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Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

After a few days of readjusting to life back in the US, we met Amy’s mom in New York. The three of us were first time visitors, and, man, there sure is a lot to see and do in the Big Apple! After spending two weeks in the city, we were able to put together a pretty good list of our favorite sights and activities. Just so happens that after we made the list, we realized that most of these are either free or pretty economic ways of keeping yourself busy in New York; which is a good thing after 15 months traveling the world.

The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is a New York City icon, and walking the bridge on a clear day from Brooklyn to Manhattan is awe-inspiring. It offers amazing views of Lower Manhattan, the Manhattan Bridge, Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. Walking has been one of our favorite activities while traveling, and crossing the bridge on foot was no exception.

Brooklyn Bridge

View of Manhattan Bridge

Grand Central Terminal
Another free site, this transit center is one of the oldest in the country and has been a landmark in New York City for the last 100 years, but Grand Central is so much more than just a place where journeys end and begin. It is home to amazing architecture, art exhibits, shops and one of the coolest classic oyster bars we have ever visited. We are not huge oyster lovers, but with over 30 different types on the menu, you can’t really go wrong.

Amy & Mom at Grand Central Terminal, NYC

Grand Central Terminal, NYC

Oyster Bar, Grand Central Terminal, NYC

Chinatown

Out of all of the countries that we visited during our RTW trip, China was one of our favorites. The food, the smells, the language, the people – all were so foreign and intriguing. Going to NYC’s Chinatown felt quite a bit like stepping back into the real deal. If you are looking for a taste of China, but can’t make the flight across the Pacific, look no further than this little slice of heaven in Downtown Manhattan.

Chinatown, NYC

Corner of Mott and Canal, Chinatown NYC

Highline Park

One of the coolest things about visiting large cities is learning about how they have morphed over the years. Highline Park is just one of New York’s many revitalization projects. The elevated rail system that now makes up the park was built as a solution to the rapidly growing number of rail accidents in the 1930s. Towards the end of the century, the rail line was abandoned, in disrepair and on the verge of being demolished before community members came together to develop the idea of turning the Highline into a park. The park now runs for one mile through the Chelsea neighborhood.

The Highline NYC

Old Tracks at Highline Park

The Subway

NYC’s subway is one of the oldest systems in the world with 34 different lines and almost 500 stations. As public transportation enthusiasts, riding around the boroughs of NYC was like a dream. We know it seems kind of dorky, getting stoked about a subway system, but it really is an amazing public service. Although some of the stations are a bit run down, and it isn’t the cleanest transit system we have come across during our travels, it is probably the most impressive when you consider its age, the cost of a ride, and the extensive routes which it offers. Our tip: if you are going to be in NYC for more than 4 days, buy a 7-day pass. For just $30, it will take you everywhere you want to go for a fraction of what taxis will cost you.

Lorimer Subway Station, NYC

5 Train NYC

R line NYC

Staten Island Ferry

Want great views of NYC from the water? Forget the tour boats; take the free ferry from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan to Staten Island! The trip takes you along-side the Statue of Liberty and offers great views of the Downtown skyline, bridges, and Ellis Island. The Staten Island Ferry is definitely a MUST for any first time visitor to New York.

Statue of Liberty from Staten Island Ferry

Downtown view from Staten Island Ferry

Historic neighborhoods

While the NYC subway system is a sight to see in and of itself, to fully appreciate the city you have to do some serious walking as well. As one of the oldest cities in the US, New York has some wonderful historic neighborhoods which feature classic American architecture and were once home to the country’s founding fathers. Brooklyn Heights and Riverside Park were two of our favorites.

Historic Portland Avenue, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Heights

Easter Parade

Our visit to NYC happened to coincide with the annual Easter Parade, one of the only times when 5th Avenue is completely closed to traffic. We spent the morning wandering down the street checking out the creative hats and costumes people created to celebrate this 140 year old tradition.

NYC Easter Parade 2013

Hat at NYC Easter Parade 2013

Dogs at Easter Parade NYC

Brooklyn Museum

Sure, there are the big museums like MoMA, the Met, the Guggenheim, but we most enjoyed the lesser known Brooklyn Museum. The exhibits are diverse, the crowds less overwhelming and the price (simply a donation in the amount of your choosing) makes it accessible for everyone.

Brooklyn Museum

Mike at Brooklyn Museum

Central Park

Last but certainly not least, Central Park. What an amazing place to have at the heart of a city. We developed an appreciation of its vast size by walking the park from end to end one afternoon, which took us three hours!

Central Park

Amy and Michele at Central Park

View of Central Park from the Mandarin Oriental

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Take a moment to construct this in your mind: white-washed buildings, cobbled streets, tile roofs, wooden balconies and bright flowers peaking over walled courtyards. The image you have just formed probably looks a lot like a typical colonial town in Colombia. Villa de Leyva was the first such village we visited that fit this profile. It was declared a National Monument in order to protect its colonial architecture, and its proximity to Bogotá make it Colombia’s premier destination for reliving the country’s colonial past.

Colonial Colombia

The town’s main plaza is a vast expanse of cobblestones and is claimed to be the largest such plaza in South America. It is the heart of Villa de Leyva and where all the action takes place. Granted, it’s not much action, as the town is home to less than 10,000 people, but the square does come alive during the night time. Locals and tourists alike grab beers from one of the many convenience stores that line the plaza and take a seat on the cathedral steps, a bench or plastic chairs and talk the night away.

