Temples, Tech, and Trekking in South Korea

Over the past year the things that we look for in travel have changed pretty drastically. For one, I’ve found myself seeking out places that will challenge me and push me outside of my comfort zone, but which also afford me the ability to move around and explore safely and independently. My love for travel stems from being able to see and experience life in another place, through another lense. Which shouldn’t by nature be easy, but when it works has led to some of the most humbling, eye-opening experiences that have transformed the way I view and interact with myself and the world around me. Korea – somewhat unexpectedly – ended up being one of these places.

Continue reading “Temples, Tech, and Trekking in South Korea”

Taking a Break in Bari

Sometimes, things don’t go as planned and you just need to hit pause. This is a mentality I’ve been consciously working on accepting this year and Bari was the latest…let’s say opportunity to practice?

The southern port city of Bari was our first stop on a 2-week adventure around Italy. We, like most travelers, ended up there because of it’s convenience as a transport hub rather than any particular draw from the city itself. The one and only ferry line in Montenegro docked in Bari, and from there we could easily hop a train up to Venice to meet our friends.

Continue reading “Taking a Break in Bari”

Spanish Classes and Stray Cats in Lima, Peru

Lima was a last minute addition to our itinerary after Carnival interrupted our original plans to stick around Ecuador, and it turned out to be a great decision. Kyle found a Spanish school with great reviews in the Miraflores neighborhood (Peruwayna), and we arranged to spend a week there taking classes and exploring the city. 

We arrived in Lima on Sunday afternoon after about 30 hours on busses and happily settled in. Upon arriving at the bus terminal we said goodbye to our new Argentinian friend and hopped a cab over to the homestay we had booked through our school. Willie, our host, greeted us at the door (in Spanish) and showed us to our room where we unpacked before taking a quick tour of the neighborhood. We were on a quiet street in Miraflores, a safe, nice area with a young vibe from the local universities. Everything we needed was within a few blocks – the bank, a real supermarket (the first we had seen in weeks!), and tons of restaurants. It was nice to be back in the familiar landscape of a modern city.

The next morning we started our classes. After months off from work it was nice to have a regular routine again, if only for a week: classes were 9am – 1pm every day with a coffee/snack break mid-way through. When we arrived at the school we waited with the other new students and each had a short 1:1 interview with one of the instructors to determine class placement. Nothing like a test on a subject you haven’t studied in 12 years, on the first day of class! 😉

It all worked out though, and we both ended up in classes where we learned a lot. Kyle was in basic survival Spanish where he got a crash course on grammar and learned a long list of new words. I was in pre-intermediate 1, which ended up being more conversational. We had a lesson each day, but also spent a good majority of the class talking as a group, which improved my speaking skills and, more importantly, my confidence in my ability to speak in Spanish. In the end we were really happy with our decision to take the class. We’re certainly not fluent, but we can now at least get by without constantly having to ask “habla ingles?”

 

This mall has great views and you can watch people paragliding over the cliffs.
This mall has great views and you can watch people paragliding over the cliffs.

Our class schedule left us with the afternoons free for long almuerzos, exploring our neighborhood, and generally catching up on life. On our first day out we tried the local drink (pisco sour!) from one of the outdoor restaurants overlooking the ocean. We also booked a city tour on the double-decker Mira Bus where we got to see downtown Lima and the San Francisco Cathedral and Catacombs. Other highlights included hanging with the cats at Parque Kennedy and checking on pre-Incan ruins in the middle of the city.

Getting There

 

We arrived at the Guayaquil bus station early Saturday morning to the biggest mess of people we’ve seen at a transportation hub. And having flown through major US airports during snowstorms, hurricanes, and holidays, that’s saying a lot! We had to push, squeeze and shove our way back to the Cifa ticket window to pay our 50 cent exit tax amongst crowds of holiday-ing Ecuadorians and a number of loud chickens. Luckily, the guy behind the counter remembered us from the day before and we were able to squeeze in when the window opened and get our stamp in plenty of time to catch the bus.

We encountered the second mob of the day later, at the Ecuador-Peru border. It was our first boarder crossing on a bus and we didn’t quite know what to expect, but we definitely were not prepared for the 2-hour long line outside the customs office. It took so long for everyone on our bus to get through that we ended up ditching the bus and hopping a cab with a guy from Argentina that we had made friends with earlier, just so we could make our next bus to Lima. Hooray for friends that speak fluent Spanish! Happily, it all worked out and we made our bus, which ended up exceeding our hopes with full cama (180 degree reclining) seats, 3 decent meals a day, and personal TVs at every seat. Go Civa!

