Saturday, May 31, 2014

Days 297-300: Paradise You Say? We're All Ears

Free drinks on the flight is always a good start.
On our tiny plane bound for Big Corn Island, beer or rum and coke were the only two options available from the cart. This paved the way to the next ten days of rest and relaxation.

Awaiting our arrival was a teenager from our family run hostel with a wheelbarrow. Little Corn Island has no roads and no motorized vehicles; thus, we slowly made our way across the island to our home for the next nine nights, the ripples of the calm sea lazily rolling up the beach 6 feet from our doorstep.

At only 2.9 sq km it is possible to circumnavigate Little Corn in under 2 hours. Protected by a reef a hundred meters from shore, very few places on the island receive anything that could honestly be called a wave. This all combines for a marvellously relaxing island paradise. We strolled the endless beaches and found some good sandy spots for swims. Our definition of a crowded beach became anything with 4 or more other people on it.

We may have had fish tacos multiple times a day...
Our time was spent lying on deserted beaches, sitting on our splendid porch as the sea breeze kept us cool, and eating delicious (albeit expensive) food. We justified it all with our regular cheer of "Proneymooning!" and combined Day 300 Celebration. The most ambitious thing we did all week was compete in the island's trivia competition, where we held the lead going into the finals, before crumbling to a disastrous 4th place after the music round.

We took some time to be productive, as well, sifting through our library of nearly 20,000 pictures and videos to work on the South America, and the upcoming Trip Finale videos. 

Happy Hour was our busiest time of the day.

We could not imagine a more relaxing experience. Although we had noticed various establishments (including our hostel) advertising wifi, we were able to go nearly the whole time on the island without it. Instead, we tried to figure out which day it was while we basked in the sun and sipped rum from a coconut. The island was a very friendly and social place; no two people passed without saying hello, be it travellers or locals. Our prime location on the beach meant that we met everyone on the island as anyone who wanted to walk the length of the beach had to walk right by our doorstep.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Day 296: Las Isletas de Granada

Just south-east of Granada, scattered throughout Lake Nicaragua, are roughly 365 volcanic islands. We thought this would be a nice place to go for the day, to get away from the heat of the city, and enjoy some wildlife viewing opportunities. After shopping around a bit, we avoided the tour companies boasting photos of tourists petting monkeys (shame on you!), and chose one that sounded a little more eco-friendly. Being on the last of our pennies, we discussed at length the trip with the tour operator to ensure we knew what we were getting.

Turns out, we didn't discuss enough. What we thought was a day trip in a boat to explore the islands and look for birdlife and monkeys turned out to be a boat transfer to their private island where we were dumped for the day and abandoned along with our cook. The boatman came and went so secretively that we were confused when we saw two more women on the island that had not previously been there. Sadly no one ever came to clean the pool which looked like a '90s Nickelodeon gameshow had been filmed in it before our arrival.

Without any information about the lake (currents, etc), no lifejackets, and the rum we had brought with us, we decided to stay ashore and safely swing in the hammocks. Eventually we were collected and taken around the small islands as the sun went down over the verdant slopes of the volcano. In a rush (we suppose), the boatman skipped our stop at the thermal waters at the base of the volcano without saying a word to us.

Needless to say our experience was not what we had hoped or paid for. That being said we did enjoy our time in the hammocks (though we had to be careful as the birds above us seemed intent on carpet bombing the island), and the boat ride, what little we got, we beautiful.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Days 293-295: Granada

Nicaragua hit us with a wave of heat and humidity. Though still in a Spanish-speaking country, it was clear that we were on a new continent. The outlets were back to normal and the stop signs read "Alto" instead of "Pare." We had a feeling that the vocabulary we'd become comfortable with the past four months might lead us astray.

But our status in the travelling hierarchy hadn't changed. Knowing how exhausted we'd be after our long-haul flight, and because it looked to be a reasonable price, we'd booked ourselves an airport transfer through our hostel. Though a luxiourous decision for us, we still knew our place among the travel circuit when our driver led us past all the shiny, logo-adorned vehicles to a rusted-out sedan. The hour-long drive took us through dry brushland and alongside run-down villages. We hadn't seen this kind of poverty since India.