Villa de Leyva Square

In rural communities across the world, farmer’s markets are a tradition that date back centuries. Luckily, we visited Villa de Leyva on a weekend, so were able to experience the weekly Saturday market that takes place just a few blocks away from the plaza mayor. It was the best we’ve seen in this part of the world, but we can’t exactly pinpoint why. It certainly wasn’t the largest, and it wasn’t particularly exciting, but there was just something about it. Maybe it was the old man that sells soft-serve ice cream with sprinkles out of the back of his pick-up truck, or maybe the endless supply of huge and juicy mangos. It also very well could have been the stands that sell freshly grilled meats and perfectly fried plantains, or possibly the old, grey-haired cowboys knocking back round after round of cervezas. Regardless, it is not to be missed on your visit to Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva Saturday Market

If you leave Villa de Leyva early, you can reach the town of Barichara in the same day. Much smaller than Villa de Leyva, and nestled amongst green mountains, it is said to be the most beautiful town in all of Colombia. This was the second stop on our quest to soak up the country’s colonial architecture. One person described Barichara as Villa de Leyva’s little brother, and we could see why. It has many of the same design features on the surface, but to us it has a bit more charm and quaintness than Villa de Leyva.

Barichara

From Barichara, we followed in the footsteps of South America’s most famous figure, “El Libertador” Simon Bolivar, and hiked the now famous Camino Real trail between Barichara and the town of Guane. Legend has it that the same route was used by Bolivar and his men while fighting for independence from Spain. The trail descended from the mountain-top and crossed rolling hills occupied by old fincas and enormous trees dripping long strains of Spanish moss. In the distance, we could see the beginnings of the Chicamocha Canyon. If Barichara is the little brother, then Guane is the infant child taking a nap. Don’t get us wrong, it is a beautiful place and has the same distinct architecture as the other two, but we have never been to a sleepier town in our lives. Guane is so small that the locals have names for all the street dogs and can teach you each dog’s family tree.

Barichara to Guane hike

From Guane, we caught the local bus back to our hostel in the slightly more modern town of San Gil. While it lacks the very obvious colonial feel of the other towns we have mentioned thus far, the remnants of its past can still be seen in certain aspects of the city; most notably, the central plaza and church. The plaza still continues to be the heart of the town, and like Villa de Leyva, chilling around the plaza with a beer and people watching seems to be the thing to do on just about any night of the week. As for the church…well you see, we generally get bored when reading about church design (the secondary nave, followed by the Roman double arch formation, etc. etc. etc.) so we can’t really explain it in too much detail, but basically all of  the churches in these colonial towns were constructed with impressively large stones, have high exposed-beam ceilings, contain two rows of columns and arches and have  elaborate altar areas. We know that probably describes about half the churches in the world, but thus far, the churches we have visited in Colombia have all struck us as having a very different feel that others we have seen in South America and Europe.

San Gil

All and all it was a relaxing couple of weeks visiting the colonial towns of Villa de Leyva, Barichara, Guane and San Gil. We have heard other travelers say that these towns are boring because there is “nothing to do” (well, except for San Gil, which is a self-proclaimed extreme sports mecca), but we quite liked the laid back vibe of these places. What defines traveling more than slowing down your routine, wandering through a town slowly, talking with locals and soaking in the history of a place?

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Poor Lima gets used, abused and taken out with the trash. Travelers stop through the city for one or two days on their way to and from Cusco, the entry point to Machu Picchu, and don’t give it the time of day. When we told others that we were visiting Lima for a week, the responses were along the lines of “A whole week, and you’re not going to Machu Picchu? You might want to re-think your itinerary. That is way too much time in Lima.” We are writing this blog post on our last of seven days in Lima, and can now say that we wish we had more time. Why do we love this city? It boils down to nothing more than the diversity of its neighborhoods, the fresh food and the stunning coastline.

Lima, Peru

Lima is a massive metropolitan area that is home to over 8 million Peruvians. The city itself is actually an amalgamation of 30 distinct barrios, or neighborhoods. Most tourists will only visit the Central Historic district, which includes the Plaza del Toros and many important government buildings and cathedrals, and Miraflores, the sea-front neighborhood that boasts pristine parks, high-rise condos and fancy restaurants. While these are indeed two must-see areas, it would be a shame to miss out on Lima’s other barrios. Granted, we were not able to see them all, which is why we wish we had more time here, but we were able to give Lima pretty good run.

After more than a year of traveling abroad, we can say with a pretty high level of confidence that the best way to see a city is not on an open-top, double-decker, tourist bus. The best way to really get a feel for the pulse of a city is to walk. The staff at our hostel thought we were crazy when we told them that we walked the entire coast from Miraflores to Chorrillos one day. What really threw them for a loop was when we finish the story, and they learned that we walked all the way back as well. As we made our way south along the coast, we witnessed the transformation from well-polished Miraflores to bohemian Barranco to Chorrillos, home to pescadores and the where locals go to have a day at the beach.

Coast of Lima

We normally don’t plan to set off on these epic treks; we just end up in a sort of Forrest Gump type mindset. We walk around one neighborhood, sit on a bench, then walk some more, grab a snack or drink, and we just keep on walking until we feel tired and turn around. That is exactly what happened when we ended up exploring more of Lima’s coastal neighborhoods on another day. We journey all the way from San Miguel to San Isidro on another day. This section of the coastline was a different experience altogether; it has some rougher areas and has yet to become a tourist hotspot, which may change once the ongoing land reclamation and greening project is complete.

