Argentina Travel Tips

Argentina can be tricky for tourists, so here are some Argentina travel tips.  We stayed there for roughly a month over a few locations, and had a pretty good of how to get by.

Getting There

You do need to pay the reciprocity fee or you won’t even be allowed onto the plane.  This fee can be paid online and must be printed out before your plane boards.  Show up at your gate early as they will call your name over the loudspeaker and/or come around to verify you have this completed.  We saw several people not be able to board the flight because they didn’t have it!

Where to get money in Argentina

If possible, try to bring USD with you before going to Argentina.  Their inflation is 20% per year (yikes!) which means no one wants their currency.  A black market has cropped up around USD: everyone there wants it and is very eager to give you pesos in exchange.  You will still need to convert to Argentinian pesos for general use, but the higher priced items/services are going to want USD.  Bringing it avoids the conversion fees in the first place.

The official exchange rate in Argentina is going to be the worst that you can get.  This will be the one given to you by ATM’s and banks.  Sometimes it’s a necessity to withdraw from an ATM, but most of the time you’ll want to exchange on the black market.

Don’t worry!  The “black market” isn’t quite the seedy operation that it sounds like.  Well ok, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t.

There are two ways to go about exchanging money: one is to simply walk around the city and listen for the people saying “cambio! change!”.  Don’t worry, you will find them around malls and tourist attractions.  These are money changers that will give you pesos in return for USD at a greater rate than the official rate.

The better way that we found was to use xoom.com.  It does the same thing, but without going to a sketchy looking guy in the street.  Use it like Paypal: input your bank information, request the amount to withdraw, and then go to one of their approved locations and pick up the money.  Their approved locations aren’t always the most convenient, but they are typically numerous and in safe areas of the city.  This way you can avoid doing back-alley deals.  We check for fraud diligently, and Xoom is legit.

Eating in Argentina – Time of Day

Time of day is very important in Argentina.  They are on their own clock and it can be very confusing for tourists.  Lunch is around 1pm-3pm, and dinner is from 8pm-12pm.  Picadas are from 5pm-7pm.  Restaurants are often completely closed at other times!

First: breakfast isn’t really a thing here.  If you find a place that serves breakfast, great.  Don’t count on it.  You’ll probably be able to find a coffee shop that serves some bread on a consistent basis.  Having a hotel that serves breakfast may impact your decision.

Next, lunch is a little bit later than normal.  Some will start around noon, but don’t expect to eat at 11am.  When 3pm rolls around, the kitchen will usually close.  So don’t roll in at 2:50 and expect to be served.  They will shoo you out the door.

“Picadas” in Argentina are appetizers and drinks.  Think of it as happy hour food.  Typically they will be a meat, cheese, and olive tray.  This is to tide you over until dinner.

Dinner in Argentina starts late and ends late.  It’s possible to arrive for dinner around 8pm, but this is like going to dinner in the US around 4pm: you will be the only ones in the restaurant.

What to eat in Argentina

Argentina is very proud of it’s Italian heritage, and the cuisine reflects that.  The food is meant to stay simple and true to itself.  There will very little preservatives or spices in the food, making it quite healthy even when eating out.

I swear the menus all look the same here: big and confusing.  In the US, the menus are grouped by item and the options (onions, pickles, cheese, etc) are underneath.  In Argentina, each option is listed separately as a different item.  For example, a sandwich without onions will be listed as a completely different sandwich as with.  So the entire page will be basically the same sandwich, but with different cheeses/breads/etc.  Don’t get discouraged.

Meats and vegetables, grilled – this will be the go-to large meal.  Their specialty is beef, but all other meats are on offer as well.

Milanesa – This is simply breaded chicken, and it’s very common in both the restaurants and grocery stores.  I’ve tried it all over the place, and I can’t figure out why it’s so popular.  There doesn’t seem to be much special about it.

picadas in Buenos Aires
Picadas – a meat/cheese/olive tray served around 6-7pm

Picadas – a meat, cheese, and olive tray that is typically served around 6-7pm to tide you over until dinner which can be as late as 11pm.  There will often be specials and it can be a very cheap way to eat dinner since they can be quite large.

Pizza – There are literally two varieties: cheese, and cheese with onion.  In short, the pizza here is terrible.  They want to keep it close to the basics as possible, so the pizza is invariably just cheese bread with no sauce.

Empanadas – These are meat and cheese pies that are available all over.  They will be good cheap eats.

Napkins in Argentina

worst-napkins-ever-argentina

Why do I mention these?  Because they the worst napkins in the entire world.  They feel and act like wax paper.  If you try to soak up water-based liquid with them, they will fail horribly.  You’ll just be smearing it around.  Their one and only use is to soak up grease-based spills.

What to drink in Argentina

While Quilmes is an OK beer, you really should drink the wine to the exclusion of all else (except water).  In the local stores, great bottles of wine can be found for under $2 USD!

coffee-argentinaCoffee in Argentina will come with a few side items that we aren’t used to: a shot of soda water and a sweet treat.  They are welcome additions and you’ll miss them when you leave.

Where to shop for food in Argentina

Make it a point to stop in the local stores for one simple fact: it’ll be cheaper.  The government regulates the price of certain items such as eggs, but only on the large retailers.  The little shops don’t have to follow these rules for whatever reason.  In Buenos Aires they are referred to as “Chinos” as they are typically run by people of South East Asian descent, and they can be found all over the city.

Hotels / Airbnb in Argentina

It’s no secret that we are big fans of Airbnb.  We have gotten entire apartments for under $40 USD per night in great locations.  However, there are some caveats:

You might have to squeegee your own floors.  The apartments in Buenos Aires are often old and leaky.  The host will tell you if you are expected to mop or squeegee the floor.  Don’t worry, it’s not too bad.

The showers are all terrible.  There’s mediocre water pressure anywhere, and poor tubs abound.  So if your host expects you to squeegee your shower, don’t be too surprised.

Having said all of that, if you just keep your expectations a little lower than everything will be just fine.  Charming, even.

