Saturday, September 22, 2012

Puedo ver lo?

We have made it to Bolivia, and so far as not been much better than Peru. With the exception of seeing D, K and C in Cusco (which was fantastic, we realized we hadn't had a conversation with anyone besides each other since Colombia), we didn't like much about Peru. Since Cusco was a big tourist area, I was even able to get a salad. The only thing they seem to eat in Peru is really salty roasted Chicken and french fries. I told A that I'm on a strict diet of french fries, chicken, coke and white rice. Sometimes they'll put a single slice of tomato on the side.

Cell Phone Pic of Machu Picchu, Peru (better ones to come)

We even went to see Machu Picchu (will post more photos from my camera later), which while beautiful is very expensive to get there and all of the tourist stuff around is unimaginably irritating. First of all, there is no direct road to the town of agua calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu), so you must take a very expensive train to get there. On the train they will play music at ear splitting levels and try and get you to buy their llama sweaters and such (this is after paying $55+ one way per person). Then the town of Agua Calientes is a terrible tourist trap (since you pretty much need to stay over night there to see Machu Picchu). The food is expensive and horrible, there is almost no where to walk or go. The hot springs are filthy and overrun with drunk people. If I were to direct other people doing this, I'd suggest spending the $300 dollars for the night and staying at the lodge right at Machu Picchu, this way you avoid Agua Calientes all together and can get to Machu Picchu first thing. Machu Picchu is provably the most breathtaking ruins (because it is on top of a mountain set in the middle of nowhere) in terms of location, but was not as interesting to us as Copan Ruins (Honduras). 

One thing we haven't figured out is older Peruvian (and Bolivian) women from the Mountains where a traditional outfit which includes a felt bowler (or top or other strange style) hat. 

City Street, Peru

As per the title of this post: In the United States, I have never asked to see a hotel room before staying there. I guess you could, but there is some expectation of quality and services based on the price. In Central and South America, that is not the case. It is definitely necessary to see the room before choosing to stay there. This is also why we don't book hotels in advance. Things we typically ask about before even seeing the room: parking, wifi, hot shower (or AC depending on climate), toilet seat, and towels. 

Parking: Sometimes they say they have parking, but it is blocks away in a dirt lot that our little car cannot get up, or they want the keys so they can do some car shuffles (we don't give anyone the keys to the car), or it is not actually in a secure lot, etc. Having access to the car right on the hotel site is useful for many reasons. 

WIFI: They will say they have WIFI, but it is only in the lobby, unfathomably slow or is not actually theirs.

Hot Shower: This is the big one, almost every place tells you they have hot showers, some of them look like the picture below (note these type of showers will shock you if you put your hand too close).  We have now learned to turn the shower on and make sure, mostly they will say "oh it takes a few minutes to heat up." While this is sometimes true, it is not true when it's one of the electric shower heads. Also important: pressure. You will almost never find American shower pressure, but you need to make sure the shower is more than a small drip. Now hot showers have only become a problem since the Southern part of Colombia, where is became cold. In Cusco, it was so cold people where enormous jackets at night.

Terrifying Electric Shower Heads

Air Conditioning: This no longer applies since it is freezing out (and no one has heat here, not even fancy hotels), but even places that appeared to have air conditioners, sometimes those air conditioners just blew hot air. 

Toilet Seat: You will almost never find a toilet seat in a public restroom (even if you are paying for said restroom) anywhere in South America. I'm not really sure why. They don't have squatters like in China, but they seem to be fine without a toilet seat. This is important to check in hotels. Even some nicer hotels don't have them, I cannot understand why. We have even considered buying one to carry with us. 

Towels: Now in hotels, since there are two of us, we are paying for a "matrimonial" room. This means there is one larger bed for two people. This implies two people are staying. Many places will try to only give you one towel, you seem to always have to ask for a second. In Aguas Calientes, they even went as far as to try to charge us for a second towel. Also, the towels are tiny and often smell funny.

