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How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

Screenshot (9)

Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Livingstone to Lilongwe

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Livingstone to Lilongwe

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.

Cheers!

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

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.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe Travel

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.

Victoria Falls Low Water Travel

Price

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.

Infrastructure

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.

The Towns

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.

Black Rhinos

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.

Black Rhino Victoria Falls Travel

Overall

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.

Devil's Pool Victoria Falls Travel

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!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Why San Telmo is the Best Neighborhood in Buenos Aires

Why San Telmo is the Best Neighborhood in Buenos Aires

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!

Antiquing

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.

Buenos Aires San Telmo Market

Parrillas (steakhouses)

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.

Buenos Aires Parrilla

Final Note

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.

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

We knew we had to stop in San Pedro de Atacama on our way down the west coast of South America. San Pedro sits on one of two super volcanos in the world (the other is Yellowstone), and in the world’s driest desert. As such, the landscape includes breathtaking, varied formations of volcanic rock that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. The problem is that it is not completely straightforward to get from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama. In this post, I will tell you how we did it, and how it went. Hopefully it will serve to both entertain and inform – because San Pedro de Atacama is definitely worth a visit!

Here is the quick overview:

  • Bus from Arequipa to Tacna, Peru
  • Collectivo from Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile (border crossing)
  • 2 nights in Arica
  • Night bus from Arica, Chile to San Pedro de Atacama (stop in Calama)
  • Arrival in San Pedro de Atacama

Bus from Arequipa, Peru to Tacna, Peru

Try as we might, we could not find a bus schedule for Arequipa to Tacna, Peru. Based on internet research, you would think buses didn’t run between these two cities. Our hostel staff assured us that these buses left on the hour, so we headed to the bus station to find out the schedule.

True enough – Flores had buses leaving every hour for Tacna. We got there early to get on the 6:45am, and they let us hop on the 5:45am because it hadn’t pulled out yet. The bus was incredibly cheap – 20 soles (about $6), and boasted broken seatbelts, filthy seats, and a bathroom I shall not speak of. The ride was 6.5 hours long, including a stop where we all got off and had our bags squeezed by men in uniform. The signs at the checkpoint all said “fruitfly free zone” and pictured a variety of melons. I can only assume that’s what they were squeezing for.

Border Crossing (Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile)

Once in Tacna, we had two choices: get on a bus crossing the border (which means you wait for everyone on the bus to pass customs) or find a collectivo driver (a shared taxi, usually taking 5 people across the border.) At this point, I was coming down with a pretty bad cold, so I sat with our belongings and popped newly acquired Halls Watermelon while Will went out in pursuit of a collectivo.

About 20 minutes later, Will came back. “Okay, he’s outside. I think you’re sitting in back with two women and a child.” I indeed was not sitting in back with said group, but rather on the bench seat of the Ford sedan between the driver and Will. As we drove the 30 minutes to the border, the four adults passed around a clipboard with paperwork on it. The collectivo driver was very helpful with questions.

Somethings to note:

  • Collectivos post their rates on the windshield. They should not charge you more than that. There are no other fees, so don’t agree to pay any.
  • They take Peruvian Soles or Chilean Pesos.

First, we had to exit Peru, which involved having our passports stamped again. While this was happening, some other collectivo drivers pointed out that there was liquid coming out of the Ford. Our driver became very stressed out, running back and forth between the car and our group.

After exiting, we drove across the parking lot to enter Chile. Customs scanned our bags. At this point, our driver seemed to have either solved the problem with the car or resigned himself to it. Either way, he appeared calmer by the time we were headed for the Arica bus station (about 15 minutes away.)

Border Crossing Chile

Arica

No one really goes to Arica for Arica (except maybe the Tulane girls we met who are studying abroad there.) Arica is this little beach city where people going south from Peru to Chile pass by people going north from Chile to Peru. It is a crossroads of sorts, and if you ask questions of your hostel-mates you can get a glimpse of where you are about to go.

I was pretty sick at this point – so we decided to stay two nights instead of one at the very comfortable Hostel Sunny Days. It was three blocks from the bus station and across the street from a vegetable market and a school.  No bunkbeds, hot showers, a huge kitchen, good company. The perfect place to recover.

