Peru – the prussian country of the potato

10 05 2010

Peru is the most amazing country we have travelled in so far. People are very very friendly and warm and  – it must come from the line of the Incas – are extremely well organized.  This shows in a prussian sort of punctuality and cleanliness which is almost too much. Even for us disciplined germans. The driver, supposed to pick you up between 3.00  and 3.30 am (yes, in the morning) rings the bell of the hostel at exactly 3.00 am. Two different chauffeurs of 4x4s, getting us to and back from the foot of 18.000 feet mountains were exactly on time – not one minute late even if they had to drive for 3 hours to arrive at the pick up point.

The big double storey busses, preferred means of transportation with own terrepuertos (groundports instead of airports) leave their bay punctual – 9.30 is 9.30, not one minute later.

When you have to use the Banos (bathrooms) at the bus station you pay 1 soles (25 Eurocent) and you get a  printed ticket as proof that you paid. Every piece of luggage gets a tag and you only can retrieve your bag when showing your tag with the identical number. It is more strict than being in an airport.

Even the taxi drivers in Arequipa where we stayed for ten days only try once to rip you – a little bit. A normal tour within the town costs 3 soles (= 1US $). If you ask for the price they tell you: 4 soles. You say “no” with a smile, they smile in mutual understanding and say “3 soles”. Deal done.

The other astounding aspect is the cuisine with a lot of varieties like ostrich, alpaca, guinnea pig (no, we didn’t taste that), all sorts of seafood and “cebiche” (or ceviche, the Peruvian way of sushi) and countless sorts of potatoes in all sizes and in colour variations from red over greenish-yellow to blueish.

There are dozens of differents kinds of potatoes in Peru.

We have this knowledge from a supermarket in Lima, but there is a better source:

Although the Spaniards could never have guessed it, potatoes were to be Peru’s greatest legacy to the world. They originated in Peru and grow there in a profusion of varieties and colours. It has been calculated that the world’s annual potato harvest is worth many times the value of all treasures and precious metals taken from the Inca empire by its conquerors.

The Conquest of the Incas, John Hemming, Pan Books

Writing this in a bus from Cruz del Sur rolling over the altiplano at 3800m altitude (12.500 ft) between Arequipa and Puno we are looking forward to visiting the lake Titicaca and the capital of the Inca empire – Cusco.

Pearl of the Carribean

22 04 2010

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To avoid the rainy season of Peru in march we decided to have a sort of holiday in between our travel program. Looking for a place where you could windsurf and surf – and have nice weather and warm water – we stranded at Isla de Margarita, belonging to Venezuela, 40 km north east from Caracas.

Let’s make 3 weeks short: We had a wonderful stay at the Villa Carribean Sunshine thanks to the heartily and personal care of Waltraud (you guessed it – she is german) who lives for 17 years on the island. She showed us the best cocada place and gave us all the tips for the best spots, restaurants and what to do and where to go. And we met Alonso through her, fisherman, diver, surfer  who delivered langustos, camarones  and fish fresh out of the water.

Nadine and Sammy paid us a visit (more on, sorry, only in german) and also Natascha – so we all had a good time riding the waves and cruising the island with our Chevrolet – in this case a real Chevrolet Caprice, 6 cylinders and all the bells and whistles a 20 year old American car had to offer.

Thanks to Vicente we learned a lot about surfing and Capoeira. And Kim and Natascha had one of their worst muscle aches in years after their first lesson.

La Isla de Margarita is also called the pearl of the carribean – not because it is so shiny but because there were pearl banks which were looted by the Spaniards when they discovered South America. Now the Venezuelans are looting the alcohol contingents of the island while partying during the Semana santa which is more a unholy week. I have never seen before people standing waist deep in the water eating chips and drinking cuba libre with 80:20 rum and coke…

But what can you expect from a country where alcohol and petrol are the cheapest goods because they are tax free. One litre of 95 octane costs 1 Euro cent – Venezuela has the 4th biggest oil reservoirs of the globe, questions anyone?

The  controlled shortage of electricity of 2 hours daily and a strike on our departure day where one of the streets  to  the airport was blocked with burning tyres indicates that the country is not in best shape – to say it this way. If you want to know more about the situation you can watch this TV coverage from the german station NDR.

Okay, lets stay with the good points:

  • 27/27 – these are the temperatures of air and sea in Celsius, and this is 24/7.
  • The best cocada (a mixture of coconut milk, coconut flesh and ice) and therefore also superbe pina coladas we ever drank.
  • Fresh juices from every exotic fruit you can imagine.
  • Fresh seafood and sushi to reasonable prices.
  • Great waves for experts and beginners at the beaches Playa del Agua, Playa Parguito and Playa Guacuco.
  • Good constant wind at Playa El Yaque for windsurfing and kite surfing.

Hop in, hop out

28 03 2010

Santiago de Chile is a warm relaxed, almost European looking and feeling  like city with a  perfect quarter with restaurants, bars and cultural life: Bella Vista. We had a hostel right there. Which meant we had only one minute to walk to sit and relax at a nice restaurant. And it also meant that we nearly did not sleep because our room was close to the lively street and it felt as if all the shouting, laughing people walked right over our bed at 3 o’clock in the morning.

