Aug 282014
 

I entered Chile from the Bolivian border in the country’s north east not far from San Pedro de Atacama after the conclusion of my 3 day tour of Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia Salt Flats). These neighbouring countries unfortunately aren’t the best of friends and apart from a border they don’t share much else culturally, economically or politically.

Bolivia is widely considered to be one of the cheapest (and poorest) countries in South America and in contrast I found Chile to be one of the most expensive. On average I was paying at least double for most travel essentials (not inclusive of tipping which is also customary in Chile).

Whilst all Latin American countries (excl. Brazil) adopt Spanish as their national language, the Chilean dialects are well-known for distinctive pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and slang usage. Despite being the last country on my itinerary and racking up 6 months of Spanish practice in 11 other Latin American countries, I was constantly asking locals to slow down and repeat themselves.  Being Australian I can’t really criticize as we do the same with the English language.

Climate was also another factor that distinguished Chile. Even though I only covered ground between San Pedro de Atacama and Valparaiso I found very little variation in the depressingly cold winter climate and light precipitation. Bolivia on the other hand offered variation with cities such as La Paz and Copacabana being equally as cold but places like Rurrenabaque being quite warm and humid.

I could go on comparing other notable aspects such as cuisine, local people, attitudes and infrastructure but I think you get the picture. Despite some of the comparisons not being flattering to Chile, it is definitely a country that should firmly be on any South American itinerary.

I only had 7 days in Chile which might sound like a lot to some people, however considering I had travelled for 12-months at my own leisurely pace this was a restricting short amount of time.  My initial plan was to spend a day or two in San Pedro de Atacama, two days in Valle de Elqui, three days in Valparaiso and a day or two in Santiago.

As I was on the bus heading towards the Chilean border chatting with new friends I made on the Uyuni tour, I made a decision to bypass San Pedro altogether as I felt it was not going to offer enough contrast to what I had just experienced. Sure there were some native species of Flamingo and totally surreal desert landscapes that resemble other planets which under normal circumstances I would not dream of skipping, but with the pressure of limited time I rolled the dice and boarded a bus to La Serena where I would change and head towards Vicuna in the heart of Valle de Elqui.

First impressions of Vicuna upon arriving at around 8:00AM were not as I had expected. It was depressingly cold with fog and cloud completely blanketing the small town. It felt deserted – no people around and nearly all the local businesses were closed. Looking back on my travels I really can’t think of any other time during where I felt my choice of destination was such a mistake.

Things got worse when I found an internet café and googled the Valle De Elqui Wikitravel page.  The page was useless with worthless information.  I was seriously considering going back to the bus station when I started chatting with the owner of the Internet café who suggested I visit the local tourist information office.

I received some great advice from the english speaking gentleman working in the tourist office.  He assisted me in building an awesome 2-day itinerary around the Valle de Elqui.

1. Visit the Capel Pisco Distillery – For about US$5 you get a comprehensive introduction (English or Spanish) to the world of Pisco and the process of production.  The modest fee also includes a tasting.

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2. Lunch at Solar Cocina (Sun Kitchen) Villaseca – A beautiful 30-minute stroll from the Capel distillery is the charming town of Villaseca where you will find the little solar kitchen which relies exclusively on the sun to prepare rustic and generous meals.  At about US$15 for a 3-course lunch including wines and pisco it is great value with a beautiful backdrop.

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3. Afternoon walk around Villaseca

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4. Mamalluca Observatory Tour – Chile is undoubtedly the world’s capital for astronomy and boasts one of the world’s clearest and driest night skies.  Whether you are an astronomy buff or not, this tour will definitely be of interest.  We had a very engaging astronomer who captivated us with amazing explanations and I will never look at the night sky the same way again.  The telescopes allow you to get up close and personal with several planets and even the views with the naked eye are some of the best you will get anywhere in the world.

5. Visit Guayacan Micro-Brewery and Cavas Del Valle Organic Winery followed by an afternoon in Montegrande and a visit to the Casa de Gabriela Mistral.  For a US$2 bus fare, you can explore some neighbouring townships of the Valle and sample some great artesian beers, organic wine (Syrah & Cabernet) and get an insight into an icon of Latin American literature and Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral.