Look where you’re walking

The sidewalks aren’t exactly well maintained.  Moreover, in Buenos Aires there’s a large problem: dog poop.  It’s everywhere.  You are nearly assured of stepping in it at some point during your time there.

Do they speak English in Argentina?

Not a lot.  I was kind of surprised by this, but they seemed to speak less English here than in Chile or Peru.  Even in Buenos Aires, you’ll encounter a lot of people that don’t speak a lick of English.  Heck, the English is far better in Myanmar than it is in Argentina.

If you want to study up on some survival Spanish, here are my recommendations on words/phrases to learn:

  • Numbers
  • How much?
  • Food items to read menus.  Learn the names of common meats and vegetables.
  • Push, pull, open, closed, to-go

How to make it easier if you don’t speak the language

Try to bring things up on your phone before you set out somewhere.  This way, you can point on the map where you want to go.  This is very handy with taxi drivers especially.

Get an app called “Word Lens”.  It translates signs just by pointing your smartphones’ camera at them!

Argentina can be more difficult to travel than other countries, but with these ideas in mind it can be fun

No doubt about it: Argentina can seem like a crazy place to tourists due to their unique eating and sleeping schedule.  Add in the financial side of it and the language barriers, and it can be tough!  But don’t worry, Argentina will be a great experience with a few days of practice.

Sydney, Australia: A chic cityscape

sydney-australia

Sydney, Australia has a good reputation among travelers as a “must go” destination but no one ever explains why.  Most Americans look at Australia and think Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin, or wild animals that will likely kill you.  We arrived in Sydney to find a vibrant and modern city, and managed not to have a dingo eat a baby.  We had no real expectations going in, so Sydney was a great surprise.

sydney-skyline

The city is well curated, with parks and and attractions for everyone throughout the city.  Not far from the place we were staying was: a collection of parks, the opera house, a botanical garden, and a block party being hosted by the government that weekend.  It’s a great walking city with several neighborhoods set up for casual strolls.

sydney-australia

The opera house is an iconic image of Sydney.  I’m not sure we ever saw an actual opera being held there, but it’s always a busy spot.  Lined alongside the harbor is a row of bars and restaurants that are popular with the working crowd for the evening’s happy hour.  Once the sun starts going down, the city comes alive with people getting off of work and trying to enjoy the last few hours of daylight.

bondi-beach-sydney-2

Bondi Beach is the popular local hangout on the weekends.  It’s mostly populated by very fit individuals to match the well manicured city.  It’s one of those beaches where you’d go if you wanted to be seen rather than have a relaxing time.  Crowded to the point where it’s hard to move, the beach still offers good people watching and the opportunity to work on that dark tan that many of the Aussies seem to cultivate.  It’s sometimes difficult to tell when you’re near a beach, because Aussies don’t wear a whole lot of clothing at any given time.  It is pretty darn hot down here.  We were even pretty surprised at what some women were wearing to work: very skimpy outfits, just to deal with the heat.  All these fit people made me feel quite fat and out of shape.  Oh, and super white.  I blinded a few people when I took off my shirt.

australia-alcohol-sucks

I do have one quibble with the country: their booze is completely sub-par.  Enjoying the local alcohols is something I like to do from country to country.  It’s often a deep part of their history and helps acclimate the taste buds to the local cuisine.  However, the beer in Australia SUCKS.  There’s no other word for it.  It is hands-down the worst of any country we’ve visited.  Take an American light beer (which people only drink because it’s fewer calories than regular beer), then instead of 4% alcohol give it 1-2%: that’s Australian beer.  Now, strong alcoholic content isn’t a sign of a good beer.  But when trying to make something like an IPA (which was made specifically because the high alcohol content allowed the beer to survive long voyages at sea) and give it 4% ABV, that’s just a joke.

sydney-waterfrontMost of the attractions are going to be along the waterfront.  It’s a great place to relax and watch the big ships go by while drinking some form of imported booze.  It seems to be a very active city.  By that, I mean that people are out and about quite a bit enjoying the town.  There are some places we’ve been to that are more for work and become dead once work hours are over.

kangaroo-fillet

The food in Sydney was very good, but not quite in the way we expected it to be.  When we asked our Airbnb host about real Australian food, he suggested things like Vegemite, meat pies, and kangaroo.  We’ve had the first two before, but not the third.  Vegemite is a weird yeast that is spread on toast.  They love it, but to us it was just terrible.  Meat pies seem to be common in most non-US places, so we’d already encountered those.  Think of a pot pie.  So on the last evening, we grilled some kangaroo on with vegetables.  The taste and texture reminded me of a flank steak, but what was evident was how I could really taste the cuteness of the kangaroo.  MMM, MMM, good.

Most of the food that we enjoyed while there tended to be Thai, Chinese, or Japanese cuisine rather than traditional Australian.

sea-lion-sydney-zooWe hit up the Sydney Zoo while in town, but not just for the zoo itself.  To get there, we had to take a ferry across the harbor where we were able to soak in the city while bobbing along.  The zoo was just a fun little diversion when we got to the other side.

alicia-stuffed-koala

 

 

Overall, Sydney is a wonderful place to visit.  It’s picturesque, easily accessible by walking around and using public transportation, and there’s plenty to do.  Just stay away from the Vegemite!

What to expect at airports when traveling

What to expect at airports when traveling

Airports can be incredibly confusing.  Here’s what to expect at airports when traveling to make your trip smooth and enjoyable.

What to wear on the plane

Before you even get to an airport, your clothes will be a big factor in your enjoyment of the flight.

Dress comfortably, simply, and light.  The temperature on the plane will be unpredictable.  If the plane is full, it can be very hot and unpleasant to be overdressed.  If everyone has turned on their AC to the max, it can be cold and the extra layer your brought in your carry-on will be very welcome.  Try not to wear something that is difficult to put on or take off in a cramped space.

Airport security in the US will often require you to remove your shoes during the security screening.  Other countries generally don’t make this check.  If you expect to take off your shoes, try and wear the ones that come on and off easily.

International flights and/or long flights (6 hours+) will often provide a little blanket and pillow for extra comfort, but it may be easier to bring your own beforehand.

