South America

He Said, She Said. Part 2

“This reminds me of New York.”                                                                             -The best compliment we could give a place.

A picnic in Central Park is our favorite

Our favorite New York restaurant Joseph Leonard

We asked all of our Egyptian tour guides if they were offended by the term "Muslim Extremists."  Aboudi said it best: “I simply cannot call them Muslims.  They are evil men, who twist the Quar’an for their own gain."     

“Trust in Allah, but tie your camel to a post.”                                                                  -A Muslim proverb                         

“Always uncomfortable, never unsafe.”                                                                -Our motto for the trip                                                                

Aboudi and other tour guides brought Egypt alive for us

We went to many places where terrorist attacks had happened or could happen.  And while we were very risk averse, we refused to not go to a site because of fear.  Terrorists win when that happens.

“Is that…?  Yep, Mmbop is playing on the radio.”                                                -Ryan during a taxi ride in South America

A woman in Buenos Aires, after she finished giving Blakely directions to the train, finished with: “Watch your purse, and don’t talk to anyone.”

“No, you don’t understand.  I need clothes with serious durability.  Like half spandex, half tire leather.”                                                                                      -Blakely, while shopping to refresh her backpack, to a naive shop attendant pushing cashmere

“There’s a Hermés on our block.  We’re good.”                                                  -Blakely checking out the safety of our new neighborhood in Buenos Aires

Our neighborhood was full of gorgeous French architecture.

And rose gardens of course!

“Watch your head!  If you hit your head, watch your language!”                       -Our boat driver in Belize

“You know what word I can’t get behind?  Abreast.”                                           -Blakely to Ryan on a long bus ride in South America.  People ask us what we talked about.  The answer is: Everything.

Bolivia - Our Quest to the Salt Flats

This is the tale of our quest to see the spectacular Bolivian Salt Flats.  And yes, it was a quest.  Renowned around the world for their striking beauty, it’s a testament to their draw that so many travel so far to see them.  They are in the MIDDLE of nowhere.  No, not even the middle.  They are in the outskirts of nowhere.

The adventure starts in San Pedro de Atacama, which is a desert town that bears a striking resemblance to a Wild West movie set.  The town’s main claim to greatness is that it has a combination of high altitude and dry air, which makes it the perfect star gazing spot.  This past Spring, San Pedro de Atacama became home to the world’s largest astronomy observatory, which allows scientists to probe deeper into outer space than ever before.  Nerd’s delight.  

We took a tour of the night sky by SPACE Star Tours which has the largest telescopes in South America and wonderfully entertaining guides.  Words fail when it comes to the wonder that is outer space.  Our awe at our galaxy, and the galaxies beyond, is as indefinable as the limits of space itself.

They even had a photography telescope so Blakely was able to snap this picture of the half-moon!

HUGE telescopes to see CRAZY things!

The other main activity in San Pedro was obviously planning our next step in the adventure to see the salt flats.  None of the companies will book online, so you have to book in person, and the travel reviews range from fantastic to positively terrifying.  We did our research in San Pedro before booking our transfer, and thankfully, there is a wonderful tourism office that helped enormously. 

We took a day-long transfer in a very dusty car up to Uyuni, Bolivia.  We thought San Pedro was a tiny town, until we drove through the dusty roads leading to Uyuni where there isn’t a sign of street names or human life in sight.  We realized this is officially off the beaten path.  Thankfully the scenery is as breathtaking as the roads are bumpy.

In Uyuni we stayed at a simple hotel called Oasisa Blanco and it paid for itself in its recommendation of a reliable tour company for the salt flats.  We walked around the dusty town negotiating and finally booking our tour for the next day.  It is hard to imagine any place being worth the time and (butt) pain it took to get here, but we would soon be able to decide for ourselves.

