November 5, 2014

Glacial Lakes

By: Beth O’Donnell

You know that gorgeous green-blue color of the lakes in all the pictures from the Canadian Rockies?   It is even MORE beautiful in person!  And the color comes from the sediment of the glaciers, called “glacier flour”.  What happens is glacial erosion causes tiny particles of bedrock to enter the meltwater (water released by melting glacial ice).  This enters the rivers which flow into the glacial lake and create colors ranging from milky white to bright turquoise.  This phenomenon is particularly observed in the Canadian Rockies.  See this for yourself on our newest itinerary – beginning in July 2015!

lake with trees

Lake



November 3, 2014

Whales: Spectacular Giants of the Sea

By: Noemi GamelWhale 1

Why do whales fascinate us? Is it their immense size? Is it their ability to live in a world so foreign to us land dwellers? Or, could it just be their simple, raw, power and beauty?

If you ever find yourself in Argentina, be sure to visit the town of Puerto Madryn to go whale watching. I had been on a couple whale and dolphin excursions in Vancouver Island and Mexico, but this one blew them all out of the water…literally and figuratively. The tour started with a stop at a beach to watch right whales from the shore. I was highly skeptical of this setup at first. How many whales could we possibly watch from the beach and how close could we get? I wasn’t expecting much.

I was wrong! The whales were hanging out just offshore. We saw them without the need for binoculars. I did not count the number of whales, but a minute did not pass where one was in our direct line of sight. After this, our driver took us to the town of Puerto Piramides, where we took a whale watching boat around Peninsula Valdes.

Wow! We were all at a loss for words. We saw our first right whale less than fifteen minutes into the boat ride, and pretty much had one in our sight the entire time, often more then one. They swam very close to the boat. We were able to see exquisite displays of behavior such as breaching. We were fortunate enough to witness a mother with a baby.  She even brought the baby up to the boat to check us out. Kara and Tristan were speechless, which if you know our kids, is a huge deal.

What has been your favorite whale or dolphin watching experience? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Whale 2Whale 3



October 27, 2014

Futbol in Argentina

Futbol 2By: Noemi Gamel

While we were in Buenos Aires, we decided to go to a futbol (aka soccer to you Americans) match. Tristan loves futbol but had never been to a live game before.

Argentina has the reputation for having some of the most devout and passionate futbol fans in the world. In fact, that might be an understatement. When we posted on FaceBook that we were attending a game, our futbol-fanatic Salvadorian friend commented, “I bow down to your courage.”

To avoid the complex ticket buying process, we went with a tour group whose sole purpose is to buy tickets and escort tourists to futbol matches. Our guide, Santiago, confirmed that Argentinian fans have a checkered past: due to violent outbursts during games, the government no longer allows “away” fans in the stadiums. Imagine attending a sporting event in the states and only the home team was allowed to have fans in the stands. Needless to say things were a little different. Also, no alcohol is permitted inside the futbol stadiums.

Without the fear of fistfights or lynchings (though we were advised which team to cheer for), we attended the game with cautious optimism. Santiago reassured us constantly, but also insisted on the group (made up of non-BA Argentinians, Australians, and us) sticking close to him. We had a blast! The kids enjoyed their snacks of sugared peanuts and “gaseosa”, which is essentially soda. We were up in the “cheap seats” but the energy of the stadium permeated all the way up to our stands.

The enthusiasm emanating from the crowed was unrivaled. This was a rival match between two of Argentina’s top teams and the fans sang and cheered non-stop during the entire game. Like a unified choir, they sang out and danced coordinated chants. It was impossible not to be infected by their energy.

The fans, though energetic, were polite and well behaved. Of course, the armed police may have done a lot to quell passions. In the end, we had a great time and Tristan is eagerly awaiting his next game.