Packing

Luggage fees are the absolute worst things in the world, and I want to help you avoid them.  Check your airline for their specific checked bag and carry-on requirements as they differ airline to airline.  Don’t get surprised at the airport when you arrive to find out they want to charge you $50 each way for having a bag that is oversize/weight.

Don’t tiptoe the line and pack your bag right to max capacity.  If someone wants to ruin your day because you’re a pound over the limit, they will.  Give yourself some wiggle room.

In general, carry on bags for domestic US flights should be 22″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ high.  45 linear inches (height + width + length).  There is generally no weight limit for carry-on bags if they fit this size.

Checked bags will generally have weight limits of 50 pounds or you have to pay a fee.

Flights outside of the United States will have smaller bag limits!  I’m sure lots of people get caught in this trap: they take their 45 pound bag internationally only to find out that the limits there are 40 pounds.  In general, international travel will limit checked bags to 40 pounds and carry-on bags from 7 to 10 kg.  The dimensions on carry-on bags will also be smaller but vary by airline.  Check your specific international airline for the exact sizes.

There’s always someone at the airport re-packing their bags after throwing items away just to avoid paying another $100 in fees.  Don’t be that person!

Packing for international flights

Bring a pen to fill out immigration and customs forms on the plane.  This saves quite a bit of time while the rest of the plane is trying to use the 5 community pens they have.

Getting there

Arrive 1 hour before departure for domestic flights and 2 hours before departure for international flights, no matter what the airport.  The time listed on your ticket is the departure time, not the boarding time unless specifically mentioned.  Do not try to show up at the gate 15 minutes before departure!  Many airlines will not let you board.

There is very little reason not to show up early.

Checking In

Airlines now offer e-check-in 24 hours before the flight.  At this time you can pick your seats before the rest of the people and let the airline know that you do intend to be there so if something goes wrong they can wait for you.

Check in is also available at the airport either at the service desks or automated kiosks.  We prefer the automated versions because they are fast and you don’t have to wait in line.  But, sometimes they don’t work and/or direct you to the service desk anyway.

Liquids, Weapons, Food

In general, you can’t fly with liquid containers holding more than 3 oz / 100ml.  Keep your liquids inside of a 1 quart ziplock baggie.  They will make you throw them away if you don’t.

“Weapons” might sound silly, but that little pocket knife you have on your key-chain isn’t going to be allowed on board.  Other things you might not think are weapons, but security will surely protest.

Food in general is OK, but sometimes customs will want you to declare any food items that you have.  We try to make it easy and just not bring food across, but if you are bringing a special treat just declare it when they ask you to and it should be fine.

Have your ticket and ID/passport ready at all times

People all around the airport are going to ask to see these all the time.  Don’t put them deep into your luggage until you’re actually on the plane.

Tickets are available in electronic form on your smartphone, reducing the amount of papers you have to carry.  Passbook on the iPhone is one such app that takes airline tickets.

Going through security

Everyone hates going through security.  Don’t try to fight it, they will just make your life hell.  Be calm and quick and they won’t bother you at all.

In general:

  • take out liquids
  • take out laptops/kindles
  • take everything out of your pockets
  • take off your sweatshirt/coat
  • Put the above items into two trays: one for the laptop and everything else in the other
  • US: take off shoes
  • Stay with your items until they go into the machine, then walk through the scanner.  Pay attention to the person on the other side if they want to scan or frisk you.

Make sure you pack liquids/laptops in easy to get to locations.  Don’t bury them deep inside the suitcase.

Don’t be lazy about these.  If you leave your liquids inside the suitcase, they will want to search your entire suitcase.  That tightly packed spring will uncoil and become a huge hassle, costing you time and happiness.

Finding your gate

See the gate number on the ticket?  That’s a lie.  Gates change all the time.  There are monitors all over the airports telling you the up-to-date information.  Never trust the gate number on the ticket.

If you are sitting at your gate and no one else is there and it’s getting close to your departure time, your gate has moved.  Find a monitor with gate information and listen to the announcements to get the right gate.

When you are at what you think is the right gate, verify it by looking for your flight on the monitor in front of the loading doors.  It may have changed while you were walking.

I cannot stress it enough: the gate will change randomly without warning.  Keep tabs that it’s still correct.

Getting to your gate

After getting to the airport and through security, it’s time to relax… WRONG!  Find out where your gate is from a monitor and relax nearby.  Some airports and ridiculously large.  So large that you have to take buses or subways between them.  You might think there’s enough time, only to realize too late that the airport is massive.  If you are not familiar with the airport, get to the gate first just to make sure you can do it on time.

During the flight (international)

During an international flight, the flight attendants will hand out immigration and customs cards.  Fill these out on the plane to get through customs much quicker.

Dealing with Immigration

If this was an international flight, you will have to go through Immigration (the process of entering a foreign country).

They are going to be checking your passport as well as immunization history.  Check the country you are traveling to and make sure you have enough pages in your passport as well as the correct immunizations.  The vaccine for Yellow Fever is a very common request, and you will not be allowed back into the US if you do not have it!

In general, Immigration will want to know:

  • where you are from
  • why you are here
  • how long are you staying – in many cases, proof of onward travel is required (they want to know you will leave at some point)
  • what location you are visiting and/or address of hotel

Dealing with Customs

If this was an international flight, you will have to go through Customs (the process of taking items in and out of a foreign country).

Customs varies widely from country to country, but in general it’s best not to have the following:

  • $10,000 USD or equivalent in cash
  • goods intended for sale in that country
  • drugs
  • food products
  • plants
  • animals

Yes, even that prescription you have may be illegal and subject to be seized.  Check the laws with each country before going.  Most people will not have a problem.

Be aware of the time when you land

Many flights will arrive at late or super early hours.  Somethings that are normally available might be closed, like buses or currency exchanges.  Plan accordingly.

Dealing with Taxis

Taxis from airports are going to be higher priced than you’ll find elsewhere, but I’ve rarely had problems with them being downright sleazy.  You can do a little shopping around within the airport, but if you haven’t found a better deal after 10 minutes of searching then it’s probably not worth looking further.  Some airports have fantastic public transportation to begin with.  Map out your route from the airport beforehand.