Lima Coast from San Miguel to San Isidro

By the end of our week in Lima, we had seen the barrios of Pueblo Libre, San Miguel, Jesús María, Magdelena, San Isidro, Lima, Miraflores, Barranco and Chorrillos all on foot. If there is one item that we both wish we would have brought on this trip, it’s a pedometer. Fortunately, there is MapMyRun. While it is not an exact measurement, our best guess is that we walked about 44km in total while exploring Lima.

Lima

By far, the biggest tourism sector in Peru revolves around its ancient Incan ruins, but what many people don’t realize is that the country was home to various different civilizations which pre-date the Incan empire and lasted for greater periods of time. The Inca were great consolidators. They took many smaller civilizations and united them into one society; however, their reign that lasted for less than 70 years. A couple of our days in Lima were dedicated to learning more about ancient Peru and its pre-Incan inhabitants.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, most tourists fly into Lima and head to Cusco as soon as possible; little do they know that the ruins of Pachacamac are at their fingertips, and can be reached by bus in less than an hour from the city center of Lima. We will admit that to fully enjoy this enormous temple complex, it takes a bit of imagination because nearly all of the buildings, roads, temples and shrines were covered by hundreds of years’ worth of desert sand are still being excavated and restored, but the sheer size of the site and its location next to the ocean make for a fun few hours of exploring.  The first buildings in the area were constructed around 200 CE, (about 1,200 years before the Incan Empire) and beginning in 800 CE the great Wari civilization that controlled much of Peru for almost 500 years expanded the temple complex into a major pilgrimage site for worship of Pacha Kamaq, the god who they revered as the creator Earth.

mycollage-12 (2)

Within the city of Lima, visiting the Archeological Museum in Pueblo Libre is another great way to learn about the country’s ancient people. The museum walks you chronologically through the various civilizations that inhabited the area, from the first humans to reach the Americas, all the way to the nation’s independence from Spain. It took us a few hours to see all of the exhibits, and we found the museum to be well worthwhile. Tickets run about 10 Soles ($4 USD), but entrance is free on Thursdays.

While we would have loved to spend more time visiting other parts of Peru, we were thrilled to spend an entire week in Lima. The city is such a great place to visit. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic (especially the ceviche!), the architecture and history are there, and with all the improvements being made along the coast, we can see it becoming one of South America’s top tourist destinations in the coming years. Our suggestion: if you’re passing through Lima, ignore the naysayers and stay for a few extra days.

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There is something special about Buenos Aires. In a similar fashion to our other favorite big cities (which include Istanbul and Tokyo) it plants a seed in your mind, making you slowly start to wonder, ‘maybe I should live here?’ We may have fallen so hard for the city because we spent most of our time there with family. It is easier to connect with a place when you have locals showing you the way; the way to make a proper parrillada, the way to drink mate, the way to enjoy homemade gnocchi on the 29th day of the month, the way to find the best slice of pizza with morrónes. We haven’t written in a while, but we haven’t just been sitting around either. Our last two weeks of 2012 were spent in Buenos Aires, and they flew by as quickly as the year itself.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Our bus from Bariloche arrived in Buenos Aires a week before Christmas, and we were greeted with a huge smile and hugs from one of Mike’s aunts. In true Latin American fashion, Mike has a family with countless tios, primos, and abuelos; it’s often difficult to explain connections between family members. Mike hadn’t seen his aunt in over a decade, and had never met her husband and children before, but we were welcomed into their home for a week and had an incredible time getting to know them better. For Amy, it was a long awaited immersion program for practicing lots of Castellano.

This was our first holiday season spent in the southern hemisphere, so it was a bit of an adjustment. We can’t complain about the sunny days and balmy nights, but must say that it is a lot more comfortable baking pies in the cold of winter. Hot ovens and hundred-degree weather just don’t mix. Christmas Eve tradition in Argentina includes the usual fare of family, food and gifts, with the added benefit of fireworks at midnight! The show far surpassed the size and sound of the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve in the States…combined. After a late night, we woke up “early” around 11am and headed over to another aunt’s house for a Christmas asado (BBQ). It was nice to get out of the city and explore the suburb of Escobar. It was a fantastic day relaxing in the backyard grilling, playing games, chatting and watching the children (more primos) enjoy the holiday. We were particularly excited about the number of different cuts of meat on the grill (seven!) plus provoleta cheese.

Christmas in Buenos Aires

In the days before and after Christmas, we took our time exploring the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Palermo, Puerto Madero, La Boca, San Isidro, Recoleta, San Telmo, Boedo – each one had something different to offer. La Boca, perhaps one of the most visited parts of the city, was a hub for many early immigrants to Buenos Aires and is known for its colorful buildings. While we could have done without the hordes of tourists and very pushy business owners, it was still fun to wander the streets and pick out our favorite houses. The neighborhoods of Boedo and Palermo were a pleasant surprise to us. Neither was on our radar before we arrived, but they turned out to be our favorite places to walk, visit parks and stop for café con leche and medialunas (croissants).

