Sunday, December 28, 2008

Internet in Latin America

The vast majority of hostels that I've stayed at during my travels in Latin America have had broadband and WiFi. In fact, that's one of the criteria I use when I select a hostel. Having WiFi for my laptop makes all the difference in the world. Most hostels also have a computer or two for the travelers to use.

There are also many locutorios in almost every city. These are Internet Cafes and usually also have telephones. You use the computer or telephone (you can usually call anywhere in the world) and then pay at the front desk on your way out.

It just occurred to me that it might be useful to share what Internet speeds I've encountered during my trip, so I'll post the ones I remember here (not many) and I'll update this post as I think of it.

  • Buenos Aires, Argentina (download) — 3Mbps
  • Salta, Argentina (download) — 1Mbps
  • La Paz, Bolivia — 650Kbps / 116Kbps
  • Tupiza, Bolivia — horribly slow
  • Lima, Peru — 450Kbps / 140Kbps
  • Quito, Ecuador — 460Kbps / 122Kbps
  • Managua, Nicaragua — 440Kbps / 170Kbps
  • Puebla, Mexico — 1Mbps / 180Kbps
  • Durango, Mexico — 786Kbps / 95Kbps

To test your Internet speed, use It's great.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Update From Latin America

I know some of you are wondering where I am. I haven't been updating my blog regularly, as I've been moving fast, and photo editing and writing the blog take loads of time. There will be a lot of blanks I'll have to fill in after I get home—which should be in less than two weeks.

I'm currently in Puebla, Mexico, with my friends Tim & Barbara-Lee Glessner. If you want to see where I am at any given moment, either look at my facebook status or check my travel map. I try to update both of those regularly.

The remainder of my trip may look something like the following: go to Mexico City tomorrow for the day, go to Tequila for a day, go to Durango for a day, head up to Los Mochis and take the train through Copper Canyon getting off in one or two places for a day (horseback riding?), then take a bus to Ciudad Juarez, cross the border, and hitch a ride to Seattle.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Walk for Your Food

Quesadilla stand in Puebla, manned by two women. Although this happened to me in Puebla, Mexico, it could've been any Latin American city. Wherever you may find yourself, I recommend you do what I did.

My friend Tim had dropped me off in downtown Puebla to walk around some, take some pictures, and just get to know the city a bit. He was going to meet me several hours later and we would decide what else to do then.

Before he took off, he had pointed me in the direction of a market where I could find a bathroom, so that's the first place I went. Like many of the toilets in Latin America, there was no toilet seat, but unlike many of the toilets in Latin America, it actually flushed. At a fair number of the baños you'll encounter in this neck of the woods, there is someone who works there who has a 50-gallon drum of water—or a hose—and a 5-gallon bucket that he uses to flush the toilets manually.

After relieving myself, I proceeded to the cathedral—which has the tallest towers in Mexico—and to a few other churches. By this time—probably an hour-and-a-half later—I was pretty hungry, so I decided to find some place to eat, which brings me to the point of this post, really nothing more than a simple travel tip.

I wanted to find a small outfit with good, cheap, authentic food. That meant getting away from the main plaza where the cathedral was. I normally just look for a hole-in-the-wall, an uber-small restaurant where locals are eating. I headed back toward the market where I hoped to find such a joint.

On a street corner in the same neighborhood as the market, I found a nice looking place. It looked like a candidate. There was a menu sitting on a table near one of the large, airy, entrances. I picked it up and gave it a quick once-over. A quick scan down the price column told me all I needed to know: 50, 70, 90 pesos. Coke: 15 pesos (probably a 355 ml glass bottle). I continued with my original plan and went a bit farther, arriving at the market. At either end of one of the aisles of the market were vendors selling food.

I approached the metal cart and stood by, as they were currently cooking for those who were already standing around and had ordered. The cart had a large, thin, circular plate mounted on top—a cooking surface—which was quite far from flat from years of hard use. This metal disc was raised several inches above the surface of the cart to make room to build a fire underneath. Red-hot coals were working on my behalf, firewood and oxygen for the cooking of my meal.

They were cooking only a few different items, not too different than loads of the food you'll find in Mexico—tortillas with stuff inside. The lady grabbed a fist full of dough, plopped it down onto a cast iron press, closed the handle forcefully, opened it back up and rotated the now-tortilla-shaped dough a bit, then pressed again. Upon opening the tortilla maker once more, she removed the thin, round, uncooked tortilla from between the two sheets of wax paper and threw it onto the steel griddle next to the other tortillas that were already cooking.

I didn't understand the names of all the ingredients that were at my disposal. She pointed at another guy's quesadilla and asked if that would work for me. It looked like what I wanted so I told her to go for it. The meat, a beef, was called chorizo, and the cheese that was used was very stringy, but nice when melted. There was some lettuce thrown in and some salsa for a bit of twang.

I paid 14 pesos for this freshly-made delight. That's about a dollar.

There was a guy standing by the stand who had just finished his food and was sipping a bottle of pop. I asked him if it was cold. "More or less," he said. I felt one of the bottles of Coke that was sitting in the plastic crate next to us and it definitely wasn't too terribly frosty. I asked him where there was a store and after some grimacing and squinting he pointed to the next corner, verified by the cook. I walked the block and bought a chilly 600 ml Coke for 8 pesos.

Moral of the story? When traveling in Latin America, get away from the tourist spots, look for the tiny joint where the locals are eating, save your money, and enjoy a treat. I've experienced the fruits of this bit of extra labor countless times during my trip and it's worth the walk.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

The bus station in Oaxaca, Mexico.I had only one day to spend in Oaxaca before meeting up with my friends Tim and Barbara-Lee Glessner who are missionaries in Puebla, just over 200 miles to the northwest, or about a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride.

