Thursday, July 15, 2010
Ok, so I lied. While I intended the last post I wrote to indeed be the last one of this series, it occured to us that it might be a good idea to summarize our "lessons learned" for folks who may want to consider to do a similar trip in the future. So below are some of our tips, although it's by no means a comprehensive list. Happy travels!
What to Pack?
Rule #1: The smaller your pack, the less you will bring. Pretty simple. So avoid buying too large of a pack, as you will end up finding a way to fill it. I had a 70 liter pack, Jason had a 90 liter pack, and we both could have done with smaller packs. To give a weight range, we've met travelers with luggage ranging from 8 to well over 20 kgs. My fully packed 70 liter pack weighed in around 12.5 kgs, Jason's fully loaded pack hovered around 18 kgs. Trust me, light is good. Also, a nice daypack is a must, especially if you stay at a seedy place and want to keep you valuables with you. We both used Northface hydro-packs (removing the bladder), and they were a perfect size.
Listed below are some items to consider.
Powerstrip - Many hostels rooms have limited power outlets. Bring a strip, which allows you to charge your electronics concurrently while avoiding the need for multiple power adapters. It can also serve as an extension cord.
Convertible pants - These are pants with a zipper around knee-level that allow you to remove the lower portion of the pants and thus convert them into shorts. Most outdoor stores will have them. They tend to be quick-drying and have multiple pockets. Look for a model with zippered pockets to stash your cash.
Exofficio Underwear - http://www.exofficio.com/ , these are awesome. 'Nuff said.
Small bottle of detergent - You will likely be doing some laundry in the sink/shower. A small bottle of laundry detergent will come in handy while taking up little space. It can be re-filled on the road as needed. Also consider bringing a universal drain plug.
Shampoo/Bodywash combo - Why carry two bottles if you can have all of it in one? Shampoo/Bodywash combo bottles rock. They are a bit harder to find on the road, so start with a big one if you can.
Torch/Flashlight - A no-brainer, but don't forget this. Power outages do occur, as do dark hostel rooms when you want to read a bit.
Small organizer for passports, SIM cards, cash, and other important documents. Nice to have it all in one place.
A couple of packs of tissues - use as TP, napkings, etc. Can buy cheaply on the road, so don't bring too many.
Passport photos - You will need them for some visas. They can easily be made in larger asian cities for a fraction of the US price, but it helps to have some on hand just in case.
Ear plugs - Snorers and loud buses are your enemy. If you know somebody who works in a manufacturing environment, ask them to score you a couple of packs. Ear plugs are a ripoff in stores.
Unlocked GSM phone - See communication section below for details
Microfiber towel - While nice in concept, we've found they start to smell after a while. And once they smell, you can't get the smell out. I mean, you can wash them, and they will smell fine, but after one use it's right back to that mouldy odor. Instead, bring a decent cotton towel. If it starts smelling, you can always toss it and buy a new one at very low cost. Trust me.
There are many ways to get around when on the road. We generally found that it's easiest to fly into and out of major hubs and figure out the smaller segments on the go.
Good, cheap airlines to consider: Jetstar (Asia), Spicejet (India), Webjet (Brazil)
In Brazil, you need a national ID to book flights online. We went to CVC, a Brazilian travel agency, to book our webjet flights. Their markup was almost nil; in fact, one of the fares they charged us was LESS than the online fare.
A popular way to travel in India is via trains. Cleartrip.com is a great site to book these ahead of time. And yes, they do fill up, so booking ahead is advisable. Some trains do have a "tourist quota", basically keep some last minute seats open for foreigners, if you ever happen to be in a pinch.
Traveling by bus in South America is definitely an experience. We've found buses in Argentina and Peru (Flores in particular) to be the nicest. However, keep airlines in mind: spending 18+ hours on a bus will get tiring no matter how comfy your seat is, and there are some very good flight deals out there.
If you're in New Zealand or Australia, a cheap way to get around is by doing car/camper relocations. www.standbycars.com is a great aggregate site for deals, although you can contact the rental agencies directly as well. The downside is that they do give you limited time to complete the relo, so it's not a very good option if you want to go exploring a bunch on the way to your destination.
Most countries we've visited run a GSM cell phone network (like ATT and T-Mobile in the US.) Bringing an unlocked GSM phone along is a great way to stay in touch. Unlocked phones (not tied to a carrier) can easily be found online. If you currently have ATT or T-mobile, request them to unlock your phone.
