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.

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.

Cusco Cooking Class

Cusco Peruvian Cooking Class

Once upon a time, Cusco used to be the capital of the Incan civilization.  Now it’s primarily a rest stop on the way to Macchu Pichu.  But with that much history behind it, there’s certainly some fun things to see and do here.  When we travel, we like to experience the local culture.  Something different from the typical tourist experience and not just attractions.  There are many ways to do this, but we have some favorites.

Cusco Peruvian Cooking ClassFirst, cooking classes give some insight in how the culture has used what was available to them.  For example, in Peru there is a dish that is popular called “ceviche”.  This is fish that is left sitting in citrus, which “cooks” it without the necessity to heat it.  Both fish and limes are prevalent in the country and it’s an interesting dish that is best tried in Lima or another coastal city.  Another case is the local liquor: Pisco.  Pisco is a hard liquor made from grapes, which also grow in country, which is roughly a brandy.  It originated when the early European immigrants wanted to send wine back to Europe.  To make sure the wine didn’t spoil en route, they added alcohol and sugar to it for the voyage.  At some point they preferred the liquor that way and have been making it ever since.  It’s neat stories like these add flavor, history, and background to the country.  All while eating great food!

Fredy, Peruvian Cooking Classes Chef
Fredy, Chef at  Peruvian Cooking Classes in Cusco

The cooking class in Cusco was run at a little place off of the plaza.  We opted for one that was run by locals rather than a full featured production in a manufactured kitchen straight out of Pottery Barn.  Our class was lead by Freddy, a former English/French teacher turned chef.  He got out of teaching and into cooking just because he loves it.  And he has to love it, because he works from 8 AM to 10 PM 6 days a week.  He makes me feel bad about myself with how hard he works and I’m typing this at 10 AM barely ready to face the day.

Another thing we love about cooking classes is trips to the market.  When we went to Thailand and took a cooking class, we were absolutely amazed.  There were things that we didn’t even know existed!  The markets in Peru were no different.  We actually went to two different ones, a market in Cusco and one that is real local outside of town.

san-pedro-market-cusco

san-pedro-market-cusco-inside

Now, there’s some things you should know about these markets.  First, the levels of sanitation and refrigeration aren’t exactly top notch.  All manners of raw meat sits out in the open air on the dirty tables allllll day.

cuy-cusco-marketDon’t quite like the conditions?  No problem, Peru offers something I hadn’t seen yet: live animals you can buy and take home with you.  Can’t get any fresher than that.  Oh right, that’s a guinea pig.  Remember when I said cultures use what they have?  Well, the guinea pig is a local delicacy.  They call them “cuy” (pronounced “qwEE”) for the sound they make.  Typically the cuy just run around the kitchen until they are cooked: the little guys don’t run away.

chicken-multiple-eggs

Interesting sight: this chicken was cut open and inside was un-laid eggs.  I’m not sure why they kept it around.  They probably thought it was interesting too.  I asked our guide if there was any special dish that was made with this, and she said No.  It was just something unusual they couldn’t sell.

Back to the cooking class. The menu for the cooking class included an entree/starter, a main dish, dessert and a traditional Peruvian cocktail.

We made Aji de Gallina with rice for the main dish. It is kind of like a Peruvian hotdish but with more flavor.  There’s potatoes on the bottom with yellow chili pepper sauce and Andean cheese over pulled chicken.  It’s a nice bit of comfort food that I didn’t expect.  While we went to Peru initially for Macchu Pichu, we were surprised that the cuisine is excellent across the country.  Bonus!

aji de gallina

purple corn puddingFor dessert we made purple corn pudding.  There are multiple types of corn here, and most of them seem very unlike the type of corn back in the ‘States.  One type of corn is “choclo”, which is white corn with kernels as wide as your thumb.  The type of corn we are using for the pudding is “morada”.  It’s purple and somewhat sweet.  This type of corn makes “chica”, which can be a type of soft drink or wine depending on what region you’re in.  I can’t tell if they like chica or not.  “Chica” is also a synonym for “cheap”, local variations are everywhere, but I never actually see people drinking it.  Anyway, back to the pudding.  This purple goo tastes exactly like the insides of a Hostess fruit pie.  Exactly.