Getting cash

Most airports will have many ATM’s as well as currency exchanges.  However, make sure the currency exchange is open when you are arriving.  If you are unsure, get money changed beforehand in your originating airport.  Travel with a credit card for most purchases and a debit card for ATM withdrawals to avoid the credit advance fees.

That’s it!

Most airports are pretty much the same in how they do things.  It’s important to give yourself enough time to avoid missing the flight and potentially ruining your vacation.  By having done a little legwork beforehand, you can have a smooth experience and a great trip.

Mendoza, Argentina’s Lujan de Cuyo wine region: Oh god my liver hurts

winery-lujan-de-cuyo

It’s not a secret that Alicia and I are wine fanatics.  Some of our favorites come from Mendoza, Argentina’s wine region.  We went on a few tours of the popular Lujan de Cuyo area and Uco valley over the span of three days.  There we had some of the best wines we’ve ever tasted.  The wineries are somehow all picturesque little cottage style operations made gorgeous with the backdrop of the Andes mountains.

Mendel Winery Vines
Quaint rows of vines in our first stop, Mendel winery

We booked our tours with Trout and Wine, but it might not make a difference where you book from.  Most of the tour guides are hired guns and generally not put with any one agency.  Depending on what wineries and languages they know, they will be picked up by different tour companies’ needs.  We were very happy with our guide, a native Argentinian who knew 5 languages.

Mendel winery cellar
THE CUTENESS BURNS MY EYES

The wineries are disgustingly cute.  Like they were built in a secret underground government cuteness lab to use against terrorists.  How old would you guess this winery is?  Brick cellar, old barn, weathered wooden posts for the vines… That’s right, a little over 10 years old.  The wine industry in Mendoza didn’t really take off under after 2000.  Sure, the vines around here can be a hundred years old or so, but that’s due to bringing them from Europe and/or immigrants growing them long ago.  But the variety of grapes around here that really thrives are Malbecs.  I can’t remember when we discovered them, but after that there was no going back to California Cabernets.

Rose bushes vineyards
The “canary in the coal mine”

Rose bushes are often seen at the ends of the rows of vines.  They offer a sort of early warning system for the wine maker.  Since the grapes and roses are susceptible to the same diseases, why not pretty up the vineyard with some flowers while keeping tabs on the grapes?  We are told that this is mostly an old technique and not incredibly relevant in today’s world.  The plants are sprayed regardless of infection because if the vines get sick, the disease spreads so quickly.  We saw some bushes infected, and it decimated several acres before it was found and stopped.

Vine hail protection
These hail nets are down for the moment, but can be extended above the vines if there is a chance of hail

Oddly enough, the largest natural disaster that could occur is hailstorms.  We find that funny as this is nearly a desert.  But hail happens every few years and wipes out the vines.  These nets are expensive, but I suppose necessary.

Renecer winery
An aerial view of the Renecer winery, taken with my DJI Phantom 2 in the short time we traveled with it

Oh look!  Another improbably charming winery!  The Renecer winery was a good stop for us to make as we drink their wines back home in Minnesota.  One of their Malbecs named “punto final” is a reliably good and inexpensive (~$15) bottle that’s nice to pick up when we can’t decide on a wine.  This mildly puzzled the wine folks there that they had such distribution in a state they don’t know much about.  I’m not sure why they were confused: they just got done bragging about how much they export!

Make wine Renecer
Note the vial with which to mix, and the unlabeled bottles

At Renecer they had a nice touch that we hadn’t encountered before: make your own blend of wine.  The Mendoza region is interesting for wine making because the soil and climate can vary drastically even a few miles off of the mountains.  The Lujan de Cuyo region has very fertile and earthy soil, giving the wines more of a “fruit forward” taste.  By comparison, Uco valley is more arid and rocky which gives a distinct mineral taste to the wines.  The result: I have saved millions of my future earnings by knowing any future wines I would make would be awful.  I took two wines that I liked, mixed them, and somehow ended up with something I that went into the spit bucket.

Oak Barrels

Yes, even their cellars are cultured to create that perfect ambiance.  Because why not custom design lighting for barrels that are just going to sit there?  Obviously.  I remember visiting a Minnesota winery (stop laughing!) and it was just kind of a pole barn where the wine sat stacked in the corner.

Overall, visiting the wineries in the Lujan de Cuyo region was great.  I’m not sure I’d do a repeat tour of that particular area before seeing all of the other areas in Mendoza, but we did have fun while there.  When we got back to our place around 5 or 6 pm, we were sleepy and a little tippy.  Perfect!  That’s siesta time in Mendoza anyway.

Is the GoPro good for travel?

Alicia & John - Great Barrier Reef - GoPro underwater Selfie

Many people wonder what kind of camera to take with them, and ask: is the GoPro good for travel?  Here are some of the things we’ve done with it and our thoughts on the GoPro Hero as a travel camera.  The main competitor to the GoPro is going to be a cell phone camera or a step up to more specialized equipment.  We are not professional photographers (and you’re probably not either) and wouldn’t know the first place to begin with specialized equipment, so we we our GoPro’s and iPhone 5’s for all the pictures you see on this site.

GoPro underwater Selfie

We are using the GoPro Hero Silver edition.  If you want the high end version, there’s the GoPro Hero Black version.

Beautiful landscape shots

new zealand morning
New Zealand in the morning before a hike

Cell phone cameras have difficulty with larger environment shots because the angle is too small.  Every shot like the above tends to look cramped on a cell phone.  The wide angle lens of the GoPro allows your shots to feel immense.

Keeps majestic feel

Canyon in rotorua
Canyon in Rotorua, New Zealand

We only took our iPhone 5’s up Pichu Mountain in Macchu Pichu, and that was a huge mistake.  Somehow the iPhones made a 12,000 foot high mountain look as flat as Iowa.  In the shot above, you can feel the ground drop out from underneath you.

Action shots!

NOTE: The quality is low because I didn’t want the image size too large. The original is very high quality.