Futbol 3

Futbol 1



October 20, 2014

Iguazu Falls

By: Noemi Gamel

Kara and Tristan by the falls

Kara and Tristan by the falls

There is something magical about waterfalls. Perhaps it is the power they convey, the crystalline beauty of the curtain of water, or the deafening roar they produce.  You can imagine our delight to witnessing arguably the most spectacular waterfalls in the world, in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.

When we first entered Iguazu National Park, I felt like we were in an Argentinian version of Disney World. The place felt commercial, very well organized and clean. There was even a little train to take us around the park. All concerns that we were going to be met by a mechanical band of bears melted when I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of Iguazu Falls.

Words cannot describe the majesty and beauty of this wonder of nature, but Chris’s photos sure do. Almost 300 individual waterfalls merge together to create Iguazu Falls, resulting is a waterfall that is taller and twice as wide as Niagara Falls, with 3,300,000 gallons of water flowing over the falls every second!

Kara and Tristan loved getting as close as possible to the falls in the lower paths to get drenched by its mist. I have to admit we were coming up with some pretty gruesome speculations of what would happen to the human body if one were to fall on the rocks below.  It is no wonder there is a strict rule forbidding parents from carry their children piggy back on the paths near the falls.

The view from the upper paths was equally stunning, but more crowded. The tour buses arrived around 10 am, so we were very glad we had arrived early to enjoy the views with some semblance of solitude.

Iguazu Falls 4

The falls from above

Iguazu Falls 2

Iguazu Falls



October 13, 2014

Tips for More Pleasant Bus Travel

By Noemi Gamel

Bus Ride

Kara and Tristan – 12 hours into a 13 hour bus ride in Argentina

Growing up in the United States, we tend to view bus rides with trepidation. They are uncomfortable, slow, and rarely seem to run at  the time or along the route we need. We knew that buses would be part of our around the world trip, but it wasn’t a form of  transportation we were looking forward too.

Imagine our surprise when we boarded our first extended bus ride in Peru (20 hours).  Many of the buses in South America are  amazing. Huge, comfortable seats that recline a full 180 degrees (think first class on a plane and you get the picture of what a “cama”  seat is like). They even provide decent food service.

After three months of using buses in South America, we have some tips to make bus travel more comfortable. These will be especially useful if you have kids.

Use a backpack instead of a suitcase. A backpack is easier to maneuver around bus stations that may not have elevators or ramps. It is also easier to carry in case you can’t use the luggage compartment under the bus, which sometimes you can’t do if your final destination is not that route’s end of the line.

Pack entertainment. Chris and I have a “carry-on” bag where we make sure to keep materials to keep the kids (and us) entertained on the bus, especially the long ones such as our 20 hour bus ride to Cusco, Peru or our 12 hour ride to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. We carry Uno cards, a standard deck of cards, and yes, their iPADs (loaded with books, movies, and games). Make sure those electronics are fully charged before you get on the bus, as most of them do not have plugs.

Pack snacks. Many of the longer, upscale buses will provide meals, but options are limited and they can be unappealing to kids. Other times, you will not have time to buy food at the bus stops or your options may not be good. Pack snacks like fruit, crackers, or empanadas to prevent hunger-related meltdowns.

Bring antibacterial gel and toilet paper. In countries outside the United States, sometimes you will not find soap or toilet paper in public bathrooms such as the ones in bus stations. One time, in Bolivia, the bus stopped at a remote rest area and when I asked where the toilet was, I was directed to an open field with grazing llamas. It helps to have a sense of humor.

What useful tips do you have for using public transportation in Latin America? Share your advise, tips, and tricks in the comments!



October 6, 2014

Wildlife in the Amazon Selva and Las Pampas

A spider monkey up close

A squirrel monkey up close

By: Noemi Gamel 

In our last post, I described our remote, ultra-rustic camp and all the unplugged activities we did in the jungle, or “selva”. This week, I want to focus on the wildlife we saw in the selva as well as the “pampas” or swamp section of the Bolivian Amazon.