The entree we made was a soup called Crema de Moraya. Moraya are freeze dried potatoes that are easily found in any Cusco market. Similar to corn, there are endless types of potatoes found in the markets here. We used a mortar and pestle to prepare the moraya for use in the soup. The soup also contained diced beef, egg, onion, garlic, cumin, and cilantro. Alicia enjoyed the soup but it was not my favorite dish.

And what Peruvian meal would be complete without Pisco Sours?  Pisco is a type of brandy that originated in Peru (or Chile, depending on if you’re talking to a Peruvian or Chilean), and a Pisco Sour is a sweet and frothy drink that is served all throughout South America.  It’s a solid end to a great class.

pisco sour and souppisco-sour-cooking-class

 

 

Stuck in the past: Peru

john-alicia-peru-mountains

We went on a “day in the life tour” of a native Peruvian.  There were some downsides to the tour which I already detailed, so we’ll concentrate on the good parts. The theme of their lives seems to be that they acknowledged the outside world had moved on, and that was OK with them.  I asked our guide if there was any “keeping up with the Joneses'”, and she assured us there was not (more on this in a second).  She went on to describe it as difficult to keep native Peruvians employed, because there were very few worldly possessions they wanted.  If they wanted to make money to afford a radio, they’d work for a month and then stop showing up.  Since many of them had a plot of land on the family farm, what need was there to earn more money?  They already had shelter, food, and community.  Truthfully, it’s very authentic living.

inca-ruins-peru
Peru’s economy is mainly based on tourism, from ruins made hundreds of years ago.

Back to the part where our guide said competition with your neighbor wasn’t a big thing here… Our guide later contradicted herself.  While she was driving in Cusco, she mentioned that even being able to drive a car was a status symbol among the people.  Having a car was seen as affluent.  Since we’re on the topic of driving, riding as a passenger in other countries is terrifying.  In Jamaica, our cabbie was tail-gaiting a cop car (literally a few feet from his bumper) and honking the horn until the cop pulled over so we could pass.  I’m sitting there thinking to myself, We totally have weed in this car because the driver just offered it to us minutes ago, and the cop is going to be super pissed and pull us over and find it and hold us hostage…  Only that didn’t happen, because there are weird traffic customs in other countries.  In Jamaica, you can tail-gate cops.  Good to know?  Anyway, in Peru they honk their horns as a signal that they are going to do something stupid pass/merge, and God help the person who gets in their way.  Seriously, once that horn sounds, all bets are off: the aggressor is assuming that the car in front of him heard his horn from 100m away and will do everything in their power to get out of the way.  Alicia didn’t think anything of the driving as she usually got stuck where she couldn’t see anything.  I soon made it a point to sit as far back as possible.

making-shingles-peru
Making clay shingles by hand.  Notice that the “bucket” to the left is a construction hard hat.  They use what they have.

Overall, native Peruvian lives are astonishingly old fashioned.  Clay shingles are still in use all around the country and made exactly the same way they were made hundreds of years ago.  There’s a mud brick oven that burns bamboo to bake the clay shingles.  The mud for the shingles is cut out of the hill where they operate, stomped and broken up by hand and foot, and then water is added to make the clay.  The shingles are made in a mold and laid out to dry.  It’s hot labor and for every 5,000 shingles bought they receive roughly $140 USD.  It takes about two weeks to make the shingles, and they still have to pay for the delivered bamboo that fires the oven.  They make around 40-50,000 shingles per year.

adobe-home-satillite-peru
A very common sight in Peru: mud brick home with a satellite dish

And it’s time to rant.