Stay

 

We opted for a homestay through our Spanish school, and it turned out to be a great way to experience the neighborhood. Willie, our host was patient with our (lack of) Spanish skills, and it was nice to have the use of a kitchen again.

Do / See

 

Gorgeous Cathedral and Monastery with Catacombs
Gorgeous Cathedral and Monastery with Catacombs

The Catacombs and San Francisco Monastery are a must-see. The history in both is astounding: a library with books dating back thousands of years, huge intricate paintings and tapestries, and underground caverns filled 20 meters deep with bones.

Some of the 25+K people buried here
Some of the 25+K people buried here

The Mira Bus tour itself we had mixed feelings on. It was a great way to see the important areas of the city without the effort of trying to figure out cabs or busses. However, it was pretty expensive, and with traffic in Lima being the worst we’ve seen yet we spent a lot of time inching along smog-filled streets.

We also missed out on the Plaza del Armas, because there was a demonstration going on and the police power to keep people (including tour busses) away was intense with machine-gun armed guards and tanks blocking surrounding streets. In summary, I would probably skip Mira Bus in favor of a private tour, or take cabs directly to the sites we wanted to see.

In Miraflores alone there was a lot to do and this was where we spent the rest of our time. One of the coolest spots (in our opinion) was the ruins from the pre-Incan city of Huaca Pucllana.


Our first pyramid
Our first pyramid

It was a quick walk from the place we were staying, and admission included a guided tour of the ruins, an archeological site that’s still being explored. If you’re looking for a treat they also have an on-site restaurant that’s highly rated. The dining area overlooks the ruins which are lit up at night, and the dinner reservation includes an after-hours tour.

 

One of Kim's many new furry friends
One of Kim’s many new furry friends

For cat lovers, Parque Kennedy is not to be missed. It’s one of the main parks in Miraflores and home to about 150 stray cats and kittens. It’s unclear exactly how they got here (some claim that a nearby church brought the first cats in to deal with rats in the ’80s), but they are now a staple in the neighborhood. Locals come to pet them on their lunch breaks, and there’s a group of residents that come twice a day to lay down food and water. After our first trip here we bought a bag of cat food from the supermarket and returned the next couple days, sneaking food to our new furry friends while park security looked the other way.

 

Another favorite place was the coast in Miraflores, with amazing views from the shops and restaurants built into the cliffs, and tourists paragliding overhead.

 

Eat

 

Once again, we were big fans of the menu del dias. Most of the restaurants in Miraflores offered a set lunch menu for a decent price. Barranco Beer Company was one of our favorites, with a 2-course meal and local beer. It was a long walk from Miraflores, but absolutely worth it for the food and the ocean views along the way.

 

Drink

 

We had our first Peruvian Pisco Sours here and were instantly hooked. It’s the national drink made with Pisco (of course), lime juice, sugar, and egg whites. Yum! We also tried out the local beers – pretty standard for a cheap local brew. The beer at Barranco was much better. For wine, we grabbed a bottle of Peruvian Blanco de Blancos, a white blend from Taberno at the supermarket. It was surprisingly sweet, but perfect for desert.

 

Lessons & Tips

 

  • Beware Carnival. All countries have their own version on different dates, and it effects everything. While I’m sure the parties can be fun, don’t count on getting anywhere on time unless you’ve booked far in advance.
  • Taking the time to (start to) learn the local language was absolutely worth it. It helped us feel more comfortable going to less touristy restaurants and less like self-centered Americans that expected everyone else to learn English. And it feels great to be able to do basic things like direct a cab driver, or check in at a hostel without expecting the other person to speak English. I’m continuously amazed by all of the Europeans we meet that speak 3 or more languages.
  • I am very grateful for California’s smog regulations on vehicles. The exhaust from the Collectivos (mini buses) was intense and left me with a perpetual sore throat.

 

Current Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
A few more photos:

 

Many of the streets are lined with amazing murals like this one
Many of the streets are lined with amazing murals like this one
Punch buggy blue, no punch backs!
Punch buggy blue, no punch backs!
Lots femurs stacked
Lots femurs stacked
The pyramid was a burial mound for the local inhabitants
The pyramid was a burial mound for the local inhabitants
It rained so little here they built this pyramid out of mud bricks stacked like this
It rained so little here they built this pyramid out of mud bricks stacked like this
#Tobywashere
#Tobywashere

Guayaquil: A Tropical Paradise

Malecon Iguana
Malecon Iguana

Ok, maybe “Tropical Paradise” is stretching it a bit. But Guayaquil has such a bad rap that I felt I owed it to this not-so-bad city to help boost it’s ratings.

