Month: April 2018

Don’t go to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile!

You won’t read this in your guidebooks, on the contrary. While there are many great things to say about the Lonely Planets of the world, the further they will usually go in denouncing the impact of tourism on some places is to characterise it as « transformed by tourism ».

Why you shouldn’t go to San Pedro

Don’t get me wrong, San Pedro de Atacama does offer beautiful views, lovely nature and is full of charms. It is however condemned if we keep on coming in such large numbers. Estimates predict that the underground water supplies will be dry within 40 years. To be fair, tourism is not the only culprit: lithium production in the salt flat is also putting a strain on water supplies. There is however nothing we can do about that.

« 40 years, that’s a lot! » you might say. Sure enough, foreign-owned tourist agencies that overcrowd San Pedro, as well as the tourist crowd will move on, pretty carelessly. But San Pedro is originally inhabited by andean tribes that have made this place their home for centuries. They worship the mountains, and hold sacred most of the sites tourists roam through on a daily basis. For them, moving away will be tragic, one last blow in a long series of abuses suffered since the Spanish conquest. How about we finally learn to be decent people and just skip this spot on our tours?

The alternatives

Salar de SurireParque Nacional Lauca

 

 

 

 

It’s all the more easy to skip San Pedro that you can find very similar sights just a few hundred kilometers above, in the northern part of Chile. Near the towns of Iquique and Arica, the Parque Nacional Lauca, the Salars de Huasco and Surire are equally gorgeous but staying in these cities is not an environment and cultural problem. They are costal cities where you can base yourself before taking tours that will bring you there at a lower environmental cost and no negative impact on the lives of local people.

You will also enjoy a lot less crowds, quite possibly being on your own at some of the sites and you’ll have an equally rewarding experience with a clearer conscience while at it! Tempting right?

South American ATMs with free withdrawals for foreigners

There is not much more frustrating than having to pay to get access to your own money. Free withdrawals are therefore always a pleasure enjoyed all the more while traveling, an act that sadly usually means you are emptying your bank account faster than the time it took Rey to master the force (I know… That fast, right? It can’t be!!).

Anyway, from my travels in most of South America, here are the places to stop by and get your cash out free of charge (on the local bank’s side that is). For the cheapest access to your money while traveling, check this other article on the best banking services and techniques out there to avoid paying too many fees.

Argentina

Sadly, the banking system in Argentina is real bad, super state-controlled and over-regulated to avoid capital flows out if the country. Even locals get hammered with fees so there is no avoiding it for foreigners. You’ll find Redlink ATMs and especially the ones from Banco Nacional de Argentina to be cheaper than the other Banelco ones. Expect to pay 6-8 euros a withdrawal still with a limit on how much you can take out (about 2000 pesos – about 90 euros in April 2018). Best exchange some cash here tbh.

Uruguay

Similar to Argentina in so many ways, withdrawals here suffer the same fate. You do get a slightly smaller fee but still too much for my taste. Exchanging money (dollars or euros) is still your best and cheapest option here.

Brazil

logo Bradesco black letters, red and white logo Bradesco bank is your friend!
 


Chile

logo red with white letters and logo of ScotiabankScotiabank is your friend (but not a friend you’ll always find easily…)


Bolivia

logo mercantil bank, green background with logoBanco Mercantil de Santa Cruz rocks your boat! You can get dollars there too.


Columbia

logo blue letters BBVA on white backgroundBBVA will do the job just right!



Peru

logo BCP, letters in blue, white backgroundBCP is your Best Choice in Peru! 😉



 

Now it is worth noting that I have had feedback that depending on the card or depending on your bank, other ATMs might work free of charge for you. My experience is based on using Mastercard with N26 or Revolut banks, new online services, super cheap for traveling that do not belong to any international banking alliances. I therefore assume nobody should have a different experience in the banks I mentioned but some might have more flexibility to go somewhere else. I also did not try all the banks out there so feel free to give it a go when you can’t find the ones I mentioned.

Happy travels, long live opportunities to spend money where it makes us happy!

The art of making coffee in the Columbian Zona Cafetera

I’ll admit right now now, I don’t like coffee, don’t need it to get my head out of my bum every morning or to keep me going through a long boring day at work. Amazing, right? Well my secret to do all this is well-guarded so don’t bother asking. 😉

That being said, I am a curious man, and visiting Columbia, it was hard for me to stay away from the gorgeous Zona Cafetera, its peaceful colonial villages and amazing valleys. Hard also not to visit one of the local producers (called fincas) and learn more about this thing that makes so many of us act like the most dangerous junkies if they don’t get their regular dose of it (we’ve all had that colleague/friend that would bite your fingers off if staying too long without coffee, right?).

