Wednesday, August 6, 2014

New Travel Hacking Site - Free Globetrot

Amber and I are back in Alaska for the summer, working... In my spare time I've started writing a travel hacking blog that shares tips for traveling the world on a budget. I talk about ways to collect miles and points with credit card sign ups and other creative methods. If it is something you are interested in, check it out and follow the blog.
more info

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Santiago, Chile

Amber:  We had a lot of fun in Santiago.  Tim and I had a couple days to explore before Tim's folks joined us for three weeks of traveling throughout Chili and Argentina.  Tim booked us at a nice hostel and we got to experience our second ever in a shared room.  Our first was in San Pedro de Atacama.  Considering we have traveled three winters as budget vagabonds, we have been really spoiled as we found that in most countries its just as affordable to stay the two of us in a twin room as it is to rent two bunks in a shared dorm room.  Not so in Chili!  Housing is pretty pricey compared to what we are used to, so we finally broke down and stayed in dorms.  We were very fortunate, both places were quiet and clean with no creeper dorm mates.  And it came with a kitchen, so more cooking in for us!  The food is expensive in Chili, and we had not had much luck finding local dishes we loved.

Considering Santiago is a really big city, I really liked it.  The public transit system is clean and efficient and in the University district we were staying in, the walking streets, shops and wine cafes were very nice.  The streets were lined with big oak trees, and parks were everywhere.  We climbed up two hills that had been turned into parks in the two days we waited for Robin and Valerie to join us.  We had lost about 10 pounds each during our first part of our trip in Peru and into Chili, so we did our last bit of exercise before the Chilean and Argentine wine tasting began!

Tim: We arrived in Santiago two days before my parents were to arrive. Santiago is a city of over 7 million people. We were happy to find a very efficient public transportation system that included a good network of subways. The airport is located 20 kilometers from the downtown of the city so we opted for a bus that dropped us off at the subway line that would take us into the downtown area.
The subway brought us to within 300 meters of our hostel called Poker Hostel. Our hostel was located in a very chic area near the Catholic University. There were many pleasant cafes and restaurants within 100 meters of our hostel.

Our first day in Santiago we checked out the Santa Lucia hill just 200 meters from our hostel. The hill is a park with a beautiful fountain and stair case. There are several pathways that lead up to the top lookout which gives excellent views of the surrounding city with the backdrop of the Andes Mountains.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Northern Chile - San Pedro de Atacama

Tim: We arrived in Chile with only 14 days to reach Santiago in time to meet up with my parents. Our original plan was to bus the entire Northern portion of the country. Our friend Jess was also traveling in South America and was currently in Bolivia not to far from us. If we were able to stay a few more days in Northern Chile we would be able to meet up with Jess and her friend Tammy in San Pedro de Atacama, the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Chile. This meant that we would not have sufficient time to bus so we would need to fly.

We were able to use some of our free mileage to catch a flight from nearby Calama to Santiago saving us some 21 hours of bus rides. Yeah!

Looking for a deal I found a good rate on a rental car for our 5 day stay in San Pedro de Atacama. First we had to bus from Iquique to Calama, then take a taxi to the airport so we could pick up our rental car then drive 1 1/2 hours to San Pedro. I paid for the cheapest smallest rental car that was available, but on arrival we were upgraded to a midsize 4 door, 4x4, diesel Nissan pickup truck. We were happy for the upgrade. It took a few minutes to get use to driving again as I had not drive in almost two months since leaving the US.

We had two days in San Pedro de Atacama before our friend Jess arrived. Our first day we visited some ancient petraglyphs and what was called the rainbow valley. The valley was so named because of the different colors of the rocks because of different salt concentrations. The area is absolutely a desert. It was very very dry with cool weather in the morning turning to blazing hot by mid afternoon.

It turned out to be a good thing we got upgraded to the 4x4 truck. Many of the side roads we traveled on were in ill repair and very bumpy.

On our second day we lounged around our guesthouse till late afternoon in hopes the temperatures would cool off. We jumped in the truck and headed for Laguna Cejar.  This small lake more like a pond is located just 15 kilometers from town following a dirt road into the middle of the salt flats of San Pedro de Atacama. We arrived at the pool and paid the $2.50 USD entrance fee. The pool is one of the only lakes that you are allowed to swim in. The lake just 70 meters across is similar in salinity to the Dead Sea. This makes it impossible to drown.