La Boca

We did a whirlwind, self-guided, walking tour one day from where we were staying in Boedo, through San Telmo, across the levees of Puerto Madero, along la Costanera Sur, past the Centro, down to la Boca, and over to Constitución, before making our way back to Boedo. It was a hell of a walk to say the least. We loved the antique shops in Mercado San Telmo, and think that the parrillada stands/carts that border the Ecological Reserve on the Costanera Sur are the perfect place to stop for an afternoon snack or cheap evening meal.

San Telmo y Puerto Madero

On another day, we made the long trek over to the Recoleta area. This part of town is filled with museums, plazas, and vast green parks. We enjoyed something very modern and something very old. The Floralis Generica, an enormous public art installation, is a giant flower in the middle of a reflecting pool, but what makes this particular piece so cool is that the petals open each morning and slowly close as the sun sets, just like a real flower. After scoping out the Floralis Generica, we walked a few blocks to the Cementerio de Recoleta. At first we weren’t sure how we felt about visiting a cemetery for purposes other than visiting a loved one, but once we arrived and saw the tour buses lined up, we knew that there would be many other tourists far more conspicuous than us wondering the grounds. The ancient Greek word Necropolis (meaning city of the dead) instantly came to mind as we entered the cemetery. The tombs, mausoleums and monuments to Argentina’s most famous and wealthy citizens are more like small houses than burial sites. Instead of a grassy space with crumbling headstones, Cementerio de Recoleta is a well-kept gated community with cobblestone walkways, polished marble structures and street lights. If ever there was a place to be buried in “style,” this is it, and following suit, it is the final resting place of Argentina’s iconic first-lady, Evita Duarte Perón.

Recoleta, Buenos Aires

After Christmas, one of our good friends from college, Adam, flew down to B.A. to travel with us for a few weeks. The three of us headed over to the Olivos area to stay with another one of Mike’s cousins. The next couple of days allowed us to see just a few of the areas outside of the city center. Olivos is a pretty quiet and quaint part of the city which is home to The Great Wall of Argentina. Never heard of it? That’s because most people refer to it as the Presidential Residence. We decided to go take a look at it one day, only to find that unlike the White House, the entire complex is surrounded by a three meter tall brick wall. We walked the entire length and couldn’t even get a peek at the place, so we dubbed it with a new name. On another afternoon, we took a bus to the neighborhood of San Isidro, where Mike’s cousin’s grandparents live, to celebrate the 29th day of the month. What is so special about the 29th? It’s gnocchi day! Argentinians, as well as Brazilians and Uruguayans, enjoy a meal of gnocchi on the 29th day of each month. We can’t tell you exactly where or why this tradition originated, but trust us that it’s fun. The homemade spinach and ricotta gnocchi that we ate were to die for. After stuffing ourselves, we hopped on the Tren de la Costa towards Tigre. Tigre is a small town at the mouth of the Río de la Plata and is the perfect place to walk along the water, soak in the sun, buy cheese and watch Porteños drink mate.

Tigre, Buenos Aires

After some crazy New Year’s festivities in the city, and a full day and a half of recuperating, our two weeks in Buenos Aires had come to an end. We haven’t stopped talking about how much fun we had, how much we love B.A. and when we can go back to visit next. It is an easy place to fall for, and we fell hard.

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“What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” -Traveler

“You would have to ask God to know, because I have no control over it.” –Javi, Hostel Owner

We overheard this brief conversation the other day, and we loved Javi’s response. We hear travelers complaining all the time about wind and rain, about it being too hot or too cold, about the sweltering sun and the fog that just won’t lift. But in the end, Javi hit the nail right on the head; no one can control the weather. We were reminded of this when we visited Chiloé, an island in southern Chile, last week. We had high hopes of camping for a few nights and enjoying the ocean. But, it rained and rained and just wouldn’t stop raining. It rained so much and the wind was so relentless that our tent soaked through. Leaving us cold and wet. So what to do?

We made a plan. We learned the mantra “we’ll make a plan” while traveling with our friends in Australia, and it has become a common saying for us over the past few months. When something isn’t going our way, it is useful to vocalize the decision that we’re not going to sit around moping; we’ll figure something out one way or the other! In the case of Chiloé, the weather forced us to change our plans. We ended up spending our second night in an awesome little cabin instead of our tent. Rather than hike, we read our books, wrote a few blog posts, and played cards all day.

Chiloe National Park cabins

While God controls the weather, people control the bus schedules. Unfortunately, like God, those people don’t always give you what you hope for. In a perfect world, we would have spent three nights at the national park in Chiloé, but in order to make our bus connection over the border into Argentina, we had to spend our last night in Castro instead. The benefit of staying flexible with your traveling plans is that you often encounter unexpected things, like the incredible food scene in Castro. While trying to escape the rain (again) we ducked into a small restaurant, which ended up being a really fun lunch spot. We didn’t recognize the names of the daily specials, but decided to give them a try anyway. As a result, we accidentally ordered a hot seaweed salad and ceviche intestines, both of which turned out to be surprisingly delicious.

One of Chiloé’s most well-known features are palafitos (colorful shingled houses on stilts). There are clusters of palafitos all over Castro, and we spent the majority of one day exploring them. While many are old and sagging slowly into the water, it is obvious that tourism has sparked gentrification and restoration of these old buildings. For better or worse, they are a cool architectural piece of Chiloé.

