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Friday, August 31, 2012

South America Travel Diary: Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

This travelogue is continued from the previous post
 
Rio is definitely one of the most popular travel destinations these days. So we would not go all the way to South America and not spend time in Rio! I especially wanted to visit this city after I watched the animated movie "Rio" where it was shown so beautifully! Little did we know that it would turn out to be insanely expensive and not live up to our expectations.. Heck.. I didn't even know that it is pronouced as 'Rio de haneiro' and not 'Janeiro' till I went there!  That's some intro to Portuguese for you :)
 
After spending 3 days in rainy Santiago de Chile, we were happy to catch the flight to Rio. It was a long flight (considering the countries are adjacent) to Rio...about 8 hours with a short stop over in Sao Paulo. I was already getting claustrophobic getting anywhere close to an airplane, with flying almost once every 3 days...South America is one gigantic continent! It will probably take you 3 full months to visit just the main cities all over the continent..
 
We spent 4 nights in Rio and I felt that was good enough to see the main attractions. There isn't much to do there if you go in the non-carnival season. If you are there for the carnival then its a different story!
 
Where to stay?
I had heard and read about Rio being a very high crime rate city and that it isn't very safe for tourists and locals equally. So we were very apprehensive of booking just any hotel. We were warned of staying in Copacabana as its supposed to be not too safe in the nights. So we restricted our stay in the upmarket areas like Ipanema/Leblon/Lagoa though they are friggin expensive. The cheapest hotel you may find in non peak season will cost 200USD for a Double bedroom. Anyway we chose the Ipanema Inn which was a block away from the Ipanema beach. Was happy with the service but the hotel was too old and rustic with very basic amenities and we were paying through our nose!
 
 
Things to do
Of course you would not miss 'Christ the Redeemer' whether or not it is worth seeing! It is definitely over-hyped and when I went all the way up and stood near the statue, I was dumbstruck as I was trying to figure out one reason why it was chosen as a new wonder of the world!! Personally, I feel there is nothing great about the statue (no offense meant, to anyone!). The view from the top of the Corcovado mountain (which is where the Redeemer statue is) is absolutely breathtaking. You reach there in a cogwheel train through the Tijuaca Rainforest, where you can choose to trek as well. You definitely have to go there for the view and not to see the statue. So have your expectations set right else you will be disappointed like I was..
 
 
 
Sugar Loaf mountain is another thing you might want to see. Take a cable car to reach on top of the mountain from where you get a lovely view of the copacabana beach and the city of Rio. You can also see the Christ on top of Corcovado, from this mountain top.
 
Sugar Loaf Mountain
 
 
We booked  a day tour through Viator and did Sugar Loaf + Corcovada on the same day as we did not want to venture out alone for safety sake. At the end of the day we realized that the total time spent at the venue was just about 1.5 to 2 hours and remaining 5hrs was wasted in picking up & dropping people and having lunch and what not! So I highly recommend doing it by yourself, and not wasting time & money on any travel companies...Wish someone was there to tell us that 'before' we went! Lessons learnt through experience!
 
 
View of Copacabana beach from top of sugar loaf
 
 
We also did the Sepatipa Bay cruise for another full day to celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary! It was a nice chilled out, lazy day on the cruise with not much activity. It's good if you love the waters and wanna lie down at the beach and get some sun. Well, we did that at the Ipanema beach as well, the next day :)
 
Sunset from top of Corcovado mountain
 
 
Samba Dance is another attraction. The most popular one is the Plataforma Samba show which happens in the night 9pm to midnight and is combined with dinner. It's crazy but you should definitely watch it for entertainment!
 
Plataforma Samba Show


Food
Be prepared to spend a lot on food as restaurants are very expensive too. If you are a non-vegetarian then you have no problems in finding some amazing cuisines out there but if you are a veggie, like me then your options are *very* limited. Survive on pizzas/pastas/salads as long as you are there! But we did find a lovely Thai Restaurant called "Nam Thai" in Leblon, which surprisingly was EXTREMELY GOOD! I highly recommend it.
 
