“We want to see a rhino,” we told the hostel manager. “Then you want to go on this game drive,” she said, pulling out a pamphlet. Several days later we were being picked up in a safari vehicle by Patrick, our incredibly knowledgeable, and obviously passionate, guide.
“Welcome to my office,” Patrick joked as he opened the game reserve gates. “Any requests?” ”Rhinos,” we chimed. Patrick explained that Stanley & Livingstone Game Reserve was part of the black rhino breeding program, an effort to increase the population of this endangered animal. The reserve started with three rhinos and now has nine. “There’s no guarantee we’ll see one,” he cautioned, “but we will try.” Will and I tempered our expectations as we bounced around in the back of the safari truck.
The drive started with some elephants and giraffes. This was our first game drive, so we were excited.
As the sun started to go down, Patrick took us to the area where they sometimes see the rhinos. Straining our eyes in anticipation…we saw a beautiful sable instead. It’s unusual to see the sable, a relative of the zebra. We began to believe this would be the highlight of the evening.
There was one more spot to try, though, Patrick assured us. There were several man-made watering troughs that the rhinos frequented. We pulled around a bend, and there he was. A dinosaur among animals.
Two skittish zebras waited patiently for the rhino to finish drinking, keeping a safe distance.
The male rhino finished and began to walk around the area, marking his territory with spray pee. Just then, we spotted Mama Rhino and Baby Rhino approaching from a distance.
THREE RHINOS. We couldn’t believe it.
The male, who we learned was indeed Daddy Rhino, postured to claim the watering hole and Mama Rhino gave him a run for his money.
Ceding the area, Daddy Rhino spray peed a few more bushes on his way out, but ultimately exited the scene.
Mama and Baby enjoyed a drink and then Baby had its dinner. At that point, Mama noticed us and stared, so we headed on for our sundowner (when you have a drink and watch the sun go down…a safari tradition.)
We couldn’t believe our luck – three rhinos, including a baby and a FIGHT! It was not only a highlight of Zimbabwe, but a highlight of the entire trip.
Unlike South America, Africa has many fewer bus companies and there is very little information online. We got our information from a pair of travelers from Malta who had gone from Tanzania to Livingstone by bus. Here is a summary of what we got from Livingstone to Lilongwe, followed by our experience.
Livingstone, Zambia – Lusaka, Zambia: Mazhandu Family Bus Services (blue bus), K120 or $10
Lusaka, Zambia – Lilongwe, Malawi: KOBS Bus, K220 or $18 (ended up being K160 or $13.50 for us, getting off in Chipata)
Zambia-Malawi Border: $75 Visa for US Citizens, must be paid in USD, bills no older than 2006
*Note: there are also mini-buses on all of these routes if you are adventurous and want to take that route.
Livingstone to Lusaka
Livingstone was the first place where I saw an outdoor bus station. Each of the bus companies has a little hut with a hand painted sign. The buses pull up in a big dirt area next to the street. Street vendors sell bananas, chips, and drinks out of wheelbarrows. Its located several blocks off the main road.
We took Mazhandu Family Bus Services from Livingstone to Lusaka. This was by far the nicest bus we have taken in Africa (outside of South Africa). We were given assigned seats and our bags went under the bus without a problem. The 7 hour ride was comfortable and straight forward. The buses left multiple times per day.
The Lusaka bus station is not for the faint of heart. We were barraged by taxi drivers even before getting off the bus. Drivers were pointing at Will through the windows. Pushing our way through the crowd, we got our bags and identified a taxi driver we wanted to go with. He took us to the KOBS ticket window where we bought our ticket to Lilongwe. We found out that the Lusaka-Lilongwe route does not run on Tuesdays, so we planned to stay an extra night at Lusaka Backpackers, which was in walking distance of the bus station. It’s good to leave yourself some extra travel days in case schedule changes happen. As far as we know, KOBS is the only company running the Lusaka-Lilongwe route.
Lusaka to Lilongwe (or Chipata in our case…)
We ended up altering our ticket to get off in Chipata, which is the town just before the Zambia-Malawi border, since our safari would be starting from there. We were still on the same bus, however, mostly with folks headed for Lilongwe.
The bus boarded at 4:00am, and by that time most of the cargo space was taken. We ended up paying one of the KOBS employees 50 Zambian Kwacha to squeeze our bags into one of the spaces. On the bus, no one paid attention to the seat assignments on the tickets. We ended up sitting on the side of the bus that is 3 people across. I was squeezed between Will and a woman who was not too happy to be on the bus herself. The aisle was packed with bags and there were cases of soda under all the seats. The bus seemed about to burst with cargo and people.