Bus from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama

The only way to get from Arica to San Pedro is via night bus. There are no day buses that travel this route. You can buy a ticket from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama, but these tickets are a combination of two tickets: one from Arica to Calama and one from Calama to San Pedro. We were hoping we would not have to switch buses in Calama, but no such luck.

We took Frontera del Norte, but Pullman and Turbus also travel this route, among others. Somethings to note:

  • The attendant will take your passport and will not give it back until you are arriving in Calama. It’s okay. He will give it back. Every passenger has to hand over some form of ID.
  • Don’t count on sleeping through the movie. They started it at 10pm after we were on our way. The sound was blasted throughout the cabin. We got to watch Pound of Flesh, which is a Jean Claude Van Damme movie in which his kidney is stolen the day before he’s supposed to donate it to his niece. He tracks down the thieves to get the kidney back. Luckily(?) they left it on in English with Spanish subtitles.
  • There is a middle of the night security stop (it happened for us at 3:30am) where they make everyone get off the bus, pick up their luggage from the cargo hold, and pass through what is basically a TSA check point. You then have to drag your luggage to another location and wait for the bus to come get you. You bring your luggage back to the cargo hold and get back on the bus. The whole thing takes about an hour.
  • Calama bus stops are notorious for theft. We were warned by Hostel Sunny Days that there are many tricks thieves play in Calama, including dressing as a bus attendant so they can get at your bags. While we were stopped in Calama, waiting for our connecting bus to San Pedro, one of the passengers had his bag stolen from inside the bus. He had left it there to go pick up his larger bag and when he got back it was gone. Always be careful on buses and at bus stations and never leave your things, but be especially careful in Calama.

San Pedro Rainbow Valley 1

Arriving in San Pedro

And finally, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. The entire week we were there, I think I saw one taxi. The bus station is not far from most of the hostels, so you can plan to walk. The people of San Pedro are notoriously friendly. We were stopped by no less than three people asking if they could give us directions (and indeed, they were all helpful.)

And then we collapsed. Between the Jean Claude Van Damme, the check point, and Calama, we had about 2 hours of sleep. Luckily the beds at Backpacker’s San Pedro were comfortable! Photo galleries of our amazing six days there coming soon.

Curious what to do when you arrive in San Pedro? Check out pics from our 4 day trips:

Ancient Petroglyphs and Rainbow Valley

Red Rocks and the High Lagoons

Cathedrals of Salt

Valley of the Moon

Arequipa: Highlights from Peru’s 2nd Largest City

Arequipa: Highlights from Peru’s 2nd Largest City

We arrived in Arequipa off an overnight bus from Cuzco. The streets were abuzz as people prepared for the weekend long celebration of Arequipa Day, the 475th anniversary of the city. As the afternoon turned into night, comedic dancers drew large crowds in the main square. Pop-up restaurants appeared throughout the streets – long tables where people could get tea and chicken. Parades of varying sizes marched in different directions. We made a loop through the main area, arriving back at our hostel to find a large parade rolling down the street. We went up to the roof and watched the dance troops and bands play from above. Arequipa started our stay with a bang.

In Lima, we got our traveling feet wet. In Cuzco, we explored Peruvian culture and did the tourist thing. In Arequipa, our third, and final stop in Peru, we took it easy and settled into the long term travel life.

roof deck in arequipa misti volcanoe

Arequipa turned out to be the perfect place to slow down, rest up, and get back on budget after Machu Picchu. As the second largest city in Peru, it boasts many traveler desires (markets, restaurants, museums, nightlife) but is also steeped in Peruvian culture. Everything we needed was walkable from our hostel, including the beautiful Plaza des Armas (the main square), and the only taxi we had to take was to and from the bus station.

Where We Stayed El Albergue Espanol

Probably the cheapest hostel in the city, this place only cost us $13 a night for a double room. The roof deck/kitchen had a view of El Misti the Volcano that couldn’t be beat, and we met many other travelers on a budget with stories of their own.

