Category: Travel

A look at wonderful Bolivia

A brief overview of the political situation

Bolivia, much like most of the American continent, is a place whose history will bring about tears to those empathetic enough. Probably one of the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, it is currently the poorest country of the continent thanks to centuries of authoritarianism that benefited only a chosen few.

Thankfully, things are improving now since Bolivia elected its first indigenous (understand “native”) president, Evo Morales, more than 10 years ago. The country is now called the Plurinational State of Bolivia and with that change came a stronger recognition of the historical origins of the country as well as more rights for its many ethnic groups. While president Morales does not seem to want to leave power, it is undeniable that the average Bolivian now benefits more from its country’s wealth than ever before.

The Bolivian Culture

Bolivia, along with Peru, is the most “authentic” country you will be able to visit in South America. Contrary to most other countries on the continent, the majority of the population is from pre-colombian origins, Quechua (the language of the Incas) or Aymara (the language of the empire before the Incas) are still spoken today and old religious practices and beliefs survived colonization and Christianization.

Lama fetuses for sale in the witch market

lama fetuses for offerings

You will, for example, find a “witch market” in the capital, La Paz, where you can buy everything you need to make offerings to Pachamama (mother earth) to bring you luck and good karma, that includes fetuses of Lamas, as big requests demand big offerings (like building a house). A local story tells of the practice of human sacrifice for the construction of large buildings. Homeless people can apparently be lured into a party, where they will be offered free alcohol until so drunk they will never wake up again and will end up buried under the construction site of such buildings.

Fashion

The local women dress in a mix of modern and traditional fashion with a colorful multi-layered dress usually accompanied by a bowler hat too small for their heads. The fashion of wearing what would be considered men’s hat in most of the rest of the world apparently comes from a shipping mistake back in the days that left an entrepreneurial Brits with hats to small to sell for men and which he managed to sell off to local women as cutting-edge fashion from Europe. It worked so well it is now an essential element of a local woman’s neo-traditional outfit.

A local “cholita” (as such traditional woman are called) usually carry around a large colorful piece of fabric that is used to carry on their shoulders everything from large quantities of fruits and vegetables to babies. The amount they can carry is impressive and the street saleswoman trying to sell you a scarf will usually astonish you with the amount of other products she pulls out of there in an effort to lead you to a purchase. Respect!

It is worth noticing that men do not wear much of a traditional or neo-traditional outfit however.

Traveling across Bolivia

Sunset from Isla del Sol

Sunset from Isla del Sol

Traveling around Bolivia is awesome. It is not used to having that much tourism and therefore only very few places are geared for it. You rarely feel oppressed by local tourism agencies trying to sell you tours as you walk the street (hello Peru!) or that you are walking into a village that transformed itself to cater to the foreign crowd (hello San Pedro de Atacama, Chile!).

People are authentic; they are not overly nice but not particularly aggressive either. Yeah, they are normal, basically, potentially curious but otherwise rather intent on minding their own business while you mind yours.

It is better to speak Spanish to get along nicely as very few people speak English. You’ll otherwise have to make a good old use of the international language of using your hands and facial expressions to demonstrate your willingness to communicate. A fun experience always!

Patience is required in Bolivia (like in most of the continent), mini-buses leave when full, not whenever they were supposed to leave, things don’t always look as advertised, and you are usually guaranteed positive or negative surprises at one point or another of your trip. This makes it all the more rich and human however and you will usually come out of the experience happy to have witnessed it (like coming to a city under local blockade to protest some policy, great for the cultural experience, demanding for your feet as transportation in and out gets extremely disrupted).