SIM cards in Asia are cheap. For instance, we both bought SIM cards in Vietnam for around 5 bucks and they lasted well over 3 weeks. Plus, incoming calls are free, so your family can easily call you over the internet using services like Skype. Having a phone is handy not just to stay in touch with the fam, but also for booking guesthouses and staying in touch with other travelers while you're on the road.
Skype is also very common, especially in heavily traveled areas. Set up an account to call your home country for cheap. Many internet cafes have skype software installed.
It's advisable to keep some US dollars (100 bucks or so) on hand for incidental costs, visas, and departure fees. If possible, try having some smaller bills as well (ones, fives, tens.) We found some ATMs in Cambodia, Bolivia, and Peru do dispense in US dollars if you need to re-build your stash.
Most towns we visited did have ATMs, though we didn't stray too far off the beaten path. Consult guide books and fellow travelers to find out what the ATM situation at your destination may be and bulk up on cash as needed.
Jason used an online Fidelity checking account to keep his cash, which worked very well for him. They re-imburse your ATM fees, a handy feature if you're traveling abroad. Fees do add up quickly, so this is a worthwhile consideration for long term travelers.
While we didn't use our credit cards that much, Capital One apparently offers a fee-free international credit card. Neither of us got one, but it's something to consider especially if traveling in developed areas.
Both of us signed up with HCC medical, which for around 400 bucks covered us in case something bad would happen. Luckily, injuries were only minor and we didn't have to use their services. There are sites out there comparing plans, so do your homework.
Yes, we're both geeks and brought netbooks with us. This was in part to allow for blog writing, as well as to back up/upload pictures (our total picture tally, btw, was around 11,000 pictures.) We used Asus eee 900/901 computers with solid state drives, and while slow, they did the trick. You would be surprised how much free wifi you can find around the world, so having a small computer on hand can be handy. This is especially true in hostels where people flock to the shared computers. It can also be handy for your Skype users out there.
An alternative to bringing a full computer is to bring an iPhone/iPod touch or wifi enabled smartphone. While not as versatile as a full computer (backing up pictures was a must feature for us), they can be very handy for checking email and using skype to call home. Again, you would be surprised how many wifi hotspots one can find.
Check prices, they can be expensive and hit us a bit of a hidden cost. South America in particular can be pricey for US citizens. If you are a dual citizen, consider bringing your other passport (I saved around 400 bucks in South America alone by using my Swiss passport.) The reason for this cost, btw, is because the US charges foreigners 135 bucks for a visa, so a bunch of countries are just returning the favor.
Oh, and if you plan on going to Argentina as a US citizen, try to avoid flying into Buenos Aires. While Argentina doesn't require a visa, they do charge an airport arrival/reciprocity fee for US citizens. How much is that fee? You guessed it, $135. Since we entered Argentina by land (near Puerto Iguazu), Jason didn't have to pay the fee. This may change in the future, of course. But something to consider :)
Lodging availability and quality range widely. We found that recos in guide books were hit or miss. In New Zealand, BBH publishes a great listing of hostels with, in our experience, very representative ratings. Also, if you plan to spend a bit of time there, consider getting a membership as it will pay for itself quite quickly.
The other most common site we used for booking hostels around the world is Hostelworld.com. See if you can score a gold membership as that will save you the $2 reservation fee when booking online.
My last tidbit is on guide books. Although we experiemented with a "Rough Guide" in China, we generally relied on Lonely Planets due to their information and layout. Besides the usual activity stuff, they are quite helpful in providing a basic map of your destination and usually have good info on bus/train routes with approximate fares. We did have the opportunity to exchange them along the way, and even got two of them gifted to us by fellow travelers. So don't buy all of them in advance unless you feel like lugging all that weight along.
An alternative to the LPs, for some destinations at least, was wikitravel.org. While a bit hit or miss in terms of content, there were numerous helpful articles for a variety of our destinations. Definitely worth taking a look, especially given the price (free.)
Safe and happy travels to all!
/Over and out :)
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
June 30th –> July 7th, 2010 by Jason
Wow, it’s hard to imagine but this is it…years of saving and planning, random hostels, travel agencies, taxis, buses, planes and trains and of course so many new friends all around the world…and just under 11 months of travel are nearly over!