The salt flats.  An area twice the size of Rhode Island, this natural phenomenon beats all others.  It doesn’t make any sense to me, but here is the scientific explanation of how on Earth this is even possible:

So, about 40,000 years ago (!), there was a large lake where the salt flats are today.  Over the next 20,000 years, the lake transformed and eventually evaporated, leaving behind all of its salt content. Even today, water sits just under the salt layer, which ranges from 10s of inches to a few meters.  As the water under the salt continues to evaporate, it causes these crazy hexagonal shapes in the salt, which continue as far as you can see.  The entire area (which covers a crazy 4,086 square miles) is exceptionally flat and only varies one meter in altitude.  But then in contrast, the surrounding Andes Mountains explode out of the Earth.  It is THE craziest natural phenomenon we’ve ever seen.

Oh, the flats also serve as a breeding ground for several species of flamingos.  Yes, seriously. 

The breathtaking terrain also serves as a dream opportunity for cheesy photo enthusiasts.  In our group we had some VERY enthusiastic participants, and we obviously couldn’t resist some of the gimmicks. 

During certain times of the year, large portions of the flats flood and create a beautiful reflective surface.  We made it for the very beginning of the season so a small portion of the flat was flooded and served as a backdrop for the most spectacular sunset you can imagine.

Yes, the ridiculously difficult trip to get to the salt flats was very worth it (and that’s saying something).  It is a place that can only be described as otherworldly.  Our trip has been full of natural wonders, but this one is by far the most unique.

Chilean Adventure

Chile is a fantastic country that is full of every type of attraction, fascination, and even contradiction (HOW is Chile so skinny, while making us so fat?).  It’s a fascinating place, with incredibly warm people, and we loved it so much that we came twice!  Our first trip was in the south to Patagonia, but we couldn’t resist all that the rest of Chile had to offer.

We crossed through the Andes to get to Chile and there were some pretty tight turns along the way!

Our first stop was also one of our favorites.  It’s a small city called Valparaiso that is unlike any place we’d been before.  Valparaiso was a major port town until the Panama Canal made it obsolete.  As its citizens abandoned the town and over time artists moved in and took over.  What they’ve built is magical. 

Imagine a hilly port town covered in graffiti.  Sounds awful, huh?  Now, instead of the amateur graffiti most cities deal in, imagine gorgeous, large-scale art murals covering all of the walls and buildings.  The murals differ hugely in style, color and size, and yet somehow they blend together to create a magical place where, around every cobble-stoned corner, a new adventure awaits.

Valparaiso, Chile

We stayed in ViaVia Boutique Hotel, which, besides being a charming lodging, is home to the famous ViaVia Café.  It was a delight from start to finish, and between the great room, delicious food and fun atmosphere, we never wanted to leave.

We took a walking tour around Valparaiso with “Tours for Tips,” our absolutely favorite tour company in South America.  They operate with volunteer guides, who are young, energetic and knowledgeable.  We’ve loved every tour we’ve taken with them.

Though we hated to leave Valparaiso, leave me must.  Next, we spent a brief two days in fabulous Santiago, where we enjoyed another tour from Tours for Tips.  Their walking tours are such a fun way to get acclimated in a new place and learn history at the same time.

Santiago has some incredible murals of their own!

Santiago even has art in their Subway stations.

In Santiago, we stayed at an awesome guesthouse called Hostel Amazonas Riveras.  A redone Tudor mansion, it has tons of ambience and clean simple rooms.  Plus, they were great help with activities and transfers. 

After Santiago we flew to North Chile to enjoy our favorite: Adventure.  

Buenos Aires

First things first:  We love Buenos Aires, and like all lovers, we feel she can do no wrong.  There, now you know.

Why do we love her?  Because she’s a gorgeous city full of French architecture, with delicious food that centers on red meat and red wine (yes, please).  BA has tons of stuff to do, or not do, and just enough history to keep you interested without feeling overwhelmed.  We arrived just as the trees bloomed into beautiful purples, but don’t worry if your timing is off.  The city is planned so that it explodes with different colored blooms in each season.  We love this place.

We stayed in one of our favorite places thus far, an apartment in Recoleta where our delightful host Maria treated us like we were her favorite niece and nephew.  It was the perfect location for touring and enjoying this delightful city!