I usually sink in swimming pools, but the water was so salty that I could cross my arms and legs and the top of my shoulders and head would still be completely out of the water. It was actually difficult to swim with your belly down and you could not use your legs to kick because doing so would force your head into the water. You do not want to put your head into the water because the water is too salty.
The water was quite cold and after 15 minutes in the water you need to get out and warm yourself in the sun. Once you dry in the sun it is as few you covered yourself in table salt and you can bruss off layers of dried salt from your skin.

The next afternoon Jess and Tammy arrived after a long day of busing from the Uni Salt Flats of Bolivia. The chose a hostel down the street from our place. We had planned a trip to the Valle de Luna for the afternoon. The Valle de Luna is the biggest attraction in the area. It is a desolate landscape that is compared to the surface of the moon. NASA even tested out moon rovers here. We got a little lost trying to navigate into the valley. The scenery was very beautiful.

Amber: San Pedro de Atacama was so pretty!  And so unlike anything I've ever seen.  I kept telling Tim that if anyone wanted to make a really convincing movie on how I imagined Hell, this would be the place.  Hot and dry and you will die if you some how get stranded.  From it being so hot and dry.

We had a great time exploring the desert.  We walked on salt flats, saw ancient petroglifs, crazy green, pink, black and crystallized-brown-mud mountains, floated in a salt pool, hiked through crazy salt tunnels, got up at four am to see geysers that have the highest elevation in the world, and boiled beans for over ten hours.  As it turns out, for beans, you never ever add salt to them until they are done cooking.  We learned this the hard way, and went hungry for most of two meals and made our hostel host hate us for the amount of gas we burned boiling them trying get them to soften up.  Lesson learned!  LOL.

Northern Chile - Iquique

Tim: After four days in Arica, we boarded a bus for Iquique. The bust trip took longer than expected because of road construction that stopped us to different times. The trip took almost 7 hours. We arrive in Iquique in the late afternoon. Iquique is much larger and more developed than Arica. The beach front was canvassed with high-rise condos and five star hotels. There was even a large casino 50 meters from the beach.

We stayed at the Raddison Iquique for free using points from one of our many credit cards. The hotel was very nice and located right on the beach. Our room had a beautiful view overlooking the water. The only downside was its location on the outskirts of town which made it necessary to hire a taxi to get to the middle of town. We enjoyed to relaxing days by the beach. Ate at a good sushi restaurant and went to the cinema and watched a movie.

The terrain of Iquique is similar to the Miraflores District in Lima because the city is located at sea level on the beach. Immediately behind the city are towering sand cliffs that climb 300 meters before leveling off. This makes the backdrop of the city not very pretty, but the sandy beaches were very nice.

Northern Chile - Arica

Tim: We crossed into Arica, Chile from Tacna, Peru without issue. The process was simple. We jumped on a collectivo (shared taxi) for about $10 USD each. The driver drove us an 3 other people to the Peruvian boarder crossing, then continued on to the Chilean boarder crossing before dropping us off at the main bus station in Arica. Arica is on the beach; the area is very arid and sandy with very few trees or plants of any kind.

Our guest house was called Hostel Sunny Days. It was owned by an older man from New Zealand who was very friendly and accommodating. The cost of hostels is much more expensive in Chile than it was in Peru. The most we ever paid for a room in Peru was around $30 USD.  Our first night in Chile cost $40 USD. Even with the additional expensive the property was nicer than most we stayed at in Peru. The complimentary breakfast was very good. The free breakfast in Peru was often simple bread with margarine and jam along with tea or coffee.

Our guesthouse provided free use of boogie boards which Amber and I used for two days. We enjoyed the beach which was fairly undeveloped.

Chile is two hours ahead of Peru even though the two countries are about on the same longitude. Chile is even an hour ahead of Bolivia which is significantly more to the east. As a result it doesn't get light in Arica till 8 am and sunset was not until 8 PM. This made for some nice evening strolls. This also put the heat of the day at around 5 PM. We enjoyed the beach so much that we both got pretty bad sunburn.

One of our days in Arica we chose to go on a tour of the distant Lauca National Park. The highlight was a beautifully formed snowy volcano with a lovely high altitude lake at the base. The drive took us from 0 feet to over 15,000 feet in 4 hours.

Our original plan was to stay in Arica only one or two nights, but we ended up staying for 4 nights. We liked the well equipped kitchen at the hostel that allowed us to cook for ourselves from the local market. Produce was cheap so we bought lots of avocado and mango. We even made delicious fajitas to evenings in a row.