Drink
And while you are in Brazil, try their national alcoholic drink Cachaca (pronounced as Ka-sha-sa), which is a cocktail made from fresh sugarcane juice (not molasses) distilled & fermented. Contains about 38% to 48% alcohol. And Brazil's national cocktail is Caipirinha which is made from Cachaca and Lime. Extremely strong and it goes straight into your head with the first sip! You cannot go there and not try this :) And make sure you buy some at the duty free as well to carry back home ;-)

 
Shopping:
I cannot complete this travelogue without talking about shopping! Rio is a shopper's paradise, especially for a woman, as you will find amazing jewellery, accessories, clothes etc at throw away prices...and very unique designs! It's also a crystal lover's paradise. Huge raw crystal clusters, geodes, caves are available on the road side market for dead cheap prices! Just carrying it back home is a problem due to the weight. Else I would have bought lots more. You should definitely visit the Sunday Hippie Fair at Ipanema and also the daily night market at Copacabana if you love to shop... 
 
 
 
 
And last but not the least, learn some basic portuguese or carry a dictionary or a phrase book to translate the basic words so that you can get around, if you are on your own. Even airports do not announce any instructions in English. So best advice - follow the crowd ;)

 
 
 Disclaimer: Do not reproduce this post or the photos without giving due credits or linking back to this post
 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

South America Travel Diary: Chile

None of our vacations can be complete without a Wine Tour & Tasting!!! So after visiting the amazingly beautiful Machu Pichu, we headed down South to Chile, the wine country! I badly needed to rest, after all the travel, altitude and treks and lack of vegetarian food (sigh!). We flew from Cusco to Lima and then to Santiago de Chile (There is another Santiago de Atacama, mind you!)

Santiago de Chile
Stayed in a serviced apartment in the heart of the city of Santiago, right next to the MRT and all the restaurants. It pays to do a lot of research before booking the hotels!

Chile was extremely 'chilly' as it was winter in May/June and on top of that it was raining all 3 days we were there. What a spoil sport! Anyway, there is nothing much to see in the Santiago city, its just like any other city in the world. So off we went to the suburbs to visit the vineyards, the place of our interest. We chose the Concha y Toro Winery as its among the top ones out there. Booked the wine tour online, by ourselves and it worked out cheaper than going through an agent.
Here is the link if you are interested http://www.grayline.com/Santiago/Concha_y_Toro_Winery  . There wasn't much of a taste I could get out of the wines, in that freezing weather! But this winery is highly recommended!!

Useful Tip: Travel in the Metro, cabs are way too expensive and of course they dont speak English :)

  Visit the Delhi Darbar restaurant for "authentic" Indian food in Providencia district. A small restaurant hidden in the centre of the city but serves amazingly tasty North Indian food! We were surprised to find such a restaurant in our entire trip!



One of their wines that you must try!


 
Valpraiso & ViƱa Del Mar

These are the coastal towns of Central Chile, on the line of Pacific Ocean. Just A couple of hours drive from Santiago and can be seen in a day. We had booked a day trip with Viator but unfortunately it was pouring heavily the whole day and we could hardly enjoy the trip. But these 2 towns are very beautiful and it's worth spending a night over if the weather is good. While you drive down to the garden city of Vina Del Mar, you travel through the wine country and can stop over several vineyards for wine tasting if planned in advance.

 
 
 



Valpraiso port is extremely picturesque and built in the 16th-century on a total of 43 hills which are reached by narrow windy streets, staircases and a series of lifts (funiculars). This area has been declared by UNESCO as patrimony of humanity due to its eclectic architecture and urban development.

It's disappointing to say that I have no photos of the beautiful view of the Valpraiso port due to the heavy rains that day :-( You can google it to see how beautiful the city is!!

Few other things that you can do while in Santiago, which we didnt do (but I had researched on it!)
1. take a trip to Cajon de Maipo
2. go on casablanca valley/san antonia valley wine tour and stay overnight at casa marin in vineyards
3. Go to San Pedro and Visit Atacama salt lake & Moon Valley (in Northern Chile)
4. Santiago city Hop on hop off tour
5. Visit Easter Island




 

Monday, August 27, 2012

South America Travel Diary: Machu Pichu (Peru)

This travelogue is continued from the previous post.
 