We had to get up early because we had booked a flight to Caracas at 9.00 in the morning and – as rumours said – you had to be at the airport 3 hours before your flight left because of the chaos at the airport caused by the earthquakes some weeks earlier.  So we had to get up at 5 in the morning. Which brings me to the fact that travelling is not always holidays….  but, hey, no complaints.

Nearly asleep we arrived  at the airport just to learn that everything was working fine and there was no visible damage or problems – as we had also not detected any damages in the city at all. Trust only the facts you dramatized yourself … or so goes a journalist’s saying.

By the way: The food in Santiago was very good – I had mussels with cheese (yes) and Kim had a big salad with all sorts of veggies and  fresh green stuff. But the best was the celebration of the “wine month”: Buy a bottle from a selection of a special menu and you get a second one for free which you can either drink or take home with you. Feels like “Happy Month” instead of “Happy Hour”. We decided to take it to Isla de Margarita/Venezuela, our next station.

The international asado

26 03 2010

After our sightseeing tour we had a perfect easy day at the very nice International Hostel Uspallata where the usual-unusual crowd of backpackers  were hanging around. Besides the interesting places and landscapes you encounter while travelling you also dive into a mixture of people of countries from all over  the world with totally different backgrounds (students, ex-formula 1 engineers, ex-hedgefund brokers from London, artists, dive instructors from Israel ….).  What they have in common is their motivation to see parts of this planet, do strange stuff in remote places and to carry a netbook with them which they intensively use in all likely and unlikely spots like hostel lounges, toilets, bus stations, supermarkets, coffee shops and airports – thanks to WiFi.

How could you plan from day to day and book flights, buses and overnight stays the day before you decide to do it before the age of IT and bits and bytes? I don’t know. I guess you had to make a plan, book everything in advance and stick to the schedule. Now you are as free as a bird and can decide in a flick of your eyelid where to travel, where to stay and what to check out. And stay connected to your facebook crowd and tell the world what you are doing. I love the time we are living in….

Sorry for the detour. So in short another perfect day in the middle of nowhere – almost nowhere.

The International hostel is situated some miles outside Uspallata (which isn’t a big city either) and the manager Christian and his crew are the most polite, relaxed and helpful guys we met so far.

We had  a nice mountainbike trip of 40k to the seven coloured rocks about which Charles Darwin said:

We crossed the Uspallata range, and at night slept at the custom−house−−the only inhabited spot on the plain. Shortly before leaving the mountains, there was a very extraordinary view; red, purple, green, and quite white sedimentary rocks, alternating with black lavas, were broken up and thrown into all kinds of disorder by masses of porphyry of every shade of colour, from dark brown to the brightest lilac. It was the first view I ever saw, which really resembled those pretty sections which geologists make of the inside of the earth

We biked on to  the stone engravings of Cerro Tunduqueral (by the way  there are not so many more attractions around). We skipped rappelling, horse riding and river rafting.

Highlight and wonderful ending of the day was a big asado at the hostel with a combined wine tasting a la Christian: Everybody buys some wine (or let Christian do the job for you in a given price range), then you drink one bottle after the other with more or less expert comments on the quality, taste, colour etc etc on the wine. Much more fun (and much more alcohol intake) than a “real” wine tasting. In between you eat tons of great meat which is carried in from the asado (barbecue) every 15 minutes and after this smorgasboard you get a desert Uspallata style: Pückler icecream with Malbec red wine. Yummy.

We slept perfectly this night dreaming already from our trip to Santiago the next day. We would drive with the bus over the same pass Charles Darwin did (coming from Santiago) on “The Voyage of the Beagle” 1835.

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Mendoza – wine capital of Argentina

22 03 2010

We had half a day at Mendoza to get the permit for the Aconcagua Trekking and to check out the local winefarms. So we went to our preferred sort of vine: bubbly and got an appointment at Chandon – yes, the second half of the famous french “Moet et ….”, being the mother of this entreprise in Argentina which produces a very nice Brut and an even nicer Rosé.

Maria gave us a very nice and complete tour with the tasting at the end proving what we already had known – it is champagne even when it is not allowed to be named like that. All the other ingredients are there, high class grapes, a technial outstanding production line and the long years of ripening and bottle fermentation including the remuage  (german – das Rütteln) of the bottles by hand.

The other wine farm called Alta Vista produces the usual range of Malbec, CabSauv and some drinkable whites and had a nice old production part with tanks made from thick concrete – an old method to keep temperatures stable.

Sorry that we can’t post any of the taste experiences we had. And, nope, the argentinean Chandon is not exported to Europe.

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Don’t eat steak in Buenos Aires….