What you will find in Bolivia

Hiking down the snow-covered Huayna Potosi mountain

view from 6000m high

Bolivia also boast an impressive diversity of things to do and of landscapes to see. It has a respectable chunk of the Amazon forest to visit in Rurrenabaque. You’ll be able to choose your pick of technically-accessible mountains to hike up to, reaching more than 6000m without requiring mountaineering experience, a few hours from La Paz. For adventure junkies, going down El Camino de la Muerte on a bike is a thrilling experience (People used to die when this was still a road for car but now bikers mostly get broken bones and only occasionally do some die in a fall of several hundred meters, it adds to the fun but stay away if you are naturally anxious about safety and risk-prevention).

view of the Cathedral in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz

Cities offer different charms as well, from more colonial Sucre to very bricky La Paz (you’ll understand what I mean the first minute you arrive there). Santa Cruz is the more modern, Western-like city and can be the beginning of your trip that will give you a progressive acclimation of the Bolivian way. Potosi will however show you the more ugly side of Bolivia and its history, do visit the mine with old miners but be prepared for a potentially traumatising experience.

Giant ferns in parque nacional Amboro

Elechos Gigantes

You’ll also get more natural parks and amazing nature to walk in that you can possibly hope for. Parque National Amboro near Brazil and the Amazon displays the very rare Elechos Gigantes, ferns that look like old wise men (they also take hundreds of years to grow) and can only be found in 3 places in the world. The gigantic Salar de Uyuni, salt desert of epic proportions and its surrounding regions will show you mountains of colors you never knew existed in nature and geysers and natural baths to relax around.

Lago Titicaca, mythical place in Inca ideology, especially for being the birthplace of the first Inca emperor. The chilled and beautiful atmosphere of Isla del Sol (the Sun Island) and the local dishes of quinoa and trout will provide you with a great opportunity to rest after more demanding activities.

In a few weeks, you’ll be able to go from sea-level to record heights, cross several different climates, each with their own culture and local dishes as well as gorgeous nature. The only thing missing in Bolivia is access to the ocean which was taken by Chile a few centuries ago, you’ll however not be left wondering what to do and will actually probably wish you came for longer to enjoy fully all this beautiful country has to offer.

It is definitely my favorite country on the continent and is also the cheapest country on the continent so well big up for that as well!

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.

Let’s talk about Carnaval!

Carnaval! This word is a special one, it immediately transports us in a magical place where we imagine ourselves letting go of so much of the social pressure that usually constricts us, where we can go as wild as nature intended and let go of some steam.

In a Latin American context, Carnaval usually means Rio, with Christ wearing a party hat and opening his arms up to give us his blessing for the madness about to go down. Well if you think that the Carnaval is only celebrated in Rio, you couldn’t be more wrong.

(Just) a little background

Carnaval is celebrated all over Latin America. Yes, Brazil gets particularly into it but it is not even in Rio that Carnaval is most important, it is in Salvador (more up north). Outside of Brazil, neighbouring countries such as Uruguay and Paraguay also get pretty into it but really, in February, you’ll find Carnaval celebrations everywhere on the continent.

There is some debate apparently on the origins of Carnaval, whether it was brought by the Christians or an expression of the cultures of local indigenous tribes and the large slave population on the continent. What is for certain however is that celebrations vary and that it has now become more than any one culture’s expression.

Brazil

In Brazil, my experience of Carnival is that it revolves around 2 things: huge street parties/festivals and samba parades.

Samba parades

The different school of a town will compete for the title of the best samba school and the amount of efforts to prepare the parade is simply mindblowing. I am not sure if the rules of the competition are always the same but in Florianopolis, here are the main ones:

  1. You need at least 900 dancers in your parade
  2. Parades last 1h10, anything longer and you start losing points
  3. You need a theme for your whole parade (the winner in 2018 chose the history of… Basil… Yes, the herb. So it can really be anything!)

Here you can find the parade of the winner of the Florianopolis parade 2017.

As far as I saw, you also must have 3 huge parade floats but I’m not sure it is a rule. Anyway, the majority of people in the parade don’t dance much, it’s like any club you’ll find around the world, a few people dance the night away, hips bouncing, arms flying while the majority just shakes their body from one side to the next. One reason for that is the fact some school struggle to get their 900 people and recruit anyone from the community on the day of the parade. So if you are a lucky foreigner with a local contact, you can get into the parade fairly easily and for free. All you will have to do is mimic your comrades and fit into the costume while lip singing on the song created for your school’s parade. Easy!

