Chile

Chile for me was always a country of such mystery, I knew very few people that had been here and due to its geography, it had become a bit of an isolated country. Around 4,000 kilometres in length and about 100 kilometres wide Chile has the driest desert in the world in the north, polar icecaps to the south and the 2nd highest mountain range in the world along its eastern border. Despite all this Chile has become known as the Latin Dream in South America. The Chilean economy has been consistently rising over the past couple of decades, and with a good infrastructure and high public safety, it makes it an attractive country for both tourists and immigrants.

For the moment we arrived in Chile it felt friendly and it was a beautiful view flying in over the Andes Mountains. We had pre-booked an Airbnb and our host also arranged an airport pick-up which we took for pure convenience. As we drove into the city and got to our apartment there were fire engines and police all around the building. Turned out that one of the flats had a fire, so the whole building was being evacuated. Our host was speaking with some of the people around the building and it was unclear how long it was going to take until we could get into the building. I managed to get access to WiFi and jumped on Happy Cow to see the vegan options, which there were quite a few. I asked our host if she would like to join us for a dinner and we drove to a place that made vegan versions of Chilean favourites. I asked our host what is popular and she recommended a Chacarero, which is a type of popular meat sandwich, but here the meat was soya. After a couple of hours of chatting and getting to know each other, we were able to enter the apartment block. The building was massive, four blocks housing around a thousand people and really central in the city. How host had bought a small apartment in one of the blocks and now was running in at a full-time Airbnb rental. From the moment you walked into the apartment you could see this woman really cared about this place and had thought all about the small details. The kitchen was well equipped with nice pans, knives and all the small things you need to make life easy and practical in the kitchen. Also, the apartment was just above one of the main supermarkets in town, so super practical. The apartment was on a split level with the bedroom on a balcony above the living space, it was small but perfect with a big walk-in wardrobe off the bedroom and an ensuite bathroom. But the best part about the apartment was the view, especially at night which showed all the lights of the city and in the daytime, we could see the snow-capped peaks of the mountains surrounding the city. Just stunning. There are lots of good cheap options in the city for Airbnb, so I really recommend it if you are here for a few days +.

View from the apartment

We had rented the apartment for just over a week as we wanted to get a feel for the city and also to have some rest as we had been travelling a lot. The city had a great vibe. On the first day, I just wanted to walk around and get my bearings. To be honest, I just ended up getting a little lost, but I was soon found again. For South America, the city felt really modern with some nice Spanish style architecture. The city feels very safe and cosmopolitan. On the next day, we decided to take one of the free walking tours which are available twice daily from Plaza de Armas. The free walking tours team have been doing these tours for some time, so have refined the experience and know how to tell a good story, very worth doing and a great way to get your orientation too.

On one of the other days, we took a walk to the San Cristóbal Hill, arriving there you can either walk up the hill which takes just under an hour or take the funicular to the start of the view. Once you arrive there, there is a bit of a further climb to get to the top of the hill where there is a statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the city, this statue is to Santiago what the Christ statue is to Rio, and of course a great view over the city and valley. Close to where the funicular stops is also a cable car that takes you over the national park in the city. The park seems like a great place for walking and there are many bikers riding their various hills too. From the cable car, you get a great view and a lovely 20-minute ride across the whole park. From the other end, we decided to head to the Gran Torre Santiago, which is the highest tower in Latin America. After a look around the shopping centre on the lower floors we took the elevator just before sunset for a view of the city, and to be honest it was breathtaking. Personally, I really enjoyed the view at night, as the city seems to light up really nicely.

Other than just enjoying the ambience of the city the other thing we enjoyed was visiting the Santa Lucía Hill which was right next to our apartment, this is just a park on a hill, but it seems to take so many little twists and turns and is a real pleasure to climb.

Being Vegan in Santiago:

There are a bunch of options here and Happy Cow has a good number of listings, I was also able to find a few stores where to buy vegan goods like milk, cheese etc, so it was not a struggle at all, of course, it can’t compete with some of the major vegan places in the world, but if you are vegan and coming to Santiago it should not be a challenge at all.

The only real challenge is when you are taken on the tours, you tend to be taken to some restaurant which is not included in the price and the options of vegans are crap. On both the tours, I bought a packed lunch for myself and was glad I did.

