Friday, November 7, 2014

South America

"Para Espanol, marque nueve." (c) An automated phone menu. 

Learn Spanish before going to South America. At least a little bit. Seriously.
In the last two weeks I only met a few people who spoke some English.


One of my friends is originally from Ecuador and I was curious to see her home country. I did not know Spanish, but she was going with me so I got to spend a week with her and her family. Without them it would be almost impossible to go anywhere.
We stayed at her house far away from the City center and I was the only weird foreign giant in the neighborhood. :)

There was a big park next to the house. It used to be an airport, but just 3 years ago it was closed and a park was open there, so I had a rare opportunity to walk on the airport runway.

The City center looks like a huge museum with lots of impressive plazas and palaces. The hill with the statue of Virgin lets you see the whole Quito when there is no fog.

Sending a package with souvenirs to the U.S. was about 100 USD. Interesting fact: Ecuador does not have a local currency, they simply use American dollars. This gives a bizarre situation with expensive goods (they all come from somewhere else) and cheap local labor at the same time.

The air quality in Quito is so bad that it is hard to breathe anywhere near roads. Exhaust from cars is black.
Many houses in "good" neighborhoods have electrical fences.
But the nature outside of Quito is awesome. Rivers, mountains, waterfalls...

Ecuador photos:


The main attraction for me was Maccu Picchu. Getting there is a bit challenging and not cheap (everything is oriented towards tourists of course). Food varies from tolerable to bad. Water is not safe. Hotel prices are comparable to the ones in the U.S. But Machu Picchu itself is very impressive, I liked it a lot. Don't forget to bring plenty of water and snacks. Climbing the mountain can be challenging.
There was a big party in one of the small towns I stayed at:


Lima was okay for a few days. You can take a city tour.
There is a bunch of good restaurants for tourists in the safe area (Miraflores). I liked La Mar (great cebiche and a strong Pisco Sour), Madam Tusan (excellent chaufa) and Edo Sushi Bar (totally amazing slightly seared fish steak. I even wanted to write a separate article just about that steak as I was eating it. I did not want that steak to end...).
There was a cool "cats park" next to my hotel. It is officially called "Parque Kennedy", but I will always remember it as "cats park" because they are just everywhere. Once you sit down, a cat would walk to you, jump on your lap and let you pet it. :)

Reportedly, a good place to shop for souvenirs is Inca Market (nearby), but it was already closed by the time I found it. The "cats park" has enough people selling hand-made stuff though - souvenirs, clothes, purses, etc. Prices are ridiculously low.

Many houses in Miraflores have electrical fences around them. These are the "good", "safe" houses. :)

Security screening at airports is inconsistent. At one airport I was asked to leave or finish my Starbucks coffee when going through the security point. At the same time they ignored the water bottle I had in my backpack. At another airport I was allowed to go through the security checkpoint with both water bottle and coffee in my hand.
At the third airport (this time in Argentina) I decided to have fun and brought two water bottles. Once they see a bottle, you show them that you put it in the trash and then go through (having the other one in the backpack, lol).

You can use Uber in Lima. The wait time is longer than in San Francisco, but acceptable (10-15 minutes, although you often get "no cars available"...). It is still much, much better than using "regular" taxis. Oh, taxis in South America... More on them later.

Very few people speak English in Peru. Even the woman at the international departure check-in counter (Lima airport) didn't... International my ass.
Seriously, learn some Spanish before going to South America!

Note: Scotiabank ATMs dispense USD cash ($100 per transaction) without fees if you have a Bank Of America debit card. If you need to withdraw $800, then you repeat your transaction 8 times. Why would you need so much cash? Ah, it's a wonderful story about the next country -


The first thing people warn you about is that there are two Peso/Dollar rates in Argentina. The official one is about 8 pesos per dollar, while the "black market" one is 13 ( All card transactions (including ATMs) operate with the official rate, so you should put your american cards away while you are there. Cash, only cash...
Sell your dollars at any illegal exchange house or even at your hotel and enjoy much cheaper Argentina.
Carrying thousands of dollars in your backpack does not necessarily add fun to your trip given the questionable safety level of Argentina (on average), but... you want to be adventurous, don't you?

As with most unknown cities, you should carefully choose a neighborhood to stay in. Quick googling helps with this. My hotel was in Recoleta, which is very clean and safe. The hotel had hot water every day - yay!

I spent more than 9 hours exploring the City yesterday and I actually like it a lot. If I had to judge by the shops in the neighborhoods I visited, I'd think that all people there drink coffee and eat desserts non-stop. :) I don't remember seeing so many small dessert shops anywhere else.

Some photos:

Mobile Internet in Argentina is pretty much free. It is 2.5 pesos (about 20 american cents) per day (15 Mb high speed, then unlimited 64kbit/sec).

Alas, no Uber in Argentina. Taxis are known to bad, be they official or not. Taxi drivers "do not have change", they try to sell pesos to "fresh" foreigners at a ridiculous rate, play tricks with fake money (, the price randomly changes when you arrive at your destination, etc. Watch out. :)

Flew to Mendoza last night, will stay with Mariano for the weekend. Mendoza is like the Napa Valley of Argentina. The City of Mendoza is very pretty and clean. I booked a wineries tour for tomorrow and went on the City Bus Tour today -

Tried ordering food at restaurants today. Failed twice. Saw something in the "Ensaladas" section, picked it and it turned out to be some beer snack. Why was it in "ensaladas" section?..
Went to another restaurant later, got a big menu with crepes, picked one and it turned out to be an ice-cream, not a crepe...

"Para Espanol, marque nueve." (c)

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