At the time of our travel, the road from Lusaka to the border was largely under construction. As such, most of our journey occurred on dirt roads next to the main, paved roads. It was a bumpy, dusty, 10-hour ride to Chipata. Those going on to Lilongwe had a 15+ hour bus ride. On the plus side- they played a few entertaining movies, including Home Alone 2.
We brought sandwiches with us, which was a good idea. KOBS serves a cookie and some sort of soda, but it is not much, and extremely processed. At some of the stops you can buy snacks off vendors through the windows of the bus (if you have access to window).
The Zambia-Malawi Border
We crossed the border with our safari group instead of the bus, but the process is the same. As of October 1, 2015, Malawi now requires entry visas for any country that requires an entry visa for Malawians. This means US citizens must pay $75 for entry. Some information says that you must obtain the visa in advance. We traveled during the month of October 2015 and were able to get a visa at the border without a problem. We heard from other travelers that going to the Malawian embassy (in Zambia or Mozambique) only ends up costing you more money because they say you need extra documents (like a letter of approval, etc.) and charge you for it.
I will warn you, while we were actually at the border a Japanese man was having a very hard time getting through. He had money but did not get prior approval. The immigration officials told him initially that he would have to go back to Lusaka and go to the embassy. After conferring with their supervisor, however, the officials made an exception (or so they said) and let him through upon payment for the visa. While this Japanese gentleman was given a hard time, those in our party (US and UK citizens) were given visas by the same officials without a blink of an eye. It took us about 30 minutes to get our visas processed, but we arrived before a line formed. The visa is a bit laborious for the immigration clerks – they have to handwrite the visa twice and then mark up your paperwork.
Once in Lilongwe
Lilongwe is not a particularly walkable city, but taxis are also fairly affordable. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, which is a 2000 Malawian Kwacha ($4) ride from the middle of town. From Lilongwe we used the AXA Bus to travel to Mzuzu and Blantyre. The AXA Bus doesn’t leave from the regular bus station, but from City Mall, and you can buy your tickets in advance. The buses are clean and make pit stops, though the seats are narrow and cramped.
I hope this logistics rundown was helpful for those traveling in Zambian and Malawi. That being said, ask the other travelers around you. It wouldn’t be traveling in East Africa if you didn’t have to figure things out as you go and ask for help when you need it.
Will and I got into a big fight in Mendoza, Argentina just as we arrived. It’s not unusual for Will and I to fight after a long, frustrating travel experience (in this case, 5 hours waiting in line at the Chile/Argentina border), but this was different – it needed more than sleep. It needed a solution.
Will was mad at me. Six weeks abroad, I had fallen into the habit of voicing everything that was bothersome and not voicing anything that was going well. “Why are we in THIS immigration line?” “It would have been better if we got those bus seats.” “Why are these other people so annoying?” “Next time let’s do it this way…” No doubt, I was in a little bit of a funk. I felt like we were traveling too fast. I didn’t have any down time. I was relying on Will’s Spanish too much. The shampoo we brought was leaving some sort of gunk in my hair that made my scalp hurt. We were seeing and doing amazing things, and I was having an incredible time…but I was a little grumpy too.
One thing I took for granted as a single person was that my emotions didn’t usually affect anyone else. If I was in a bad mood, as long as I wasn’t harassing other people, my bad mood only affected me. Now, married and on the road, when I say anything that suggests I’m not happy, my husband stresses about it. And there is no reprieve, such as going to work or the gym or on some errands. We are together all the time, so he has no way to ignore me.
After some talking, arguing, and defensiveness on both sides, I learned that Will needed to know what I was enjoying about the trip. Even when I’m enjoying things, I don’t always say it. But I need to – and on a regular basis. In return, I needed him to listen to some of my legitimate concerns. It was possible to slow down our pace. I could have more down time. We are the only ones controlling our schedule. We committed to both of these things and then sealed the deal with beer and empanadas.
I hadn’t really felt this phenomenon in reverse until we got to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We knew we were going to the falls in low season, which means much of it is dry. We knew this was good because Will wanted to go rafting, and the rafting is better in low water. But when we got to the actual falls, and saw how much more area they usually cover, Will was disappointed.