Here we are boogieboarding down sand dune in New Zealand. I’m following Alicia with the GoPro. Fun little action videos like this are possible because the casing on the GoPro is so resilient. All of the sand kicking up would have gotten inside of other cameras or scratched the lens.

Quirky Perspective

Hobbit Hole Fish Eye
Looking at a hobbit hole on the set of The Hobbit in New Zealand

Many people dislike the “fish-eye” effect that the GoPro gives, but I think it’s mostly pretty cool.  It can take a rather ordinary shot and give it a unique feel.  Above, the lens bends the fence around the hobbit-hole.  This obviously differentiates it from all those other hobbit-hole pictures you see every day. 😉

The GoPro also has software to take out this fish-eye effect quickly and easily if you so choose.

Underwater shots

sea-lion-galapagos
Got a little too close to a sea lions’ harem in the Galapagos while snorkeling, and he came out to chase me away

Here’s where the GoPro scores really well, and really poorly.  It’s stupidly easy to take the GoPro underwater with the waterproof case that comes standard.  However, low light conditions are not really favorable with the GoPro (more on that in a second).

Indestructible

gopro-sitting-on-bottom
I placed the GoPro on the ocean bottom in the Galapagos, roughly 12 feet deep. Caught a fantastic video of fish swimming overhead.

As you can tell by now, we take the GoPro everywhere.  It has survived all the banging around in our luggage through the past 8 countries without any signs of wear.  In the Galapagos I was throwing the camera through the air into the water to see watch the videos afterwards.  I’ve placed it on the bottom of the ocean while snorkeling and scuba diving and swam away.

Meanwhile, my iPhone 5 falls out of my pocket ONCE during this trip and the screen gets shattered.

Tour company compatible

If a company is going to offer camera mountings for tourists, it’s almost always for GoPros more than any other camera.  Here are some of the places where the company specifically called out that they had GoPro mountings:

Even if they don’t have a mounting, chest/head harnesses are available to use.

Tie-ins with other products

scaring-duck-argentina
I’m flying my DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter over a little pond in Mendoza, Argentina. I gave that little duck a heart attack.

One thing I really wanted to do while traveling is take aerial photos.  Long story short, other countries aren’t really big on quadcopters so I had to quickly ditch the idea of taking what is seen as a spy device into other countries.

However, since GoPro’s are so widespread, they are often available to be used in conjunction with other products.  So I can mount the GoPro onto my quadcopter to get aerial footage without having to buy another specialized camera.

Spare parts available in almost every airport

GoPro kiosks are all over the place.  I accidentally lost the charger for ours while on the trip.  We were able to replace it quickly and easily when we got to the airport.  Also available are the general selfie-sticks, head/chest/wrist harnesses and the like.

Size

Everywhere we go, we see people lugging around their gigantic camera equipment.  It often requires its’ own special case or bag.  The special cameras can also be very heavy as well.  Having a several pound weight around your neck all day can become pretty tedious.

The GoPro is so tiny and weighs very little.  It’s easy to pack and easy to carry around all day.

Ease of Use

Point.  Click.  Repeat.

I know nothing about photography.  My motto is to take as many pictures/videos as I can and hope some of them turn out.  So far, so good!  We’ve traveled with other people that have much more capable gear, but they end up taking far worse pictures because they don’t know how to use their expensive camera.  With the GoPro, it’s just too easy.

The not-so-good: low light environments

Low light conditions with the GoPro are not ideal.
Low light conditions with the GoPro are not ideal.  Most of the colors get lost past a few feet deep.

We tried taking the GoPro into caves to capture glowworms in New Zealand.  All we got were black images back.

Underwater photography, while great, is limited as well.  The vibrant colors wash out into a muddle of greens and blues.

Now that we know this, we make sure to use our iPhone cameras during low light and/or evening shots.  It’s not the greatest solution as the limitations we’ve mentioned before still pertain to them, but we are still able to capture good enough pictures:

Opening festivities at the flower festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Opening festivities at the flower festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand – taken with the iPhone 5

Post processing is a necessary evil in photography, but I still don’t do it

Nothing you see on this page has been altered beyond re-sizing size to fit the layout and file size to help be more web-friendly.  So if you have qualms with the quality of them, it’s because I deliberately reduced the image size from several MB down to under 200KB and didn’t clean them up on the back end.

The large versions are much better all by themselves, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t like these particular images.  The raw images taken are spectacular and the images on this page are greatly reduced in quality to fit the web format.

If you are into post processing with something like Adobe Lightroom, I’m positive you can work miracles with the pictures you get back from the GoPro.

Overall

If you want to learn a lot of photography and get the best pictures possible, it requires significant investment of time to learn how to use that expensive camera properly.

If you just want to enjoy your travels while still taking really good pictures and video and not have to know a lot, the GoPro Hero series of cameras are fantastic.

Internet options when traveling

internet options while traveling

Everywhere claims to have “free WiFi”, but it often doesn’t work

Internet has become a way of life for many people. For us, we need to work remotely when abroad, so working WiFi or other internet options while traveling is essential. We also use it to find the best tours and sights to see rather than scour through pamphlets with annoying touts hassling you. We scan through hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews to check to see how good the internet service is at whatever hotel we are staying at. On our current trip, good internet trumps everything else. We’d stay in a lean-to shanty if it had a T1 connection. The difficulty is actually finding good internet. We’re not expecting too much I think, just something above 2G/128kbps. But what about that cafe/restaurant down the street? They advertised free WiFi and I could use a coffee.  Let’s go!

“It’s not actually hooked up to anything” – A German couple we met who has been traveling around the world for 9 months, talking about WiFi

5 bars, great WiFi! Many lies. Every shop we see now has WiFi, even some bizarre little stands that are rolled onto the street. You’ll get great connection to the WiFi router because you’re sitting right beside it. The problem is that the router can’t connect to the internet.

This seems to be for a few reasons:

1. There is no internet. This is the most pessimistic approach, but seems to apply now and then. My devices (phones, laptop) tell me, even though I’m connected to WiFi, I’m “not connected to the internet”. The workers at these places hate even being asked about WiFi, telling me that this conversation never goes well for them.