 

How Long We Stayed 8 nights

 

What We Ate Potatoes, veggies, and olives from the local market, Fresh Fruit Juice, Sandwiches from La Lucha (a Peruvian sandwich chain)

 

What We Spent $72/day – which includes the guided   tour to Colca Canyon, and buying a hair dryer

*Without the trip and hair dryer it would have been $61/day

 

Highlights from Arequipa:

Cooking from the Local Market

Arequipa Food

One of the tenets of long term budget travel is that you need to cook for yourself. Between Lima and Cuzco, we had only ventured into sandwich making (peanut butter and jelly) and had not yet tried to cook a full meal.

The enormous local market located three blocks from our hostel was intimidating at first. We went there three times just to look around before buying anything. Will was really excited about the variety of potatoes, so we decided to make some sort of vegetable and potato stirfry with cheese. We also bought a bag of fresh olives (there was a whole olive aisle!) and a bottle of Peruvian wine. You can see most of our items here:

Arequipa Food 01

We spent about 20 soles on the food ($6.10) and 14 soles on the wine ($4.27). It was a delicious feast envied by other hostel guests sharing the kitchen.

 

Juanita, the Ice Maiden*

I’m sure we have all heard about a number of ice people found over the years – usually on a mountain, astonishingly preserved. I always found these stories fascinating, but I never thought I’d get to see an ice person in the (well preserved) flesh!

Juanita, as she is called, was discovered on one of the volcanos near Arequipa in 1995. A neighboring volcano had begun to erupt, melting the ice that encapsulated her. She had been a human sacrifice during the Incan Empire. There are a number of other sacrificed children that have been found on other volcanos and mountains in the area. The museum that holds Juanita is dedicated to explaining as much as we know about how these human sacrifices occurred, as well as the science behind why the bodies were so well preserved. The museum was a double whammy of ancient history and science. Plus you actually get to see Juanita!

 

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon 10

I won’t go into too much detail because the pictures speak for themselves here. I still can’t believe I accomplished this hike. The walk down was hard on the feet, but not that bad. We hiked down over 6km, zigzagging back and forth so it wasn’t that steep. On the way up we only hiked 4.5km – a much steeper climb. Basically, I almost planted myself on a rock and refused to go on. My legs felt like jello, the altitude was getting to me, and this was all before breakfast. I climbed very slowly – barely faster than the Italian girl with the bum knee who was essentially using her walking sticks as crutches. Three times, we were passed by donkeys. Three times, I had to tell myself I’d regret getting on one of them. We finally made it to the top, and the instant coffee and eggs they served us never tasted so good. I’m glad I pulled myself out of the second deepest canyon in the world, and I’m glad they took us to the hot springs for some healing waters on the way home.

Arequipa is not one of the country’s more talked about cities, but it has been one of my favorites so far. Between seeing the annual celebration and enjoying the slower pace and beautiful weather, Arequipa was the perfect capstone to our time in Peru.

Ciao,

Elizabeth

*Image from www.pic2fly.com

Machu Picchu Without a Tour: Logistics and Highlights

Machu Picchu Without a Tour: Logistics and Highlights

It’s no wonder Machu Picchu was only rediscovered about a century ago – it’s not easy to get to.   We did the trip in 5 days and that seemed fast. Getting to the Incan city involves arriving in Cuzco (we did it by bus, but you can also fly), getting to the town of Aguas Caliente (we took a 4 hour train), getting from Aguas Caliente up to Machu Picchu (we took the 30 minute bus), and then the whole thing in reverse to get back.

And that’s only one way to do it. Some people hike the Incan Trail (a 4 day excursion) or stop in the Sacred Valley on their way from Cuzco. You can also skip the 30 minute bus ride and hike up to Machu Picchu from the town. These are not the only choices. Options and combinations abound!

Some people hire a tour company to put together portions or all of this trip. Knowing this would be one of our most expensive excursions, Will and I decided to do Machu Picchu without a tour and put together the whole thing ourselves. Here’s what we booked.

Our Trip Breakdown:

Item US$ Total Tips
Lima to Cuzco Bus Ticket

$63 x 2 tickets

$126

We did an overnight bus. You can read about it here.
   
VIP House Hostel (Cuzco) $21.72 x 3 nights $65.16 Right across from a supermarket – a life saver!
   
Peru Rail Train Tickets $154 x 2 round trip tickets $308 Expensive, but a high class affair.   Go to the bathroom before you board – it’s too bumpy to use the onboard facilities.
   
Ecopackers Hostel (Aguas Caliente) $29.53 $29.53 4 person dorm was perfect for 1 night.
   