Tours outside the city:

We decided to take two tours which were out of the city, one to Cajon del Maipo and the second to Valparaíso. Both tours started early and were a bit of a drive. Going to Cajon del Maipo we had a brief stop at a café on the way before arriving at the viewpoint. When we arrive there it was a little busy and there are clearly tours and private cars coming here all the time. I would not say that it is overly crowded and once you are focused on the stunning views you forget about the people their anyway. The tour brings you here and you get about 30-40 mins to walk around, take pictures etc. After this our tour brought us to a small outdoors sports place, where we got to ride a complimentary zip line which was fun, after this, we were taken to a place for lunch that was not included and was not so easy to organise options for vegans, but they made their best effort.

Cajon del Maipo

On reflection, I would say if you can rent a car and do this yourself. Although the tour guides are very pleasant and do their best to make the experience nice for you, I just would have like to spend more time at the viewpoint and less time doing other stuff. Also, tours do seem to be very highly priced here.

The other trip to Valparaíso was the longest day. We first stopped at a place on the way where a lot of the wines from Chile are produced and you can get some free tasters and the bottles are cheap. From here we were taken first to Viña del Mar, which is a smaller town across the bay from Valparaíso. Here we saw the famous flower clock and was taken to see one of the original statues from Easter Island that was brought to the Chilean mainland. After this, we had a little time to walk along the waterfront by the lake and on to the sea, this was very pleasant and the views were really nice. After we were taken over to the old city of Valparaíso to a lunch place, again lunch was not included and to me seemed a little overly expensive and shitty vegan options. After lunch, we had a guided tour through some of the old cobbled streets and got to see some of the many artworks painted across the buildings. Valparaíso old city is like an artists canvas with so many great murals all around.

After a small walk in the city, we arrived at this really old funicular which took us down to the main square by the waterfront where from here we were taken for a small boat ride. This was the last activity of the day before it was time to head back.

So it is totally possible to go to Valparaíso by yourself from the bus station and it would be cheaper, but what you save in money you would lose out on the number of things you could see and the chance to go to Viña del Mar as well. On reflection, if I could repeat this I would have opted to stay a few days in Valparaíso, take the free walking tour here and spend some time exploring the city.

Chile is stunning and I only really scratched the surface. For sure I want to return, and there is so much to see in both the north and the south. I just hope I can get the chance to come back.

 

Paraguay

I had decided to take a trip to see the Iguazu falls that is located on the border of Argentina and Brazil. However the area is on a tri-boarder line with Paraguay, so being so close I did not want the opportunity to not visit the country, even if this was brief.

Originally I was in this area in 2002 and had planned to cross the border to Ciudad del Esta back then, but I was advised that it was not a good idea as there were gunfights in the city going on with the police. I had walked close to the border area and it felt pretty rough, so I thought it was not worth it. It had always been a little frustrating to be so close and not cross, so now I knew the situation was calm it was the perfect opportunity.

There are various buses that will take you over the border, but the way I decided to go was walking. My wife and I were staying in a hotel on the Brazilian side, so in the morning we got up, ordered and uber and just went close to the border. From here it is easy, there is a bridge that separates the two countries and the core of the city is just on the other side of the bridge.

Walking across we crossed two checkpoints from immigration and with a UK passport, this was so simple. Then getting into the city the first thing you come across are people giving you flyers for discounted electronics, this is what this city is mostly about and Brazilians and Argentines come across to get their electronic goods. After walking around the streets a little I decided to go to one of the places that were recommended in the city which is a mall called Paris. As malls go it seemed quite nice and bigger than any of the others I had seen so far in the city. On the third floor, there was a massive shop that seemed to sell everything from TV’s to sportswear, kitchen stuff the lot. This provided stimulation for all of about 20 mins before I felt like I could be in any part of the world. We then went up to the fourth floor where there was a food court where I took a soda and my wife some aiçi. There I thought this was a pretty terrible activity to be doing, so getting on to our Happy Cow vegan app we saw that there was the only vegan place in the three border region so decided we would go there.

We went downstairs and looked for a cab, there are no ubers or other taxi apps, so it was a matter of negotiating a price. Also, nobody spoke English, so it was a matter of trying your best in Spanish. This means unless you are very strong in Spanish with no accent you are going to get ripped off, but what can you do. Oh, side note; in the city, you can use Brazilian reals, US dollars or local guaraní. So we got into the cab and the driver seemed to have no idea of where to go, so luckily I had a downloaded map and was able to guide him.