Artesian Beer

Casa Del Valle

Casa de Gabriela Mistral

Following two very relaxing days in the Valle de Elqui it was time to get back on the bus and head to the port city of Valparaiso to spice things up a little.  I was definitely ready for some major contrast to what I just experienced as this region is Chile’s 3rd most populated and for what it lacks in beauty, it definitely makes up for in character.

Valparaiso

After arriving at about 6:00AM and navigating my way up a few colourful stairs I finally found my hostel – Casa Volante.  I could not have picked a better place to stay and instantly befriended a cool local Renee then spent 2 hours talking about a whole range of topics. In addition, I received a customised orientation to Valparaiso followed by a personal tour of one of the city’s main attraction – its nightlife.

Valparaiso is very hilly, hence you will see many stairs and funiculars scatter across the city.

Valparaiso is very hilly, hence you will see many stairs and funiculars scatter across the city.

Valparaiso has a very interesting “Riches to Rags” history where prior to the opening of the Panama Canal it was a thriving port city that was awash with cash.  The opening of the Panama Canal dramatically cut the volume of ships coming through the port and the investment disappeared as quickly as it came.  There is still a large naval base in the city as well as a functioning container port however from simply looking around and talking to locals you can sense the city struggles to contend with the challenges of day-to-day life.

Chilean Naval Vessel

Chilean Naval Vessel

Valparaiso’ character is a blend of edge and grunge which I found to be addictive.   Being a university town, the students add an element to the subculture which complements the history and social fabric.  The reputation of the city being ‘unsafe’ I found to be a little exaggerated however common sense definitely applies to valuables and walking alone in the evening.

The iconic street dogs of Valparaiso.  They are everywhere!

The iconic street dogs of Valparaiso. They are everywhere!

Most Valparaiso’ attractions can be accessed simply by walking around the streets.  There is an abundance of street art on offer ranging from some older pieces from the 1980’s to more contemporary works.  The city is large and I recommend grouping neighbourhoods in addition to  utilising the extensive bus network.

Street Art

Street Art

The architecture scattered across the city was a real treat for the senses.  Travellers of all backgrounds will appreciate the explosion of colour that surrounds them.  I can imagine the city would also be a photographers wet dream.

Typical street

Typical street

Valparaiso

A great way to get orientated is to do one of the walking tours on offer.  As Valparaiso is so large and diverse, the tours of this city tend to be longer in duration and incorporate a bus ride or two.  I did the tours4tips tour and found it really informative and covered a lot of the street art.

Street Art

Street Art

Food is another big drawcard.  With nearly all cuisines represented in the thriving restaurant scene, there are a few local specialities that are worth a try.  For me though, the seafood was the standout attraction and I can recommend Los Portenos for a real deal authentic seafood experience.  Be warned that the service is non-existent and the ambience leaves a little to be desired but you will receive generous portions of the freshest seafood cooked traditionally and authentically in the open-kitchen.

Machas la parmesana or “Parmesan machas” is a dish made with the macha (saltwater clam)

Open-Kitchen @ Los Portenos

Open-Kitchen @ Los Portenos

The most famous traditional food in Valparaiso is the Chorrillana, a massive pile of french fries topped with steak, onion, and eggs. One serve could easily feed 2-4 people depending on appetite and if you counting calories then just looking at this dish will send you skyrocketing.  I highly recommend a traditional restaurant full of locals called La Moneda de Oro if you want to try this dish or any other local dish cooked with authenticity.

Chorrillana (Courtesy Osmar Valdebenito http://es.wikipedia.org/)

I was also very fortunate to be in Valparaiso during the Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Feast Day festival held at the end of June where fishing boats are decorated with flowers and candles. The streets are filled with colourful processions and followed with feasts of seafood with plenty of drinking and dancing.

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I had such a great time in Valparaiso that I decided to stay a few extra days and skip Santiago altogether.  It was a befitting end to the 2nd leg of my Solo World Tour and I owe a huge thanks to the crew at Casa Volante for looking after me so well – it seriously felt like a home away from home.

Chile has so much more to offer but it’s dependant on the seasonality and the amount of time you posses.  Rich with natural beauty and culture as well as possessing an excellent bus network, travellers of all backgrounds will fall in love with this South American powerhouse.

 

Jun 072014
 

I feel like I just broke up with the girl of my dreams.

It’s been 4 full days since I left Colombia and I still can’t stop thinking about her.