Before arriving in Guayaquil we did our usual internet research and everything we read seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: spend as little time as possible in Guayaquil. Portrayed as a crime-ridden city with lackluster food and little in the way of entertainment it seemed to fall short on all levels. The consensus was so strong that I was certain we’d be lucky to make it out of the city without getting robbed, mugged, or at the very least coming down with a severe case of boredom.

Maybe we set the bar so low that it was impossible for Guayaquil not to exceed our expectations, but we were actually pleasantly surprised by the city.

When we arrived at the airport customs / immigration was fast and efficient. We were pulling our bags from the conveyor belt and heading outside to the clearly marked taxi area in no time. Moreover, there was a giant sign and airport official directing people to the taxis to ensure that passengers were taking official, licensed cabs. No sign of the sketchy fake cabs that were all over the internet.

El Carmen Hills
El Carmen Hills

Things continued to look promising as we got into our cab and headed for our hostel. A giant monkey sculpture greeted us as our cab drove through the tunnel to downtown Guayaquil. The city itself was pretty drab, aside from the colorful houses that dotted the Santa Ana and El Carmen Hills. However, our hostel was in a great location, right on the Malecon, a pedestrian pathway decorated with trees, flowers, restaurants and street vendors, which stretched a few kilometers along the Guayas River.

bad posture
Working the night away on the balcony.

We only had a few days total in Guayaquil, and much of it was spent catching up on email, blog posts, photos, and dealing with some issues back home. In the time that we did have free, we tried to take in the sights and explore the neighborhoods surrounding our hostel.

One thing that struck me about Guayaquil — it was the first city we had been to where tourism wasn’t a central pillar in the economy. There are pros and cons to this, of course. On the plus side, you can experience what it’s like to actually be a part of this city, outside of the glitzy facade that tourist-centric areas put on; this is one of my favorite aspects of traveling. On the other hand though, we definitely stuck out everywhere we went, and both sightseeing and food options were pretty slim.

In Kyle’s words “It was a city like any other”.

Getting There (and Away)

It was a quick flight from Panama City into Guayaquil, only a couple hours with no layovers. We were a bit anxious on the way to the airport when our taxidriver decided mid-route to drop a friend off at her home and got us stuck in the worst traffic jam, but all turned out alright. Much easier than when we tried to leave…

While in the Galapagos we learned that Carnival is a national holiday in Ecuador and goes from approximately Feb. 13 – 18. Most businesses are closed Monday and Tuesday as Ecuadorians escape to the local beaches for the long weekend. This threw a bit of a wrench in our plans as we had hoped to take Spanish classes in Cuenca, Ecuador that week. When we found out the school was closed for carnival we reassessed our plans and instead decided to head to Peru early to escape the chaos and take classes there instead.

Fresh Flowers
The bathroom at Guayaquil airport had fresh live flowers, one of many niceties not seen in the States airports (electrical outlets also outnumbered people at least 20:1!).

We landed back in Guayaquil from the Galapagos on Thursday 2/17 and immediately hopped a cab to the bus terminal to purchase our tickets for Friday’s overnight bus to Lima. The bus terminal was part of a giant 4-story mall and it took us awhile to find the ticket windows. When we did, we quickly realized that Carnival was going to be a bigger problem than we thought — all direct buses to Lima were booked solid until Sunday afternoon. It takes 22 – 26 hours to get to Lima which meant missing our first day of classes.

Refusing to accept that Carnival once again ruined our plans, we continued asking around and were eventually pointed in the direction of the CIVA ticket window, a company we hadn’t heard of, but at this point we were desperate. After sharing our story with the guy at the ticket window (Necesitamos ir a Lima para clases de espanol en lunes a las ocho de la manana!) he confirmed that all of their buses from Guayaquil to Lima were also full, however if we could get ourselves to Tumbes, Peru they did have a bus that left Tumbes at 4pm on Friday, arriving in Lima around 11am Saturday. Finally! Hopeful, we hurried over to the Cifa (another bus company) ticket window and purchased two tickets to Tumbes, leaving at 7am the following morning.