I appreciate keeping heritage and culture preserved, but there has to be a better way to do it.  Generations grinding away in back-breaking labor just seems like a waste.  Peruvians are still doing things the same way the Inca did hundreds of years ago!  They are still using Ox and wooden yokes to plow their fields, ancient Inca aqueducts for irrigation, shucking corn by hand, and making their homes from mud and straw.  Now, I don’t expect them to hop on Amazon and purchase the tools that could drastically speed up the process and make their lives easier.  Aside: I did hop on Amazon and find simple and cheap tools they could afford that would greatly reduce their workload.  However, I do expect that somewhere between Incan civilization and Amazon Prime that there would have been ONE improvement along the way.  One!  These people are the extreme version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

animal-rights-peru
Mini-rant in picture form. These animals are tied up.  Often with very little rope to the point where they can barely move. Cages where the animal can’t even move at all are certainly more cruel, but let’s not pretend that other societies treat animals a whole lot better. We saw plenty of livestock that were simply stuck in place.

We head up into the hills to meet a local Peruvian family that has their own farm.  Again, they are in the hills because the Inca’s were pretty good at primitive irrigation.  The water that comes off of the mountains is channeled through rock gutters.  This water flows through houses like ancient plumbing and can be steered through fields with little concrete gates.  Sometimes the channels get a face lift through concrete, other times they look as old as they are.  It’s shocking how many of them are still working with ancient stone.  Because I’m a moron, I actually drink from one of the springs that feeds these aqueducts.  Thankfully, I didn’t get sick even though I drank 2 liters of it.

john-cuy

There are a few things wrong with the above picture.  First, that’s a guinea pig that is desperately trying to escape.  One problem is that they don’t really go anywhere: they are so domesticated as animals that they just cower in the corner of the dirt floor kitchen squealing even though the door is wide open to run away.  The second thing is that we are about to eat food from a mud oven, yes the oven is literally made of hardened dirt, and the kitchen is dirt-floor to go with the mud walls.  (Counterpoint: Alicia can testify that while it’s entirely dirt and mud, it’s still cleaner than any kitchen after I’ve cleaned it.  It’s a good point.)  The final problem is that I’m allergic to nothing more on the planet than guinea pigs, and start sneezing my head off after this.  The last time I’ve actually encountered one was a decade ago, and I had completely forgotten!  Where did I run into one?  My sisters had one, called “Snowflake”.  They were quite appalled at what was to come next.

alicia-cuy

Yep, that’s “cuy” on the right (at least his lower half).  It’s considered to be a delicacy.  The green-speckled thing is fried egg and spinach(?), and the other two are some huge potatoes.  Guinea pig tastes kind of like dark meat chicken.  That is, when you can actually get to the meat of it.  It’s pretty hard to eat because the little buggers don’t have a ton of meat on them to begin with, and you’re cleaning it as you eat it.

john-donkey-peru
Stupid gringos.

And here’s where I feel like a stupid tourist that is insensitive of other cultures.  We can’t eat this.  Sure, we try to get through the cuy, but it’s not going to happen.  It’s just too far out there for us, so we have to give it away to the other guests.  Second, there’s no way Alicia or I can go through 2 whole potatoes and that huge omelette-like thing.  So we have to pitch a fair amount of it, which feels especially bad considering our tiny hosts (4’10”) plow through even more than is given to us.

We leave with a wide-eyed impression of what they go through.  I’m not sure we fully understand their lifestyle, but they seem very content with it.  It reminds me of the story of the American businessman who vacations in Mexico.  The businessman happens upon a Mexican fisherman and asks the man his story.  “Senor, I fish a little each day, take a siesta with my wife, and spend my evenings playing guitar and playing with my children.”  The businessman claims that the Mexican can greatly improve his fishing business by putting in 10 years of hard work, and then retire wealthy.  “But what next, Senor?” asks the Mexican.  “Well then”, said the businessman, “you could take siestas with your wife, and spend the evenings playing guitar and playing with your children…”

Cusco, Peru: Incredibly Touristy

Cusco-at-night

Cusco, Peru is the second stop in our destination.  Our stay in Lima was to get our feet wet in a big, foreign city before heading out to where there would be less English spoken and things would get more “authentic”.