First up:  obviously a bike tour.  If you haven’t caught on, we love bike tours.  Biking Buenos Aires gave us an awesome all-day tour that went through the history of Argentina and Buenos Aires.  Along with the history, the tour also gave us information on the country and city as it is today. 

Wow, a lot has happened recently.  Over the past forty years, Argentina has drastically flip-flopped between socialism and dictatorships.  The country also had a colossal economic disaster, which still weighs heavily on the economy and memories of many of its citizens.  Maybe the most interesting lesson (I can’t believe I’m saying this) is what we learned about Argentina’s economy.  

Another highlight on the bike tour was the colorful buildings of La Boca with its impressive graffiti.  In a declaration of freedom of expression, the graffiti isn’t just impressive artwork, but full of symbolic messages of fury and heartbreak that Argentina’s history instilled in its people.  

We also saw a monument to “The Disappeared.”  The Disappeared refers to the countless Argentinians (with estimates ranging from 10,000 to 30,000) that vanished during the military rule from 1976 until 1983.  As if their story isn’t horrifying enough, there is an additional aspect of “the living disappeared.”  Some of The Disappeared were pregnant women or had small children.  The pregnant women were held until they gave birth.  The children were all sold to military families or those that were politically acceptable, and birth certificates were falsified (It is CRAZY stuff).  The result is an entire generation that is coming of age today who find out through DNA tests that they were raised by deceitful proxy parents.  For more information, you can watch this video by the New York Times.

Also on the bike tour, of course, were the highlight sites of Argentina’s hero Evita.  This includes where she gave her harrowing final speech (the “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” one) and the site where she’s laid to rest.  The Evita love is real—our guide said that you can tell how bad the news is when you count the posters of Evita in the background.  If there are three, the news is VERY bad!

Evita gave her speech from the balcony of this pink building.  During filming for the movie "Evita," Madonna wasn't allowed to use the balcony, and the scene was shot from the back of the building.

Of course, we also visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery where Evita is buried.  Such a strange place.  A 10-year lease on a plot costs 6 million USD, and the tombs are each unique and a bit gaudy.  

The bike tour included much more and was well worth the effort.  I’m telling you, we love bike tours.

Next, we took our own walking tour.  We stopped by the Recoleta craft market where Blakely got a really cool necklace made from an Argentinian coin.  We continued walking to and through the expansive parks of Palermo.  They are huge!  One of our highlights was the gorgeous rose garden.

That night, we took advantage of another Buenos Aires trend—the closed-door restaurant.  Located all over the city, in secret locations, chefs open their homes and treat guests to delicious specialized meals.  We chose Casa Salt Shaker by New York chef Dan Perlman and loved it.  The food was delicious and the wine pairings a special delight.

Since we loved the closed-door restaurant experience, we decided to try another, but different, take on it.  It’s called The Argentine Experience.  It started as a closed-door restaurant that specialized in not just giving guests delicious Argentinian food, but explaining the Argentinian way of life.  Enter an investor to build out a spectacular space, and tons of young people to lead the dinners, and you have The Argentinian Experience of today.  Along with teaching us how to order our steak in Argentinian Spanish (which the chef also cooked to perfection), we learned how to cook empanadas, had a competition on who could design the best one, and learned tons of hand gestures to make us look, if not sound, like true Argentinians.

Oh yea, Ryan obviously won the competition.

Next, Blakely went to give back at the Fundacion de Banco Alimentos (the food bank).  This awesome organization works to bring food and home goods to Argentina’s poor.  They do a great job of utilizing volunteers and you can give any amount of your time (from one day to one year!).  Let them know your schedule and they’ll put you to work!  Plus, you meet some fabulous ladies.

One more restaurant you gotta try: NOLA.  As the name suggests, it was right up our alley and satisfied our Southern hearts with delicious fried chicken and fabulous bourbon.  Blakely wanted to write them a thank you note.

In case you thought we did everything together, here’s proof that we sometimes divide and conquer.