“Ugh! This is why I don’t have expectations for anything,” Will lamented. I did a double take at the enormous waterfall we were standing in front of. Was this lame? There was no way this was lame, and yet I was starting to feel sad because Will was sad.
I realized that this is what Will was feeling in South America whenever I expressed dissatisfaction. I tried to cheer him up – pointing out everything that was awesome about our experience at Victoria Falls. He eventually perked up, remembering all the reasons why it was good we came during dry season (like Devil’s Pool!) and seeing the awesomeness of the waterfall even at its driest.
With roles reversed, I gained new appreciation for the impact each of us has on each other. When you are together all the time, with very little interaction with other people, your moods become intertwined. Sometimes this requires actively seeking out the positive for the sake of your spouse. Sometimes this requires listening and responding to legitimate concerns that can make or break an experience for the other person. It’s easy to get annoyed with the fact that your mood and choices can devastate another person’s experience – we all want the freedom of our feelings. But if you can let that go, and commit to caring how you affect the other person, the higher stakes will force you out of your funk and help you enjoy your experiences to the fullest.
You can find the first installment of Marriage on the Road here.
Victoria Falls is more than a waterfall. It’s the hub of a host of adventure tourism activities that sprawl across three countries. We spent two weeks there partaking in a canopy tour, the best one-day white water rafting in the world, two safaris, a swim in Devil’s pool, a sunset cruise, and of course, a day at the falls, which are amazing. And what we did doesn’t even count some of the most popular activities; bungee jumping, a gorge swing, or a helicopter tour. While we did a lot, we still took a slow pace and ended up spending much of our time like hippos, submerged in the pool or lazily drying next to it.
But any visit to the falls is ultimately framed by two questions: Where to stay (Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)? and When to go (high water or low water)?
Where to stay? Zambia v. Zimbabwe
Let’s be clear, no matter where you stay you’ll be able to see the falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. It’s fairly easy to cross the border and return in a single day. Doing so requires 3 taxis. From Zimbabwe you take one taxi to the border ($5), one across the border ($5), and one to Livingstone ($10). Then repeat on the way back. There are plenty of taxis lined up at each point. Just make sure you get a Kaza Visa when you fly in. It’s $50 but allows for unlimited border crossings between the two countries. Otherwise, you’ll get hit with serious visa fees each time you want to cross.
Still, the question remains, which side to choose?
Seeing the Falls
For views of the falls Zimbabwe is definitely a stronger choice. The falls drop from Zambia and fall in the river that divides the two countries. From the Zimbabwe side you can walk the entire length of the falls and there over a dozen viewing points which face the falls head on. Also, we enjoyed finding monkeys who make their home in the rainforest on the Zimbabwe side.
The Zambian side however offers a view from the side of the falls that is dry during low-water. During high-water your limited in your perspective and during low water you can’t see much at all. This photo is from the Zimbabwe side, but you can see what you might view from the Zambian side. This whole area is covered by a wall of water during high season.
Some older research online says that Zimbabwe is cheaper so we were not so pleasantly surprised to find some of the highest prices we’ve seen anywhere in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The reason being that after a bout of hyper-inflation (you can buy 10 billion dollar notes in the street) Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar as its currency. The dollar is strong now so prices are expensive. A driver confided to us he was afraid the strong dollar would keep away the local tourists who normally come around Christmas. On the bright side, you can get $50 bills from ATMs which comes in handy when traveling across Africa.
Zambia was much cheaper for expenses like food and accommodation. However, the cost for activities, which are priced in US dollars on both sides of the falls, are pretty much identical.
We encountered both scheduled and unscheduled power outages on both sides of the falls but they were definitely more frequent of the Zambian side. Apparently Zambia is dependent on hydro-electric power and when the river is low electricity becomes harder to produce.
Our first night there was a mess. Power went out in our hostel, taking the water pump with it. We ventured into the street to find comfort in a nice dinner and found the whole city was in darkness. Fortunately the super market had a generator. It was packed, and people were sweeping the floors to prep for closing, but we got some sausages, bread, and cheese and made due.
Victoria Falls is a small tourist town, built completely around the falls. The main street is mostly tour companies and places to buy souvenirs. Baboons hang out in the streets. You see the occasional warthog. The OK supermarket is pretty well stocked. You can also walk to the falls from the town, which is quite charming.
Livingstone on the other hand is a proper city with more options for restaurants and night life and two substantially nicer supermarkets.