2. The router connects to a phone that tethers, or the phone itself is the network. We run into this in more remote towns. The dead giveaway is when the network is called “Motorola 3G XKGI” or something. This can range from fine to unusable. The problem is that the 3G data isn’t enough for an entire cafe and gets overloaded quickly. Another problem is the cell tower can be overloaded with people in the general vicinity. For example, in Ollantaytumbo there are thousands of tourists that are bused into a city of a few thousand people every day. These tourists are all sporting web-enabled devices. The internet service drops out for all phones from roughly 12pm to 6pm until all the tourists leave.

3. The WiFi is being leeched by locals. I understand if the shop owner lets some friends use the WiFi for free. Most people aren’t as lucky as we are, that’s a fact. But it sucks when my wife and I are paying money on coffee/snacks or picked this hotel just for the internet to then see locals huddling on the steps of the cafe because the WiFi got turned on or see the employees streaming YouTube while we can barely send email. Our connection goes from good to crap pretty quickly.

4. The WiFi is set up horribly wrong.  Not everyone is a network admin nor does the local internet company necessarily know much about networks.  There will tend to be several problems with the WiFi network that could easily have been prevented.  One we’ve encountered is channel congestion.  In New Zealand, the owner set up 10 WiFi routers so everyone had maximum coverage at all times.  However, they were all on the same channel.  Imagine 50 people all trying to talk over the same phone line and you have an idea of what the technical problem is.  Another issue is the lease cap, where the network won’t let more than say 100 devices on at a time.  Alicia and I have 5 WiFi devices between the two of us and many travelers are similar.  You might have 30 guests in the hotel but 150 devices.  This means some people won’t be able to get onto the network.

Solutions to the WiFi problem when traveling

T-Mobile Simple Choice: T-Mobile offers free, unlimited 2G data in their partner countries as part of their base plan.  And looking at the list of countries on their website, it’s darn near available everywhere.  Right when we land and turn our phones on, the partner network says “Welcome to our country!  Your phone is ready for use”.  It’s very slick.  This works really well for most smartphone applications but is too slow for most internet browsing.  Another downside is that the network is too slow for tethering.  So it’s not possible to use this for all your international needs.  However, to get 2G data and a working cell phone in almost every country for roughly $50 per phone per month, total… So nice.

T-Mobile does have high speed data packages you can buy that will work internationally, but they are insanely expensive and not recommended.  If you absolutely need high speed data, buying a local SIM card is better and cheaper.

SIM cards – These are chips that plug into your cell phone and give you access to the local cell phone networks.  Before you can use these, you must make sure your phone is compatible.  Normally phones can only be used with certain networks and/or size of SIM cards.  We had to buy unlocked iPhones because we needed maximum flexibility.  This can mean spending more on a phone up front.

The good news is that you’ll enjoy the high speed data that the country has to offer.  The downside is that it is still very limited by the cellular network and your phone itself.  If your smartphone or provider doesn’t allow tethering, that’s another fee you’ll have to pay on top of the plan.  Oh yes, you also need to purchase prepaid time or get a mini-cell phone plan to go with your SIM card.  Your phone number also goes away when you put a new SIM card in the phone (it reverts back to your old number when you put your old card back in).  Some of the cards come with prepaid time.  SIM cards are widely available, even at the little convenience stores.

To be able to quickly toggle between your old SIM card (and thus your old phone number) and your new card, there are dual sim card cases so switching cards is just as easy as flipping a switch.

The best place to buy SIM cards is typically at the airport right after you get off of the plane.  They will most likely speak better English that what you’re going to find elsewhere and can help you install and set up your phone.  Another option is looking up the local providers and visiting their store.  If you feel confident doing it yourself without help, even little convenience stores often carry SIM cards.

Wireless USB Dongle – These little devices plug into your computer and allow it to get data off of the cellular network, just like your smartphone does.  The benefits is that they run off your computers’ power supply, which often lasts longer than a little smartphone battery.  Another perk is that your phone number stays the same so you can make and take calls from your normal phone number.  The downside is that you do need a SIM card and data plan wherever you plan to use one.  Linked above is an unlocked dongle that is capable of taking multiple types of SIM cards.  Beware buying dongles that are locked into certain networks and won’t take other countries’ SIM’s.  If you are going to be buying a SIM for your smartphone and your smartphone allows tethering, than there isn’t much point to a dongle.  But it’s a still good to know that this exists.  Another downside is since it acts just like a cell phone, you’re still limited if the cell reception isn’t good or fast in that area.

Starbucks, McDonalds – These companies consistently have good WiFi, with poor or nonexistent WiFi being exceptions.  Instead of doing the local cafe-hopping, these brands will tend to have the best.  If these two don’t have good WiFi, then it just might not exist in your area.

Overall

Our solution to this problem is to throw more money at T-mobile, Starbucks, or other big conglomerates rather than locals who need it more. These companies understand that if you say “free WiFi” or “high speed internet”, you actually have to offer something that loads web pages. We love to drop $20-$40 per day on a little cafe where we can work for a few hours with solid internet. But instead, it feels like we get cheated every time we see those 5 solid bars and can’t even get Google to load.

Losing weight while traveling

picadas in Buenos Aires

Losing weight while traveling isn’t only possible, it’s easy!  That might seem like a ridiculous statement, but there are many good reasons why an American traveling abroad will likely drop some pounds.  And you won’t even have to think about it.

picadas in Buenos Aires
A forced change in diet is a large factor

More Sleep

Did you know that it’s harder to lose weight if you are sleep deprived?  Not only does the body hold onto more fat, but it increases appetite as well.  It’s the double-whammy of weight gain.

Napping to lose weight sounds too good to be true, but research is showing it to be effective (from the above article): “if you are a five-hour sleeper and start to sleep for seven hours a night, you will start dropping weight.”

Less Sugar

red-bull-my-frenemy
It’s pretty hard to get Red Bull in other countries, so it broke my daily habit. This was the first time I had it in months.

