazu Falls – Right side in the picture above)

(Looking into a section of the Devil’s Throat)

That afternoon we were already on a bus headed for Buenos Aires.  Even though the transport to and from Iguazu Falls took twice as long as the amount of time we spent there, we are extremely happy we made the trip.  It was incredible!

To Buenos Aires for Christmas we went!  Before arriving we were lucky to find a local to stay with on Couchsurfing.  We were excited because we thought it would make for an interesting Christmas and we would get to see how the locals celebrate, plus we would be saving money.  When we arrived to the apartment where David was waiting for us, we got a big surprise – Merry Christmas to us!  The apartment is a very nice flat that David normally rents out to tourists but loans to Couchsurfers when he has no renters.  It was pretty much the best situation ever – David is a really cool guy and is happy to see his city from a tourist’s perspective and therefore generously gave us a tour; we got to relax and feel at home with an entire furnished apartment, a 7th floor balcony, swimming pool, gym, and in a great location; we got to meet some great people and spend Christmas Eve with David’s family outside by the pool.  That’s right, Christmas in our bathing suits!  An interesting touch is that David comes from a Jewish family originating out of Austria and has some pretty interesting roots.  We learned a lot about his great uncle who escaped the Holocaust to Bolivia and later became a successful scientist and professor in Michigan.  He gave me a couple of books written by his uncle and I’ve completed one so far; very interesting life he led!  Anyway, David’s family doesn’t really celebrate Christmas, but they do take advantage of the holiday to get together and spend with family.  We enjoyed talking with his mother who is a teacher and has led an adventurous life herself, and others we met that evening including two other travelers, David’s sister, and friends.  On our first night while touring the city with David we learned that he has just applied to the University of Michigan, so we’re hoping to see him again in the states someday!  That night he took us to a really good restaurant so we could try the big, fat steaks that Buenos Aires is famous for.  They were, umm… HUGE!  Luckily Bryan and I split one, but we still probably each ended up eating about 2 pounds of steak after David gave us a portion of his too.

(A cool bridge in Buenos Aires that turns sideways to let boats through)

Because it was a holiday week and also because Bryan was a little under the weather, we didn’t get to experience nearly enough aspects of Buenos Aires.  We had heard tons of great things about the city and its culture, so we’ll just have to try and make it back again eventually.  What we did see, though, was really beautiful and really makes us want to go back.

Up in a Cloud of Ash!

We didn’t get to see all of Ecuador, but we are really happy with what we did get to see.  We traveled straight down the center of the small country, right along the beautiful Andes, and the farther South we went, the better the views became.

After having so much fun in Banos, we wanted to have a short stay in Riobamba because it is a good place to gain access to the famous train ride, Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose).  We had received three invites to stay with people in Riobamba through the Couchsurfing website, which was nice because we got to take our pick.  We chose to stay with Robert because he sounded super interesting and had many good recommendations from other “couchsurfers”.

Bella Vista – Beautiful View of Tungurahua volcano

When we arrived it turned out we had a room and big bed to ourselves.  Robert invited us to whip up some lunch with whatever food he had laying around as he told us about his interesting life.  He is Belgian but grew up in Batswana, Africa.  He then lived in Spain for several years before he ended up in Ecuador.  After a late lunch we headed toward the town center.  Robert teaches English to adults at a university and had an evening class, and Bryan and I needed to get to the train station to purchase our Devil’s Nose tickets.  We happened to run into a friend of Robert’s along the way, Javier, and with him was another tourist, Devon.  We split off to check out the town with Javier and Devon and shared our stories.  It turns out Javier is from Ecuador but he has lived in New Jersey since he was young and he just moved back to open a restaurant.  Devon is a forest firefighter in Canada and is spending the next four or five months bicycling through South America (GO DEVON).  We watched a small parade in the town center and discovered some snacks that tasted like the cinnamon & brown sugar pop tarts.  Javier invited us to his restaurant, LuLu’s, where he treated us to some drinks and a very delicious meal of steak, salad, and rice.  It is a beautiful restaurant and some of the best food we had in all of Ecuador.  It was also really nice to be among other English speakers after struggling with Spanish most of the time.