After a day's rest in Cusco, at 11,000ft and going through some altitude sickness, we headed off to Machu Pichu, by Peru Rail. Finally, we were on our way to see another wonder of the world, which was the highlight of our trip!
 
We took Peru Rail from Cusco to Agua Calientes, which is about 4 hours of journey. You can actually do a 4 day trek from half way through Cusco till the top of Machu Pichu but you have to book it a few months early as it gets filled fast. I was happy taking the train to the base and then trekking up! Wouldnt want to do the 4 day trek after spending 30hrs in flight :) It seriously drove me crazy!
 
 
 
 
Agua Calientes
 
This is a small town (or should I say one small road between a railway track and a stream ;-)) at the base of the Machu Pichu mountain. We reached here and spent 2 nights in a hostel and kept this as our base to go visit the Inca city and trek the mountain. "Agua" in Spanish means Water and "Calientes" means Hot, so literally the town is called Hot Water! Don't expect anyone to speak in English here. If you want to survive here on ur own, learn basic Spanish. And if you are going to stay in a hostel, then be prepared to be visited by all kinds of insects and flying creatures and if you forget the mosquito repellant, then god save you!
 
There is a good shopping market at the train station where you get lots of local handicrafts and crystals at a very cheap price. So make sure you have some time dedicated for shopping!

When in Peru, you should definitely try their cocktail - Pisco Sour, that originated in Peru itself. A very unique drink which you wouldn't want to miss at any cost!
 
 
 
 
Inca City & Machu Pichu
 
From Aqua Calientes there are buses every half an hour that go half way up the mountain till the entrance to the Inca City Archealogical Site. It's a 30min ride up and you will be amazed at the way those bus drivers drive without honking, on the hairpin bends and the scary mountain terrains...doesn't matter if u feel the bus is going to collide or fall off the cliff, but they refuse to sound horn! Some talent I say!
 
Inca City & Wayna Pichu in Background
 
The Inca city is absolutely splendid, it is surreal, astonishing, beautiful, brilliant, super awesome and all other adjectives that you can come up with! It lies between the Machu Pichu and the Wayna Pichu mountains and it is architecture at its brilliance. It's now the UNESCO world heritage site and has been restored and preserved. Wonder how the Incas built such a cool city on top of a mountain!! The best time to visit is when it is bright and sunny. We tried to catch the sunrise on top but we were greeted by the rain gods and heavy clouds, so we explored the city for a few hrs in rain and clouds.
 
We visited again in the afternoon when it was bright and sunny, so caught the city in both rain and shine ;-) We hired a local tour guide (who spoke English, of course!) and go the history of the civilization from her as we explored the city. I highly recommend hiring a guide at least in your first visit to the site, else u may feel lost and not understand much or appreciate it. It will take approx 3 to 4 hours to explore the archaeological site and I suggest you visit the site twice if you have the luxury of time, else you may not get to see everything around there. There are multiple short treks that you can do there too...
 
View of Inca city from top of MachuPichu
 
 
You can start the trek up the Machu Pichu mountain from the archaeological site and the trek up takes about 2 hours and return another 2 hours. If you also want to trek the Wayna Pichu mountain, you will have to buy the ticket a few weeks or a month in advance as they allow only 400 people a day there. For the Inca city and Machu Pichu, tickets can be purchased on the spot..
 
The best time to visit Machu Pichu is when it is not raining, that is when it is winter time at the base or in the plains. When it is summer down, it will be raining in the mountains..
 
After exploring the mountains and the Inca city I felt it was totally worth the effort of travelling 30hrs in flight + 4 hrs of train + 1/2 an hour of bus to reach this place!! This is one of those must see places in a lifetime. If you dont see this, you really miss out on something splendid!!
 


 
Disclaimer: Do not reproduce or copy the photos & travelogue without linking back to this post or giving due credits