The only activity that can’t be easily done from both sides is a game drive in the private Stanley and Livingstone game reserve. They are a certified participant in the black rhino breeding program and are probably the single best place to get a chance to see this very endangered species amongst other animals.
We had a better time in Zimbabwe. But this may be largely due to the number of unexpected outages in Zambia, a lack of air circulation at our hostel (Fawlty towers) which led to very unpleasant nights and the fact we met a lot of great people at our backpackers (Victoria Falls Backpackers). We did find the souvenir markets to be better and more affordable in Zambia and transportation in and out of the area is easier and cheaper to arrange.
When to go? High Water v. Low Water
Victoria Falls gets its fame from being the longest waterfall in the world. However, this is only really true in high water. During high water you can see the fall in all its 1.8km glory and there’s enough mist to drench anyone who gets near. As one guide told us, “you may as well bring shampoo.”
But we were there during low water. At first we were disappointed that there was no water for over half of the falls, but we ended up being glad we visited during this time since low water season has many distinct advantages.
1.Devil’s Pool & Livingstone Island – On the edge of the main falls there’s a spot called Devil’s Pool where you can safely swim right up to the edge of the falls and look into the gorge while water drops from the cliff just a few feet away. It’s a phenomenal experience and not an option during high-water when it would be impossible to not be taken over the edge. The featured photo also shows us on Livingstone Island, which is the entrance point to Devil’s Pool and only accessible during low water.
2. Rafting – Obviously we didn’t raft in both seasons but apparently some of the best rapids are closed during high water for safety reasons. Low water has the reputation of being the best season for rafting. Will says it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.
3. Animals – If you also want to go on a safari low water is a better time for two reasons. 1) There’s less water so animals are more concentrated around the areas where water exists. 2) The bush is dry and it’s easier to spot animals. During high water, leaves and green bushes end up obscuring your view.
Still if seeing ‘the smoke that thunders’ in its full Discovery Channel scope is your sole focus you want to make sure you’re there during high-water. (High water is Feb-Aug, with a peak in April, Low water is Sept-Jan)
All the best!
We started our day foiled. The Robben Island ferry had been canceled for a second time, even though the sun was shining. We didn’t have any other open days to reschedule, so we had to move something around. The weather seemed nice, so we decided to go to see the penguins in Simon’s Town.
Cape Town seemed warm on that Wednesday morning, so we changed into our Chacos and left our rain jackets at the hostel. We didn’t want to lug them around on a beautiful day. This, of course, is a surefire way to jinx your trip. Thinking about taking your rain jacket and then deciding not to almost always guarantees rain.
Getting to Simon’s Town, a small beach town near the city, is usually quite easy. Light rail trains leave regularly, and as long as you are on the correct line, you just take it to the end. We bought our tickets and then ran across the train station with one minute to spare, jumping on the noon train just as the doors closed. “We’re on the right train, right?” Will asked me. “Yes, the ticker said platform 1.”
Will had read that the train takes about 1 hour. Our train seemed to stop for long periods of time, so we were only mildly concerned as we approached 90 minutes in our seats. Finally, we stopped at Fish Hoek and everyone got off except us. We knew there were at least two more stops, so we sat tight.
Fifteen minutes later, an older woman got on the train and asked us where it was going. “Simon’s Town” we said. “Oh, no. You are very far from Simon’s Town” She said. Panic started to brew. Did we get on the wrong train? Or was this lady just crazy? She was talking to herself…
Finally, we got a tip from another traveler who explained that they were doing work on the tracks and there were buses to take us on to Simon’s Town. Relieved, we hopped off the train and found the bus.
At this point we were quite hungry (we had planned to have lunch in Simon’s Town) and quite cold. Unfortunately, the rain had not stopped and the temperature had dropped.
After a bus ride and a long walk, we came upon the center of Simon’s Town and its small, but excellent selection of waterfront seafood restaurants. I had the best shrimp of my life – butterflied and covered in something lemon and garlicy. Worth the unpredictable (and long) train ride.
We waited out some heavier rain in a tea shop, at which point I started cursing my Chacos and cold feet. We ducked into a shoe store, treated ourselves to some new socks, and continued on toward the penguins.
At first, I believed myself to be a genius for buying socks…until the rain got even harder and my feet got even wetter and colder. By the time we got to the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony, I was freaking out. I was so cold and so wet. Will tried to convince me that the penguins would be worth it, but I wouldn’t listen. He left me at a coffee shop down the street from the penguin reserve to wait out the rain.