After Cusco we wanted to see at least one other town in Peru, but with a goal of keeping towards Lima as we work to catch our flight home. We boarded our bus to Arequipa just after 8.30pm Tuesday night and settled in for a nice 8 hr journey to Arequipa. We had large comfy seats and they even served a small dinner of grilled chicken with rice and potatoes (not bad either, although what’s the deal with 2 starches with dinner?!) We arrived in Arequipa about 45 minutes late, at about 5.45am. We grabbed our bags and booked a ticket to Lima for Saturday night and then hauled next door to the other bus station (that’s right, 2 different bus stations right next to one another!) and met the owners of our hostel for a free ride to their place! We checked into Arequipay Backpackers which is a little bit out of downtown but offers a nice, quiet place to hang out for a few days! A quick shower and a nice breakfast before Swiss spent the morning getting his last post to the blog posted.
We were pretty wiped out by the long bus ride so we decided to head towards the center of Cayma, the small zone we’re staying in. We grabbed some delicious roasted chicken for lunch then decided to watch The A-Team which was playing at the local cinema…that’s right the motivation to do any sightseeing is waining! Hey, at least we tried the local cola at lunch!!
We eventually found the local supermarket, which was hiding 2 floors below the movie theatre, as it turns out, and bought some food for dinner. We headed home so I could get caught up on photos online (there’s no time to do that when I get home, I’m pretty sure my mom already has a list of things for me to do!) and made a tasty dinner. I headed up to bed early to catch some sleep!
Chemically cooked fish, yum!
So Thursday we decided to head into town and do some sight-seeing. A quick walk around Plaza de Armas and it was off for some ceviche! If you haven’t had it before it’s very tasty citrus marinated fish or seafood and they do it especially well here in Peru (some claim that it was created here, but since there was no citrus here until after the Spanish invaded, it may have been done but certainly not in it’s current form.) This place was delicious, but of course we’ll have to compare it to a place in Lima before we go!!
After lunch we headed over to the Santa Catalina Monastery, one of the larger and most famous sights in Arequipa, and the star attraction of the historic center’s UNESCO World Heritage status. We spent a good 2+ plus hours there wandering the streets and various rooms and “cells” (their word, not mine) where the nuns used to live. The place is literally a city within a city with multiple streets and used to serve as a center of education for the local poor hundreds of years ago. Enjoy some pics:
It really is a beautiful place and well worth a visit when you’re here in Arequipa, despite it’s high admission price (S/30 or 10 USD.) A quick stop at the grocery store to grab a few supplies for lunch tomorrow (there are some big World Cup games to be enjoyed!) and we headed home to order a pizza and watch some movies!
World Cup heats up
Well Friday was a big morning with the Holland/Brasil game kicking off at 9am here in Peru, and we had some Dutch people here to watch the game with us. I’m not going to lie, but we were pretty lazy. We cooked a little lunch and then enjoyed the extended Uruguay/Ghana match (man, that Ghana team loves going into extra time, eh?!)
That night they were firing up the BBQ at our hostel (bring whatever you want to have cooked) and considering it’s the 4th of July weekend and I doubt the Hilton in Lima will have a grill where we can cook ourselves, we decided to make some burgers! The supermarkets here sell fresh pre-made patties that are really well-spiced, beef or chicken, your choice.
After dinner it was time to enjoy a movie in the nice room you see above!
All aboard for our final city
Yes, Saturday was another World Cup today and I won’t lie, we enjoyed the games. First up was Germany vs Argentina, followed by Spain vs Paraguay. After those matches it left 3 European teams and only 1 S. American team in the semi-finals. We cooked a little lunch, the last of our cooking on this trip and hopped in a cab around 4.30pm to get over to the Flores bus terminal. We boarded the 6pm Dorado VIP Direct bus to Lima. Lots of buses in South America claim to be “cama” which means bed…but this was our first seat that was a true lie flat bed.
An attractive shot, eh? Well it was super comfortable. I generally can’t sleep on buses, but I managed a few hours rest on the 15 hour journey. The ride included a small but nice hot meal…and at a third of the price of Argentinean buses, I don’t know what all the fuss is over those buses down south, Peru has been pretty good! We arrived a few minutes early, just before 9am, to their small station in the La Victoria section of Lima. I spoke with our lovely attendant who told me that a taxi to Miraflores (the part of town where we’re staying) should be no more than 8 soles. Immediately off the bus the taxis wanting to rip us off (and in bed with the bus company) were offering us a ride for 15 soles and wouldn’t come down. We walked out into the street and the first taxi offered us a ride for 10 soles, which we gladly accepted. He didn’t know how exactly how to get to our hotel, but asking a few randoms on the street and he dropped us off at the Doubletree Hilton Lima. We checked into our room and relaxed and cleaned up after the long journey.