Palafitos Castro

After our culinary and architectural explorations of Castro, we tried to find the most affordable place we could to stay for the night. We were looking forward to a good rest considering the long bus ride ahead of us to Argentina the next day. We did end up finding a place that suited our needs. It was simple, but the price was right. No sooner had we paid the bill, than we looked out the window  to discover that it was right next door to the local prison. Our bedroom wall doubled as the exterior fence. Awesome, huh?

Castro Prison Hotel

Our visit to Chiloé reminded us of that old saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” While we can’t control the weather, or bus schedules, or where inmates are kept in a city, we can control how much fun we have despite the circumstances!

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We arrived in Chile on November 12th and spent the first few days hanging out and recharging our batteries while we waited for Amy’s dad, Dave (a.k.a. Big Dave; named not for his physical stature, but because of his magnanimous personality), to arrive from the U.S. Those first few days in Chile before Big Dave landed, we honestly didn’t do a whole lot; we mostly just walked around town and visited with friends who Mike studied abroad with in 2005. And then Dave arrived!

While we’re sure he would have been perfectly capable of finding his way from the airport in Santiago to Viña del Mar (a two hour bus journey), we worried like parents and promised to go pick him up. But alas, we were late. When we found Dave, he was wandering around looking a bit lost and wondering where we were. In our defense, his flight did land an hour early.

Once back in Viña, we settled into our apartment and made a rough plan for how we wanted to spend the next week. One of the nice things about visiting this region of Chile is that you get three very different cities all in one place. Steeped in history and art, the bustling port of Valparaíso is often described as the cultural heart of Chile. Its neighbor, Viña del Mar is a more suburban coastal city filled with numerous parks, plazas, and gardens. And just a bit further up the coast lie the smaller resort towns of Reñaca & Concón, with their sandy beaches, high-rise hotels, and seafood restaurants.

Being that the apartment we rented was centrally located in Viña, we decided to begin our exploration there. First up was a local market known as a “feria.” Most cities in Chile have some sort of mercado central that operates daily, but they also have rotating markets that take place several days a week in various locations around town. We visited the Sunday Gomez Careño feria in the hills above Viña del Mar. Big Dave loves to cook and is damn good at it too, so we went all out stocking up on produce for our kitchen and fixings for a Thanksgiving feast. The place was absolutely packed with locals buying veggies and fruit. This isn’t the type of market where you buy individual pieces of produce; you buy things by the kilo! Fortunately, Chile’s diverse climate makes it an ideal place for growing many different crops, so the prices can be unbelievably cheap. A whole kilo of kiwis, for instance, will run you less than $1 USD.

We devoted the next two days to seeing as much of Viña as we could. Covering most of the city on foot or by micro (small bus), we definitely hit the main tourist attractions like the Museo Fonck & Flower Clock, but also visited the house where Mike lived during his study abroad and some of the places where he hung out. We walked the coast along Cerro Castillo and Avenida Peru, and we even stopped for completos along the way (a completo is the Chilean style of a hotdog). Dave was particularly excited about trying one at that the restaurant we visited, because it was featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Eating a completo is a major undertaking: a foot-long hotdog, topped with copious amounts of diced tomatoes, a hearty smearing of mashed avocado, and at least a half cup of mayonnaise. Amy tried them twice, and said that was enough.

After a couple of days of walking around and sightseeing, we were ready to relax and enjoy Thanksgiving. This year it fell on Amy’s birthday, which was part of the reason why Dave came to visit when he did. There was no way that the three of us could stomach a whole turkey, but we did cook up a pretty good feast including roasted chicken, artichokes, garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and a surprise birthday cake from Mike. We can now confirm that Thanksgiving tiredness is not because of the tryptophan in turkey, it is from eating way too much.

One morning we set off to explore Valparaíso, and it turned into an all-day endeavor. The metro, which coincidentally opened on the last day of Mike’s study abroad program, is now fully operational, making it easy to commute between the two cities. Valpo’s most noticeable and beloved feature are the hills of jumbled, colorful, tin houses. You can easily get lost wandering through the winding streets and admiring the buildings and unique graffiti. We made our way into the hills to visit the home of Pablo Neruda, a renowned Chilean poet and national icon. He named his house in Valparaíso “La Sebastiana.” The funky architecture and décor made us long for a home of our own that reflects our personalities in the same way that La Sebastiana does Neruda. After that, we walked through the Open Air Museum which is a “typical neighborhood” of Valparaíso. The path led us down to the base of the hills where we ate at the Casino Social J. Cruz. This famous restaurant serves only one dish called chorrillana; another classic Chilean specialty that is just about as healthy as a completo. Chorrillana starts with a heap of French fries, topped with sauteed onions, fried egg, and beef.  While it is impossible to prove, local legend has it that J. Cruz was the birthplace of this tasty treat. After such a gut bomb of a meal, hiking back up another hill would have been too hard, so we took the ascensor up to Cerro Concepción. Before heading back to Viña, we stopped at the brightly colored Café Brighton for an afternoon coffee and incredible views of Valparaíso and its port.