Bus ticket to Machu Picchu from Aguas Caliente $24 x 2 tickets $48 You can buy them day before at the bus station starting at 2pm. Be in line by 4:30am to get on the 5:30am bus if that’s your plan!
   
Machu Picchu Tickets w/ La Montana $45.58 x 2 tickets $91.16 Make sure you print your tickets! The extra hikes sell out early.
   
“Machu Picchu: The History and Mystery of the Incan City”Edited by Harasta & River $0 with Kindle Unlimited $0 If you go without a tour, purchase some sort of guidebook so you know what you’re looking at.
   
Cuzco to Arequipa Bus Ticket $42 x 2 tickets $84
 
Taxis to and from Bus Station: $6Train Station: $14 $20
 
Total: $771.85**

 

**We spent another $130 on food in Cuzco and Aguas Caliente combined. We ate out for dinner but made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Breakfast was included in both our hostel stays.

 

Highlights:

Trying New Foods in Cuzco

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Coca Tea: Made from coca leaf, this tea is used to calm altitude sickness – which we greatly appreciated! Our hostel offered an endless supply in the form of loose leaves and hot water.

Alpaca: We paused for a second when the filets came out medium rare, but I’m so glad we threw caution to the wind, because it was tender and delicious. Better than elk (Will tried it at Yellowstone).

Quinoa: Unlike any quinoa we had tried before! Creamy, cheesy, with potatoes. I can’t wait to figure out how to make this at home.

Cuy (Guinea Pig): Our guinea pig arrived with an orange pepper in its mouth, perched on top of a larger, stuffed pepper. After setting the platter down, the waiter crowned it with a little vegetable hat and offered to take our picture. The guinea pig was then returned to the kitchen to be quartered for sharing. It tasted a lot like rabbit, unsurprisingly. This traditional Peruvian food is obviously quite celebrated – we saw it depicted in several Peruvian churches on the table at The Last Supper.

The Vistas in Aguas Caliente

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Aguas Caliente is lost in time – a tiny city nestled between rainforest covered Andean peaks. The streets are connected by bridges, and trains (the town’s only connection to the outside world) run through the center. Our hostel had a rooftop bar that felt perched in paradise. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

Seeing the Ruins (almost) Alone

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What’s better than gallivanting around cloud-ringed ruins by yourself as the sun comes up? You feel like the original explorers, discovering something ancient and mysterious. You get to have one on one encounters with the resident llamas. You get to see the views without all those people in the way. We had to take the first bus to get up there in time for this experience– which meant a 3:45am alarm. We also bypassed the ruins near the entry gate, where many tour groups get held up, and made a beeline for deeper locations. Being at Machu Picchu almost alone? Worth every effort.

Summiting an Andean Peak (La Montana)

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When I read the description, it said that the climb up Machu Picchu Mountain (La Montana) was a moderately challenging hike on a wide path, following an old Incan road. Well, Incan’s didn’t really build roads as much as staircases. This hike was a 2 hour staircase up a mountain.

I didn’t consult Will when I booked our Machu Picchu tickets with the La Montana hike included. I told him it was the easiest hike available (which I believe it is…yikes.) About half way through he turned to me, exhausted, and asked, “Are we SUMMITING this mountain?” Luckily, he was excited to do it.

Worth it. From multiple points along the way, we saw Machu Picchu from above, in addition to the surrounding landscape. Not to mention the accomplishment of summiting a mountain in the Andes! I successfully didn’t throw up.

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More pictures coming this week!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

The Perfect Pack: What’s in Our Bags for the Next 10-Months

The Perfect Pack: What’s in Our Bags for the Next 10-Months

I began research on what to pack for our around the world trip almost a year before the trip began.  I wanted to create the ultimate efficient travel wardrobe – smart, versatile, compact.  I wanted to carry the perfect combination of technology items to maximize convenience and minimize bulk.  Finally, I wanted it all to fit into a reasonable sized backpack.  I was on a mission to achieve The Perfect Pack.

The tricky thing about this ambitious goal is that you don’t really know exactly what works best for you until you are on the road.  In the past 4 weeks, I’ve already changed out some of my toiletries and replaced several clothing items.  I expect this evolution will continue, so I will refrain from reviewing any items or packing strategies now.  This post merely chronicles my first attempt at The Perfect Pack, and I will certainly update you on it’s effectiveness as the trip progresses.