So those are all the things we check, other annoying things about bathrooms in Central/South America:

Cleanliness: They range from filthy to clean-ish. You will always find hair all over, even in nicer places. There will often be standing pools of water on the floor. 

Shower Curtain: For some reason they don't seem to mind when water gets all over the bathroom floors. Many places will not have shower curtains and when they do, sometimes they will not be long enough or cover the whole area. There is almost never a lip dividing the shower either, so either way the whole bathroom is wet. 

Shower Drains: Shower drains almost never drain, leaving you standing in a pool of filthy water and hair (see cleanliness). This also means even if there is a dividing lip between the shower and  the rest of the bathroom, it will overflow getting water everywhere. 

Bath Mats and Hand Towels: I'm not sure we've seen these since Mexico. Since the entire bathroom is covered in water anyway, why bother?

More about Bolivia and it's corrupt Policia and Aduana soon!

Friday, September 14, 2012


Peru has been strange so far and certainly has not been our favorite country. It turns out it is many thousands of kilometers of desert along the coast, sand seems to blow up from the ocean and cover everything. These deserts are then covered with shanty towns. In the northern part of Peru, you could drive for 100km without seeing anything. To make it even stranger, the roads are in perfect condition, and you will occasionally come across a toll both, which will not be excepting tolls in the Southern direction. We didn't believe they collected tolls until we had to pay one closer to Lima.

Playa Tortuga, Peru

It doesn't help that it is winter here, so the beach towns are all closed up. The other night we were driving on the highway and it got dark and it took forever to find somewhere to stay. There were hundreds of little beach towns, but they seemed all boarded up and some only consisted of fancy condominiums. We finally pulled off to one of the towns that had a paved road, there were a few hostals (which is Spanish means small hotel, not somewhere with bunk beds and guys with dreds). A went into one to ask about it, there was only a child there, he had to run and call his brother to see how much to charge. I guess this should have been our first sign, but we were desperate for somewhere to stay and since it's winter, we were guessing it's just the off season. When we went up the stairs, we were greeted with this little scene:

Hostal, Cerro Azul, Peru

Everything seemed fine though, except until the next morning when we tried to leave and they had LOCKED US IN. The woman who I guess was overseeing the place decided to go run some errands and locked the front door. She did not bother to tell us she was going to do this. It was one of those locks that would be supper illegal in the US, that you need a key from both sides. We spent a while going through the whole place looking for keys, eventually she returned, but we were about five minutes from smashing the glass to exit. I can't imagine what was going through her head when she did that, but I can't say this made us enjoy peru any more than we already did. 

Drive to Caraz, Peru

We did have one enjoyable hike, up in the mountains. We wanted to do a hike near Huraz called the Santa Cruz trek. It is 4 days/3 nights and was supposed to be totally safe and doable without a guide. After it took us two days of trying to get there, we decided to just do one day. I will post pictures of that when I get a chance to upload from my camera. Probably the worst part of the hike (other than being very steep uphill) was discovering how bad sand flies bite (and later discovering you can get a horrible disease from them). I'm usually not too bothered by misquitos and such, but right now I feel like I'm gonna itch my legs off, it's horrible. 

Drive to Caraz, Peru

Another strange thing about Peru is the Chinese influence, we had noticed a lot of people look vaguely Chinese and the supermarkets had a Chinese produce section, but we really noticed it yesterday when we stopped at a small restaurant off the highway and they served us chicken in a star anise sauce with pickled radishes. Turns out in the 1850's Peru was importing Chinese laborers as essentially slaves. Reading more on it, seems like different people estimate it differently, but at least 5% of the population has some Chinese origins.

We are very excited to make it to Cusco, to see A's friends as well as D (oh and maccu picchu and stuff).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Colombia and Ecuador

I've had a pretty sketchy internet connection these last few days, so today I finally got around to uploading some photos. Album here (again if you don't use g+, email me and I can send you the link).