I thought maybe the beautiful town of Cusco would be more than enough to distract my attention but I still end up making comparisons.

Colombia really comes close to having it all regardless of what you are into.  Whether it be white sandy Caribbean beaches, charming colonial towns, picturesque countryside and coffee plantations, the Amazon and other inland jungles, deserts or large cities oozing with art, culture and nightlife.  On paper, Colombia should be one of the worlds premier travel destinations.

First impressions... the colonial town of Cartagena

First impressions… the colonial town of Cartagena

Colombia made a hell of a first impression on me after our sailboat docked at the beautiful colonial town of Cartagena. Sure I have seen my fair share of colonial towns in Latin America from San Cristobal (Mexico) to Antigua (Guatemala) to Granada (Nicaragua) however Cartagena has a certain something  that gives it an edge over them all.  I’m not sure if it’s the large skyscrapers nestled together with the historic old town and city walls, the rich history and coralstone forts, or the super-friendly and hospitable locals.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

I had heard so often from friends I met travelling, telling stories describing the overwhelming friendliness of the Colombian people. Whilst I never doubted it in the slightest, it was difficult to fully comprehend until I was on the receiving end of this genuine warmth and hospitality.

And it didn’t take long for me to get a sample, only 24 hours in fact.  The day after we arrived, myself and 3 friends (from the crew of the SY Mintaka) decided to explore the Old Town. Whilst we knew the rain season had just commenced, we were not really ready for the torrential downpour that was about to unleash on the street with minimal shelter or wet weather gear.

Inside the dwelling of a beautiful Cartagena local waiting for the rain to subside.

Inside the dwelling of a beautiful Cartagena local waiting for the rain to subside.

The 4 of us were standing under what little shelter we could find when a door opened from a nearby house and the most hospitable and friendly gentlemen invited all of us into his residence to wait for the rain to ease.  We were dripping wet and making a mess on his floor but he didn’t seem to mind one bit.  It probably took about an hour for the rain to ease yet he just carried on with his business whilst we sat in his hallway talking to a local elderly lady who had also taken refuge from the rain.

 

The scenes on the street shortly after the rain stopped.

The scenes on the street shortly after the rain stopped.

For me that was one of the warmest and most hospitable welcoming gestures I have experienced in any city visited.  Some might think its overrated but that kind of care from complete strangers rarely happens these days.

As hard as it was to leave Cartagena, my excitement for the next stop on the itinerary could barely be contained.  Medellin was the Colombian city my friends spoke of most highly and I was seriously looking forward to a week of partying Colombian style.

Pueblito Paisa - a reconstruction of a typical Antioquia village located on top of el Cerro Nutibara and has some of the best views over Medellin.

Pueblito Paisa – a reconstruction of a typical Antioquia village located on top of el Cerro Nutibara and has some of the best views over Medellin.

Whilst we had our fair share of parties in Medellin, we probably didn’t get to experience the nightlife scene to the fullest due to national elections taking place on the weekend we were there.  This was the second election campaign I witnessed in Latin America with the former being in Panama a few weeks earlier.  Most Latin American countries enforce a zero alcohol policy during the weekend the elections are held which obviously kills the vibe at most nightclubs.  Fortunately we had the perfect mix of people within our dorm room at the Pitstop Hostel and let loose for a few days there instead.

However, by far the highlight during my week in Medellin was attending the Grand Final between Atletico Nacional and Junior.  If you havent read my blog post you can check it out here

These were the scenes as we got off the train walking into the stadium

These were the scenes as we got off the train walking into the stadium

I also developed a healthy addiction to empanadas in both Cartagena and Medellin. Colombian style empanadas are made by frying corn-based pastry filled with delicious stuffing, which usually consists of a variety of meat, cheese and vegetables.  Whilst most people I came across prefer the Argentinian style empanadas which are baked, I was well and truly addicted to the Colombian variety.

Empanadas!!!!

Empanadas!!!!

Next stop after Medellin was Salento – part of the Eje Cafetera (or Zona Cafetera) region which is home of Colombia’s coffee plantations and nearby Cocora Valley.  I stayed in one of the most picturesque eco-hostels of my world tour to date called La Serrana, it was nestled between the most beautiful valleys surrounded by abundant flora and fauna and the freshest country air.