Well, that place has to be further down the line, because it’s not Cusco.  Cusco is a cute little town that is currently used as a stopover on the way to Macchu Pichu.  Historically it actually used to be the capital of Peru when the Inca’s were in charge.  Today it houses a shockingly large collection of college student / backpacker types on an assembly line churning towards Macchu Pichu.

Cusco-Peru

Don’t get me wrong: Cusco is a beautiful city with a lot of charm and things to do.  I guess I had just pictured it to be a little more… traditional?  Isolated?  That probably shows the naivete on my part.  But, back home, people aren’t really talking about trips to Peru.  They are typically talking about European or South East Asian vacations.  I think I have a cousin or two that have been to Peru, but literally don’t know of anyone else.  Anyway, there’s a lot of gringos here and we felt like we should all get together and play Ultimate Frisbee or something.

inca-walls-cusco
The foundations of these buildings are made from the foundations of old Inca buildings. People take pictures of themselves with the rocks.

Here we learn a few things about Peruvian towns that seem to be common themes.

1. There’s always a plaza.  Think of it like a central town square.  People meet there to celebrate, talk, or just hang around.  We saw things every evening, ranging from graduations, weddings, protests, and one evening a bunch of students organized a “flash mob” in the streets (basically did a spontaneous and coordinated dance number between the 50 of them).

2. The Inca love aqueducts – little gutters lining the streets and houses used to transport water.  These act as primitive plumbing and rely solely on gravity.  The Inca built near hills to facilitate this building style.  To be clear, I’m talking about the Inca empire that was in the 15th and 16th centuries: many of the foundations and building layouts are still intact!  Yes there have been some maintenance, but it’s still interesting to see cities that are older than everything in the US.

3. Adobe brick and clay shingles are used everywhere.  Adobe is just mud and straw, just like the Inca used.  Still in use today as building material.

4. Inca?  Inca.  Inca everything.

cusco-alley
Walking up the alley, I can’t help but think this would be terrible to drive up in Minnesota in the winter. Yes, that’s what I think about.

The streets and buildings in Cusco have a more European feel to them.  Everything is tiny and obviously built pre-automobile.  There’s parking exactly nowhere in the city and it seems that owning a car is more trouble than it’s worth.  The cobblestone streets and stairs can be painful on the joints since the town is on a constant slope, and it’s during those times where it’s best to pop into a coffee shop or restaurant to relax.

Touts are everywhere trying to get the tourists to part with their money.  It can be tiring to constantly fend off the barrage of people offering their services.  The cuisine in Cusco ranges from authentic Peruvian to modern cross-culture fusion.  There’s even a little Irish Pub right on the plaza that’s very popular at all hours of the day.

 

alpaca-cusco

Here we have me posing with a baby alpaca with a group of locals.  The locals sit around the town in traditional garb and wait for idiots like me to want a picture.  Because I was tired, I forgot to ask how much beforehand.  Always ask how much beforehand when dealing with people in other countries, lest they just make up a number at the end.  Which is exactly what they did here: they wanted $20 USD for this picture, which they weren’t going to get.  They also wanted $5 per person, which still comes out to $20.  I suppose if you’re dumb enough to want a picture like this, you might not know math very well.  However, I’m not about to screw someone totally so we gave them $7 and I made a mental note to always ask how much prior.

Why did I start talking about food but showed this picture?  Because later that evening we had alpaca for dinner.  It has the texture of tough beef and tastes similarly but less robust/flavorful.

We stayed in a little B&B style house roughly 10 minutes’ walk from the Plaza which mostly dictated how our days went (hint: we did everything to get away from there).    During the day we tried various activities, walked, took tours, and tried to sample as many local places as we could in our time there. Oh, and dodged tourists.  Dodged so many tourists.