Enjoying LuLu’s with New Friends

Riobamba’s Saturday markets are supposed to be pretty good, so we spent the day with Robert exploring the markets, new foods, and learning history and facts about the town and surrounding volcanos.  Robert has done a lot of research on the area and we learned so much through him.  It was also nice to rely on his Spanish skills to ask questions when we saw something new to us at the markets.  We ate a lot that day! We started by introducing him to the pop tart-tasting rolls, and then tried a sandwich filled with a pickled fruit, followed by some bread dipped in unprocessed cane sugar syrup, a big lunch of meats and potatoes, and several fruits.  Robert even bought a big guanamana fruit so we could try the juice.  That was extra special because he spent at least an hour separating out the seeds before he could blend it.

One of the many Saturday markets in Riobamba

After we hit every single market in town (there were a lot), Robert was bringing us to a high point where we could have a view of all the surrounding mountains and volcanos.  Just as we were walking in that direction we looked up and noticed a big ash cloud building above the Tungurahua volcano.  It was pretty lucky because the volcano hadn’t performed for at least two weeks and it was our first time seeing an eruption!

Tungurahua volcano erupting

We left early the next morning by bus to Aluasi for the Devil’s Nose train ride.  The town happened to be hosting a race event when we arrived and it was full of the four-foot-tall locals dressed in their traditional attire.  The train route is recognized as an engineering feat for the difficulty and the switchbacks.  The mountain got the name because many people died while building the railroad, but it is known by locals as Condor Mountain because, prior to the railroad, it was a popular nesting spot for the birds.  The river near the mountain is interesting because it naturally flows yellow with sulfur.  The route used to connect towns but currently it is just open as an amusement ride down and back up.  It was very beautiful and really interesting to see how the switchbacks worked, plus riding in trains is always fun.  All in all, many of our bus rides have had better views, but it was interesting!

Nariz de Diablo train ride

We didn’t find the bus stop to catch the bus to Cuenca, so we waited at a random spot along the highway with another backpacker.  Although this is how the locals catch buses, it made me nervous not knowing if we were in the right place or when the next bus would come.  Sure enough though, in less than 20 minutes the bus came along and we had no problems waiving it down.  The views were fantastic all the way to Cuenca with green valleys, farming plots, and mellow mountains.  We made it to Cuenca around 9p.m. and found the cheapest option to sleep in town: hammocks!  It wouldn’t have been bad if the nights there weren’t so cold, but even being wrapped like mummies in wool blankets with multiple layers of clothes wasn’t quite enough.  We toughed it out for three nights though, which must have been too long because I woke up with a strained muscle in my shoulder the third morning!

Cuenca was enjoyable, mostly for the architecture and not so much for the food.  It seemed there was a historic church on every other block, and the town square hosted two cathedrals, the “old” built in the 1500s, and the “new” built in the 1800s.  We spent one day going to Ingapirca, the most important Incan ruins, originally built by the Canari people and then taken over by the Incas.  Only bases of walls remained of everything except the Sun Temple, which stood partially intact.  A short walk from the temple is the Inca Face, a rock cliff that looks like the profile of a face from the viewpoint of the trail.

Ingapirca Ruins (Sun Temple in back)

We spent a couple days in Loja before crossing the border to Peru.  The route from Cuenca to Loja had breathtaking views as the road traveled high and we could see down into valleys and small farm plots.  Loja seemed quite similar to little Otavalo in Northern Ecuador, except that instead of being dominated by natives in traditional dress, it was dominated by affluent people in business suits.  It is the home of a popular law university.  When entering the city center, we crossed under an ornate castle entrance.  It didn’t appear to be historical, so it was just kind of entertaining.  We tried out a small restaurant for dinner that obviously did not receive a lot of tourists, and oh, it was a struggle to communicate!  We took a long time reading over the menu trying to decipher the meanings as the owner tried to explain things to us and then gave up.  When we got the two dishes that we had finally settled on, they were amusingly nothing like what we thought the descriptions meant.  Apparently “tortilla” with chicken in this sense was nothing like what we know as a tortilla, not even close!  It was fried plantain slices with chicken on top.  Very tasty, but confusing!

Originally our plans for Northern Peru included a visit to Kuelap, Incan ruins that are said to rival Machu Picchu’s.  They are set in the Northern Sierras not far from Ecuador, where few tourists venture and the cost is only a fraction of Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately, the more we began to plan the route, the more difficult it seemed.  We eventually found a couple blogs explaining exactly how to get there, and from Loja it would have taken two days and seven modes of transportation!  It would then take the same amount of time to get from there to Lima, the capital of Peru.  Being limited on time, we had to choose the easier route and sadly skip Kuelap.