What you can find in this post:

1. Photos and lists of our packed items

2. A video of how I’m packing my bag

3. A list of websites I used to research The Perfect Pack

 

Her Bag: Deuter 60L Women’s

What to bring traveling

  • 5 t-shirts, one of them dressier
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 long sleeve shirt
  • 1 button down shirt
  • 1 light weight sweater
  • 1 sweatshirt

What to pack for a round the world trip

  • 2 dresses
  • 1 long skirt (converts to a dress)
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 pair of convertible outdoor pants
  • 1 pair of leggings (for under dresses, sleeping, and working out)
  • 1 pair of shorts (for over the bathing suit, sleeping, and working out)
  • 1 bathing suit

shoes for a round the world trip

  • 1 pair of Tieks (for looking more professional when we visit schools)
  • 1 pair of flipflops (double as shower shoes)
  • 1 pair of Chacos
  • 1 pair of Salamon hiking shoes

what to bring traveling

  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 LL Bean winter jacket (folds into its own pocket)
  • 1 water bottle
  • 1 sleeping bag with compression sack

toiletries to bring traveling

  • moisturizer
  • sunscreen for face (I have sensitive skin)
  • hair elastics & bobby pins
  • solid shampoo and conditioner
  • hair clip
  • dry shampoo
  • 2 diva cups
  • bar of soap
  • q-tips
  • contacts & solution
  • dry brushing mit
  • emery board
  • razor
  • scissors
  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste
  • floss
  • regular sunscreen
  • deodorant & a deodorant crystal (I prefer the crystal, but it requires water, so I have a backup)
  • make up

what to pack for travel

  • travel towel
  • bandana (mosquito repellant)
  • malaria pills
  • diarrhea kit
  • year’s supply of contacts & birth control
  • hat
  • two pairs gym socks, 1 pair wool socks
  • underwear (2 bras, 1 strapless bra, 1 sports bra, 10 pairs underwear)
  • Not pictured: small stash of Advil, Zantac, bug spray, tissues

what technology to bring traveling rtw

  • Surface 2, keyboard, charger
  • screen cleaner and wipe
  • wireless mouse
  • smartphone & charger
  • headphones
  • external hard drive
  • water purifying wand
  • mini SD card
  • universal adapter
  • tablet sleeve

What to pack for extended travel

  • Nikon D40 & case
  • Timbuktu day bag
  • wallet
  • hairbrush
  • money belt (for when we are in transit)
  • passport
  • eyeglasses (not pictured: sunglasses)
  • notebook & pen
  • small, foldable backpack (for day trips or when we are in transit and checking our big bags)

His Bag: Deuter 65L Men’s

Will has many of the same items that I do – same technology,  toiletries (minus the female only items), and gear like a water bottle, sleeping bag, and meds – so they are not re-pictured here.  I’m just listing his clothes and items not already pictured.

Clothes for a round the world trip

  • 1 undershirt
  • 4 t-shirts
  • 1 button down t-shirt
  • 3 button down shirts
  • 1 button down, vented hiking shirt (Ex-efficio)

What clothes to bring traveling

  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 winter jacket
  • 2 khaki pants
  • 1 convertible hiking pants
  • 1 shorts
  • 1 bathing suit
  • Not pictured: 3 pairs socks, 10 pairs underwear

What I need for a round the world trip

  • 1 Chacos
  • 1 Teva hiking shoes
  • 1 camel-skin satchel
  • 1 hat
  • Buff bandana (I have one too)
  • Spanish grammar book
  • notebooks & pen
  • belt
  • Martin Backpacker travel guitar

How all this fits into our bags…

The Perfect Pack Research Resources

Travel Fashion Girl Packing Lists

The Art of Simple Travel

Half the Clothes

Her Packing List

A Little Adrift

Adventurous Kate’s Travel Resources (scroll to Travel Gear)

 

 

Bon Voyage Baton Rouge

Bon Voyage Baton Rouge

It’s been two weeks since Elizabeth and I resigned from our jobs and we’re just becoming accustomed to the freedom that we find in the mornings. After two weeks away from work, we’re normally preparing ourselves for a return to responsibility. But not this time. We still have nearly a year’s worth of adventure in front of us. 