Lima: I pay $7 for a man to risk his life

kennedy-park-lima-peru

Alicia and I consider ourselves “foodies”.  We’re always on the prowl for a good meal.  Lima didn’t disappoint, with a unique cuisine and dishes to try while taking in some scenic views.  Before we get to the evening and dining, here’s a few more scenes we took in while walking and biking around Lima.

paragliding-lima

We are on a bus tour where we are on top of the open-top bus.  This paraglider is maybe 20 meters from us (when you leave the US you are required to talk only in meters.  Gotta sign a form and everything).  Yes there are two people on that paraglider.  For the low, low price for $40 USD you can risk your life!  I looked up the statistics on this and found that it’s merely 3x more dangerous than cars.  The accident rate worldwide for cars is 1.8 deaths per 10,000 while for paragliding it’s close to 7.  They take off from land very easily as they ride the air currents coming up the cliff.  Alicia said I couldn’t do it. =(

There are usually 5-10 paragliders over the Lima coast at any given time.  It rarely rains in Lima, and the wind and current is always persistent making it a great location for something like this.

lima-diving-monk

Mountain of the Monk(?) Riding out of the Barranco neighborhood, we encounter a seaside outcropping of rock with many locals congregating to watch the ocean crashing into the rocks. On top of the rocks over a ~70 foot drop into the water stands a man in white robes who dives for the crowd. There’s a story behind his jump, and per usual it’s one of forbidden love. The story goes that some time hundreds of years ago there was a servant boy in love with a noble girl. The father catches wind of this and forces the boy into the monastery at the tender age of 15. They continue their love in secret until the father decides to move the family away. The young monk, stricken with grief, flings himself from the mountaintop nearby. The diver’s monologue gives homage to the tragedy. That’s a great story and all, but then I enter and screw it all up. I missed the first jump of the “monk”, so I give him 20 soles (~$7 USD) to do it again. He’s very happy to do it again as that’s generally how much he’ll make during a full day or two of dives. Then it occurred to me that I gave a dude 7 dollars to risk his life because I can’t work my fancy first-world-overpriced iPhone. Then I felt dumb.

One of the things we learned in Lima was that prices didn’t quite conform to the quality of the food.  For the most part, the mid range and high priced restaurants severed similarly tasty food according to our palettes.  The expensive restaurants we went to were priced more for the view than the food.

mama-olla-tacutacu

The best food we’ve had in Lima (and perhaps all of Peru) was at a little place called Mama Olla’s.   Alicia has some mystery steak that she loved, and I had thin beef done “tacu-tacu”: it comes with a fried banana, fried egg, and formed rice.  We were in Lima the night before the elections. There is a required 24 hour ban on alcohol before and after the election process, presumably because it’s a very serious matter. Our biking guide explained it best: it’s the only weekend everyone gets completely drunk, as there are discounts on liquor since they can’t sell for a few days. So all the locals have parties with cheap booze on election day while the tourists are the ones who are punished.  The system works!

drinks-at-la-rosa-nautica

La Rosa Nautica is a cute little restaurant that sits on a pier extending from Miraflores.  It’s a very classy place that requires a reservation and has some pretty solid food.  But for a cab ride there and back along with the upcharge for having an exclusive location doesn’t make it a great value.  Going for drinks out there is a definite “must”, however.

huaca-pucllana

Inca meets McDonalds: Huaca Pucallana is an Inca ruin site in Lima that’s made of adobe bricks (baked straw and mud). The kicker to this ancient city is that on top of it now resides a high class restaurant. In the picture here, that is a centuries old mud oven just a few feet from the modern kitchen that serves hundred of guests each night.  Having a centuries old ruins as a backdrop to a good meal is pretty neat.  I can’t say I’ve ever done it before.