Ryan chose the Museo de Armas, which, in case your Spanish is rusty, means Museum of Arms.  As in military arms.  This museum has a frighteningly large collection of weapons, which includes everything from bazookas to lances to Japanese armor.  He loved it. 

Blakely chose the History of Design Museum.  Housed in a gorgeous, French-styled mansion from the early 1900’s, the museum focused on the design that the Buenos Aires elite brought in during their boom.

As if Buenos Aires could get any better, it did.  Ryan’s family joined us so we could share our favorite parts of the fabulous city.  Along with doing our favorite tours again, we went to a fabulous dinner at Don Julio’s to try out our steak ordering technique!  The steaks were cooked to perfection and the sides were Blakely’s delight!

As if Blakely couldn't love the Design Museum more, there is a fabulous restaurant next to it that was amazing.  It's called Croque Madam, and you gotta try their signature sandwich!

From Buenos Aires, we flew to a different sort of highlight:  Patagonia!

Iguaçu Falls

Iguaçu Falls is a magnificent wonder of nature's beauty and power.  It's gorgeous, and humbling.  

It is also huge.  In particular, it is wide.  The falls are divided into many different waterfalls and cataracts that make it a delight to explore.  Both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides are very well done and both respective parks have walkways and hikes to explore the falls.  The Brazil side has breathtaking vistas that capture the vastness of the falls while Argentina’s side allows an up-close look from all angles (as well as some activities!).  Since both sides are amazing, we decided to do both!

On the Brazilian side, we stayed at the oasis Hostel Natura, which is outside of town on gorgeous grounds.  Lean into the hippy vibes, and enjoy.

The Iguaçu National Park on the Brazil side of the falls offers tons of hikes and activities, but the main event is a hike that follows the length of the falls.  View after view after view of the massive falls with a finale consisting of a walk along the base to feel the water’s powerful spray.  Also not bad is the top-notch lunch buffet restaurant that sits on top of the falls!

Iguaçu Falls, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Next we headed to Argentina.  We bought a two-day pass so we could explore the expansive National Park to our hearts content.  There are several worthwhile walking loops and they are all differently spectacular.  Our favorite was probably above the falls, where you can watch the water roll over the edge into a terrifying abyss.  Take the last train (yes, there’s a train) at 4:00 PM to avoid the crowds.

On Day Two, we explored before opting for a little boat ride…into the falls.  This joy ride takes you all along the base of the falls and then guns it into the falls so you can really feel the water’s power.  It was hilarious.  See for yourself…

I can't believe we did that, but I'd definitely do it again!  Would you?

Isla Grande, Paraty, and Sao Paulo

Isla Grande is a small island off the coast of Brazil with gorgeous beaches, tons of hikes, and no cars allowed.  Sign us up!

The island is undeveloped because it has historically been home to some undesirable inhabitants.  It was once home to a leper colony and then later the site of a top security prison.  The prison, which housed the most dangerous criminals, was closed in 1994.  Once rid of these less than ideal citizens, the island’s pristine beauty, unspoiled nature, and convenient yet isolated location made it a perfect tourist destination.

We stayed at Tropical Mountain House, which was a 20-minute jungle hike from the port.  It’s a charming place with private suites, a hammock-filled porch with ocean view, and a well-stocked kitchen.  Perfect for us!  We hiked to amazing beaches, yoga’d, caught up on writing, and Ryan reread Treasure Island in one sitting.  A perfect vacation to energize us for the next portion of our trip.

After Isla Grande we took a ferry to delightful Paraty—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and picturesque colonial town.  The grid layout of cobble-stoned streets shows whitewash buildings with colorful trimmings that contrast beautifully with the dark wood.  

We stayed in the family run ­­­Hotel Solar dos Gerânios, a restored mansion from the early 1900s.  It had a lobby we want to mimic in our library one day and rooms overlooking the town square.  We loved it so much we extended our stay a night, and then another night!  We toured the town, ate in the delicious restaurants, and went on an island hopping tour to the neighboring beaches.