OK, we were hungry and we had one last mission to accomplish…and it was the 4th of July! So, we headed over to the McDonald’s a few blocks from our hotel…it doesn’t get more patriotic than that, eh!?
Swiss can now proudly say that a Big Mac tastes the same in every country we visited (that has at least one McDonald’s store) and there’s nothing more all-American than a burger on the 4th, right?! Well after all that grease it was time for a walk. As you can tell the weather isn’t all that great so we stayed local in Miraflores, and while quite a few things are also closed on Sundays we say a few sights, including Lima’s new bus line, only a month old from what we hear!
Swiss seemed to catch a bit of a cold or congestion after our bus journey so it was back to the hotel to relax and rest with DirecTV!
We grabbed one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve had in a while from a little roasted meats shop…the tasty roasted chicken with the amazing sauces were really really good!! Maybe that’s why the place was standing room only! Afterwards we hit up the hotel bar to enjoy our complimentary welcome drinks, some Pisco Sours!
The bar is on the 2nd level and opens below to a restaurant which has a nightly Peruvian cultural show/performance. We enjoyed the show and even got to meet “El Condor!” haha
A little Lima sightseeing
OK, so we’ve come all this way, we had to see at least a sight or two before leaving Lima…but that doesn’t mean we have to go far from our neighborhood! We could head to the historic center, but they don’t make it to easy here in Lima with no real public transit system. So, after breakfast we headed a little north to check out Huaca Pucllana. An ancient site of a ceremonial structure built between 200-700 AD, it’s a beautiful complex that’s only been unearthed in the last 22 years and work continues even today. The 10 soles admission includes a free hour long tour of the site and we had an awesome guide that made it all worth it! Enjoy a few pictures:
At the back of the site they have a small area where they show local plants grown by old Lima culture and also some unique local animals. This includes the Peruvian hairless dog, a quite ugly breed, but also very cute. Once you pet them they love the attention and won’t leave you alone, very adorable!!
Afterwards we ordered our cab to the airport for tomorrow back at the hotel and then headed out for lunch. We had a tasty set lunch of starter, entree and drink for only 8 soles!! I had the ceviche starter then the pure con asado (mashed potatoes with grilled beef and of course rice…two starches again!!) It was delicious!
From there we headed south to see Larcomar and the Pacific Ocean. Larcomar is a mall built into the cliffs and overlooking the ocean. It’s very westernized and modern, and with better weather probably a nice place to sit out for a drink. Considering that it’s been gray, cloudy and cool our whole time here in Lima that wasn’t in the cards for today though!
We headed back to the room to relax and watch the final Indiana Jones flick. Afterwards we headed to a restaurant near our hotel for dinner. Neither of us was terribly hungry since Swiss has a cold and I’m in between coming down with it and not, but we knew we had to eat. They had set meals with tasty kebabs of meat and veggies with potatoes on the side for S/ 10 or less! And it was delicious!
And of course a final Inca Cola…when in Rome! We headed back to the hotel bar for a drink and then called it a day!
Tuesday would mark our flight home and a World Cup semi-final match…can you guess what we did? A little bit of packing, a final local lunch at the same place we went the previous day, and of course the Holland/Uruguay game. With late check-out we were downstairs around 3pm and a taxi arrived a little after 4pm to take us out to the airport…about a 30 min. ride from our part of Lima. We arrived at 5pm and spent a few good hours waiting to check, eating dinner (McDonald’s honestly looked more appetizing than the Papa John’s there, and it allowed our bodies to prepare for the on-rush of real American food when we got home, haha!) and paying our airport departure tax (31 USD when flying internationally out of Lima airport, paid separately unless flying American and Delta, which currently have it built into their tickets!)
Our flight left a little early and we arrived in Fort Lauderdale about 20 minutes early. A tight/quick connection and before I knew it I was on a plane to Chicago, which even arrived early too! Swiss stayed behind in FLL with a late afternoon flight up to Detroit and spent the day with Mary Ellen, an old friend from his Virginia days.
So that’s it…a pleasant but (luckily) uneventful end to our journey. It’s been a lot of fun over the past year and I know we’re both very fortunate to have been able to go on this journey. Thanks to everyone who followed along for the ride! We hope you enjoyed reading along as much as we enjoyed traveling around!!