Exploring Lima, Peru

street-art-lima-peru

While in Lima, we stayed in the Miraflores district.  It’s a listed as a touristy place to stay that is well maintained with lots of security guards and police around.  This part of town is also one of the cleaner areas you’ll visit in South America.  The interesting part is that I felt this city was more authentic than other places in Peru that we’ve traveled.  We were often the only tourists around [that we saw], but the signs and menus in English suggested otherwise.  In other areas of Peru there are busloads of tourists swarming a tiny area, but not here.  In Lima it was great to see the local population as they enjoyed the parks, surfing, and general living.

Tourists are often advised to skip Lima on their way to Cusco and Machu Picchu, but I wish we would have stayed more than a week in Lima.  Heck, even the taxi driver taking us to our hotel in Lima told us in his limited English that 6 days was too long.

We did manage to do some fun things and not work all the time:

  • Tried a new restaurant every lunch/dinner
  • Bike Tour
  • Bus Tour
  • Enjoyed both the Kennedy Park and Coastal Parks
  • Walked around and explored

Kennedy Park is a cute little park by our hotel in Miraflores where a lot of locals come to hang out.  It’s kind of a central entry point into the trendy district where someone can sit down and relax.  The weird part about the park: cats.  Cats everywhere.  They are wild cats and live in the park.  People pet them and hold them.  They seem to be in OK shape for wild cats, which isn’t always the case.  There are a lot of stray animals in Peru, and some of them look pretty beaten up.  These cats look they are doing just fine.

The other weird thing is the cat shrine: there’s a church near Kennedy park that has a small shrine to the Virgin Mary that is fence-enclosed.  When the cats have had enough human interaction, they escape into this tiny kitten zoo.  At any time, there are 10+ cats hanging out with Mary.  Bike/Running tours are great things to do on vacation as they take you around the city where you get to learn a lot of the history.  They trump a bus tour because you get personal time with a local, and it’s here where you learn the best stuff.  For example…  These iron blue poles are everywhere in Chorillos, another district of Lima.  Our guide tells us that they were placed there by a previous mayor of Barrano in an effort to brighten up the city.  He also tells us there’s more iron in these poles than in the Eiffel Tower, and it’s not hard to believe that if you see how many of these darn things there are in the neighborhood.  There’s one problem: the mayor who had these put in also owned the company which sold the materials.  It’s disappointing to hear about that kind of corruption, because Chorillos is a mostly cute neighborhood which could have used actual help instead of this visual white noise.  Here’s why I say it’s a “mostly” cute neighborhood: this is our guide for the bike tour, and he’s holding a can of mace.  Finger on the trigger and everything.  Later when I ask him about it, he remarks that it’s mostly for dogs and that he’s never had to use it on people.  But that the area has a lot of poverty and crime recently as the mayor, currently on his 5th term, caters to impoverished people to stay in office.  As our guide put it: it’s easier to please someone who has almost nothing, rather than try to compete with Miraflores, but now you have a lot of people in one area who are all fighting just to survive.

propane tanks on a bike

What’s more dangerous than a motorcycle?  A motorcycle with three propane tanks strapped onto it.  Gas doesn’t flow to each persons’ home via underground pipe: instead they buy a standard tank and hook it up to their home.  Run out?  Guys like these deliver them right to your front door.

Inca Cola is a popular soft drink in Peru that I see absolutely no one drinking, ever.  Fun fact that you probably already know: it wasn’t the official drink of the Inca.  That went to chicha, a semi-sweet drink made from purple corn (morada) that could be alcoholic or not.  Anyway, I had to get one just to try it.  Inca Cola tastes like melting candy on a sidewalk strong cream soda.  I couldn’t finish it.

street-art-lima
Street art is common in Lima. Some of it is more professional than others, but there are many areas brightened by murals on the sides of walls and buildings.