The easiest way to cross into Peru was via a night bus from Loja to Piura, Peru.  I was a little concerned about crossing the border at 2 a.m. but it actually turned out to be really nice. (I imagine that’s always the case, until it’s not!)  It was just the border officials and our bus of people, so we didn’t have to wait in line and the border officials were friendly and made it very smooth.  Yet again, entering a South American country was easier than we were made to expect!

Wrapping up S.E. Asia Gangnam Style!

Volcanoes are the overlying theme of Indonesia.  With 127 active volcanoes throughout the country, we absolutely had to see at least one.  In Bali we had been at the base of an inactive volcano and had seen many more from a distance throughout the other parts of Indonesia, but it’s just not the same.

We arrived at the tiny mountain village of Cemoro Lewang near Mount Bromo around 9pm and went straight to bed.  Waking up in this tiny town was one of those memories that I will forever cherish: relishing the warm sun in the chilly mountain air, eating my cereal while watching old men with horses in tow going about their daily business, and all the small town people greeting their neighbors with kindness.  I adore small towns!  Most people who visit Mount Bromo get there at night, do a sunrise jeep tour, and then leave town before lunch time.  That kind of tourism puts a bad taste in our mouths as it leaves you with a very limited experience, among other reasons.

After breakfast we admired the view of Bromo.  The town is built on the rim of the ancient Tengger volcano and overlooks the ancient caldera now known as the Tengger Sand Sea.  Inside this really big volcanic pit, five newer volcanoes have formed with Bromo being the only one that is currently active.  It was so weird to think that we were standing on the edge of what was once an extremely large volcano, and even more strange when we were standing inside it, admiring the black Sand Sea and looking back up at the rim.  When we made it to the top of Bromo, the view was pretty incredible.  We watched the steam rising from the caldera in front of us and tried to dodge the stinky sulfur smell.

(Looking down at Bromo in the ancient caldera)

That afternoon we explored the rest of town, took ice cold showers (electricity was out), took sunset pictures overlooking Bromo, and scheduled the infamous Jeep sunrise tour for the next morning.  At 3:30am we were picked up by the Jeep and driven across the sand sea and up a mountain road to Mount Penanjakan.  Walking the final distance to the viewpoint, we passed hundreds of Jeeps, which must have come from towns farther away because they couldn’t have all fit in the tiny mountain town.  The viewpoint was jammed with so many people that we couldn’t even figure out exactly which direction to watch.  There were built-in risers to see over the crowd but so many people were standing on the front railings that there was absolutely no way to get pictures with a tripod, so I went around tapping on shoulders and asking people to please step down so everyone could have a view.  This worked out nicely because I ended up with a front row spot to set the tripod (and more people were able to see the view).  Once the sun began peeking over the horizon, all the frustrations were lost and I was giddy with excitement.  Mountains developed out of the darkness in front of our eyes, each skirted in fog.  The array of colors in the sky was probably the best I had ever seen.  Eventually I found Bromo and its buddy, Mount Batok, off to our right with a perfect blanket of white at their bases.  As we made our way back to the Jeep, we kept finding new viewpoints with better shots.  Driving back down, we stopped at the edge of the sand sea to get some fog pictures and then over at Bromo for our second hike to the top.  We managed to beat most of the crowd, but the morning view wasn’t much better than the afternoon view we had the day before.  Still, it was very nice!

(Sunrise at Cemoro Lawang)

After the tour and a long day of traveling, we made it to the city of Yogyakarta, considered the artistic center of Indonesia.  By this time we were so jaded from the lengthy, scary Indonesia methods of travel that we wanted to stay put for a week.  We spent a lot of time catching up on the news, reading, and being lazy.  We also did a lot of walking around town to see all the handicrafts, explore the fun mazes of alleyways painted with murals, watch the street music performers at night, and to see the unimpressive Kraton (royal palace – unimpressive because we were only allowed just inside the front gate with very little to see because the Sultans daughter was getting married soon).  The major craft of Yogyakarta is Batik, which is a form of dying patterns onto fabric using wax and paraffin to draw the designs and make the dye permanent.  The traditional Batik is patterns worn on clothing, but also a “painting” form of Batik is done as wall art.  We were extremely impressed by the artwork Batik we saw, it was cool!