So relaxing waking up to this view every morning at La Serrana

So relaxing waking up to this view every morning at La Serrana

I visited 2 local fincas (coffee farms) whilst in Salento – the family run (smaller) Don Elias and the larger El Ocaso commercial farm. We literally learned about the coffee-making process from crop to cup and I genuinely loved going out into the plantations and picking some beans – I also had no idea that they were so sweet when picked.

Not sure if I could make a living picking coffee beans but loved the experience nonetheless.

Not sure if I could make a living picking coffee beans but loved the experience nonetheless.

So sweet.

So sweet.

I definitely got my caffeine fix whilst in Salento and bought a few kilo of Colombia’s finest to take home.  Whilst we are spoilt in Melbourne to have access to quality beans, being able to take home my piece of Salento is priceless.

The smell of freshly ground coffee was pure addiction.

The smell of freshly ground coffee was pure addiction.

The other highlight of my Salento visit was taking a half hour 4WD taxi ride to the Cocora Valley for a 4 hour hike.  The valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park and is the principal location of the national tree and symbol of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), as well as a variety of other flora and fauna.

It was almost surreal seeing the palm trees out in the middle of the valley.

It was almost surreal seeing the palm trees out in the middle of the valley.

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Hummingbird Sanctuary

Hummingbird Sanctuary

Following 3 super-chill days Salento, I took the overnight bus to Colombia’s capital – Bogota. Depending on who you talk to the capital can be hit or miss mainly due to personal preference for big cities.  Well it was definitely a hit for me with an impressive street art scene which took me completely by surprise.  More detail in this blog postsoloworldtour_Colombia__Graffiti__Latin_America__Street_Art_May_29__2014-13

I stayed in the hip La Candelaria district where most of the hostels and restaurants are located. I was also fortunate to have some crazy Aussie roommates who turned out to be great wingmen whilst we hit the clubs in Zona Rosa and elsewhere.

Bogotá also boasts a number of world-class art galleries and museums, many of which happen to be free.  One of my favourites was the Museo Botero del Banco de la Republica which has several pieces from one of Colombia’s most famous artists – Fernando Botero as well as many other national and international names.

Botero

Botero

The Bogota locals also sport a solid fashion sense with an abundant supply of local designers producing pieces exclusively for the local market.  I was quite often lost for words when chatting with the stunningly beautiful Colombian ladies.

There are so many parts of Colombia that I am yet to see and a return trip is definitely on the cards in the foreseeable future. Pound for pound Colombia ranks right up there with many of my favourites and will always have a special place in my world tour memoirs.

May 252014
 

I can’t even begin to describe how lucky we were to be at this Grand Final.  I’m not a huge soccer fan but this was definitely one of the most exciting games of sport I have ever seen.

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Club Atlético Nacional S.A., also known as Atlético Nacional, the home team based in Medellin are the current league and cup champions. Considered to be one of the strongest clubs from Colombia, they are one of the most consistent clubs in the country.

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The opposing team Club Deportivo Popular Junior F.C. S.A., also known simply as Junior or by its former name Atlético Junior, is a team based in Barranquilla.  Atletico Nacional went into the grand final needing a result following their 1-0 loss to Junior in the opening leg on Sunday.

These were the scenes as we got off the train walking into the stadium

These were the scenes as we got off the train walking into the stadium

After arriving in Medellin on Tuesday, I was stoked to learn that the Grand Final was being played on the Wednesday night. We quickly went and bought tickets and arrived at the stadium early to get through the intense security and get some decent seats. The scenes before the game were crazy but it didn’t even come close to what we witness after the game.

Will in the local colours, the locals went nuts over him.

Will in the local colours, the locals went nuts over him.

Lightning start, 3 minutes into the game and Atlético Nacional scores! But before half time Junior’s lead forward equalised. Most of the second half was uneventful and it was looking like Atlético Nacional would lose the final on aggregate.

Goal!

Goal!

Atlético Nacional were peppering the goals in the last ten minutes and then the unbelievable happened in the 93rd minute –  a Atlético Nacional corner converted into a goal!!!

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The stadium erupted. People were jumping everywhere, crying and screaming, jumping around out of control and hugging complete strangers. It was so electric! So much emotion from every person present and after witnessing a football final miracle in the last seconds, the people went crazy!

The penalty shootout was just as electric and Atlético Nacional end up victorious 4-2 and are crowned champions.