In the selva, finding wildlife is not easy. While we heard a lot of wildlife like wild pigs, howler monkeys, and birds, we did not actually get to see many animals. As we hiked through the selva, Adalid, our guide told us that there were probably animals watching us through the trees. The canopy is so thick, that you cannot see the animals even if they are just a few feet away. Nevertheless, we were thrilled when we woke up to the sound of howler monkeys every morning, even if we did not get to see them.

Our experience in the pampas was completely different. One hour into the 2-½ boat hour ride to get to our camp, we saw hundreds of alligators, multiple capybara, pink river dolphins, countless birds, and a band of very friendly squirrel monkeys. The vegetation is a lot more open, so the animals are much easier to spot.

The camp was a little more “upscale”. We had flush toilets and running water and actual honest to goodness mattresses on the beds! I felt we were staying at the Ritz. There was a deck at the edge of the river from where we could watch the animals. At night, however, I was unnerved going to the toilet hearing the grunt of the alligators and seeing their eyes shine just a few feet away.

I actually enjoyed the selva more than pampas even though the conditions were more rustic and we did not see many animals. I loved being in such a remote area with no other people except the cook, the guide, and us.

 

jungle-2

Enjoying the wild jungle setting

lodge 1

Lounging in front of the jungle lodge on the river



September 29, 2014

Surviving in the Amazon Jungle

Learning to drink water out of tree branches in the jungle

Learning to drink water out of tree branches in the jungle

By: Noemi Gamel

We spent three days in the Amazon Jungle in a remote corner of Bolivia. We arrived to our camp on the Tuichi River via a 3-hour boat ride from the gateway town of Rurrenebaque.

Our camp had no electricity, running water, Internet, or even mattresses. We slept on sleeping bags thrown over a “bed” made of slabs of tree bark under a plastic sheet roof. The toilet was a pit latrine under a thatched roof with no walls. Using the toilet in the jungle knowing that monkeys are probably staring at you is a rather humbling experience. During our time in the jungle, we did not encounter any other people. The howler monkeys woke us up each morning.

Our guide, Adalid, and our cook, were knowledgeable and friendly locals. We spent the whole time going on hikes in the Amazon jungle. The kids did not miss Wi-Fi one bit as they marked their faces with “war paint” made from the juice of leaves and swung from swings that our guide made from tree vines. Adalid taught us all about the important trees and plants of the jungle that the South American natives used for survival. They used the plants for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Most important, they also used plants to find water. Some of the tree branches, such as the one in this picture, are a valuable source of clean water in the jungle. A quick cut with the machete, and fresh water flows out. Just be careful, because some branches look similar to this one but carry toxic water that can make you very sick. Fortunately, the one Kara drank from was sweet, non-toxic water.

During your travels, what has been the most impressive fact you have learned from the local flora? Let us know in the comments below.



September 23, 2014

The Day the Motors Did Not Run

An impromptu game of soccer in the street

An impromptu game of soccer in the street

By: Noemi Gamel

What would happen if the mayor of your city declared that for one day motor vehicles were not allowed on the road? You could not drive or ride a bus, car, or motorcycle. The only way you could get from one place to the other was walking, biking, or skating.

I can tell you that this would not have flown over well in any of the cities where I have lived in the US. Revolts would certainly have ensued. Nevertheless, that was not the case in Sucre, Bolivia. One fine, sunny Sunday morning, we walked into the main square for Salteñas and noticed there were no cars on the street. People walked in the middle of the roads. Children rode their bikes on the street without a care in the world. We thought perhaps there was a race or event so the streets were closed off. When we got to the main plaza, we found out what was happening. The city was celebrating “Día del Peatón” or Day of the Pedestrian. No motor-operated vehicles were allowed until 6 pm that day!