Read this and you’ll be able to show off to your entourage next time you have a cup of coffee. It’s barrista time!

The plant

  1. There are 17 different species of coffee plants found in nature. Through experimentation, a lot more varieties have been create by man by cross -breeding species. Arabica is the most famous species.
  2. The average plant lives up to 70 years. To boost production, plants are cut down almost entirely every 7-10 years to grow again and provide the best yields. After 3 cycles, the plant is usually replaced.
  3. It takes on average 4 months for a plant to grow its fruits with adequate weather conditions. That means you can harvest grains twice a year usually, 3 when lucky.
  4. First, flowers bloom on the branches and fades. After this first growth comes the grains, green at first and then red once ripe for harvest.

flowers blooming on a coffee treegrains growing on a coffee tree branchripe coffee grains ready to be harvested

 

 

Working the grains

Once harvested, the process of cleaning, drying and roasting the beans starts. I witnessed the artisanal way of doing things so what will come next might take more time than industrial methods for this.

  1. The red shell of the grains is removed and beans are washed several times to remove the juice they are surrounded by.coffee grains been washed
  2. Whiteish beans are then put in a greenhouse to dry for about a month under the sun.
  3. Once properly dried, another smaller shell is removed to finally uncover the bean as we know it.
  4. The beans then enter the very delicate process of roasting, which will give them their familiar black color and make the smell and flavour come out.
  5. Roasting takes about 40 min and is very tricky because of burned bean will contaminate the flavour of the surrounding beans.
  6. There are 3 levels of roasting – low/medium/high – which affects the flavour. The more you roast a bean, the more bitter it will get and the least caffeine it will have (but decaf is not an over-roasted bean, they use chemicals for that).

coffee grains drying under the sunCoffee grains without a shelf, ready to be roastedCoffee beans roasted and ready to be grinded

Conservation

There might be some shocking news here, for the careless conservationist, this will be like a wake-up call, you’ve been warned!

  1. Coffee does not like oxygen, it loses its flavour and properties if left out in the open.
  2. Beans can be kept up to 4 month if properly sealed after each use.
  3. Powder coffee will lose all its properties and flavour if left 1 day out in the open. Sealed properly after use, it can last up to 2 month.

Degustation

  1. Ideal water temperature is 95 degrees Celsius for coffee so after boiling water, wait one minute before filtering it.
  2. Filters are the best traditional system to drink coffee and to ensure all the flavour and properties of the coffee are transferred into the drink. Pre-infuse the coffee powder with a little bit of water (wait 30s) before pouring down the rest.
  3. Expresso machines are apparently pretty bad at getting the most out of the powder cause the pressure system they use doesn’t allow a proper transfer. It gives an unbalanced coffee as the experts say. You mostly get the external properties of coffee (flavour, etc.) and not the internal ones (caffeine, etc).

I hope this article helped you understand better the art of coffee-making and will allow you to enjoy your daily cup even more.

Have a nice cup!

The top 5 things to do in Argentina

Many people associate Argentina with Buenos Aires, wine, financial crisis (for the nerds) and of course… Patagonia and the end of the world, Ushuaia! There is however much more to discover.

Argentina is huge, and its size brings both challenges and amazing opportunities for travelers. It’s better to be there for a month (or more) than 10 days but either way, here are a few suggestions on the top things you can experience in Argentina. I won´t only be sharing places but also food and drinks you can discover to live as local a life as can be. For a more general overview of Argentina, check this article.

panoramic view Iguazu falls

1. Iguazu Falls

The “Cataratas de Iguazu” sits at the border between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina in the north east of Argentina. 2h by plane from Buenos Aires (more expensive) or about 20h by bus (usually cheaper). You can stay in cool hostels in the town of Puerto Iguazu that has regular buses to the Iguazu National Park or even sleep in the much fancier hotel inside the park.