Food in the United States is scientifically designed to be as satisfying and addictive as possible.  Not only does food have to taste good, it has to feel good.  How do you make food feel good?  A sugar high!  And for the inevitable crash afterwards, maybe you need a pick-me-up: here’s some more sugar!  Thus as Americans we are forever on the sugar roller coaster.  Heck, even some products like chili-chicken have more sugar than ice cream.

Sugar is everywhere in US food… but not abroad.  In places like Argentina, it’s not too hard to see why everyone is pretty slender.  Their entire cuisine is grilled meats and vegetables.  For snacks, the popular dish is “picadas” (feature image above) which is a meat and cheese tray with a beer or wine.  Seriously, I think they drink the wine just to get enough calories to live.  It’s all great food, but sometimes I had to go out to get Red Bull just because my body was physically craving sugar.  Ugh.

More walking and activity than normal

alicia-sliding-sand-dunes
Bodyboarding down sand dunes in New Zealand

We work an awful lot in the USA.  The rest of the world thinks we are crazy for doing so, and somewhat justifiably.  Working usually entails a bunch of sitting for hours on end.  It can be difficult to lose weight even with a workout program because we burn so little calories during the day.

But on vacation, we are often a lot more active than normal.  There’s walking around, taking in our surroundings, and generally a heightened energy level than what we are used to.

Sweating it out

We just got out of Cairns, Australia, and thank god we did.  I’m not good with temperatures in Celsius, but I believe the gauge read too fucking hot.  After a week of roasting away in the sun, I was in the bathroom one morning and was startled.  Hey, today I look pretty good!  Stepping on the scale confirmed that I had dropped 5 pounds.  Of course this was just water-weight and it would come back after re-hydrating properly, but in the meantime we’re in beach country and I look thinner than normal.  Win!

Slower eating

eating less fast food
We ate at McDonald’s in Buenos Aires one day for the simple reason that it was the only food we could get in under an hour.  Other countries eat sloooooooowly.

Dining in non-US countries tends to take a lot longer.  Opposed to our fast-food culture, they have what they term “slow-food” culture.  Some countries take this to an extreme.  In Argentina, it seems to me that people spend 6 hours “eating” every day.  The word is in quotes because it’s usually people sitting around the dinner table picking at food.

How does eating slower help with weight loss?  The body isn’t very good at telling when it’s full.  Simply by eating slower, you’ll take in less calories and still feel like you’ve gotten enough to eat!  Plus, eating slower gives us time to enjoy the experience more fully.

In the US, meals will often be under 45 minutes for us at a restaurant.  When we travel, it’s closer to an hour and a half.  This is not us consciously changing our habits.  It’s just the pace of other countries and it happens to be good for losing weight.

coffee-chicos-buenos-aires

Coffee Coffee Coffee

The rest of the world really loves their coffee.  And by “coffee”, I mean “espresso”.  Because American style coffee is like water to them and they need the hard stuff.  Even the smallest vendor will have an espresso machine.  Not some silly little pot with dripping water.

Coffee can help with weight loss in several ways, namely controlling appetite, increasing metabolism, and keeping you active for longer.

My caffeinated drug of choice was Red Bull.  It can be difficult and/or expensive to find in other countries so I had to switch or lose my twitch.  Espresso has far fewer calories than the sugar loaded Red Bull does.

Less snacking

At home, we have fully stocked pantries with our favorite foods.  While traveling, there’s just not a a lot of room to keep a good supply going.  And who wants to eat in, anyway?  We want to go out!  So in general there’s very little food for us sitting around the apartment/hotel anyway.  This naturally stops mindless snacking.

Another reason for less snacking is the types of food offered in other countries tends to be less instant.  So now to have a snack, you have to go out of the building to get food which then has to be made.  I’m not saying I’ve been an angel at non-snacking.  There are certainly times where I’ve walked a mile or two just get something pre-prepared.  But at least I was up and walking for more than just the couch to the pantry.

miga
This is “miga”, and it’s about the best breakfast food we’ve had that is unique to South America. It’s nothing more than a ham and cheese sandwich with the crusts cut off.

Breakfasts in other countries suck: Semi-forced Intermittent Fastingguide here

Seriously, breakfasts in other countries tend to be terrible.  In many countries (Spain, Argentina), breakfast appears to be cigarettes and espresso.  Spanish breakfast one morning was espresso and tomato rubbed on toast.  I don’t even…

Intermittent Fasting a type of dieting that allows you to build muscle, lose fat, and not have to eat like a prison inmate.  Basically it’s constraining all of your eating to an 8 hour period in the day.  The idea is that your body will burn fat because you haven’t eaten for 12-16 hours, build muscle because you’re fueling your body when stimulating muscle growth, and it’s easier to stick to because you don’t have to count every stupid little calorie.

I know that sounds a little too good to be true, so let’s point out the obvious secret you might have missed: you’re cutting out an entire meal and just eating lunch and dinner.  Instead of that oatmeal and juice, which can be 400+ calories, there’s nothing.  So even if you go a little overboard on dinner with that dessert, it’s mostly fine.  The problem is usually that we start eating when we wake up and continue to eat to all day.

Anyway, our breakfasts in other countries tend to be coffee and hard-boiled eggs.  We get our protein and it keeps us full until lunch time.  Plus, it’s super cheap and available everywhere.

We’ve been on our trip for 4 months at the time of this writing, and I’ve lost 15 pounds without even trying

chorrillana
This is “chorrillana”, a popular dish in Chile. It’s beef and egg on top of a pile of french fries. I’ve been losing weight even eating this crap!

It feels like I’ve been doing everything I can to try and gain weight, but my saggy clothes say otherwise.  We eat out at least once a day.  We order dessert all the time and get ice cream for snacks.  We drink the local wines and beers almost every day.  Our system for grading wine is “1st bottle, 2nd bottle, or 3rd bottle” because there’s always more than one bottle.

I had never intended to lose weight on the trip.  When we saw that wine in Argentina was under $3/bottle for good wines, I thought: “Yay!  Soon I’ll get new pants!”.  But the type of food and lifestyle while abroad is just naturally conducive to a lower body weight than in the United States.  So instead of going to the gym, hop on a plane and watch the pounds melt away.