After 27 hours of travel, we dropped our stuff and went right back out to find lunch in order to celebrate Erin exploring her 30th country. Right away, it seemed that we'd enjoy Nica thanks to its ridiculously cheap rum, affection for mojitos, and the plethora of new dips and sauces to garnish our refreshing change of food. When Erin asked if the restaurant had corn or flour tortilla shells the server looked surprised and answered, "Only corn, of course!"

At first impression, Nicaraguans, or at least Granadians, were a gentler, more reserved folk than what we were used to. We greeted everyone on the street as normal, and got some raised eyebrows and an occasional response in return. They clearly weren't as used to Spanish-speaking tourists and were quick to change to English that rivaled our second-language skills. Our habit of starting off in Spanish and switching to English only when necessary began to wane after just a few days.

The tourist population was different more than just in their language skills. The long-term travellers were gone and replaced with vacationners or those on month-long Central American trips who generally didn't need to competitively compare experiences. Everyone was friendly in a relaxed, "I'm on holiday" sort of mood. It was a crowd we felt comfortable with: adventurous enough to choose Nicaragua, but relaxed enough to just be happy with themselves and the experiences of others.

Granada itself was a pretty city with beautifully restored churches and buildings of all colours. It was nice for wandering in other than the oppressive heat and humidity. Our hostel had a lovely sitting area in a middle courtyard but the air still felt stifled with a lack of breeze. We took a day to relax and cool off at the nearby hotel pool, Craig went to a trivia night at the local pub, and we tried to get caught up on the hockey playoffs. In the early mornings and evenings, we explored the streets, went up the church tower and walked down to the beach of Lake Nicaragua.

We also experienced one downside to travel in Central America. There is a bed bug epidemic right now and Craig found a couple in his sheets early our third morning. The owner responded quickly and fumigated our room and our bags for us, but it added a level of stress as we frantically hung up all of our belongings in the sun mere hours before the airport as we didn't have time to wash and dry them. If our friend Adrian from our Uganda trip is reading this, Central America is the place to go if you want to collect bed bug species!

It was also on our third day that we realized we'd been living in the wrong time zone. Something to do with Daylight Savings...or a weird Central American time zone thing...we're still not sure. We've switched time zones so many times in the last two weeks that we're completely confused. At any rate, it made a lot more sense when we finally realized this. It explained why the sun seemed to be setting later than it should and why places were never open in the morning when they said they'd be. We think we're on track now for the rest of the trip!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 292: Tips for Long-Haul Travel

When Mary, our friend and Kenyan safari partner, announced that she loved long-haul flights, we were more than surprised. Neither of us sleep well on planes, we're both tall, so leg room is left to be desired, and it's just overall tiring. But the longer we've been away, the longer our flights and bus rides seem to get, and with it, our tolerance has also stretched. We've come to see the bright side of long travel days and get excited about plane trips. As you embark on your own trip, here are a few of our tips to help put the 'joy' back in 'journey'.

Now, we'd better start by clarifying what exactly "Long-Haul" travel means. We're reluctant to define it by a number of hours because circumstance lends so much to its meaning. Our 31 hour bus ride from Ushuaia to Trelew in Argentina was arguably better and easier than some of the 4 hour bus trips we did in Africa. It's necessary to think through the situation and know if you can handle it before committing to any sort of trip. Will you be adequately comfortable sitting in a squishy, hot, dusty bus next to a stranger, with someone else's bags under your feet and your neighbour's baby on your lap for 8 hours? If not, you might need to break the journey into two (or 4!) parts. (We finally had to admit to ourselves that we weren't going to be able to do an 8 hour drive hanging onto the back of a truck in Uganda (top right).

Bus Rides
* Know your Route
Research ahead of time to know which side of the bus will have better views. It made our 9 hour bus ride from Santiago to Mendoza exciting because we were keeping track of our location on Google Maps and knew to look out for Acongagua (on the left), the tallest mountain in South America. From Puerto Natales to El Calafate, sit on the left again to enjoy views of the mountains and valleys.

Equally important is which side of the bus the sun will be shining on. Even our nice South American buses had their internal temperature soar well above 30 on sunny days. This meant that if your seat was on the sunny side that you would keep the curtains closed and not see anything much of the time.