Street parties

Nothing you haven’t seen at your local street party here. The military police does the security so we have soldiers just like in Europe and alcohol flows generously. The main theme for costumes seem to be for guys to dress like girls and and girls to dress like sexy-whatever (nurse, angel, devil, etc.). The music is different as there are a large quantity of official Carnaval songs that are played over and over but you will also probably hear some Brazilian Funk. Nop, nothing like the Funk you know, forget about James Brown, Tower of Power or the likes, this is electronic music, inappropriate lyrics and an engaging beat. Sounds familiar? Yes, it is a locally-flavoured commercial music.

Uruguay

Now if you are the shy type, the kind that likes juice over beer and watching over doing, you’ll enjoy the Carnaval in Urugay much more. It is more artistic, much more diverse and a lot less inebriated-party intensive. While there are also samba parades (called Desfiles de Tambores), they involve a lot less dancers and a large crowd of enthusiastic drummers, you will find a series of shows available as well. From musical satires about the past year’s events, to dancing competition, singing competitions, there are more than 7 categories I think for artists to compete and offer the public quite a show.

Montevideo, the capital, is where the most activities take place but other cities in the country also celebrate it in a smaller fashion.

Other famous Carnaval destinations

The North of Argentina also offers an apparently famous carnaval in Humahuaca where devils roam the streets, asking people for gift in exchange for good luck in the coming years. In Oruro, Bolivia, the otherwise dull town apparently rises to the occasion and transforms itself in a colorful parade of elaborated costumes with endless festivities. Anywhere you will be on the Latin American continent on a February, there will be an unforgettable Carnaval experience nearby.

Find the Carnaval that suits you

So if you’re dreaming of going to Carnaval or if you always thought this was not something for you, do take the time to look past Rio de Janeiro. Do a little research, figure out your options and go have a great time. It is a very rich cultural experience, you will learn more about the local culture, its mixed origins and how they collided to create the beautiful celebration you are witnessing. Carnaval can be almost anything that you’d like, small or huge, quiet or mad, artistic or alcoholic and so many options in between!

Don’t wait for me Argentina! (but I’ll be back)

What I discovered about Argentina

Let’s talk about food (always!!!!!)

Kingdom of slowly, very cooked meat (asado), Argentina is not what I expected. So carnivorous that they could make a fierce Balkan man feel insecure, their appetite for meat is as enormous as their use of GMO in the vegetables they produce. Here, if hungry, people think meat before anything else (if anything else) and vegetables usually end up in your plate more as decoration than actual food to eat…

There’s a very economical reason for that too. Meat is kinda cheaper than vegetables… At least, it is much cheaper than what we would pay for it in Europe. You can therefore carelessly indulge in a full-meat diet and not have to suffer the consequences when looking at your bank statement.

It is also fairly safe to say that the slow food/organic movement, save for the more wealthy neighbourhoods, has not made its way here. What matters is that food looks good and tastes good, not whether chemicals made it so or not.

Drink-wise, well, there is mate. Argentinians are crazy about it, they drink it more than water, at all times of the day, while shopping, walking in the streets or just about any activity you can think of. Mate is a sort of tea that you drink with a metal straw in a special cup that you filled up almost all the way to the top with the tea, hot water is inserted in small quantities at a time so you´ll always see the mate drinker holding a thermos with him/her. It is highly social as you usually pass it around until the thermos is empty.

Mine is bigger than yours… or is it?

Argentina is huge, like 8th-biggest-country-in-the-world huge. You’ll easily spent 20h in a bus trying to get somewhere and after you’d make it to Moscow from London, you’d still be in the bus here trying to reach the edge of the world. Check that world map in your toilets if you don’t believe me, bathe in the reassurance that my previous statement is some ignominous fake news, then go ahead and throw that map in the toilet… Our western-centred map are just that, western-centred. They use the Mercator projection of the world (check this video and prepare to be mindblown) and it makes it look much smaller than it is (and that applies to the whole Latin American and African continents). Flying is therefore the less-budget friendly but way faster way of traveling to places, and the only viable option if you are traveling to Argentina for a couple weeks and want to see some of Patagonia (although the north is really worth it too). For example, just going to the Igazu gigantic waterfalls takes about 18 hours from Buenos Aires (but 2 hours by plane).