22 02 2010

We had a warm welcome by Erika Bachmann, owner of the Casa Sol y Sombra in Buenos Aires where we had prebooked our appartment for 2 days – a short but hopefully intense stay in the “Paris of South America” as BA is called. This small private guesthouse is perfect for your stay – if you want to leave the trotten tourist paths and to get personal advice from someone living in the city for 5 years now. Erika from Switzerland decided to move to BA because of – make an educated guess – the Tango. Now she is running the Casa Sol y Sombra, meaning sun and shadow, and is as helpful and supporting as a non spanish speaking guest could wish.
The Sol y Sombra is situated near the upcoming and hip quarter of Palermo. You can walk there within 10 minutes and can stroll the streets with super chic cafes, bars restaurants and small shops where you can find stylish clothes, interior and all the things you always wanted to decorate your apartment with – but it is too heavy or big to bring it home in a plane.

Buenos Aires seen from Rio de la Plata

Casa Sol y Sombra

If you have forgotten something for your trip – like trekking equipment, clothes or whatever – just check one the shopping centres like the Abasto or the Alto Palermo Some of the the global players are here, for outdoor aficinados you find Salomon and North Face stores with enough equipment for expeditions. One of the local chains is called Montana (what else) where you get all for camping and other outdoor stuff. One of the shops is situated right by the Abasto center.
By the way Buenos Aires has a good underground system but driving around by relatively cheap taxis is like combing getting to places and have a sightseeing trip – for 10 to 20 minutes drive you pay around 15 argentinean pesos which is around 3 Euro. If you see prices with a $ sign – don’t get a heart attack. These are argentinean pesos – the others they call US$ so you have to check what is meant.
We came from minus 2 degrees and snow from Bavaria to 25 degrees in Argentina – and pouring rain in Buenos Aires. The whole summer was rainy, and today we had a thunderstorm and floods in the streets – tough job for the pizza guys you see all around bringing the ubiquitous italian food to the locals staying at home. Dangling electricity lines are quite a danger in Buenos Aires when it is raining like this so locals are not likely to go out when the weather is as bad as it was today.
Communication: We are still struggling to get the prepaid card of Claro working. Calls within Argenina are as expensive as to phone to Europe Erika told us – strange policy of the argentinean telephone companies as it seeems. Could be the reason why you see less people talkng on cell phones in the streets compared to Europe.

Eat and drink

We know that Argentina is the land of meat – but nevertheless we wanted to taste some fish and ended up in a classy sushi restaurant named Osaka – cool website – Tasty, very nice staff members trying to help us out with english as our spanish is more than rusty…. Buenos Aires is a tourist destination but finding someone speaking fluent and understandable english is not so easy.

The super friendly waiters at Osaka's

Skater in the streets of BA

But, as mentioned, the service was extremely friendly and helpful and we had a great first day and evening in BA. Even if the taxi driver we stopped thought he was a close relative to the late Juan Manuel Fangio and drove so fast that we missed our Casa for some hundred meters…

The next evening we went for meat.

Don’t eat lomo in Buenos Aires – you will never order another steak in another country. The meat is perfect and perfectly prepared. You are spoilt for the rest of your life. It is in one league with lobster in Boston, champagne in a French Champagne cellar, oysters at the atlantic coast, crayfish on the beach in South Africa and so on….
Tomorrow in the morning we are leaving early (6.00) for El Calafate, the start of our first trekking tours near the Fitz Roy.

With Diego to Buenos Aires

21 02 2010

Munich – Madrid – Buenos Aires
Remind me to unclick Iberia while searching for a flight with (btw a perfect website for searching/booking/evaluating flights with multi-stops all over the world). Don’t misunderstand me. The staff members from Iberia are doing their job. The flight attendants are attending the flight. And that’s it. They don’t attend the passengers, or so. Asking for something extra like snacks because they only had sandwiches with jamon while you had tried to prebook vegetarian means that they have to go beyond their duty – what they don’t really like. Safety and everything else is okay but the service is average – or for a long long distance flight of 13 hours for 1100 Euros less than average. Including a not working sound system on three rows in the plane including ours.
Never mind – we made it to Buenos Aires in one piece with only half an hour delay which is not bad because we had to fly around some thunderstorms and had strong headwind.

The best thing happend at the Barajas airport of Madrid. We were waiting for the boarding when I said to Kim: Look at this guy – cool sunglasses when I thought “Mmmh, he looks quite familiar somehow” – it was Diego Maradona, the “hand of God” and soccer titan in South America – or all over the world?
He looked quite exhausted, had only one buddy with him and when people wantet do take a photo with him he just waved his hand slightly refusingly. I could not withstand to take a spy shot with the small digicam and got lucky – I mean it really looks like a spy cam shot and I swear it is Diego Maradona.
On the plane we did what everybody does – reading, napping, and planning our trip en detail. Meaning trying to figure out how many days we have to do to circumnavigations in two national parks. Because we have to fly to Caracas/Isla Margarita to start our in-between-beach-holiday before we fly back to Santiago (or Lima/Peru) which is not decided yet) on the 28.04.2010.
All the guide books say between 7 and 10 days for the circuito grande but the daily distances seem quite short. So we plan to do it a little bit faster – hopefully. Otherwise there is not enough time to climb some volcanos on the leg between Puerto Montt and Santiago. We will see. And keep you posted.