Scene from our beautiful drive through Ecuador

First of all, we met our first set of other people doing this trip! S & E are from Germany. They shipped their car from Germany to Halifax and have been on the road 17 months! They had a much more legit setup than us, with a pop-up tent on their car (photo below). They thought we were absolutely crazy for doing this trip in 4 months, maybe we are, but it still feels like we've been away from home for a long time. They are essentially going until money runs out, which I think is a common theme (from blogs I've read) of people dong this trip. I cannot imagine living on top of a car for two years, but I guess we are missing out on a lot of stuff by going so quickly.

S & E's Car. What ours should look like if we were serious

We are currently in Catacocha, Ecuador (very close to the Peruvian boarder). We have been enjoying Ecuador, the scenery is beautiful and everything has been super cheap. We had originally wanted to go to the Galapagos, but after looking at timing and cost, it looked like it was too much to include in this trip. That being the case, we have been staying on the mountainous side of Ecuador, which has been cold (which was a  welcomed change after a long hot week in Cartagena, Colombia). We have spent the night sleeping in the crater of a(n inactive) volcano, a water park, and in the beautiful town of Banos, that has natural hot springs. I forgot to mention that gas is RIDICULOUSLY cheap in Ecuador, $1.50/gallon. Ecuador also uses USD, which makes everything easier. The roads for the most part have been super well maintained and tolls are very low. Food is also cheap and better (in my opinion) than Colombia. In Colombia, every meal seems to come with: a soup, at least 4 starches (rice, beans, plantains, yuca, pasta?, etc), a "salad" which is sometimes sweet and sometimes mayonnaise-y and a sugary beverage. The soup is usually the best thing. They seem to love sugary drinks. The plus side is that everyone makes fresh fruit juice, so you can get strange tropical juices almost anywhere for very cheap.

Pululahua Volcano, Ecuador

Once we got the car in Colombia, we were behind on schedule (of getting down to Buenos Aires by beginning of October to meet my parents), so we decided to start doing some long driving days. We had originally planned to spend a few days in Bogata, but we took the western route to Medellin first. It turns out Medellin and Bogata are about 9 hours apart by car, because they are on two separate mountain ranges. Also, having the car in large cities is almost always a pain. When we arrived in Medellin we had marked a bunch of hotels in one area we wanted to stay at, when we got to that neighborhood it was pretty sketchy (prostitution is legal in Colombia, so I think it makes sketchy areas seem even sketchier) so we ended up driving around for a few hours looking for a place to stay. We did not really want to repeat this in an even larger, more crowded city. We hope to go back sometime soon, though.

Alligator Cast, Medellin, Colombia

Otherwise, we really liked Medellin, it seems like a city you could actually live in. There is a subway line and a bunch of totally reasonable residential neighborhoods. We visited the modern art museum, the zoo, the botanical garden (this is a strong word, it was more like central park with some tropical plants, very pretty though), and the exploratiorium. It was nice to be away from the car seeing things. After leaving Medellin, we spent a few hours twisting and turning through the beautiful mountains of Colombia. Probably one of the worst parts of driving in Colombia is the expensive tolls, every 100km (or sometimes less), you pay a toll somewhere between 3 and 5 dollars. This adds up quick, as well as gas being ~5 dollars/gallon.

Cartagena, Colombia

Today we are heading to Peru, we are trying to catch A's friends who are going to be doing Machu Picchu on the 19th! We are also very excited to do some more hiking and camping in Peru.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Shipping Across the Darien Gap Colombia

Warning: This is another post about logistics. This will not be interesting to you unless you are doing this trip as well. This is the third in the series, start with the summary and then read Panama.

We arrived in Cartagena on Thursday August 23rd, our boat with the container was supposed to leave the 21st, arrive the 22nd, so perfect, right? Except, when we called Seaboard and Barwil they told us the boat wasn't arriving til Saturday. They of course never thought to call and tell us this. Luckily we could track the boat online. We wanted to start the process as soon as possible, but the boat did not start moving til Friday afternoon. We called Seaboard and they are not open on the weekend, so we had to wait til Monday to get the Bill of Lading from them (which is necessary to start the car import process). So not only did their boat leave almost a week late and they didn't inform us, they also were not very helpful in the process and made us wait in Cartagena until the next week.