Amber:  Tim and I loved our 45 days in Peru, but we were excited to experience another South American country; Chili!  And after retiring my passport and getting a brand new one for this trip, I was excited to get more stamps in my new, shiny, very empty passport!  After being inland a lot in Peru, we enjoyed the sun and water in Erika, perhaps too much!  Both of us should have known better considering how very sunburned we got our first day of buggy boarding.  It was just too nice to be in the ocean, and we were having too much fun!

The tour to the Lauca National Park was a day long bus ride with many stops at very touristy road side shops.  Everyone but Tim and I were delighted to purchase Llama wool hats, alpaca sweaters, and other nick nacks.  We had seen our fill in Peru, and really just wanted to get to the beautiful park.  We finally arrived, and after viewing the absolutely gorgeous snow capped volcano perched right next to a crystal blue lake for about 30 minutes (calendar page for sure for my silly yearly calendar!!) our tour boarded back onto our bus, and we drove back to Erica. Wish we could have skipped all the stops and gone hiking, but oh well.  The photos were amazing!!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca

Tim:  Amber and I made a quick return to Lima after our time in the Amazon and continued on directly to Huaraz. From the Lima airport we took a short cab ride to the Plaza Norte Terminal for a comfortable 8 hour bus ride to Huaraz. We arrived in Huaraz at 10 PM. We already had reservations at a nearby Hotel.

The Cordillera Blanca Mountain range is the second highest mountain range in the world after the Himalayas with many mountains over 6000 meters. The city of Huaraz sits at 3000 meters above sea level.

We visited Huaraz at the rainiest time of year. In our 7 days there, it rained during 6 of them. The climbing season in the Cordillera Blanca is concentrated in the winter months of the Southern Hemisphere when temperatures are a little bit colder, but much less precipitation.

The cloud cover was so dense most of the time that we got limited views of the top of the mountains. Having said that, the area is beautiful! And because many of the mountain valleys are lightly populated, this makes for mountains and valleys that are much more accessible than those found in Alaska. Although multi day treks are popular in the Cordillera Blancas, we opted for only day hikes because of the persistent rain. We did three beautiful days hikes into high mountain valleys with the peak of the hikes ending at beautiful mountain lakes. All of our hikes topped out at around 4500 meters (almost 15,000 ft).

Our first hike lead us to a magnificent glacier fed lake with crystal blue water surrounded by jagged 6000 meter peaks and hanging glaciers. Unfortunately, the cloud cover didn't make for the best photos, but it was still a very pleasant experience.

Amber and I seem to do fairly well at high altitude. During our climbs were definitely got short of breath near the top. For the first few days at high altitudes, I usually take a few ibuprofen to avoid the headaches. We spoke with a Swedish couple who were also staying at our hotel. They had done the same day hike that we had done, but the young Swedish man experience acute altitude sickness including profuse vomiting during the hike. I felt fortunate that neither Amber and I have experienced those symptoms.

On our last day in Huaraz we planned another day hike to Laguna Awuac. What we thought was to be a 2 hour leisurely hike was actually a strenuous 4 hour uphill hike of over 1200 meters. We were fortunate as our last day also had the best weather we had had during our time in Huaraz with no rain. There was still a lot of cloud cover so the photos just couldn't do the scenery justice.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon

Tim: We spent two days relaxing in the San Isidro District of Lima at the Radisson Hotel which we stayed at for free using some of our credit card points. It was nice to stay a few nights at a comfortable five star hotel. We were able to get plane tickets on LAN airlines for free as well from points we accumulated form another credit card. It was a short 1 ½ hour flight to Iquitos. Iquitos is said to be the largest city in the world not connected by road. With more than 500,000 people, Iquitos sits along the Amazon River in Northern Peru.
We arrived in Iquitos by 9 in the morning. There are few cars and trucks in Iquitos, mostly just 3 wheeled moto bikes. The moto bike ride to our hotel took 15 minutes. We booked a budget hotel near the Belen Mercado. Our hotel’s proximity to the market made for some awful smells at times because refuse collection was less than satisfactory.
The brother and law of the owner of our hotel offered to give us a tour of the Belen Mercado on our second morning. The tour was an experience. The market came from the edge of the river up to higher ground in the city. We saw all sorts of dead animals for sale including monkey, turtle, alligator, Guinea pig, lots of weird looking fish, plus random chicken parts, pork heads, etc..  Overall the area was a filthy slum, one of the dirtiest places we have ever visited. As a result of the filth there were hundreds of black vultures looking for meat scraps.  We were happy when the tour was over and promptly went back to our room and took a shower.