About to order a hot drink, I realized that Will had all of our money. I ran after him and ended up walking to the penguin reserve as well.
We got into the reserve about 30 minutes before it closed. The penguins were out and about in full force – waddling around, making funny noises, and doing other hilarious penguin activities.
I ran around the boardwalk, trying to see everything quickly and enjoy as much as possible before running back to the covered area. All around us were people in raincoats, properly dressed for the weather, and enjoying themselves.
By the time we started the 3km walk back to the train station to get the bus, the rain had slowed down. We found a shared taxi to take us to the bus and the rest of the journey back to Cape Town was uneventful. Until we almost got robbed. For more on that, look here.
So what is the final word on Simon’s Town? The penguins are awesome, definitely worth the trip, as was the seafood. Cape Town weather, however, is varied and unpredictable. This is not the trip to risk it. I learned a lesson in preparation the hard way – hopefully you won’t have to!
I had read about ATM scams being a problem in Cape Town, but as we disembarked the train from Simon’s Town, exhausted and cold, I didn’t remember any of the precautions I was supposed to. The ABSA ATM looked legit enough – it was your usual bank-attached, two kiosk, ATM.
I imaged an ATM scam happening at dingier, sketchier, not as centrally located ATM. Looking back, I guess the bus/train station is a usual place for theft, so we shouldn’t be too surprised it happened there.
As we entered the ATM, another man entered after us. I stood to the back, since Will was the one taking out cash. I saw the other man was holding 40 Rand like he was going to make a deposit – which was weird because 40 Rand is about $3.50. Two other men also entered the ATM – I thought to myself “we got here just before the rush.”
Will finished his transaction, and I walked past the men to leave. As we got to the door, the first man called out “wait! You have to cancel your transaction. You left it open. You have to put your card back in, or someone can take your money.”
Will turned to look at the ATM. It was flashing two options. He tapped the screen and then went to put his card back in. “You have to hold it up, sir. You have to hold the end up and put it in. Just tap it.” The man said. Will tried to insert the card as instructed but it would not go into the machine. “Let me show you,” said the man, and he put his hand on Will’s card. Will yanked the card away.
Will went back and forth with this man for a moment, the man offering help and Will keeping his card away from him. The next man in line chimed in, “He’s right. You have to cancel your transaction. Just put your card in, but you have to hold it up.” Will tried again. “No, you will break your card. Let me show you.” The second man reached for Will’s card and Will yanked it away.
“I think it’s canceled, let’s just go.” Will said. He motioned to the next man in line to do his business. “They’re right,” the third man said. “I wanted to make a deposit, but now I can’t because you haven’t canceled your transaction.” Will tried it one more time, again unable to insert the card. The THIRD man offered to help and put his hand on the card to take it. Again, Will yanked it away, stating firmly “I don’t need help.”
Suddenly, all three men disappeared. All I heard was a flip phone hitting the glass and breaking on the sidewalk.
“You’ve been robbed!” called a short man in a trenchcoat, holding a briefcase and a walkie-talkie. He said he was police (a CCID officer), observed we were being hassled, and had just called security from around the corner. I was initially a little suspicious, because the logo on his jacket was neon green, but indeed, the CCID is an arm of law enforcement in Cape Town.
It turns out we were not robbed. If you are still in physical possession of your debit card, the thieves can’t access your money. The police assured us that the men had our PIN – apparently there are ways for cell phones to read your PIN just by being in close proximity. But without the actual debit card, the PIN is worthless.
We were lucky. Many people aren’t. We ended up at the police station later that night to fill out a report, file attempted theft charges, and ID two men who were caught. Unfortunately, there were several other tourist couples at the station filing actual theft reports – they were not as lucky as we were. Hopefully our story will help others avoid similar situations. Be careful out there, and never let anyone touch your card!
The featured photo was taken from this Southern Courier article.
Buenos Aires feels a little bit like New York City when you first arrive. An energetic buzz pulses through the streets – streets that go on for as far as the eye can see. The neighborhoods are many, and varied.
San Telmo seems a little far from the hot neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta, but it’s worth the subway ride. The European style cafes, antique markets, and cobblestone streets give San Telmo an old world, not-at-all-touristy feel. Not to mention that the hostels are, in general, more affordable than other neighborhoods (we stayed at Puerto Limon).