Note: Lots of people seem to hire an agent for this process, we did not. It costs about $175 dollars to do so.  Most people in the offices speak no English, so if you don't speak Spanish, this process could be very difficult. People tend to be friendly and helpful, so if you are confused, ask someone.

To start the process you must get the Bill of Lading. For us (since we shipped with Seaboard Marine) this meant going to the Muelles de Bosque port at 8am. The Seaboard office is to the left of the entrance (note you don't need to go into the port to do this, they have a window outside). They had it mostly ready when we got there. We had heard from others that if you got all your paperwork done before 1030am, you could get your car the same day. We rushed over to the Manga port where the DIAN (Aduana) is to get our car import form and schedule our inspection. Note that you need to go to the North side of the port (the taxi drives seem to know where the DIAN office is). When we got there the woman took our paperwork (which involves a copy of your passport, passport stamp, title, cancellation form from Panama, and bill of lading), but informed us we couldn't get our car inspected til the next day at 8am. It was only 9am at this point, but she said no way, even after much arguing. At this point, there was nothing to do except spend another hot day in Cartagena.

The next day at about quarter to 8, we showed up at the Muelles de Bosque port again. This step involves getting someone to open your container and getting an invoice. This happens at the document office. You need to surrender your passport at the gate to go in. When we went to the desk, the woman seemed confused by our Bill of Lading and asked if Seaboard marine had put other things in our container??? This was not the case. BUT, Seaboard Marine did screw us a third time, they had not informed the port that our container needed to be moved, so it was not in fact in the inspection area. This could not actually be done til 2pm, since it had not been scheduled the day before. At this point, it turned out the magical inspector (who is supposed to be at the Muelles de Bosque port from 8-2) had already left, it was only 930am. They were also confused at the port who was supposed to pay for the unstuffing of our container. Luckily, we had a detailed receipt from Barwil that we showed them, at that point they were able to send an invoice to Seaboard Marine, but this took almost three hours to go through their system.

There was a woman that worked in the Muelles de Bosque office named Andrea, who spoke English really well and helped us a lot. She was able to call the inspector and get him to agree to come back at 2pm. At this point there was a lot of waiting around. The port basically closes from 12-2pm for lunch. We were able to get our container moved and unstuffed before 2pm as well as getting the invoice needed for port fees (which you pay once your car is inspected). This probably could not have happened in one day without Andrea's help.

Once we were able to get the invoice and into the port, they had already opened our container. Apparently this is pretty common, no inspector or anything (so much for all the photos of the customs seal and such). The car was alright, but they insisted on driving it out of the container and then basically told us to get lost. We drove the car back over to the document office (or rather the area in the fenced off port closest to the document office) to wait for the inspector. We waited and asked everyone and waited some more. Finally at around 330 we found Andrea again. She was able to call the inspector and he agreed we could take some photos of the car and bring it to him at Manga (we had to suggest this many times, they did not offer). We snapped some photos (after getting yelled at by the guard and then getting permission) and got back in a taxi to Manga. We found the inspector and he signed our papers after looking at just two of the many photos of the car and the VIN. He gave us our stapled paperwork that we had given to the woman in the Magna office the day before, which now included permission to enter Colombia with our car! We got into another taxi and headed back to Muelles de Bosque to pay our invoice and get the exit permission from the port. This was all pretty quick. We rolled out of the port around 5pm (remember to pick up your passport and return your badge).

All in all, it would have been easier to ship with someone that shipped to Magna, to avoid the back and forth. We also could have done the whole process in one day, since the inspector never actually went to see our car in Muelles de Bosque. This was all annoying, but after almost two weeks, we were very happy to have our car back and get out of Cartagena. I could not say I would recommend using Seaboard Marine, with all the trouble we had with them. Although, I am not sure there is a better option.