On the morning of our visit to Valpo, we stopped for a brief look at the central market. As we mentioned before, Dave loves to cook. So missing the market was simply not an option. Located just two blocks from the shore, one would expect the market to be filled with fish and seafood, but it wasn’t. In Valpo, there is a separate market for that, so we assured Dave that the next day we would go see “El Tunel.” As promised, the next morning we set-off down la Avenida de España to the fish market that sits right on the border between Viña and Valpo, near the Diego Portales Metro station. Before going into the market itself, we ate an early lunch of fried fish. The market is named El Tunel because it is exactly that, seafood stalls lined up one after another in a narrow, tunnel-like, corridor. When we visited Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan, we thought we had seen every kind of seafood imaginable, but El Tunel still had a surprise in store: the larges barnacles we have ever seen! These things were about the size of a Coca-Cola can and you could see the crabs living inside. After checking out the day’s catch, we headed out back to watch the fishermen feed scraps to hoards of sea lions, pelicans, and a menagerie of other sea birds. It was hilarious watching them swim/fly in mass back and forth between the two piers as fishermen dumped huge buckets of fish guts into the sea.

By this point in Big Dave’s trip to Chile, we had tackled Valparaíso, Viña del Mar and Thanksgiving, but what still remained was the beach town of Concón. We hopped a micro and headed out one day, not knowing exactly where we were going, except with the goal of finding seafood empanadas. If there is one thing that Concón is known for its food, and more specifically, empanadas and seafood. The bus ride was beautiful with amazing views of the ocean and sand dunes. After nearly a week in Chile, Amy’s dad was a pro at riding the local buses and dealing with the masses of people and confusing tariff system. When we arrived in Concón, we tracked down a delicious empanada restaurant and stuffed our bellies. The beach is much more low key than those in Viña and Reñaca, which was a nice change of pace.

Well, that nearly wraps up our time in the Viña-Valpo area. You may not think that the name of this blog is very accurate – did they really chill at all during Big Dave’s visit? In between the sightseeing, we actually did. Our apartment was an oasis of calm, and it was such a treat to unpack and relax together for a week and a half. We had a blast hanging out with Amy’s dad and were sad to say goodbye when he flew out yesterday.

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Despite the many posts that we have made about our RTW trip thus far, there is always so much more to share. Deciding what to write about and what to skip is a constant debate for us, and we are sure that many other travel bloggers encounter the same dilemma. Sometimes we leave stories out because you simply had to be there to get it; other times we choose not to write about a destination because we can’t find the right approach; and then there are the instances where we choose not to write because we’ve been posting so much that we don’t want to overwhelm our readers (or ourselves). The story of our week in Beijing falls into all three of these categories and will be the first in a new series of posts called “Travel Throwbacks” that will include tales of destinations, strange encounters, and of course many photos from past adventures that we have not yet shared on our blog.

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We arrived in Beijing in May via high-speed train from Shanghai.Riding a long distance train in China (or any form of public transit for that matter) is always quite an experience, and this journey was no exception. The landscape between Shanghai and Beijing is barren and dry, almost reminiscent of Nevada in places. As we sped along the tracks, cities began to appear in the distance. Generally the term “ghost town” is used to describe cities that once were, but these ghost towns are cities yet to be. Huge boulevards, sky scrapers, and massive housing complexes sat complete but empty, still waiting for inhabitants. No doubt these cities are meant to help handle China’s enormous population and rapidly growing middle class, as well as to keep unemployment at bay, but it was a strange and eerie sight none the less.

Image Credits: http://financialpostbusiness.files.wordpress.com (top right), Michael Christopher Brown/TIME Magazine (bottom center)

Once inside the city, it became apparent that Beijing is China’s tourism hot spot for a reason – there are soooooooo many things to see. The city attracts not only foreigners, but an immeasurable number  domestic tourists each year. The main attractions are The Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China, but the list also includes the 2008 Olympic Green, Tiananmen Square, the Imperial Summer & Winter Palaces, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, the list goes on and on. Certainly we did not see everything in Beijing, but we think we made a pretty good run at it. So prepare yourself for a very long read…

The Forbidden City

This is probably Beijing’s most well-known and sought-after historical sight. Based on advice from fellow travelers, we showed up an hour before the ticket office opened in an attempt to beat the crowds, but lines had already formed. While we were thankful to be amongst the first to enter the city’s walls, we were still amazed by the sheer number of people flooding through the gates. Although The Forbidden City has been open to tourists for some time, some parts still are forbidden. We were frustrated by the red tape and barriers, but happy to find an amazing view of the entire complex from the hill of Jingshan Park. The walled city is so expansive that you need a panoramic lens to fit it all in one picture.

Tiananmen Square

Situated across the street from The Forbidden City is the famous Tiananmen Square, as well as Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. It felt surreal to walk through Tiananmen Square. We grew up knowing the story of the deadly protest that took place there in 1989, and were moved to experience the surroundings ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, the square is heavily guarded by Chinese military. Unlike most public squares in the world, gathering and loitering here are not encouraged. You have to go through metal detectors and security just to enter the square. There are no benches where you can sit. If you stand in one place for too long, you’ll be told to move along. Yet, there is also a massive electronic display that continually plays propaganda films of a prosperous China with happy people and unspoiled nature. Interesting to say the least.

At the far end of the Square, opposite the Forbidden City, sits Mao’s Mausoleum. If you do not know who Chairman Mao Zedong is, please stop for a moment to find out here. Mao’s body is open to the public for viewing most mornings, and we were interested to take a look. It was quite the experience! We stood in the long, winding line for nearly an hour and, after going through metal detectors, we entered the building. The Chinese people treat this as a religious experience. There are no photographs allowed, no talking, and one must not stop walking. The body itself looks fake, like a perfect wax replica. Perhaps it is, we will never know.