But we had to move on eventually and make our way to Sao Paulo.  We had low expectations for this city—it’s the business hub of Brazil with a lackluster reputation.  Maybe it was our low hopes, but we were pleasantly surprised by Sao Paulo!  We stayed at Sampa Hostel, which has simple clean rooms and really cool art around it.  Plus, the neighborhood Vila Madalena can’t be beat for restaurants and nightlife.

The fabulous artwork at Sampa!

Sao Paulo has a surprisingly clean and doable subway system that we used to its full advantage.  We first went to the Museum of Immigration, which not only highlights Sao Paulo’s role in immigration for South America, but also gives a fascinating perspective on pioneers and immigrants throughout history.  The museum put us in the shoes of immigrants and, as we constantly move from one place to the next, we could identify with the need and fear of discovering a new home (of course recognizing our trip is much less stressful!).

We continued on our self-guided walking tour to the spectacular Theatro Municipal.  Considered Sao Paulo’s most splendid construction, the theater was built in the early 1900s and is still used today.

We next walked to the Mercado Municipal, a covered market with any local food you could wish for.  The market was designed as an old train station, which has a gorgeous setup that also happened to be a delicious spot for lunch!

Our time in Sao Paulo was very brief, but we had places to get to!  In particular, magnificent Iguaçu Falls!  

Rio de Janeiro

We arrived in Rio straight from the Middle East, and as these are very different cultures, we were ready for a bit of a shock.  Nothing could have prepared us!  Flesh, everywhere!

Rio has an energy and passion for life that is infectious.  Couples kiss on the street, there is constant loud chatting and laughter, and women and men wear the scantiest of clothing no matter what their mass.  It is fabulous.

We stayed in the top apartment room at Casada Harmonia, which was an excellent choice.  The hosts were a blast as well as a wealth of information.  Once we got settled, it was time to hit the town!  If you know us, you won’t be surprised we chose bikes!  Rio has over three hundred kilometers of bike paths, which make bikes an amazing option for exploring.  

Next up was obvious: Christo.  Not so obvious was our choice to hike to the top!  After the 45-minute hike with steep incline, we felt like we earned the magnificent sight of Christo.  I’m not sure what we expected, but he is colossal!  Another surprise was the surrounding view—Rio’s geography is full of islets and the vista is breathtaking. 

Also, at the base of the trail is a gorgeous old mansion and its expansive garden grounds.  The walk around is beautiful and peaceful—definitely worth a look.

Christo is WAAAYYYY up there!

Almost there!

Next we went to another main attraction in Brazil: a football match!  This being our first game, we were a bit wary.  The reputation of Brazilian football can be intense, sometimes dangerously so.  We shouldn’t have worried.  We made friends with a local in the ticket line and he gave us an inside look (including the team’s fight songs and gossip!).  As you can see, we got into it quickly.

The following day we visited one of the coolest churches we’ve ever seen (and yes, we're saying this after going to Israel):  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro.  The outside looks uber sketchy, but once you walk inside, your eyes will travel up and your jaw will drop.  Massive stain glass windows that measure 210 feet high and an alter piece that hangs from the 246 foot ceiling make this a wonder to behold.  Absolutely worth a visit.

Next were the Escadaria Selaron, or the “Selaron Steps.”  The bright tiles project the colors of the Brazilian flag, and the steps were artist Jorge Selaron’s “tribute to the Brazilian people.”  The eclectic mix of decorated tiles has something for everyone—even a girl from Augusta, Georgia!

Any golf fans recognize him???

But honestly, you don’t travel to Rio to view sights the whole time.  Arguably the main attraction is the culture, people, and nightlife!  In honor of that, we hit the town to see if we still had it in us (after Africa and the Middle East, we were a bit out of practice!).

First up:  A Brazilian BBQ.  Ryan's past corporate life (and inner fat kid) gave him some experience in this, and strategy is key.  First, as delectable as the salad bar looks, don’t fall for it.  You don’t want to fill up on the parmesan wheel.  Second, the servers walk around with every type of meat.  Be selective.  Know what the best cuts are, and become best friends with that server!