In the Main Plaza, the festivities went beyond simply not driving a car. Music, food stands, street soccer games, and jump rope competitions turned the main square into one big party. Tristan joined one of the soccer games and had a blast. After he got a few kicks in, we walked to the Cemetario General where we learned about the history of Sucre in the context of the families buried in the cemetery.

We had a lovely time that day. I was left with the feeling of wishing that in the future, any city where I live can do something similar.



September 18, 2014

Futbol, Migas, and a Hailstorm: Our Bolivian Homestay Adventure

Tristan and his new futbol-loving friend!

Tristan and his new futbol-loving friend!

By: Noemi Gamel

In Sucre, we decided to do something different. Instead of renting an apartment, we participated in a homestay. For those who have never done one, a homestay means living with a local family, in their home.

Our Bolivian homestay has been one of our most positive experiences of the trip! We are staying in a typical Bolivian home where all the rooms open to a central courtyard. We are sharing this home with a family of five and any other guests that happen to be there (ranging from 1-4 people). While we have two private bedrooms, we share a bathroom, kitchen, and the patio.

Our host family is lovely, sweet, and inviting. They have been helpful and friendly from the start and give us privacy when we need it. These are some of the best aspects of the homestay:

1. The family only speaks Spanish, so Chris and the kids have been practicing their language skills. In fact, our landlords own the Spanish school Chris and the kids have been attending during our 3 weeks in Sucre.

2. We are getting a glimpse into how a real Bolivian family lives. Our host family is part of a large, multi-generational family. One weekend, they had a birthday party for one of the uncles, so we were able to experience the local food and culture first hand.

3. Tristan has been thrilled because he plays futbol (soccer) with the son of our landlords every day.

4. Our host family has cooked typical Bolivian meals for us a few times as a kind gesture (meals are not included in the price), and we have cooked for them too (they loved the traditional Mexican Migas, though it took a bit of running around town to find all of the ingredients). Sharing meals has been a great way to learn more about each other’s life and culture.

5. Like most typical Sucre homes in this neighborhood, all rooms open to an enclosed outdoor courtyard. This means that if you have to go into the kitchen or bathroom when it is raining or cold, you have to prepare for an adventure. This has not been a problem at all, except during the brief hailstorm that came down upon us one day.

Even though I was initially reluctant to book a homestay because I feared the lack of privacy, I am so glad I did. We will all be leaving with great memories and wonderful new friends.

Do you have previous homestay experiences? Share them with us in the comments below!



September 8, 2014

Bolivian Street Food

Digging into some salteñas in Bolivia

Digging into some salteñas in Bolivia

By: Noemi Gamel

When it comes to eating, Americans are used to two choices: eating at home or going to a restaurant. The idea of walking up to a cart on the street and grabbing a bite to eat is scary. Is it safe? What if I end up in the hospital? I could die!

Street food is a huge part of the culture throughout much of the world, especially in South America. While restaurants are fine, avoiding street food would have meant missing out on two Bolivian delights: papas rellenas and salteñas. Both of these delicacies are traditional Bolivian mid-morning snacks. In other words, you have to snatch them by noon or they will be gone!

Papas rellenas are “stuffed potatoes.” Think fried ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with meat, cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. Chris and the kids would often have a papa rellena for breakfast from a vendor that literally operated from an open window on the wall of a building.

Salteñas are heaven in a pastry pocket. They look like football-shaped empanadas. Originally made by a family exiled to Bolivia from Salta, Argentina (which is how they got their name), these snacks consist of sweet dough filled with either meat or vegetable stew. We ate our salteñas from an “upscale” street vendor. They actually had indoor seating, but all they served were saltenas and fresh fruit juice. These little pockets of goodness were the most delicious food I have had in Bolivia.

While eating street food is a fun way to experience the local cuisine and tend to be much less expensive than tourist restaurants, you should not throw caution to the wind. Here is a little secret: eat where the locals eat. If lots of locals are eating at a street vendor, it is a safe bet that it is safe to eat there.

What are your favorite street foods? Let us know in the comments below.