The Charms of San Telmo:
The Sunday Market
On Sundays, Calle Defensa turns into an antiques/crafts/flea market. Every time you think the market must end on the next block, it goes on for another! Food vendors sell empanadas and fresh squeezed orange juice. We were on the hunt for an antique cameo – Will’s present to me for my birthday – and found many to choose from. At one end of the market we were treated to tango musicians and a New Orleans style jazz band. It was tempting to buy more souvenirs with all of the beautiful leather, wood, and textile crafts, but we already hit our souvenir limit for South America. If you are planning to buy souvenirs in Buenos Aires, the San Telmo Sunday Market is where you should do it!
Buenos Aires is a hub of international antique dealership, and San Telmo is where it all happens. The antique shops are many, with beautiful window displays. There are also several permanent markets where antique dealers have stalls. We saw stalls filled with vintage clothing, beautiful jewelry, old knives, and creepy mid-20th century dolls and doll furniture. We even saw a dealer selling out of print money – like francs and a bill with Saddam Hussein on it. Crazy. Even if you aren’t in the market for antiques (we certainly aren’t) they are fun to look at.
Okay. You can find a good steakhouse almost anywhere in Buenos Aires but some of the best are in San Telmo. Twice, we had an incredible lunch next door to our hostel at a small counter place with the grill and meat in full view. But, as Americans, we felt we should go big or go home in the red meat department – so we also went out to a fancy, do-it-up, parrilla (pronounced par-EESH-a) meal. Within walking distance of our hostel, we enjoyed La Brigada, a famous spot where they cut the meat with a spoon. Please, go to their website. It’s amazing. Parrilla is a style of steakhouse where you order off an a la carte meat menu. We had the small sausage, kid tripes, and the special beef – which was a huge cut of meat prepared medium rare. Will exclaimed in awe, “Babe, this is the biggest steak I’ve ever seen.” For more on parrillas, check out Gringo In Buenos Aires.
San Telmo is also close to the famous Plaza de Mayo, the location of the May Pyramid (the obelisk) and the home cathedral of Pope Francis. This is also close to where you exchange your money on the blue rate. The blue rate is the black market rate for dollars and euros that extends those currencies by a third. For a guide to getting the blue rate, check out this website. Our tip: ask around about what rate people have been able to get and be prepared to walk away if the cambio doesn’t give you a good rate. Chances are they will continue to negotiate.
The hum of rubber on the flat pavement. The gentle movement of a sun-warmed breeze past your face. The buzz of how many glasses of wine? Wasn’t counting. This is why we came to Mendoza.
Mendoza is known for producing that famous Argentine Malbec wine everyone has heard of. We spent four days soaking up its laid back vineyard vibe- but we hadn’t taken a wine tour yet. On our final day there we decided to scrap the formal wine tour, rent bikes, and have a leisurely pedal from winery to winery.
We took the city bus to Maipu, where all the wineries are located, and headed straight for Mr. Hugo’s bike rental. Mr. Hugo himself fitted our bikes and sent us on our way. We were lucky – we arrived just as a bike ban had been lifted due to strong winds in the morning. By 1pm, all that was left was a pleasant breeze.
The streets of Maipu have dedicated bike lanes with curbs, and the roads are completely flat. We started our afternoon with empanadas at the local beer garden before heading to Trapiche, one of Mendoza’s most famous wineries, for a tour and tasting.
We saw antique wine making machinery, original to the winery. Will even got to taste some unaged wine straight from the tap.
As we made our way to the sleek tasting room, we were lucky once again– our tasting of 3 wines somehow turned into 5. I tried Grappa for the first time, though I will likely decline it in the future.
Thank goodness we were on bikes, because the Olive Oil Factory – surprise of the day – got us a little drunk. What we found was not a factory tour, but a tasting room. I don’t know if the olive spread we tried was the best thing I’ve ever tasted, or if I was just a little intoxicated – either way, it was amazing.
After introducing us to 10 different liquors, the Olive man asked “Would you like to try some absinthe?” “Sure!” we replied. “Where is it from?” Will asked after we had taken our shots. “I made it!” he exclaimed. Needless to say, it was very strong.
We rounded out our day with a stop at a winery museum and a 5 tasting special at another wine bar. In the end, we bought one bottle of olive oil and received two free bottles of wine. The only thing that could have made the day better was more time.