We arrived at a place called Loving Hut, which is a kind of semi-religious franchise from Vietnam. The guy there spoke good English and was really friendly. It was a buffet style place where you can either pay $7 for all you can eat or by the plate, which they weigh. While sitting and eating I asked the owner if he knows how we could get a taxi back, which he explained. Then a girl sitting behind us with her boyfriend and friend said they were going in the direction we wanted to go, so if we wanted a lift they were happy to take us. This resulted in us having a chat over lunch and getting to know each other a bit. We connected over being vegan and they explained how new and weird veganism still is in the country, but options are beginning to open. After lunch, we got into the car with these guys who then took us around the lake and showed us some sights on the way. I should add to people reading this, please take great caution in doing this, it is hard to know who is genuine and not, and kidnapping is still a thing in this region. This being said we felt very comfortable with these guys, they appeared to be a friendly young couple that also appreciated the chance to speak English.

They dropped us just north of the lake and we then took a last walk through the city streets seeing some shops on the way. I know and understand that the city still has some safety issues and you need to take great caution, don’t walk around with too many things on you, and try to avoid looking lost and finding your way on your phone. Ideally just walk into a shop or café and get your orientation. That being said people seem to be very friendly.

The 3 cities from each country in the region seem to be very interconnected and have somehow grown into having their own identity, which is not limited by the national borders. It is very easy for citizens of each country to cross the border and people do so very often. In this regard, it felt very nice and I felt more like I was in some special international zone.

Ciudad del Esta is a pleasant little city to visit to get a small feeling of Paraguay. Touristically there is not a lot to see, there are some small falls you can visit and the Itaipu damn which is all free to enter. However, for me, it was just trying to feel the vibe of the city. It was a nice little trip and I was pleased to have the chance to go. I would say that it is cool to visit as something additional to the area.

Rio 2018

This is my second time in Rio, so my view of the city here is also interlaced with comparisons of when I was first here in 2002. First of all I was 24 years old when I was here last time, and now while I am here I am turning 40, so my experience as a traveller as also developed and I think I am not as romantic about places as I use to be, but I am also more confident and more aware of the dangers that I was 16 years ago. Last time I was here I thought nothing of walking off and wandering around in any part of the city. Read one story here.

Me in Rio in 2002

So this time I flew in from Orlando, USA after spending some time with friends there (see this blog here), and came straight to Copacabana where my wife and I had rented an Airbnb. I loved Rio the first time I was here and my love affair with this city has only grown on this second trip. Don’t get me wrong, Rio has a lot of social issues, crime is very high and while we were here the government of the city had put the military in control of public safety after the recent carnival where they were four people murdered. (See my blog on politics in Brazil).

I would find it hard to compare Rio with any city in the world, all the elements are here, the beaches, mountains, a jungle in the city, a big lake, the bay and of course the city itself, the city is truly incredible. Plus the climate is perfect, ok this time of year the sea was a little cold to swim, but on average the temperature is between 25°C (77°F) and 30°C (86°F), with about 60% humidity and a nice breeze, such perfect temperatures.

In the last couple of years I have become a vegan, so finding places to eat and shops to find food is high on my list of things I look for in a city. Here in Rio, there is no problem finding vegan options at all, Carioca’s (people from Rio) seem to be very health conscious, so there are loads of places to get good food, by fresh vegetables and juice places everywhere. Brazilians also seem to be very much into Açaí, berries that come from a type of palm tree, you will find this everywhere, especially by the beach.

View from Sugarloaf

So how is the city? Like any big city, there are areas and zones. In the south, there are three beachside zones, Copacabana, Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca. All these beach places have their own laid-back vibe. Copacabana is the busiest; behind the main street are a number of bustling boulevards where you fill the fast pace of the city, loads of shops, supermarkets, bars, hotels and places to eat. The beachfront is very developed and is the nicest for walking; also the see seems somewhat calmer than in Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca. Although I would say that Copacabana is the nicest beach, the views in Ipanema are incredible, and during sunset, it is incredible to see the views of the dois irmãos (two brothers) mountain. The streets in Ipanema also have a great chilled back vibe, whereas Copacabana feels like a fast pace city, Ipanema really has that beach vibe going for it. As for Barra da Tijuca, this is a very long beach and would take you more than three hours to walk from one side to the other, but if you are looking to get away from the crowds, this might be the perfect place.