*Choose Carefully
Always pick the seat with access to the window. You'll find that many locals prefer to have the windows shut...they're a lot more used to the heat than you are.

In Argentina and Chile, the front seats on the double decker buses are so awesome...wide views out the front and extra leg room (sometimes). You'll need to reserve these seats ahead of time. If these seats are full, take the ones on the right side of the bus directly after the stairs (about mid-bus). They'll also have more leg room and no one in front of you will be reclining into your space (front of the bus, top right; mid-bus, left).

*Bring your own TP
No matter where you are in the world, bus bathrooms never seem to have any toilet paper, and there likely won't be any in bus rest-stops if you're travelling outside of North America or Europe. And even then...

These are essentials for us now on long-haul flights:
- water, water, and more water (if you're allowed)
- comfortable clothes with an extra pair of socks/leg warmers
- toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste
- a couple of cleansing face wipes
- change of shirt, socks and underwear
- deodorant
- buff to use as a face mask
- earplugs and melatonin
- snacks

Erin finds it much easier to sleep on a plane if you feel fresh and keep some kind of normal night-time routine. After they serve you dinner (preferably with one glass of red wine to help you relax) and you're ready to 'go to bed', get up and brush your teeth and wash your face with your cleansing wipe. Layer up in your fleece, take off your shoes and put on your extra socks. Get as cosy as you can. Take a melatonin, pop in your earplugs and pull down your mask. Don't fret about actually sleeping...let the goal be to rest. If you actually sleep, all the better.

Craig's strategy is to stay up all night watching movies. When asked if he would like red or white wine Craig will always ask for one of each.

*Avoid Jet-Lag
To cut down on jet lag, drink lots of water before, during, and after the flight. Physical exercise is meant to help adjust the body to your new time zone. Whenever possible, try to schedule your arrival for evening time. Even if it's day-time for you at home, you'll be tired from travelling so sleeping will be easier. If you're arriving first thing in the morning, like we did for Paris and Buenos Aires, resist the urge to lie in bed all day. It'll just make you feel worse. Get outside, get some sun, see a few things, then take an afternoon nap, if needed.

*Make the Most of Layovers

It's important to move as much as you can to stretch your legs and minimize jet lag, so walking the airport is always a good pastime. Airports for us have come to provide more comforts of home than the country itself does. In Africa and India, we took the opportunity to load up on salads and fresh veggies because we knew everything would be treated properly. In Qatar, we could find drinks with soya milk for Erin, and in Singapore, we even did some shopping. Then, of course, our recent layover in Houston was the best...a soya chai latte and a $2 heap of bacon made for a great start to the day. Filling our water bottles with tap water was an even bigger treat!

*Bring your own Snacks
For the food restricted traveller, always bring your own snacks. Even if you've requested a special meal, bring enough to feed yourself. On almost every single flight we've taken, Erin has not been given the special meal she ordered. Instead, she usually gets a shrug, sometimes an apology, and one rare time a flight attendant gave her a piece of fruit from her own packed lunch. Always call the airline ahead of time to request the meal, then confirm when you check-in, and try to confirm with the attendants at the gate before boarding the plane as well.

Most importantly, try to be flexible.
Things won't always go as planned!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Travelling Gluten-Free & Lactose-Free in South America

Travelling with food allergies or restrictions isn't easy, particularly in Argentina where bread is a main part of the diet (breakfast in most places is just pastries, snacks are empanadas...). To help others in my position (and for my own benefit if we return to these countries), I've compiled a list of places where I found gluten-free/dairy-free products. I hope others find it helpful!

Buenos Aires:
Carrefour Piedras, Piedras 383 has a decent sized selection of cake mixes, sweet crackers, rice noodles, etc. It was better for the gluten-free traveller than the gf/df one, but this supermarket had better selection than most I went in to.

Puerto Iguazu:
Supermercado Ruta 17, 3370 Av Victoria Aguirre has an extremely limited selection of gf/df biscuits made by Dimax Alimentos...I wouldn't exactly call them tasty, but in a pinch, they were edible. For a night out, try the Wok and Grill, Av Misiones 125, for a change of palate. They have gluten-free soya sauce.