Let’s talk culture

However, there seems to be a rather uniform culture across the land, whether you’re in the mountains of Patagonia, on the coast around Buenos Aires or in the wine region around Mendoza. Only the north west, closer to Bolivia has a stronger identity. The reason for that is actually another unexpected thing about Argentina… It doesn’t really have any natives anymore… Think USA and you’ll get a fairly good idea of how it is here. Original Indigenous folks of various tribes make up for less than 10% of the population, plus an extra 10-15% of mixed Spanish/Indians and you get a country where most people come from Europe (Germany, Italy and Spain on top of the list). The newer waves of migrants are Asians, predominently Chinese (and Trump doesn’t like…) so you’ll find Chinese supermarkets and restaurants just like at home.

This means everything in Argentina feels very… well… familiar. Western. Spanish priests and French immigrants brought in wine-making, Germans seem to have inspired a vibrant beer culture (although nobody seems to need the Germans for that anymore, micro-brew is the new hype) and people eat at similar times than Spanish people: that is way too late… European cars are everywhere, places and streets have names of immigrants who “discovered” them or settled there and so you regularly wonder why you’re walking down the avenue “Otto Bermberg” or hiking up to “lake Schmoll” next to the “Swiss Colony”.

This of course leads to a very interesing mix of cultures, like drinking Italian Fernet Branco with American Coca Cola. It also means that you’ll find a pizza place more easily than an empanada fast food joint. Don’t expect a cultural discovery like you would get in more indigeneous Bolivia or Peru but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it!

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme the money!

Economically and socially, Argentina is quite something, no wonder Ernesto Guevara said “Che” (“Hey” in Argentinian) so many times it became his name… In a similar fashion to most of the continent, you better be born in the right family here… Inflation is so high (about 20% per year) it is apparently useless to save money, shops rarely accept credit cards but when they do, it is usually with offers to pay in “up to 18 times without fees”. Salaries are renegociated every 6 months and so is your rent…

Probably the glue that keeps it all together, the public welfare system can be considered generous, education is free and you have a decent access to free medical care as well as state subsidies. It explains why, contrary to neighboring Chile for example, the informal economy is not overgrown, and you don’t see so many people in the streets selling everything and anything. The new government seems intended on applying the same old neoliberal policies that increase inequalities and break solidarity mechanisms everywhere though so this might change rapidly.

In that sense, a tourist only here for a couple weeks would probably miss that aspect of Argentina altogether, feeling like it is a modern, developed nation like the USA or Western Europe. Talking to young locals though, it is definitely a situation that limits their future prospects and encourages short-term decision-making and quite the complicated way to go about life.

Still trying to recover from the financial crisis of the early 2000s and the subsequent IMF-inspired sanctions on the country’s social system, currency controls are high here. Foreign money influx are highly regulated and making a bank transfer from abroad is apparently super complicated and requires quite some paperwork. ATMs also have limits on how much you can withdraw at a time and charge a hefty fee to foreign cardholders. It makes traveling slightly more complicated as walking around with hundreds of dollars or euros in cash is not super safe…

Things are expensive too, and high taxes on imports make anything foreign equal Norwegian prices (aouch indeed). This is apparently changing slowly under the new (neo)liberal government as some of the protectionnist measures of the past seem ridiculous given the lack of national industries to protect (like with computers and phones) but for now, buy your cool e-gadgets in the US or Asia instead. The average Argentinian (wealthy enough to travel ndlr) has therefore developed the habits of bringing home everything and anything they can, from clothing to computers and the likes, because it is a lot cheaper.

Pepper spray or not?

There is no major insecurity in Argentina however, especially compared to Brazil, where simply walking with a recent smartphone is apparently enough to get mugged. Here, while you need to be the proper amount of careful, you shouldn’t have to worry about taxi drivers mugging you, militias kidnapping you or any of this sort of things the continent can sometimes be famous for (do tell that to your parents, it’s a worthy argument to make!