Argentinian side of Iguazu fallsThe Argentinian side of the Falls is the one that has the most to offer for the price of the entrance ticket (500 ARS, about 20 euros). There you can easily spend all day hiking through different falls (the park has about 200 of them), taking the little train all the way to the edge of the Garganta del Diablo, the biggest, and very impressive fall. Standing at the edge, on a platform, seeing thousands of liters of water come crashing in front of you, is an experience that you will not forget. Before you know it, you might even find yourself staring at the fall in wonder for a good hour.

view of the Iguazu waterfall

Do take the time, the second day to go on the Brazilian side. Buses from the bus station in Puerto Iguazu take you there directly and border control are pretty easy, you just might have to wait for the next bus to come through so take your stuff with you when leaving the bus. The Brazilian side has one main activity for the price of the entrance fee (another15- 20 euros): a one-hour hike to the Garganta del Diablo that gives you a panoramic view from the bottom, equally impressive as the Argentinian side but just different. The enormity of it all strikes you more as you bathe in the perpetual rain that the fall creates around its bottom.

If you are into man-made constructions, Paraguay has one of the biggest dam in the world nearby, the Itaipu Dam and you will also find tours from the Argentinian side to visit it. There is nothing to see on the Paraguayan side of the Falls as far as I know.

Pumamarca, 7-color mountain

2. The region of Salta

Verdoyant road to Cachi

The north west of Argentina was a big surprise. It is truly an amazing place. First, it is the cheapest place in Argentina so that’s a big thumbs up. But more importantly, the region has an amazing diversity of mountainous landscapes and valleys that will not let you unmoved. Every 40km or so, you find yourself in a completely different place, leaving a verdoyant valley, where red rock contrasts with green pastures to a desert-like sharp-edge mountain range. Fields of cactuses, multicolor mountains (the most famous being the 7-color and 14-color mountains), and numerous gorges, falls and other natural wonders are all there for the taking. The best way to discover them all is by renting a car in Salta Capital and making your way north and south of it but if you are pressed by time, hostels and tour agencies offer daily tours from Salta Capital to both norht and south so take your pick.

Salt flats of Salinas Grande

Cafayate in the south is the second wine-region of Argentina after Mendoza. It offers the more greener parts of the region altough you’ll still find colors in some valleys as well as pretty desertic parts. Do make your way to Cachi from Salta Capital if you can, the landscapes that will unfold in front of you will be worth it, even more than the charming, colonial-looking town of Cachi.

El Hornacal, 14-color mountain

The north, towards Purmamarca and Humauaca is where you will find respectively the 7 and 14 color mountains (called Hornacal). Hornacal is a 45min ride up to 4350m to see the mountain range while the 7-color mountain sits right by the lovely village of Purmamarca. There is also a salt flat, Salinas Grandes, that is best enjoyed with the rising sun but you will only be able to do that if you have a car. It was truly marvelous, watching the mountain come to light, perfectly mirrored by the lakes, creating surreal sights in front of our cold but amazed eyes.

Mountain top panorama

3. El Chalten in Patagonia.

This one will be short, I did not actually get to see it this time around but the reports I got makes me want to share this with you.

El Chalten mountainPatagonia is huge, so choose wisely if you have limited time. It is also both in Argentina and Chile and we can battle to figure out which side is better. Torres del Paine in Chile is apparently one of the greatest place you can go to but requires planning and booking in advance, check it out. When it comes to the Argentinian side, I would recommend, especially if strapped for time, to go to El Chalten/ El Calafate and the massive glacier Perito Moreno that is nearby. It seems to be where you will be most mind-blown, although Ushuaia certainly has a lot to offer as well. More up north, Bariloche in the Lake region is truly beautiful, with also great hiking opportunities but if you have ever been to the Alps, it will not look anything particularly different. It´s like being in Switzerland, chalets and chocolate factories included.

4. Asado with Fernet con coca

large Argentinian AsadoArgentinians love meat, like they eat crazy amounts of it. While they have a surprising apetite for “Milanesa” (battered meat) that you can find with beef or chicken usually, the best experience you can have is the “asado”, the Argentinian barbecue. Parillas are the restaurant that will offer it to you but beware, if they advertise a parilla for 2, you can be sure that there is enough to eat for 4. If you want any vegetables with it, you will have to order them as extra. They eat everything in a cow here, so you can try heart, liver, lungs, guts, blood sausages (the delicious morzilla!), etc. The typical parila will not offer you any of that though so do ask for it as extra if you want to try.

The best way to try asado is however to be able to fire up the grill and share a good time with locals and tourists alike. Hostels, especially away from big cities usually have a grill and organise asados regularly so do ask the reception. Grills will usually be advertised by the hostel in their description online. If you get to do that, be patient, the meat is cooked very slowly and you probably won’t eat before midnight. It’s well worth it though.

bottles of Fernet and coca with a glass

One of the most traditional thing you can drink while waiting on the meat to be cooked is a cocktail of “Fernet con coca”, an herb-based alcohol diluted in Coca Cola, served with a lot of ice. It might feel bitter at first but it will grow on you, promise! The most Argentinian thing you can do is make a very large glass and pass it around the party, refilling it as guests get more “joyful”. Ice is usually the first thing you run out off so buy a big bag.