(Group playing music out on the main street)

The most exciting activity we did in Yogyakarta was a tour to the Borobudur and Prambanan temples nearby.  We made it to Borobudur just after sunrise and were able to enjoy the cooler morning temperatures while exploring the 9th century Buddhist temple.  This was easily the third most impressive structure we have seen in all of Southeast Asia, with the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia and the combined pagodas of Bagan, Myanmar coming before it.  The huge temple was wisely built over a hill (the hill is inside/under it), with beautiful reliefs carved into the walls and many Buddha statues adorning the five levels.  The surrounding scenery was the cherry on top.  The vegetation was beautiful and in the far distance were the silhouettes of large volcanos.  Prambanan was equally as impressive and will probably be more so in at least ten years.  Also built in the 9th century, this temple compound is of Hindu origin and once consisted of 240 temples: an inner square of larger ones with four surrounding rows of 224 smaller temples.  We could only imagine how phenomenal this place was when all the temples still stood, but the area was destroyed in the 16th century by an earthquake and many of the stones were taken after rediscovery for use in construction and as yard ornaments.  Only 18 structures in total have been reconstructed, with a 2006 earthquake taking a major toll on the standing temples and the progress.

(Buddha statue on top of Borobudur Temple)

The night train was a much safer and more pleasant option than risking life with a crazy bus driver, so we arrived to Jakarta around 4:30am and took our time walking to the area our guidebook suggested for guesthouses.  At 6am we started asking around and checked in at a dirty but cheap place.  Immediately Bryan found a bedbug crawling up the wall and we asked for our money back and moved on.  The next stop was recommended in the guidebook as “extremely clean”, but after seeing the sheets also covered in bedbug blood spots, we passed up on that one too.  The next three were full and we finally came to a newer place with a brand new mattress and clean, white sheets.  We still knew we weren’t getting away free because the evidence existed on the walls, but it was probably the best we would find.

We spent the day seeing the major sites, starting with the National Monument: something resembling the Washington Monument but with a flame on top.  The most impressive thing about the monument was the enormous park surrounding it with a very symmetrical layout.  It was a really long walk to the Old Colonial Square, the main square during the Colonial rule.  Of course the buildings were beautiful in that colonial fashion, but the museum was the highlight.  Some of the colonial furniture remained including the biggest china cabinet I have ever seen.  There were many students visiting the museum while we were there and we had several groups of teenagers asking for photos with us.  It’s always interesting to become the main attraction while visiting an attraction!  Top new experience: A group of young women saw me and got really excited.  They spoke in Indonesian but I got the gist as they motioned me over and pushed one of the ladies to me.  They wanted me to rub her pregnant belly!  I have no idea if they just thought it was funny or if there was a superstition to it, but we all walked away giggling.  How funny!  Following the museum we walked to the “Chicken Market Bridge”, an old draw bridge.  While the bridge itself was pretty neat (you could see the old manual way of lifting it), it was overshadowed by the sludge that they call a river underneath it.  While we have often been disturbed by the amounts of pollution and trash we see thrown in the streets and living spaces, nothing comes close to this river.  It was lunch time and we were hungry, but we were so disgusted that we had to get as far away from it as possible and try to burn it from our memories before we could think about food.  Sadly there were a couple food vendors set up directly in its heavy stench with tiny children playing around them.  I am reminded of how thankful I am that our government enforces laws that prevent our water sources from turning into this.

(National Monument in Jakarta)

While walking around Jakarta and at the museum, there were a lot of really friendly people that regarded us with kindness, but there was also something odd about the looks we got from many of the men, and we couldn’t decide what the looks meant.  Walking outside the tourist areas we were probably more uncomfortable here than anywhere else we have been on this trip.  Needless to say, we loved nothing about Jakarta.  We gladly spent the second night at the airport.

It would have taken us about three days to get to the more northern part of Sumatra from Java if we had gone by bus and ferry.  Flying was not only quicker, but also cheaper.  We arrived in Medan and took one of the most terrifying bus rides and a ferry to the island of Samosir in Lake Toba.  Here we are back on the subject of volcanos: Lake Toba fills the caldera of a massive supervolcano that is estimated to have erupted roughly 70,000 years ago.  The lake reaches more than 1,600 feet depth in some areas.  Our position: We were on an island the size of Singapore, within a volcano, on a larger island.  Another weird one to think about!

Less than a week before we arrived in Medan, a volcano equal distance from Lake Toba and Medan had erupted, but luckily it was pretty small and did not affect anything we were doing.