Medellin went into riot mode immediately after the game with the streets flooded with hysterical and joyous locals.

Moments after the winning goal.

Moments after the winning goal.

Check out a short YouTube clip of the pandemonium both during and after the game. I have never seen anything like this before.

May 082014
 

Right now I’m in a small port city called Portobelo in Colón Province, Panama.  In a few hours Ill be boarding the SY Mintaka sailboat with 4 other aussies, a german couple and a swedish girl destined for Cartagena, Colombia.  Our itinerary is to sail around the beautiful San Blas Islands for 3 days, do some snorkelling, meet some Kuna Island locals and generally chill out on some stunning beaches followed by 2 days of open sea sailing to Colombia.

I have now spent close to 4 months travelling in Central America and I have enjoyed this region so much.  Starting in Mexico and finishing in Panama with a side trip to Cuba presented me with a few challenges and has provided so many rewards.  My grasp of the Spanish language has strengthened and I’m glad I have something to take home with me at the end of my world tour.

Finishing my Central America world tour part in Panama City was not something I had particularly intended.  Most travellers bypass Panama City and opt for beach destinations such a Bocas Del Toro.  After a 2-day marathon bus ride from Leon, Nicaragua to Panama City with and overnight in San José, Costa Rica – I checked into the Magnolia Inn luxury hostel.  Comfortable beds, hot showers, fully equipped kitchen and top location in Casco Viejo made my choice a ‘no brainer’.

I had a great week in Panama City and met some brilliant people.  I was fortunate to meet a private chef staying at the hostel whom I quickly befriended – Kelly.  She was cooking up a storm and most of the hostel was on the receiving end of her creations.

Some of my Panama City highlights are the following, and you may not necessarily need a week to cover them – but make sure you don’t skip this very cool city.

1. Panama Canal.  This 77.1-kilometre ship canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean is truly impressive.  The museum and viewing platform at Miraflores should be item No.1 on your itinerary.

Cargo ship entering the locks.

Cargo ship entering the locks.

Cargo ship exiting the lock, note that its much lower going through the other end.

Cargo ship exiting the lock, note that its much lower going through the other end.

2. Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market) – Yes it is well-known that Anthony Bourdain visited this place and made it a little more popular.  In my opinion it’s definitely worth a visit to sample a few of the ceviche (pescado, mixta and camarones) – at $1-3 per serve it is definitely a cheap eat and I didn’t find the smell of the market as bad as people describe.

'Mixta' Ceviche

‘Mixta’ Ceviche

3. Coffee.  Another ‘no brainer’ with many world-class cafe’s serving some of the worlds best coffee.  One of my favourites was Casa Sucre (near Magnolia Inn – Casco Viejo).

Casa Sucre

Casa Sucre

4. Ancón.  A $5 taxi ride from Casco Viejo will bring you here (don’t walk) and you are rewarded with awesome views whilst gently strolling up the hill. A bonus is seeing some wildlife along the way such as Toucans and other bird life.

View from the top of Ancón

View from the top of Ancón

5. Eat.  Panama City offers a variety of quality dining establishments.  Some of my favourites included Rene Cafe which had a great value 3-course lunch for $10.

6. Party. Whilst I didn’t get to visit the bar district ‘Calle Uruguay’ I did have a great night at the Veneto Casino despite losing a few dollars.  If you don’t mind being surrounded by an excess amount of ‘ladies of the night’ and don’t take gambling too seriously then you will have a great time here.  Great sushi restaurant downstairs and free drinks alone make it worth a visit.

7. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The Pool Bar is definitely worth an afternoon visit for a few drinks offering stunning views of the city and well-made drinks.

View from the Hard Rock

View from the Hard Rock

The Hard Rock Pool

The Hard Rock Pool

8. Walk.  There are some great sights to see just walking around from street art to skyline to sea.  Stick to the designated walking paths and make sure you don’t venture into the wrong areas.

Panama street art is everywhere.

Panama street art is everywhere.

Walking Path

Walking Path

Panama City will definitely surprise you if you haven’t visited before.  The locals are super-friendly and out of all the Central American capital cities this rates as my equal favourite along with Mexico City.

And that concludes the Central American part of my world tour.  My next update will be from Cartagena, Colombia and I am super excited to visit this amazing country.

Adios for now.

 

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