It’s been three years since we first agreed that traveling the world would be a major life goal of ours and that we’d try to pull it off before we had a family. For the first couple years, we assumed that this trip would be a disruptive force in our lives. It would clearly decimate our savings. Our careers would have to be put on hold. The planning and logistics alone would be an enormous time commitment. And then there were the concerns about basic safety and a fear that all the romance of a trip like this could quickly turn to feelings of isolation and homesickness.

But over the past few months we’ve seen these potential disruptions turn to assets. Far from putting our careers on hold, this trip has forced us to think deeply about exactly what we want to be doing. It has spurred us to act strategically in terms of what we want to accomplish before we leave both personally and professionally. Having a specific departure date has created a sense of urgency around all of those things that can normally find themselves delayed for years. Everything from people to have over for dinner, to researching graduate programs, to publishing a novel. Our return date has also become a source of excitement since it’s forced us to think more deliberately about the next 3-5 years than we probably would have done otherwise. Overall, the trip has brought structure to an otherwise dangerously fluid point in our lives. Even the savings has become a blessing as we’ve become accustomed to living on about 75% of what we make, a habit we plan to return to when the trip is over.

 

DSC_0014

 

Now the wheels are in motion. In a week, we’ll hand over the keys to our house, and two days later we’ll be standing in Yellowstone National Park about to cut our way across the American west. Six weeks later, we’ll arrive in Peru. The worries and uncertainty of a few years ago have yielded to a rising sense that we really do have what it takes to pull this off. There’s so much to look forward to, it stretches our minds to think about it; from an abandoned imperial city in Peru, to beaches, penguins, elephants, and rhinos, the vast plains of Africa and the temples of India, go parlors in China, cathedrals, hummus on the Mediterranean, and swimming in the waters of Zanzibar. We’ll join ranks with a global community of travelers and always make a point to share what we discover with all of you in this blog.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the year ahead is how our trip will allow us to indulge in our curiosity about education. One thing I’ve learned from previous travels is that having an excuse to talk with locals about something they care about can really take a trip to the next level. Elizabeth and I have each worked in education for about a decade but we’ve recently begun to realize how limited our perspective is by the norms of education in the United States. As we visit schools and talk with teachers, students, and administrators we hope to broaden our understanding of what is possible in education as well as  get a window into the places we visit that is far more telling than the guided tours and attractions that we would normally be limited to. For more on that angle of our trip, check out a later post.

Now, it’s approaching noon and there are preparations to be tended to. This year is bound to be a wild ride. We hope you’ll hang in there with us.

Cheers,

Will & Elizabeth

Where We’re Headed

Where We’re Headed

Image created by Google Maps on indie.bootsnall.com

Welcome to Letters from Elsewhere.  Just a few days ago Will and I quit our jobs to travel round the world for eleven months – a plan that has been years in the making and whose reality is just sinking in!  We are still here in Baton Rouge for the next several weeks, finalizing details and preparing for the adventure.  We then embark on a six week “goodbye tour” which includes an excursion to Yellowstone National Park and a road trip through the northeast.  On August 4th, we fly to Lima and our international trip to explore the world and visit schools around the globe begins.  Check out our (tentative) round the world itinerary below.

 

Yellowstone Excursion/USA Road Trip: 6 weeks

Yellowstone, WY, San Francisco, CA, New Orleans, LA, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, PA, Philadelphia, PA, New York, NY, Wolfeboro, NH, Boston, MA

 

International Itinerary!

South America: 7 weeks

Peru (Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu), Chile (Santiago, etc.), Argentina (Buenos Aires, etc.)

Africa: 10 weeks

South Africa (Cape Town, potentially Johannesburg), Botswana, Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls), Malawi, Tanzania (Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar?!)

Europe: 7 weeks

Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey (Istanbul)

India: 4 weeks

Southeast Asia: 4 weeks

Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

China: 4 weeks

North America: 3 weeks+

Vancouver to San Diego and everything in between!

 

Why are we doing this?  How are we doing this?  What will we learn along the way?  All these questions will be answered on this blog.  We are so happy you visited us and please stay tuned!