Another area I liked in the south is Lagoa, which is the lake behind Ipanema. On the weekend you also have a nice crowd there. What makes Rio great is all the different areas it has, so you can really get a feeling for the different vibes in the different areas. Personally, I really like taking one of the free Rio bikes on the weekends and riding around the lake.

Lagoa, Big Lake in the city

Downtown the popular to visit and stay are Santa Teresa and Lapa that both have their own funky vibe to them and should not be missed. The train to Santa Teresa is cool and from their, you can catch great views of the city, especially at sunset. We took one of the free (tip) tours of the city and this was quite pleasant, it gives you an overview of the downtown and helps with orientation for sure. Copacabana also is a bit of a party place, but Lapa seems to be the place to stay if you are looking to party in Rio.

Getting about the city is very easy; there is a metro that is about Rs 7per trip, buses are Rs 3.60 a ride and there are taxies and ubers everywhere. The city also has a great scheme for getting people to ride bikes. Sponsored by a local bank (Itaú), the bike allows you to ride for up to an hour around the city of free, and then cost Rs 5 per hour after that. To access the bike you just need to download the Itaú app, which will show you the availabilities of bikes near that station. Just go to the station, on your app select that you want to take a bike, it will then give you a code that you punch into near the bike, then you can take the bike and return them to any of the stations along the way. Just before you reach one hour, you can return the bike, wait 15 mins, and then take another bike. There are bike lanes all over the city, and it is so easy to get from place to place. I was even able to pick up a bike in Ipanema and drop it off in the city centre close to Lapa. On Sundays, one of the streets is closed off on the main Copacabana and Ipanema strip, so everybody walks, runs, rides skateboards, roller-skate or ride their bikes. It’s a great atmosphere.

Capoeria with Christ

Of course, the main tourist things to do are Christ the Redema and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Read my guide here on how to do this.

Staying in Rio was an absolute dream and I would recommend the city to anyone, but do check the safety situation before you go. I loved my time there and just having the time and space to absorb the city and feel that Carioca vibe, nothing beats walking up and down the strip in Copacabana which I tried to do as often as I could while I was there. Rio holds a very special place in my heart and I hope it will not be too long until I can return again.

Politics in Brazil

I can’t praise this city enough; I only hope that there can be some conclusion with the politics and crime. Brazil finds itself in a scandal, which is as crazy as the telenovelas (soap operas), which Brazil is famous for. As an outsider looking in it feels like there is a conflict between the more conservative right and the socialist left. For 20 so years in Brazils history (1964-85) the country experienced military rule, which was brutal, especially for the poor. To deal with street children and gangs, a vigilante group who called themselves the Esquadrão da Morte (death squad), known to be funded by the business community and often made up of off-duty police officers, would treat the issue with street children like some cities might deal with an infestation of rats. It was well known that in this period street children were murdered, and the Esquadrão da Morte would carve EM into their chests to show their efforts for dealing with this issue. These gangs of vigilantes and the military made it their mission to tackle crime, and criminals by any means necessary, a legacy which still looms.

As Brazil has moved more towards democracy the socialist movements have taken power in the last sixteen years. On my first visit, there was an election coming up, it was a very exciting time as the world cup had just ended and Brazil won. I remember there being green and yellow everywhere and Rio felt so alive. There were also posters everywhere for the elections and I remember seeing so many for the candidate for the socialist party at the time Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (AKA, Lula), looking to the sky and seeing the stars of the Brazilian flag, with the poster saying something like, Lula has a dream for the country. Lula seemed like a very popular candidate and he did win the election and even served a second term. However, days before we arrived he had been jailed in light of accusations of corruption. Lula had been planning to stand again, and he still has the support of many. But now having served a sentence for corruption charges, this may not be possible.

 

A demo in Sao Paulo

This is so sad, Lula has a true rags to riches story and seemed to really have the interests of the working class, even Barak Obama was said to have admired Lula’s charisma. Even now as Lula is imprisoned, many are protesting for his release.