 

So Argentina is definitely a country full of charms, Patagonia is a wonderful place to get lost in mountains, hike and camp and forget about the world. Wines here are delicious and food is tasty enough (I´m French so that´s a compliment). It´s not a budget holiday and you´ll need a sizeable transport budget to see more than one place but I have enjoyed Argentina very much and I am sure you will too.

Fighting the bank’s rip-off: traveling with limited fees

Facts

  1. Most banks charge hefty fees for using your credit card abroad, in another currency
  2. By the time you get charged by your bank, changes in values between currencies can add to the bill
  3. Withdrawing abroad usually involves an additional fee from the local bank or ATM companies
  4. In the Eurozone, none of these things happen (+1 for the EU)
  5. Walking around with a boatload of cash is never a good idea, especially abroad
  6. What I am about to share sadly is not yet available everywhere in the world…

So how to overcome this?

Fintech has the solution!

Fin… What? Nop, it is not Finnish banking, nor a company using fishes to transport your money. Fintech is how new technologies and companies operating in the world of finance and banking are categorised. A lot is happening on that field, mostly to make banks richer and leave us still pretty poor but there are a few interesting things out there, especially when it comes to international traveling and limiting the cost of banking operations, in a trip, savings matter!

New credit cards providers who don’t charge fees on international transactions

Over is the time where you could only get a credit card from your bank, after a lengthy process comparable to that of the state bureaucracy. Now, all it takes is about 10 minutes and an internet connection and you can create an account and order a Mastercard debit card for free. Sounds like even a better deal than what your bank is offering? Yes it is, and there’s more!

I only use 2 of these providers but I have heard of others too so don’t hesitate to do a quick comparative search on your DuckDuckGo/Lilo/Ecosia browser (and do some good to your privacy, the world or the planet while you’re at it):

Both work slightly differently and I won’t go into details here but here are the main features that should make you want to go for it:

  • Free account and Mastercard debit card,
  • Zero fees on payments, irrelevant of the currency,
  • Zero or small fee on withdrawals
  • Transactions are processed instantaneously and appear on the app,
  • An app that allows you to control everything you need (block card, change pin, transfers, payments/withdrawal limits etc.).
  • They can also offer travel insurance that is usually cheaper that what you would get elsewhere and have a few other side services worth checking out.

New money transfer services with limited fees

  • Azimo: to get cash out without using an ATM

You all probably know Western Union, if only by name. Well if you ever had to use it, you know it is very, very expensive. Luckily, new companies are changing the landscape, offering much cheaper options to collect money in cash abroad. I know of only one but there must be others or there will be, times, they are a changin’! This is a great tool to circumvent the ATM machine and its (usually) higher transaction cost, plus in countries like Argentinia, where there are limits on how much you can take out of an ATM machine, it gets really useful to save some cash. Depending on what methods of payments you use and the country you are in, it can take as little as 30 minutes before you can go pick up your money.

How it works:

  1. Create an account on the app,
  2. Connect it to a credit card (or you can pay by money transfers, it is longer to process),
  3. Choose a country, look at the available options for picking up your money,
  4. Make a payment and go pick up the cash at the pre-defined location.
  5. At the time of this article, it costs 2,99euros per transaction, irrelevant of the amount sent.
  6. It is also worth noting that they do not use the most updated exchange rates so you can pay an additional, small hidden fee there.

This one does not allow to pick up cash but it is (usually) much cheaper that what your bank would charge you to make a transfer abroad. This can come in handy if you have a friend in the country that could withdraw cash for you or to pay for some services that do not offer credit card payments. They also introduced a ¨borderless account¨ that apparently permanently solves your problem with inter-currency fees but I have not tried it so I won´t comment on it.

That´s all folks!

There are probably a few more services available out there, or new ones that will be created in the near future so do spend some time researching if you are embarking on a long trip or are a frequent traveler. While this services are great, you should still always have a stash of dollars or euros somewhere for emergencies. With these options though, you will already have saved quite a bit of money, safeguarded your savings account for the next trip and made your life easier while traveling, and who doesn’t like spending more on fun than on banks?

Feel free to comment and add services and share around so we all participate in the banking revolution that destroys borders and frees the flow of people all throughout our beautiful world.

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