White Castle’s Social Network Inadvertently Ruined My Career

WhiteCastle

I bet you didn’t even know White Castle tried to create their own social network, much less that it could inadvertently ruin someone’s career. The year was 2006, and the rise of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter were grabbing the headlines. It finally seemed like the internet was rebounding after the bubble burst in 2000 and the Y2K bug threatened worldwide annihilation. Uninterrupted enthusiasm for the Information Age rocketed again upon the back of Silicon Valley. And amid all of this, White Castle wanted in on the action. Their idea to bring fast food into the social space was TrueCastleStories.com (TCS).

WhiteCastle

White Castle’s vision of the future

White Castle has a fanatic customer base. Did you know that they take Valentine’s Day reservations? People without reservations aren’t allowed inside on that day. The tables are done up with tablecloths and there’s a maitre’D greeting and seating the guests. (As an aside, Alicia refuses to let allow us to go to one of these even if we go somewhere else on a different day.) There are clients that hold business meetings at White Castle and the repeat customer rate is very high. The people that love it, really love it. That’s great!

White Castle wanted to capture some of this enthusiasm in the online space. People could create profiles, upload pictures, tell their stories, and have the normal range of interactions that most modern social networks provide. For 2006, this was quite a feat. Web 2.0 hadn’t yet arrived, Google wasn’t really Google yet, Blackberry was the leader in smartphones while Andriod didn’t even exist, and most people in the country were still on dial-up. People forget how much the internet sucked only 10 short years ago. The finished product of TCS was light-years ahead of the then-top social network and Geocites wanna-be, MySpace. How could this fail?

How I got to work on it

Through the magic of sub-sub-sub-contracting, the back-end of TCS was being done by the little company where I worked as a programmer. I’m sure White Castle was charged big money by the design firm and we were getting peanuts. It was basically two people that would bring their vision to life: the very talented lead programmer who had been working on it for months already, and me testing and fixing any bugs.

Hard work does pay off

This was the first real programming project I got to do while at my company, so I wanted to make an impression. While I was hired as a Java developer, most of what I did was bug-fixing and data entry. This project went on through March and most of my time was spent in the office. The lead developer was not only very talented, but an insanely hard worker. I worked weekends and slept in the office to try and keep up with him (unsuccessfully). I won’t claim that I was always 100% focused nor churned out top quality work. But for where I was as a person at that time, it was a really solid effort. Later I would get a 7% raise based on the work I did for this project, 2nd highest raise among the programmers in the company. But first…

Everyone gets reminded of why this was never going to work

The lead developer and I had spent yet another night in the office, but the end was near. We’d deliver the project at 10 AM in the morning and it was looking like it was all ready to go. Well, except for the admin interface where the White Castle people could go in and moderate peoples’ profiles. That part would be ready in a few weeks and wasn’t seen as a show-stopper. Until it was done, White Castle could call us and get inappropriate things removed.

So it was 10 AM, and we had the call to hand-off the website to White Castle. It was important that we met the 10 AM deadline as they were already advertising the site launch in advance. Everything tested fine and there were no error that came through as people created profiles, so we decided to go home to get some sleep.

Obviously at this point, White Castle called up in a panic:

“People are posting the most horrible things! We need them taken down NOW!”.

We logged onto the site and encountered hilarity

  • Stories going into detail about the huge White Castle shits people take due to the food.  They described the rainbow of colors, textures, sizes, and how various menu items affected their fecal output.  Some of the best writing I’ve seen, A+.
  • Stories about getting wasted on every type of drug imaginable and going to White Castle
  • Stories about fucking in the bathroom
  • Stories about gang violence and racism at White Castle
  • PETA posting pictures of cow carcasses and calling everyone murderers

What the fuck did you expect, White Castle? Welcome to the Internet.  This is two years after Harold and Kumar.

The aftermath and closure of TrueCastleStories.com

After laughing uncontrollably for weeks, I felt bad for the people internally leading the doomed project at White Castle. They really cared about the brand and were openly devastated that all their hard work was being ripped apart by the very people that supported the company financially. The stories and profiles that were taken down were mostly created out of love. People were fondly remembering the time they took extacy and fucked in the dumpster out back. But White Castle as a brand can’t cultivate a community around illicit drug use, binge eating, and digestive problems even if that is their core customer.

The sad part was that all of the advertising was purchased in advance. TV and radio spots played all throughout the summer. This meant that the show had to go on. Sporadic updates were made on the project, but that was just putting lipstick on the pig. A year later, the plug was pulled. I don’t know what happened to the stakeholders at White Castle, but I imagine it was a special brand of torture. They got to see their baby come to life, only to realize it was a demon-baby. Then they had to euthanize it. Seriously, I hope they were just fired.

Maybe it was a dumb idea to begin with, but it was bold thinking in a landscape of copycats and timidness.

How’d this wreck my chances for a normal life?

After putting in all that time working, it was time to get my reward. I had chosen to work at start-ups because of the hype around getting ownership and bought out and how ordinary schmucks like me would get millions.  Yes I was young and naive, why do you ask?

I remember sitting in shock, staring at that 7% figure. I was making $50K at the time. It was somewhere around a $4,000 per year raise and I was assured it was very good percentage-wise. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, because it’s not a tiny amount of money… but I made more than that by playing online poker in my spare time each month. Spare time that I had given up to sleep in the office.

While my boss talked, I did napkin math in my head.  $4,000 divided by 10 months is $400 per month, divided by 4 weeks is $100 per week.  If I work an additional 20 hours per week to get that $100, I’m making… $5 an hour.

Any motivation I had for the 9-5 world completely dissipated. My quality of work plummeted.  The dart board and Old English in the pop machine interested me much more than programming.   It was only a few months before I got fired.

I still go to White Castle once a year

Now and then I’ll find myself near a White Castle, and wander inside to remind myself that it’s not my type of food.  I did the same with the office life, heading back for a year to program after playing poker for a few years.  But neither White Castle nor an office job agree with me.  Even if I want them to.

What is your True Castle Story?

Let’s keep TCS alive.  Post your White Castle story in the comments.