Many countries in the world have had ideological battles in how a country should be politically run. But South America appears to still have a stronghold on more Socialist leaning governments from Bolivia, Ecuador and until recently Venezuela. All seem to struggle, and it could be argued how internal these struggles are, or how much they are influenced by international politics or even both.

Like in many countries around the world the business and political interests have some blurry lines. A number of national businesses have been accused of giving kickbacks to politicians for green-lighting infrastructure projects that were not always completed. This happens in many countries, but the rate of kick-backs got really out of control putting Brazil into massive debt. This alongside accepting to host the Olympics and World cup in succession of each other seemed to only contribute to the levels of dodgy deals. The games were massively over budget and prioritised building up the infrastructure for stadiums and tourist transport over projects that could have supported some of the communities in need, and people argue that many of the stadiums are now not even used.

Additionally, in the last year, Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff faced and impeachment, standing accused of violating budgetary rules. The country is totally divided on the topic, half feel that all should be equal in the eyes of the law and that if anyone stands accused of corruption of mismanaging state funds, they should be held accountable and face the full brunt of the law. The other side feels that the right wing has been on a witch-hunt to take down the socialist party, who have been victorious in the last four elections. The allegations against Lula and Rousseff are sketchy, to say the least. Rousseff’s replacement, Michel Temer is from the opposing party and according to a national poll, 71% of Brazilians considered Temer’s rule to be “bad” or “very bad. Temer, who was already found guilty of corruption allegations, seems to have a far more chequered reputation than both Lula and Rousseff. However, these charges appear to have been overlooked by Temer’s allies, arguing that these charges should be thrown out because Brazil needs to focus on bringing down the deficit in the budget, and under Temer inflation is down from over 10% to around 2%.

Now again, as a foreigner and having only been here for a short period of time it is hard for me to know what is and is not fake news and what the truth is in any of these cases. What I can say is that I worry about a return to military rule for the poorest communities, and rule from an unelected leader from the opposing party that was not chosen by the people to lead the country. The levels of police brutality are massive, in comparison, the US saw 963 people killed by the police in 2016, whereas in Brazil that figure was 4,224. However, the level of gang violence and crime is also exponentially higher. In Rio one of the main gangs known as the Red Command are taking over large areas of the city, and in a time when people are in massive debt and people just struggle to get by, it opens the door for gangs and crime. As the government’s intervention becomes more militarised and more aggressive, so does the response from the gangs, leaving the innocent people scared and worried. And I can say that as a tourist, despite feeling nervous and intimidated by the huge military presence in the city, I also felt reassured that they were there to keep me safe. This puts me in a massive personal dilemma in terms of wanting to see less military intervention and feeling safe at night walking the streets of the city.

There is a metaphor that goes like this; you have a flooding room caused by an overflowing sink with a running tap. You can focus your efforts on cleaning up the water on the floor, or work on switching of the taps and then think about the cleanup. But here in Brazil, there are so many running taps, and it is hard to locate them. Additionally, it seems that people are installing more dodgy taps. This year there will be a new election and I hope for Brazil’s sake they get a good plumber.

 

 

 

 

 

Christ the Redeemer & Sugar Loaf Mountain

Christ the Redeemer:

So this place is one of the wonders of the world, and as such gets very crowded. When you arrive in Rio there are plenty of tours that sell this as part of a day package, but it is simple enough to do by yourself. Either you can turn up and buy a ticket, or you can buy a ticket online here. Getting a ticket in advance may reserve a spot for you on the earlier trains. To go to the statue there are a few options. You can either climb, take a bus, or take the train. Whichever you do you want to get here early, as the crowds already begin by about 9 am. Taking the train: for a return trip, it is Rs75 (65 in the low season) at the time of this post, they also have discount prices for seniors, young people, students and disabled people. Trains go every 20 minutes and it takes about 15 minutes to get to the top. I would say that this is one of the easiest ways to get to the top.

Taking a bus: So it is more of a minibus than a coach. There are three main places the buses leave from, Largo do Machado (in the square just outside the subway station), Lido Square (in Copacabana – close to Cardeal Arco Verde Subway Station) and Barra da Tijuca (at the Citta America Shopping Center). The prices vary between the high and low seasons, this will be cheaper than the train and could be faster in total.