If you go to Mendoza, skip the formal wine tour and skip the organized bike/wine trip. Head to Maipu (or better yet, stay there!) and go see Mr. Hugo. The freedom to pedal where you wish in this flat, safe town is well worth the city bus ticket!
Listen, I know everyone loves Valparaiso. It’s trendy, romantic, filled with street art and hilltop views and fully endorsed by Pablo Neruda himself. When we told people we were going to Santiago, the response again and again from fellow travelers was, “oh, make sure you get to Valparaiso.” But here’s the thing. I just didn’t like Valparaiso.
There were some specific activities in Valparaiso that I absolutely loved. Among them were visiting La Sebastiana (Pablo Neruda’s house), tasting several Carmeneres at Antonia’s Wine Boutique, and enjoying churros and chocolate at one of the many adorable sweet shops. Unfortunately, these things could not overtake the things I hated: the dirtiness of the streets, the graffiti on every building (not the street art, that’s different), and a bad run in with another guest at the hostel.
We arrived on Saturday around noon to find the city rainy and 10 degrees colder than Santiago. Determined to love Valparaiso, I remained upbeat as we checked into our hostel and set out to find some lunch.
En route, we gingerly danced between the puddles and ridiculous amount of dog poop that filled the sidewalks. The rain made the slimy streets worse, and it was hard to enjoy the stroll. We finally found a place called Mastadon that specializes in Chorillana, a dish invented in Valparaiso. A little heavy, but fully embraceable by a couple of Americans.
As night fell, the rain stopped, and we found a route with less dog poop – up a cobblestone street to this adorable corner:
We located Antonia’s Wine Boutique, recommended to us by an Australian couple we met in San Pedro. We opened the place up at 9pm, tasting an incredible Carmenere. The owner/host chatted with us about what type of wines we like and brought us a complimentary meat and cheese platter. We had a great view of street art and the rolling blocks of colorful houses. Things were looking up.
Back at the hostel, Will and I passed out on our hostel bunk beds at midnight.
Around 5am, I awoke to someone shaking me. I opened my eyes to the lights on and a 20-somthing girl yelling at me in Spanish. The bunk bed was very low, so I couldn’t sit up, just lay there being yelled at. When she took a breath, I said “I don’t speak Spanish,” to which she responded “English then, speak! Speak!” Will and I finally gathered that she thought the bed I was sleeping in was her bed. After she continued to yell at a staff member for another 10 minutes, and took several photos of me in the bed, she was finally ushered out of the room.
Here’s what happened: When you stay in a hostel dorm, most hostels record which bed you claim. For example: Bed 3 – Elizabeth, Bed 4 -Will. This hostel does not record which beds are claimed, so they can’t tell you which ones are available when you check in. It’s just guessing.
This girl thought she claimed the same bed I had claimed. I checked in first (and went to bed 5 hours earlier) so I don’t feel bad about keeping the bed. Additionally, there were two more free beds in the room, available for claiming when she arrived back from the bar. This is how a hostel works. You take a free bed. You certainly don’t shake a stranger awake. If you have a problem you go talk to the staff person at the desk.
The girl was with an older gentleman who generally looked mortified. Later, the hostel staff tried to act like the girl was sorry, but didn’t know how to say it in English. It was evident from her demeanor that she was not sorry in the least. Was I hurt? No. Was I pissed? Yes. Will wanted to confront her in Spanish, but I suggested we just get an early start and vamos.
So we headed to Plaseo 21 de Mayo – another enthusiastic recommendation from our Australian friends in San Pedro. We took a tram to the top of the hill and looked out. The harbor full of shipping containers just wasn’t enough to lift my morning funk.
Although this view was nicer.
The sky looked like it would hold out against the rain, so we decided to walk across downtown to La Sebastiana. On the way, we took note of the street art (while trying not to step in dog poop- seriously, it’s everywhere).
Finally we reached Pablo Neruda’s house. Here you can see Neruda’s morning view as he awoke.
We ended our afternoon with churros and chocolate on our favorite cobblestoned corner before catching the bus back to Santiago.
I know, I know. The incident at the hostel and the weather were not Valparaiso’s fault. Perhaps I went in with expectations that were too high. Perhaps the dirty streets (I saw a roadkill rat blocking a street drain) prevented me from feeling the romance of the city. Perhaps I simply prefer the urban style of Santiago. In any case – there are wonderful things to do in Valparaiso… it just wasn’t the city for me.