Back at the CIVA window, feeling extremely proud of ourselves for figuring this all out (in a foreign language nonetheless), we presented our tickets to the guy that helped us concoct this plan only to find out that the Friday bus from Tumbes to Lima was full. Apparently it didn’t occur to him to check this before directing us to purchase our tickets for that day. Luckily there were still a couple seats left for Saturday and we were able to shuffle everything around to make this work. We would have one extra night in Guayaquil, but still make it in to Lima for our classes on Monday.

Stay

Manso Boutique Guesthouse
This cute hostel is located right on the Malecon (waterfront). They have spacious rooms for all types of travelers, from low-cost dorms, to comfortable rooms with a private bathroom and TV. They even offer complementary sea salt scrubs with their bath products, and ear plugs (not that you need them here). Add to that A/C, free filtered water, and great shared spaces with hammocks and it makes for a more than sufficient place to crash for a few days. Breakfast is included and they usually serve lunch and dinner a la carte from their mostly vegan menu.

Do / See

Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneous
A free museum with a surprisingly wide variety of exhibits, this is a great place to spend a few free hours. It’s situated at the end of the Malecon, with a view overlooking the Guayas river. The first exhibit we checked out was a brief overview of Ecuador’s early history, including local artifacts that dated back to pre-Incan times. The second hall featured paintings from an Ecuadorian artist. The entire gallery was dedicated to his work and it was really interesting to see how his style and subject matter changed over time, spanning both local landscapes and everyday life. Next to this were two modern art exhibits, one of which featured work by students and local artists that took shapes and patterns from ancient artifacts and turned them into modern art pieces. All of the exhibits were in Spanish, but we were able to figure out most of it.

Malecon
Malecon 2000

Malecon
It’s obvious that the city put a lot of time into making this a safe, pleasant place to spend time. The gardens were well kept and full of flowers. There were even some land iguanas hanging around! We went for a few walks here and it felt safe day and night.

Guaya River
Floating up and down the tides of the Guaya River.

Being right along the Guaya river you can watch as all the leaves and water plants flow up (and then back down) the river with the tides. At times it was so congested it was hard to tell where the shore ended and the river began.

9 de Octubre
The main avenue in the city, this is a great place to check out if you want to get a feel for what it’s like to actually live / work in the city. This street starts at the Malecon and runs perpendicular into the city. It passes through a couple plazas and a park full of vendors and locals. Along with the usual city park vendors there were (a lot of) clowns, what looked like a school marching band, and photographers with props that included a 3-foot tall lion toy.

Eat

Coffee & Sweets
We visited this Starbucks-clone a few times with consistently good results. It’s an Ecuadorian cafe chain with decent coffee and a pastry section that would put Starbucks to shame. Pie, breads, cakes, flan, mouses, all made fresh on-site. Yum!

Menestras del Negro
A popular fast food restaurant with traditional Ecuadorian food: chicken, fish or beef with rice and beans. It was ok for a quick cheap bite, but not outstanding. I would guess this is what most foreigners would say about McDonald’s or Burger King…

Rasaca’s
This restaurant is located right on the Malecon, near our hostel. Although it was touted in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor as one of the better restaurants in Guayaquil, we were unimpressed. The prices were on the higher side, our server neglected to bring us one of the drinks we ordered, and Kyle ended up with an upset stomach. On top of that the waiter told us our credit card wouldn’t work so we paid in cash, only to find out later that the charge had gone through. My assumption would be that our waiter justo keyed the cash assuming we’d never notice…not cool.

Parilla Grill
We found this grill right around the corner from our hostel and it turned out to be our favorite dinner spot in Guayaquil. Most of the meat dishes come out on mini charcoal grills that are delivered right to your table. While it was also the most expensive both the food and the service were excellent.

Drink

The areas we explored didn’t seem to have much in the way of stand-alone bars. It seemed that most people either had their drinks with dinner or went out to other neighborhoods after. We did try one local brew though, a beer that was made and sold at our hostel. It turned out to be too metallic for our tastes — which was probably a good thing for our wallets!

Tips and Lessons

  • Guayaquil was our first introduction to electric shower heads. Instead of turning on the hot and cold water via taps, you select hot, warm or cold on the shower head which uses electricity to regulate the temperature.
  • Unless you’re going to celebrate Carnival, avoid it like the plague. If you are going to celebrate, book everything ahead of time!
  • Guidebooks, blogs, etc only go so far in preparing you for a place. While its good to do some research it helps to also approach a new place with an open mind, something we’ll continue to work on.

Current Location: Ica, Peru