Walking up: The main trail starts at the Parque Lage, north of the big lake and next to the botanical gardens. Once there you need to find the trail and register with the local ranger so they know someone is on this trail. It’s a steep trail through mostly jungle and will need a reasonable level of fitness to get to the top. Once you get to the top you will still need to pay an entrance fee of Rs22. Bring some sporty clothes for the trek and some good shoes, you will be sweating. This is by far the cheapest way and you will avoid all the crowd for sure, but once you get to the top the crowds will be there. However, at the time of writing this, they had stopped people making this walk as there were too many reports of people being mugged on the way, so check the situation before you decide to do this.

Sugarloaf Mountain:

Like Christ the Redeemer you can join tours or you can do this yourself, I chose the latter as I did not want to be dragged around and rushed at all the places, I wanted to enjoy them at my own time and pace. Also close to the entrance is a national park trail that takes you around the bottom of the mountain and gives you some great views of the coastline. There is also an option to climb the first mountain, but you would need to buy a ticket to take the cable to the second peak.

For Sugarloaf you can simply turn up and buy a ticket at the gate. The price is around Rs85 and they have discount prices for seniors, young people, students and disabled people. If you want you can also buy your ticket online in advance here.  There are two cable cars to get to the top which are included in the ticket and I would say that the best time to visit is just before the sunset, if you have clear skies the views are breathtaking. Very touristy, but very worth doing.

Walking into a Favela – 2002 reflection on Rio

When I was a younger traveller I am not sure if I was braver, more naïve, or just stupid. One of these occasions was when I decided to walk down the Corcovado mountain after visiting the statue of Christ.

I thought it was a lovely day; I had taken the train up, so why not take a nice walk down the hill. The result was I walked into a favela (shanty town) having no clue where I was. Once I realised that this was not a safe area by luck I happened to see a bus. I got onto the bus and calmly asked the driver if he goes into the city, he asked what I was doing around here and told me to sit at the back and keep out of sight. Once the bus seemed to get to a flat area in the city, I thought I must be fine. I got off the bus, crossed the road and proceeded to walk through a park. I remember seeing some women washing their close and thought nothing of it. As I continued walking I past a group of young guys, trying to look like I knew what I was doing I walked straight passed them with confidence arriving to a dead-end. Oh crap I thought, now I have to go past them again. As I got closer I tried to see who looked like the main dude of the group. I speak some Portuguese, so I strolled up to the guy and said, “Hey, how do you get out of this park”. As he pointed me in a direction one of the guys in the groups said, “Yo, we should rob this guy”. Trying to hide the fact I was now bricking it, the main dude said “let him go. We’re chilling today”. As I was walking towards where I was told is the exit, the guy that wanted to rob me came with me, plus one of his friends. He was saying “where you from gringo, Portugal, America?” I said “don’t mind me, I’m from nowhere”, (thinking that somehow sounded cool and confident).

He was clearly trying to intimidate me, giving me a few pushes on the arm in a friendly, but nerve-wracking way. He showed me to a hole in the fence and said, “You can get out of the park here”. I put a bit of money in my hands to place in his and I shook his hand to say goodbye. When doing so I said, “take care the streets is rough around here”. He replied, “What you know about the streets, fuck off”. I then got into the first taxi I saw and said, “Copacabana please”, that was enough adventure for one day. I remember returning home after that trip and reflecting on that experience as I saw a Brazilian movie that had just been released about life in the favela called City of God. Maybe I was fine, maybe I was in real danger, but fuck it, this was not a city to play with. You don’t have no go areas in Rio, you have stay the fuck away from those areas. This is sad because some favelas have great spirit, wonderful people and a sense of entrepreneurship only born out of the need to adapt and build something better for the community.

I will say it was an experience, but not one I was planning to risk again but did in my 2017 trip to the township in Pretoria. Read about this here.

If you are thinking to go to the favelas there are tours that will take you there, but remember this, no tour guide is going to risk their lives for you or catch any stray bullets. In my opinion, going into such areas require permission from people who live there. I am a big believer in contact bringing people together, but here in the favelas, there are still bad feelings towards the government and tourists, especially since the Olympics and World Cup. The favelas are incredibly dangerous, so you have to ask yourself if your curiosity is worth it.