I disappointingly didn't find my regular selection, or any selection of gluten-free products at the Carrefour on Av Gral Las Heras, Mendocinas. This was the only supermarket I had time to look in.

Junin de los Andes:
This is a small town with one main street that you pass through on the Seven Lakes drive between San Martin and Bariloche. About half way down the street, on the East side, there's a grocery store. Here, I found boxes of brownie, cake, and pancake mix by a company called Exent. These are gf/df and delicious. I especially enjoyed the ease of making pancakes in the morning with only an egg and some water!

Quinoa Dietetica, Albaraccin 711, is a store dedicated to gluten-free foods. There are non-perishables like cookies, crackers, and pastas, as well as a freezer full of fresh/frozen empanadas, pizzas, and bread. Unfortunately, there are hardly any lactose-free products, and what they do have is all non-perishable.
La Anonima on Albarracin 601 had a small area of gluten-free products with sadly only one type of Santa Maria cookies. Maybe they just hadn't had a shipment in a while?

El Bolson
La Anonima on San Martin also had a good supply of gluten-free/dairy-free crackers, granola bars and pasta.

El Calafate:
La Anonima, Av del Libertador Gral San Martin 902, had Santa Maria products, which are boxed cookies of different flavours (chocolate, vanilla, chocolate/vanilla, lemon, scones, jelly...) that all taste the same but are pretty good. They did not have any rice/corn pasta substitutes when I was there.
The small grocery store by the bus station, on the SW corner of Julio Argentino Roca & San Juan Bosco, had a bag of rice pasta that wasn't the best (got pretty soggy) and there wasn't any other gf/df products in the store, but I was thankful to find something.

El Chalten:
This tiny town is not the place to go to find groceries. Everything is also expensive because it's shipped in. Bring provisions from El Calafate. BUT there is a fantastic little place called La Cervezeria at 564 San Martin with gluten-free pizza, pasta and tostadas (and the biggest glasses of wine you've ever seen!).

La Anonima, Av San Martin 1506, has a full selection of gluten-free/dairy-free products such as Santa Maria cookies and crackers, pasta substitutes and granola bars (pictured right). This was a great place to stock up. The other Anonima at Gdor. Felix Paz 190 had some types of Santa Maria cookies but no granola bars when I was there.

I was delighted to find boxes of chocolate Gullon cookies at a little supermarket on the SW corner of Av General Flores & Washington Barbot. These are some of the best gf/df cookies I've ever eaten!

We weren't there long and I didn't find any gf/df products at the grocery stores I checked in the old city.


I had read that Chile has less laws on packaging and it's more difficult to find food substitutes, but I was amazed by the selection of products at the Supermercado Eltit on Av O'Higgins between Ansorena and Fresia. Coming from Argentina, it was exciting to find foods such as peanut butter, taco seasoning, and delicious gf/df products by Noglut. They had animal crackers and chocolate cookies that were such a treat! These are also the best rice crackers I've ever had.

We weren't in Talca long and I didn't find any products at their stores.

The supermarket at Huerfanos & Amunategui had a disappointing selection of products considering its size. They had a few gf cookies that weren't df. A much better grocery store was the Express at San Martin & Gnrl Mackenna (close to Plaza des Armas). They have a large imported selection, a great variety of gf/df cookies such as the Gullons I mentioned earlier and some coconut cookies that were also good. (They also have a fantastic selection of wine!).

This is just a recap of what I found in these three countries. Of course, things change. I might have visited some on a day soon after restocking, or when they were understocked. Feel free to add comments if you find other stores or that things have changed. It's challenging to travel with food restrictions, so we've got to all stick together!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Day 291: Adios South America

Punta del Este, Paraguay glimmering in the background


Nearly two years ago, we stood on the salt flats in Bolivia and took a photo of Erin waving at two countries that were new to us at the time. Those countries were Argentina and Chile. As if to bookend our explorations this year in South America, our time here re-encapsulated that moment. On our last day of our South America leg, we walked to the 3 Corners of Iguazu, and stood and waved at two new countries to explore: Brazil and Paraguay. When we'll return is not known at this time, but it's always exciting to leave with the knowledge that there's more to come back to.