Olympic Green

We took a day off from exploring Beijing’s ancient sites and rode the subway to the Olympic Green. It was fun to see the buildings in person that created such a world-wide frenzy during the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was also exciting to be there just months before the 2012 Games began. The first thing that we noticed was the fact that acres of land must have been flattened in order to open up room for this massive pavilion; we could only imagine the masses of people that roamed the land four years ago. The Water Cube is a true architectural wonder. Its luminescent bubble-like structure make you feel as if you’re swimming in a bath. As we walked away from the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest, we noticed that the Olympic Green sits on a straight axis with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which you can see on a clear day (we were lucky as this is rare in the often dusty city). Overall, visiting Beijing’s Olympic Green made us want to attend the Olympics someday. It has officially been added to our bucket list.

Temple of Heaven

Yet another example of Beijing’s very ancient cultural heritage is the Temple of Heaven.  Located in the southeastern part of the city, this temple complex dates back to the early 1400s and was used for religious ceremonies.  Its primary purpose was to serve as the site for an annual sacrificial offering to heaven asking for a plenty harvest. Rightfully so, the main attraction is an enormous, three-tiered, circular structure known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. An interesting and somewhat comical bit of history that we came across was a small wooden called the Seventy Year Old Door. The story goes that at the age of 70, Emperor Qianlong was in poor health and had a small doorway cut into a temple wall to shorten his walk to the offering sight. He feared that the new door would cause his decedents to become lazy, so he made a royal decree that only those who had reached the age of 70 should be permitted to pass through the doorway.

Surrounding the temple are a series of gardens which are a popular weekend getaway for locals seeking a bit of refuge from the chaos of Beijing’s streets. Families pack picnics and spend all day lounging in the shade, listening to music, playing games and dancing in the squares.

Summer & Winter Palaces

While The Forbidden City is the most iconic Imperial Palace, it is not the only royal residence to be found in Beijing. Trust us when we say that the Summer and Winter Palaces are not too shabby either.  They may not have the labyrinths of rooms, courtyards and corridors that The Forbidden City does, but boy oh boy are they stunning!  The Summer Palace is situated outside of the city center and the grounds contain two substantially sized lakes. There are numerous temples, galleries and reception halls speckled amongst rocky hills, small rivers, cool woods and green lawns. It isn’t hard to imagine why the emperors and their families enjoyed spending the hot summer days in this little slice of paradise.  The grounds of the Winter Palace, on the other hand, are quite a bit smaller (probably because not too many people enjoy leisurely strolls in the freezing cold) and are located right in the heart of Beijing.

The Night Market

Aside from its many tourist attractions, Beijing is also know for a unique characteristic that has been dubbed “hutong culture.” Branching off of the main streets are a maze of small alleys and walkways. Some of the best food and hang out spots can be found in the most conspicuous locations. If you are seeking a taste of the wild side, but aren’t a fan of wandering around in places that aren’t on any tourist maps, then we suggest checking out the night market instead. As is the case with many international cities, Beijing has a happening night market with an entire section dedicated to quick eats. Beijing’s market in particular definitely offers some things that you won’t find anywhere else.  Case in point: skewered scorpions! It took us a few minutes to work up the nerve to give it a go, but eventually we did manage to stomach four scorpions each. Scorpions may be dangerous, but they had better remember who is really on top of the food chain.

Lastly, no trip to Beijing is complete with a day spent on The Great Wall. Just after our visit, we dedicated an entire post to our day of hiking there, which you can read here. We think you’ve probably read enough for the day, so we’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading.

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Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.

The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.

The Isle of Singapore

Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.

After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks.  “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.

The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?

As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.

After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.

Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.

As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…

Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise

One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.

Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster.   It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.

To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.

What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.

Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.

Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.

While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.

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“Oh, you make visa run” was the response of a travel agent when we first inquired about booking a bus ticket to Vientiane. He was a bit surprised when we told him that we actually wanted to stay there. Bangkok, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore are all bustling, world-renowned capital cities of SE Asia, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. And then there is Vientiane, often called the world’s sleepiest capital. For many travelers in SE Asia, Vientiane is nothing more than a place to go to renew their Thai visa. They cross the border and then head back to Chiang Mai or Bangkok the same day. We didn’t have high expectations, but didn’t want to dismiss Vientiane without giving it a try, so we decided to spend a couple days checking it out.

Like many other cities in the region, the mighty Mekong River is at the heart and soul of Vientiane. Here it is very wide and flows slowly beside the city creating a natural border with neighboring Thailand. As if saying “Welcome to Vientiane,” Mother Nature granted us a spectacular sunset over the river on the first evening. The fire-like reds and subtle purple hues in the sky were simply incredible.

Just 30 minutes outside of the city lays Xieng Khuan, known to many as the Buddha Park. It was a hellishly bumpy and dusty tuk-tuk ride to get there, but well worth the journey. The main attraction at this relatively small park is an enormous statue of Buddha lying on his side. When we say enormous, we mean it; the feet alone are about two meters tall! Although it may be a cop-out to say “pictures don’t do it justice,” we’re going to play that card anyway.

On our last day in town before boarding the night train to Bangkok, we felt obligated to visit Pha That Luang, the Great Stupa. This temple is the quintessential image of Vientiane, also featured on Laos’ currency. While not as stunning as the statues at the Buddha Park in our opinion, it too was worth a visit. It is an impressively symmetrical structure and worshiped as the holiest Buddhist temple in Laos due to a sliver of Buddha’s breast bone which is kept as a relic inside.