We had a total of eight days in Iquitos before our return flight to Lima. We arranged for a 5 night 6 day tour of the Amazon jungle with a local guide who was recommend to us by a British man that we met on the street. We were happy for the referral from another foreigner as we had heard of less than positive experiences by some travelers.

One of the more memorable parts of the Amazon trip was the Piranha fishing. Several times we just pulled over to an eddy or side stream to fish for Piranha. Our fishing poles consisted of 6 foot long sticks with about 6 foot of line. Our setup also included a 4 inch long wire leader to avoid your fishing line getting bitten off by the Piranhas. The stories about Piranha’s teeth are no joke. Even the small ones under 6 inches long have incredibly powerful jaws and razor sharp teeth. You have to be really careful when removing the hook from the Piranha’s  mouth to avoid getting a junk taken out of your finger.
One of the best Piranha fishing spots we found was right off of the bank of the river where we were camped for a night. In that one location I caught 4 Piranhas and Amber caught 3. In total I caught 7 Piranhas. We even ate them bony little fish for dinner.

During our fourth day our second guide Ori spotted a Sloth on a tree. We pulled over on the side of the river and got out of our boat. The sloth was about 15 feet up the tree. It seemed to be asleep, and didn’t seem to notice us. Until…. Max climbed the tree with the machete and cut the branch down that also held the sloth. The branch and the sloth fell fortunately into soft tall grass. I don’t think the sloth was harmed too much. Max promptly went over and grabbed the sloth from behind under the arm pits. The sloth made some very quiet hissing noises which didn’t seem like much of a defense mechanism. Both Amber and I got to hold the sloth which was pretty cool. Apparently the locals will kill a sloth if they find it for food. Our guides said that they were actually helping the sloth by returning it to a tree further from the edge of the river and further from view. While we were holding the sloth, Ori went further into the woods to look for a better tree to put the sloth in. He returned minutes later with another sloth. The first sloth was a female, and the second sloth was a smaller male which was likely an offspring. After a few minutes, our guides put the sloths back into separate trees, but not before offering to keep one of the sloths in the boat with us until we were done looking at. We declined.

We were both surprised by the number of fresh water dolphins present in the Amazon river and smaller tributaries. During our trip we say more dolphins than I can remember to count. There are two varieties: a pink dolphin, and a grey dolphin. The pink dolphins are larger than the grey dolphins. On several occasions we were able to drift our boat down the river and watch as pods of dolphins swam in close proximity to us.

Another interesting experience was our giant Iguana spotting. Our guide Ori spotted a large Iguana high up in a tree along the river. We pulled our boat over to the side of the river underneath the tree where the Iguana was resting. Our second guide Max climbed the tree after the Iguana. I the leaves in the tree were very dense and it was hard to see the Iguana in the tree. Our guides explained that the Iguana would likely jump from the tree into the water went Max got close.
The Iguana did jump from the tree, only it missed the water by a few feet and landed in our boat almost on top of me. In fact one of his back claws scraped my pant leg as he fell. What happened next last for only about 2 seconds. The huge Iguana looked at me, and I looked at the Iguana still in shock. The Iguana immediately bolted over the side of the boat and was gone never to be seen by us again. It really was a big Iguana and probably weighed 15 pounds.
During one of our jungle hikes we spotted two Amazonian River Otters in a small stream. When they saw us, they quickly ran to hide deeper in the jungle. It was great to see them if only for a moment.
I think our expectations were a little too high for our trip. Our goals was to try to see lots of animals, but the area we were taken to was surprisingly quite populated and since the rivers act as the main transportation system most of the people live right along the edge of the river. If you really want a chance to see more rare animals you have to venture out to one of the national preserves.

On our last days while making our way back to Iquitos, be stopped at a small village to return some camping supplies. As we pulled up to the village in our boat we saw a villager pulling a dead anaconda that had gotten tangled in the farmers fishing net. The dead anaconda appeared to have a fairly large animal dead in its stomach. From the size of the bulge it looked to be a monkey or a sloth. The anaconda was about 7 foot long. Apparently, they do not have any monetary value so the farmer just through the carcass into the main river for the Piranhas to feast on.

On the downside, we ended up returning to Iquitos a day earlier than we had originally planned because I had gotten sick likely do to the untreated water we were served. For anyone considering this kind of trip, the mosquitoes were awful. During our 5 day trip Amber and I went through an entire bottle of 100% Deet bug dope.