I typically say “Hello” to Peruvians when I first interact with them.  I’m not trying to be a douche that’s too good for their language, but my Spanish is beyond awful despite 5 years of study.  Even though I wanted to learn another language, my classmates in high school and college were terrible.  Every class I took we basically started from scratch even though it was “Spanish 4”.  No teacher wants to fail the entire class, so they re-taught Spanish 1 every single year.  Anyway, it turns out that the quickest way to tell a Spanish speaker that I don’t know the language is to actually try and speak Spanish.  It’s quite a blow to the old ego.  As noted before, Lima earns the nickname “the grey” by having constant cloud cover.  Being from Minnesota and a nerd to boot, I showed them just how fragile I am: I got sunburned through the clouds.

lima_character
Outside of Miraflores, the sidestreets of Lima have their own special character to them. Most of the streets have seen better days, but there’s a quiet dignity and beauty to them that we enjoyed.

First stop, First Impressions: Lima, Peru

miraflores

We finally arrived at our first destination: Lima, Peru!  This city has the nickname “la gris”, or “the grey” because of the constant fog conditions over the city.  It never really rains here, despite being overcast.  While the skyline can look pretty sad and depressing since it’s like this all the time, the cityscape is much more vibrant.

It gets prettier, I promise!  Upon arrival, we saw paragliders in the distance.  Paragliders are like hang gliders, except with a little seat that sits underneath the parachute.  There are no motors pushing it, they rely on the wind and warm air currents coming up off of the cliff.

paraglider-grey

This is mildly upsetting to me to see these basically flying over the city buildings, and here’s why: Below is a DJI Phantom 2.  It’s a “quadcopter” equipped with a GoPro.  Basically it’s a remote-controlled toy.  This device can fly a mile in any direction and take great aerial shots.  It can travel 50 mph and is completely amazing.  What I’m trying to say is that I would have literally murdered someone for this thing as a child.

dji-phantom-2-with-gopro

Here is my specially purchased bag for carrying my Phantom 2:

empty-drone-backpack
Sigh…

Yep, my copter got confiscated by Peru customs.  I researched beforehand on countries that would allow them, and Peru was promised to be one of the most progressive countries in this regard.  There are videos of copters flying over Macchu Picchu and everything, so I was sure I was safe. Going through customs there were three guys barely paying attention to the X-ray screen for luggage.  They were mostly joking around in Spanish when I heard a word I know and hate: “DRONE!”.  Turns out that there was a law passed banning “drones” (I hate this term as people associate this RC toy with a military device that fires missiles) back in August.  Obviously the government’s website wasn’t updated and so I walked right into this.  They say that I’ll get it back when I leave the country, but I’m thinking of just sending it home if and when I do get it back.  If the so-called “drone friendly” country confiscates it immediately, where else could I even take it?  To add insult to injury, there was even an article on the plane ride into Lima on “dronies” becoming common – selfies taken with drones.

miraflores
Looking down from the cliffs onto the beach, this cement soccer court has the city name on it.

 

We stayed in Miraflores.  This is the tourist district of Lima, and it’s very noticeably so.  There are cops literally on every street corner to encourage safety, and it’s not surprising that this is where most tourists choose to stay.  It’s an upscale district with a lot of trendy shops and food options.  And trendy pricing to go along with it.  But as we discovered, walking a few blocks outside of the trendy spots we were able to encounter more local flair.  And no English, which seems to be a recurring theme outside of the United States.  So we rely on the universal language of pointing at stuff we want, like any toddler.  It’s easy to see how the locals might think all tourists are dumb.

Everything is just harder when you’re on the road.  We have to wander around for nearly everything.  Lunch has gone from a 15 minute break to a several hour ordeal where we stumble around and try to find somewhere that sells simple sandwiches.  Sure we could visit the Subway or McDonalds that we saw, but where’s the fun in that?  Instead we at least visited the “Bembos”, which is a fast food chain local to Peru.  Though when I ate McDonald’s in Tahiti, it was completely different: deli style cold sandwiches and no french fries anywhere.

work-time-in-hotel

Here is Alicia holding a conference call from our hotel room slash new office.  Working on the road is now a big part of our life, typically taking up all Sunday through Tuesday – 14+ hours working those days.  Right now I’m typing this from the best American WiFi export product that sometimes sells coffee, Starbucks.