We shared melancholic sunset drinks looking out over the river, reminiscing over our time on the continent. We'd been here just shy of four months and would be leaving from the same place we arrived. To complete a full circle on our continental tour, we'd fly the next day out of Buenos Aires, onwards to Central America. The fact that Nicaragua would be our last country of the trip made this evening especially sad.

South America gave us some truly exceptional memories. We enjoyed the ease with which you can travel, and the comfort of first class buses, lush accommodations, and the joy of cooking and eating raw fruits and vegetables without worry. We ate parilla, marvelled at milongas, meandered through picturesque towns, and observed wildlife. South America gave us the gateway to explore onwards to the trip of a lifetime, Antarctica. But it's time to move on and see somewhere new, and it's almost time to return home.

As a way of sharing our best experiences with you, we'll leave you with our South American video. Compiled by Craig, it is set to an appropriate tune, Apertura by Gustavo Santaolalla from the Motorcycle Diaries soundtrack, a movie about the early life of Che Guevara. We hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to explore the world.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day 290: Iguazu Falls

We awoke at dawn to a chorus of exotic birds above our room. There was a bit of grumbling over yet another early 'get up and go' morning, but when we remembered what was on the daily agenda, we jumped out of bed to get started. Managing to get on the second bus of the day into the park, we enjoyed the views out the window as the early morning sun hit the dense jungle on either side of the road.

The bus dropped us off at the main park gates and within minutes we'd sped walked our way past our fellow passengers and the tour groups that had started to gather. Through the gates were paved pathways, gift shops, restaurants, and information booths, which we blew past in an attempt to reach the falls and have them to ourselves. It felt like a zoo but without any animals.

We reached the turn-off and chose to view the Upper Falls first to get a sense of their scale. We could already hear the thundering of them in the distance and see puffs of mist collecting above the treetops. A grated catwalk led us through the trees a few feet above the ground and to a first look-out. Water tumbled just under our feet and we craned our necks to look over the cliff to the rocks below. A little further, we had the same look at the second of the twin falls and as Erin leaned over the edge, Craig let out a gasp. "Erin," he exclaimed, "Look up!" She followed his gaze across the trees in front of them and got her first glimpse of Iguazu stretching out ahead of us.

This was the beginning of a half-hour viewing that took us along a series of pathways closer and closer to the main U of Igauzu. The water cascaded down below and in front of us, the spray being corralled away thanks to an auspicious wind, and to make the experience even more unbelievable, we were alone the entire time. Only when we retraced our steps back to the beginning did we see another tourist.

We had seen many pictures of Iguazu, and heard stories from countless friends and family members, but the magnitude of seeing it in person was flooring. There was a sense of hunger for more, our eyes insatiably searching the horizon for new views.

Following recommendations from Kristen and John, we next took the train up and along the Parana River, watching the surprisingly calm waters lazily bubble their way towards the top of the cliffs. Another high-speed 1 km stroll found us ahead of our trainmates to maximize the solitude of one of the most impressive sections of Iguazu: the Devil's Throat. La Garganta del Diablo is the deepest U of the falls, where water plummets from the highest point into a deep chasm along the Brazilian side. With water falling in a near 300 degrees towards the rocks below, the mist created is enough to soak the crowd ooh-ing and aww-ing above.

Dripping wet and thoroughly thrilled, we returned via the train to our starting point, but this time chose the Lower Falls pathway. As impressive as the expanse of the Upper Falls and the power of the Garganta del Diablo was, the Lower Falls showcased Iguazu's beauty. From here, we could appreciate the way the water fell from above to a second level, to the river below. Framed by jungle, Iguazu was quite a sight.

After walking the Lower Falls catwalks, there was only one adventure left to be had. We boarded a boat to take us up close and personal to the individual falls. First, the boats approached close enough to feel their power but far enough back to be able to take pictures. Then we returned to each side to really see, and feel, what they were like! Tonnes of water pummelled us from above as we went right under.

Our expectations had been high, but they were very much exceeded. In an attempt to ease ourselves away from the amazing views, we lunched at a lookout of the Lower Falls, then wandered back to the top for one last view from above. We got to relive the experience through other tourists' eyes as they got their first look at the wall of water.