5. Wine

Argentina is a big producer of wine, like its neighboor Chile. There are mostly two wine regions: Mendoza and Cafayate. Wine was brought in the country by Spanish and French immigrants. While I don`t recommend visiting Mendoza, if you go to the Salta region, do stop in for a degustation in one of the local wineries near Cafayate. Called “Bodegas”, they will let you try both red, wine and possibly rose and if lucky, you might even get to munch on some delicious goat cheese and lama salami. The local white wine is the Torrontes, either dry or sweet and they have different reds to try.

However, irrelevant of where you are in the country, local shops and restaurants will sell wine so don’t miss out on this opportunity and try them out, with moderation of course!

The best travel apps you can get

Without your usual 4G connection (and even with it) and surrounded by the unknown, there are a few life saving travel apps you can get when planning your trip that will make your life a lot easier. The list below tries to focus on the type of apps rather than recommending a specific one as we all have preferences and taste that vary. I inserted a logo when I felt a particular app was truly better than the other ones available. Find the one app you like best for each type and have a great trip!

1. Offline maps

maps.me logo

There are always times abroad where you find yourself wondering where you are, how you got there and how in the heck you are gonna ask a local to get back to a place you know. While offline maps should not be a substitute for the wonders of human connections, there are times when they are complete life savers.

I recommend Maps.me, probably the most famous app among backpackers. It relies on OpenStreet Map, has details about hostels, sights, transport stations, etc. It is therefore much more people-friendly that downloading offline Google- or AppleMaps which you can also do if you are a supporter of big capital and economical monopolies.

It works very simply. You download the map of the region you will be in and can use it any time after that, until you delete it to clear space on your phone. GPS works and can be used when driving your rental car, trying to figure out which bus stop you need to get off at or getting by foot to a worthy sight of your choosing.

It is truly a precious tool.

2. Photo backup storage

Be it Dropbox, GooglePhotos, Icloud or what not, it is very, very handy to have all your photos backed up in the cloud. During travels, phones break, get lost or stolen more often than at home and the last thing you want is to combine the emotional pain of losing both your best friend and your memory at the same time. Backup storage also allows you to delete pictures on your phone to make some space once you’ve uncontrollably taken pictures of your smug little face in front of every other thing you saw. There’s always a new selfie opportunity around the corner so don’t miss because of a full storage space.

3. Note-taking app

If you are just a little social, you’ll inevitably bump into someone that has been where you’re going next on your trip. These people are full of recommendations about the best party hostel in town, the less touristy part of the national park, the uncovered treasure no travel guide will mention. More often than not, these places will have weird, unfamiliar names. The amount of information might also be too big to remember. That’s where you should draw your app faster than a bullet and start writing down all that precious information. The database of treasures you will create will enhance your trip and experience manyfold.

I can recommend Evernote, Google Keep or just your simple note-taking app that every phone should have. Depends if you wanna be able to access it from different devices or share it.

4. Traductor

The days of the paper dictionary are limited. Why carry a potentially heavy and large paper version of what you can have in your phone, more user-friendly and guaranteed to always be in your pocket? Google Traductor lets you download languages so you can use the dictionary offline. It is very handy but not always super accurate. I’m researching better apps but this one already provides a helpful hand in most situations.

5. Language app

Duolingo logo

When you experience the genuine joy and happiness that illuminates the face of a local the minute you trily to mumble a few words in their language, you’ll pick up such an app and start learning some basics. Duolingo is world-famous now and is the only good app I know you can use for free. If you are willing to pay for the Premium version, which is only a few coins per months, you’ll also get access to the lessons offline.

6. Shazam, forever!!

shazam logoProbably the greatest app ever invented, Shazam will be extremely useful if you are a music-lover, eager to discover the local genres and artists. At the sound of an outstanding tune, Shazam will allow you to log it in your playlist and save it for later pleasures. Most places you can hear music have wifi nowadays but even if not, Shazam saves the info and finds you the artists later. Don’t leave without it!

7. Currency converter

Especially when traveling across multiple countries, currency converters can be very useful tools. There is always a time you can remember which currency is worth what, or wanna find out how much the local currency exchange is trying to screw you with big commission. Especially if you are bad at maths, this can save you a lot of money. Just make sure to have updated rates if using it offline.

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