Our walks along the Mekong, visits to the Buddha Park and Great Stupa, and days spent wandering through markets on a quest to find tasty Laotian noodle bowls were all reasons we enjoyed our time in Vientiane. It is certainly deserving of more than its Visa run reputation, and we would encourage all who come to SE Asia to stop through Vientiane.

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A lot can happen in a week. Since we last wrote, we’ve played with tigers, ridden on elephants, watched knockout Muay Thai, honed our motorbike skills, climbed Thailand’s highest peak, and so much more.  Where did we do all of these spectacular things? A little place called Chiang Mai.

Not so little actually, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand making it somewhat of a “capital” for the northern region of the country. While it doesn’t have the skyscrapers, mega-malls, and constant adrenaline of Bangkok, Chiang Mai still seems to have something for everyone. We easily could have spent a month there, but the tourists visas we acquired at the border with Cambodia were only valid 15 days, so we had to leave before we were ready to say goodbye. Thanks to our friends Daniel and Libby, we got a taste of home and some great suggestions of what to do and see in the city. Here is a glimpse at the different faces of Chiang Mai.

On the Wild Side

Amy is a cat lover through and through, and since childhood Mike has been watching Jake Jabs play with baby tigers on those annoying American Furniture Warehouse commercials; so when we learned about Tiger Kingdom just outside of Chiang Mai, we jumped all over it. As the name would suggest, this place is crawling with tigers! Tiger Kingdom does not drug their animals prior to allowing visitors into the animal enclosures. This is evident from their playfulness and alert demeanor. For our visit, we chose to get in the cage with the little guys. The tiger cubs we played with were 2-4 months old and beyond adorable. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with a plan for lifting one in the fifteen minutes we were allotted, but we did get plenty of pictures.

As Thailand’s national animal, elephants are an important symbol of the country’s culture and history. Chiang Mai is home to numerous elephant sanctuaries, some more concerned with the elephants’ well-being than others. We took the advice of our friends and visited a place called Maesa Elephant Camp, a place that rescues elephants from bad situations and breeds baby elephants to increase the dwindling population in Thailand. During our visit, we saw a 4 month old calf with his mother, fed bunches of bananas and sugarcane to a herd of hungry elephants, and even rode on the back of an old-guy by the name of Poo Somboon. He was 41 years old and carried three of us on his back like it was nothing. The camp even has a daily show where the elephants play harmonicas, paint incredible pictures, and shoot soccer goals. There is no doubt that the elephant trainers love and care for these animals, and we can only hope that the elephants themselves also have fun preforming.

We also got a close look at one of the most dangerous animals around, the Muay Thai kickboxer. You don’t want to mess with these guys or gals. Muay Thai is the nation’s favorite sport and for good reason. We spent an evening watching several fights at a local arena in Chiang Mai. The night began with two female fights then moved on through increasing weight classes of men. Although gambling is technically illegal in Thailand, throwing down a few Baht between friends is common and makes things a bit more interesting. While small, the female kickboxers who started things off fought with great ferocity. The male fighters, on the other hand, were more methodical in their attacks. Unfortunately, the “main event” didn’t even last one round; a knee to the kidney and kick to the temple ended things quite quickly in a knockout.

The Street Food Scene

We can say with confidence that Chiang Mai has the best street food scene that we have experienced thus far in SE Asia. The weekly Saturday and Sunday markets boast endless options of Thai food and other interesting specialties like sushi, Indian and Burmese food. We spent our weekend evenings in Chiang Mai grazing through the stands and ended up absolutely stuffed each time.

Greater Chiang Mai

For those with more than a few days to spend in Chiang Mai, we recommend getting out of the city center to visit a doi (meaning mountain in Thai). We spent one day with our friends driving up Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand. The air became cooler and less tainted with pollution as we scaled the mountainside. Thick fog had engulfed Doi Inthanon that day, and the rain was relentless, but we still had fun walking through some trails and visiting a few waterfalls.

Another more easily accessible mountain is Doi Suthep, which is a short 25 minute drive from the center of Chiang Mai. We rented a motorbike one day to visit the temple that is perched on the top of this mountain, Wat Phrathat. The temple itself is stunning, and the panoramic views of Chiang Mai cannot be beat.

Taking it Easy

After several action-filled days, we were ready for some relaxation. Having heard of the infamous Thai massage, we wanted to give it a try. You can’t walk down a street in Chiang Mai without seeing two or three spas, so it was easy enough to find a spot. We can’t say that getting a Thai massage is the most relaxing experience, but it definitely awakens your muscles and works out the kinks. It’s kind of like visiting a masseuse and chiropractor at the same time.

An afternoon stroll through the streets of Chiang Mai will lead you by countless ornately decorated temples. We spent an entire day just marveling at these wats and stopping for Thai Tea along the way. Turns out that it was Buddhist Lent during our visit to Chiang Mai, so we saw lots of activity at the temples.

There is nothing like a familiar face, especially when you haven’t been home in seven months. This blog is dedicated to our friends Daniel and Libby – thank you for sharing your home with us for the past week and showing us a great time in Chiang Mai! The hours spent playing cards, telling jokes, and sipping coco locos made us feel so at home. The farewell lanterns were the perfect end to a great week.

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