While walking toward Tuk Tuk, the town on the island where most of the hotels exist, a couple guys on a motorbike stopped to tell us about their homestay/guesthouse.  For only $3/night we were on board! It was clean, comfortable, and had a restaurant attached.  That night we tried their recommended Thai curry with the local lake fish (later determined to be Chinese Carp) and a side of fries with guacamole.  OMG – the best Thai curry of our entire trip.  The fish was delicious, with absolutely no fishy smell or taste, just soft meat, and it was the first time we have seen guacamole since home.  We also got to try the local palm wine which was only about 3% alcohol and made fresh daily because it goes bad quickly.  It was just ok but we kept drinking it because it was there!  Every morning while there we had delicious fruit-filled pancakes, and on other evenings we tried the vegetable curry, chicken satay in peanut sauce, and chicken rendang.  Everything the owners made was unbelievably delicious!  We did do other things than eat while on the island, though!  We read our books down by the beautiful, clean water; toured the area on foot and saw the traditional Batak houses with roofs curved up on both ends like a boat; unsuccessfully attempted two fishing trips with an unreliable local; stopped at a barber shop to clean Bryan up a bit (he had his first straight-razor shave); and spent a day on a motorbike exploring the rest of the island.  The views from the South part of the island were breathtaking.  We then backtracked back North and around to the opposite side from Tuk Tuk where we tried out the hot springs.  The hot water was rerouted into tiled pools which did a good job of keeping the temperature hot.  We couldn’t stay in long at all!  After we were leaving the upper pool we realized it was supposed to be for men and the lower pool for women.  Oops! The two guys that were there when we arrived either didn’t mind or didn’t know how to tell us! On the ride back we discovered a small city park on the North coast with many local Batak people. I picked up some very tiny shells from that beach that I’m calling ‘volcano shells’ instead of ‘sea shells’!

(Traditional Batak house)

Singapore was so much better than we expected!  Many people had told us it was just a big city with nothing much to do and not much to see.  Although it was so much more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia (Western prices), it was justifiably so.  The city was incredibly modern, clean, organized.  The public transportation was so easy and could get us anywhere we wanted to go for a pretty good price.  There were wide, clean sidewalks in good condition and we didn’t have to walk in the road.  The drivers respected pedestrians and always waved us on at intersections that didn’t have stoplights.  The crime rate is very low and we felt comfortable everywhere, day and night.  Haggling prices isn’t necessary (although sometimes that is fun).  There was more than enough to keep us busy.  And the kicker: WE COULD DRINK THE TAP WATER!  Basically, it was exactly the same as any Western city with enforced laws, safety regulations, city planning, and so forth.  After the rest of Southeast Asia, it was like a drink of iced tea on a sweltering day.

(Light show from across the bay in Singapore)

On our first night in town we checked out the free concert by the bay.  The bay area is a planned zone surrounding water with nice restaurants and a section of vendors, pedestrian walking areas, free open concerts, the famous “Merlion” statue, great city views, the art & science museum, gardens, and a repeating laser/light/water/fire show put on by the Marina Bay Sands resort nightly that reminded me of the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  During one of the days in the city we explored the Gardens by the Bay, a new botanical gardens area with impressive sculptures and award winning conservatories.  We had an emergency shopping day filled with way too many malls because Bryan’s seven-year-old Chaco sandals finally gave out and cracked through the sole.  He found some nice Keens to replace them, but the Chacos were such a permanent part of him that I feel he is somehow less “Bryan” now.  Best of our time in Singapore, our last day was my birthday (a big one, but we won’t talk about that).  The one thing I have been dying for this entire trip is dark chocolate, which is beyond our normal budget, but Bryan got me some.  I also had the idea to get a Starbucks gift card a few days before with the smallest amount possible so I could register online and get my free birthday treat, and the amount on the card could buy Bryan a drink too.  We haven’t indulged in Starbucks at all, and it ended up even better than expected because in Singapore you get a free drink for registering, and then a free slice of cake for your birthday.  I had to take all of my remaining probiotic pills to eat the cake (I’m lactose intolerant) and it was so incredibly worth it!  I highly recommend the peanut butter chocolate caramel.  We spent the day at the zoo as it was highly recommended to us by some people in the first week of our travels, and I never forgot about it.  It was definitely the nicest zoo we have ever been to.  That night we had dinner at a recommended burger place.  I ordered a falafel and hummus wrap as our starter, Bryan got a big ‘ol beef burger, and I had an amazing veggie & sweet potato burger.  Mmmm!  For the third time in a row before flights, we spent the night in an airport.  It just keeps happening that our flights are so early that it is easier and saves us a lot of money.

(Don’t feed the Kangaroo’s at the zoo!)

Our final stop on this side of the world was Hong Kong.  We had no idea what to expect and were just winging it.  While in Indonesia, we had met a couple that had given us the name of what was supposedly the only building in Hong Kong where you could find a cheap room, with the warning that we should expect the hotel hawkers to descend on us like vultures (not their words).  After looking online and finding nothing we could afford, we got off the airport bus at this infamous Chungking Mansion.  Finding our way into the building and figuring it out was certainly an experience! The Chungking Mansion is a 17+ story building separated into sections A-F, each serviced by its own elevators and each floor of each section having one or more hotel businesses.  We happened to arrive during the Chinese National Day, so most of the rooms were full and that left us both relieved (because the hawkers had taken a break) and weary (because we had to haul our bags all around in confusion, up and down until we found a room).  We got really lucky and found a nice, honest lady who gave us a decent price and even provided toilet paper and soap! Oh, the things we get excited about.  As we were warned, the rooms were hilariously small, but it was actually quite comfortable.

(Our small room)

We were running on almost no sleep because the Singapore airport wasn’t so comfortable, and we weren’t able to check into our room yet because it needed to be cleaned, so we went searching for food.  Every restaurant we saw had even higher prices than what we would expect to see in the U.S.  In our desperation and zombie-like state, we actually walked into a McDonalds and considered deeply for a good 5 minutes whether we were that desperate.  In the end, we couldn’t do it.  We ended up at a mall food court and had what I hope was a less processed, Chinese version of fast food: dumplings and soup. We spent our first full day in Hong Kong by first checking out the Avenue of Stars (like Hollywood).  We happened upon a sectioned off area by the waterfront with a film crew and a funny looking guy in a bright pink suit jacket and black and white shoes.  It appeared to be something like an interview or commercial being made, and we joked about it being Psy (the South Korean singer of Gangnam Style).  Then the guy in pink went into a tarp room, a yellow McLaren was unveiled, and several skinny white girls came out in funny outfits and tons of makeup.  They did a few rehearsal dance shots around the car and then Psy (by then it was obvious it WAS him and they were filming a music video, or possibly commercial) came out and they took a few shots to music and he went into hiding again.  The girls regrouped in a formation next to the car and did a few choreographed rehearsals with a person filling in Psy’s part.  We still had the city to see, so we moved on before Psy came back out to film that portion.  (Two days later we saw the crew setting up again in the same spot.)  We checked out the rest of the Kowloon area we were staying in that day, mostly just big city and designer shops, but also a few small parks.  Bryan found a place that made Vietnamese style sandwiches, something we had been craving recently, and we went in search.  It was well worth the long walk!

(Psy making a video, but notice the McLaren 12c Spider)

The next day we took the recommended green Star ferries (because they are supposedly featured in every movie based in Hong Kong, so our friend says) across to Hong Kong Island, but forgot our map of all the places we wanted to go, so we spent the day roaming.  The next day we came back with our map and took the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak.  On a clear day, I would imagine you could see a good majority of Hong Kong from here, but with the thick haze that was always in the air, the view was limited. Still, it was impressive.  Even seeing the size of the city with our own eyes, it was still hard to believe.  We spent almost seven hours on the peak because we wanted daylight and night photos.  We brought peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and snacks for a picnic and expected to just enjoy the view, but there was so much more going on up there.  Walking away from the main viewpoint, we watched some young boys longboarding down a twisty mountain road and practicing their tight turns, then back at the main viewpoint we checked out the mall (yup, there’s a small shopping mall at the peak) and then we people-watched for a long time. Before the sun was down we set up the tripod and went into defense mode as hoards of people were practically crawling over us to take night photos of the city with their flashy iPhones.  So silly!

(Looking down on Hong Kong)

We spent our last night on this side of the world in yet another airport.  Our time in Southeast Asia has been absolutely priceless on so many levels.  The people have obviously been the highlight, with some cultures so very different from our own and others that seemed so similar.  The people we have encountered have accepted us, made us feel welcome and special, shared their knowledge and life experiences, and shown us how living with little can feel like a lot.  The cultures have also sometimes frustrated us terribly, and these are the moments we have tried to use to grow internally.  We have seen some of the top sites in the world and countless UNESCO World Heritage sites and had incredible experiences.  The food has been incredibly memorable, almost always in a good way.  We are proud that we have tried many foods unusual to our culture, and impressed by how many different types of delicious things can be made from the same ten or so ingredients, tasting different from one area to another.  We will absolutely be including these new tastes in our own kitchen when we return home.