I arrived early in the morning after an all-night bus ride from San Cristóbol de las Casas. The bus station was quite nice and had a few things that would make possible a great one-day visit to this lovely town. The first thing that it had was a secure place to store all my luggage. It would have been impossible to enjoy the sights while lugging all my things around, so I was quite pleased with this. After leaving my things and getting a receipt, I paid to use the restroom, then proceeded to the second important feature of the bus station—a tourist information center. The info dude gave me a map, which had myriad churches to visit (as you have probably gathered if you’ve been reading this blog for very long, I love taking photos of these old churches!) and other points of interest. I asked if he could recommend anything particularly noteworthy, since I had only one day to spend in the Working for a living on the streets of Oaxaca, He did say there was supposed to be a concert that evening and marked the location on the map.

With that, I headed out. The first order of business was breakfast. I was hungry and needed fuel for the day. Just across the street from the bus station, I found a small restaurant which was called Comedor La Estancia and was open for breakfast. I had a tlayuda, which is a crispy tortilla with your choice of meat (I got beef), cheese, avocados, and tomatoes. Price? 25 pesos. Not bad.

Post food, I took out my map and began to wander around, visiting churches, parks, and other landmarks. Each landmark—church or otherwise—had a nice little sign on it, describing what it was and giving its history. They were definitely prepared for tourists. A quick snapshot of each sign made it easy to get all the pertinent info.

Seventh Day Adventists, Christmas concert, Oaxaca, Mexico.I swung by the location where the concert was to take place a few hours early (mid-afternoon) just to make sure I knew where it was and to make sure it was still on. When I first got there, setup was well underway. A stage had been assembled and the sound system was put together and a sound check was in progress. I wandered around the neighborhood a bit longer, but didn’t go far. Returning to the concert location at around 5:00 PM, I snapped a few photos before the concert started and watched the singers test the mics and work out the last few kinks in preparation for the moment of truth.

Seventh Day Adventists, Christmas concert, Oaxaca, Mexico.The concert was put on by the Seventh Day Adventist Church and was really the first time it felt like Christmas to me, despite the fact that Christmas was only 4 days away. The concert was very well done and featured some very talented groups and soloists along with your typical mediocre folks (gotta start somewhere, right?) and children’s groups. The leader of the main vocal group seemed a bit bossy and arrogant—doesn’t every church have one?—but they were a top-notch ensemble. I quite enjoyed it, as did the group of hundreds of locals that had gathered. The church folks were all very friendly and after the concert was over, they loaded Christmas punch into cups from giant aluminum tubs and passed it out. It had big chunks of fruit in it and was excellent. I was grateful and it felt good being included, the gringo just passin’ through.

After the concert, I swung by a burger cart in the street nearby to get some grub. While I was waiting my turn, Juan, a librarian from UT, El Paso, said hi and bought me Getting some dinner after the concert.dinner. We met up with some friends of his—a writer and a husband and wife from The States—and went to a restaurant where they got some food and we all sat around and chatted for a bit. The main thing I remember is their belittling me for thinking George Bush was an okay guy and for having voted for him. That really surprised them. Apparently, they thought everyone was liberal.

From the street in front of the restaurant, I said goodbye and made my way back to the bus station in the dark. The bus was to leave quite late, so I got my items from storage and just hung out for a while. We left around 11:30 and arrived in Puebla at about 4 AM. My friend Tim had given me his address which I had written down on a piece of paper and had put in my pocket. I had a taxi driver take me to the general The sun going down behind a church in Oaxaca.vicinity of Tim’s and Barbara-Lee’s house, but he couldn’t find it—Tim had warned me that it could be difficult to find. I also had written down Tim’s phone number, so I borrowed the cabbie’s cell and rung Tim. He explained to the driver how to get to the house and we arrived within minutes.

In typically gracious fashion, Tim welcomed me despite my having arrived at the pre-butt-crack of dawn. I slept until about 9:00, then got up and officially began a very pleasant Christmas stay with the Glessners in Puebla, Mexico.

  More street performers in Oaxaca. A church in Oaxaca.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Bunch of Random Schtuff

  • When you visit ruins such as Machu Picchu (Peru), Copán (Honduras), or Tikal (Guatemala), there are normally guides at the entrance that you can hire. They will walk around the ruins with you giving explanations of all manner of things, such as dates, rituals, habits of the people, religious practices, etc. Hire them! They are worth every penny. You will come away with far more knowledge and appreciation of what you've seen than if you walked around by yourself guessing at what's what.
  • The bus station in Panama City is unique. You will see literally hundreds of school buses, all pimped out—wild paint jobs, lots of chrome, and other decorations. Kind of funny, kind of crazy.
  • In Copán, Honduras, I was bitten by far more bugs while visiting the ruins in one day (and on the island of Utila, Honduras where I stayed for the week before that—sand flies) than on the entire previous ten-and-a-half months of my trip. Bugs can be very annoying. My ankles and feet itched for days.
  • Currency in Latin America—this is both from experience (to the best of my recollection) and from what I've heard.
    • Ecuador's official currency is the US dollar.
    • El Salvador's official currency is the US dollar (I was told this by someone else).
    • All other countries in Latin America have their own currency.
    • All Central American countries that I have been in (Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala) accept payment in US dollars, but give change in the local currency.
  • I stayed at a hostel called El Hostal in Antigua, Guatemala. I recommend it. It was nice, clean, the staff was friendly, the breakfast (included) was great, and they have WiFi. The one caveat is that the mattresses are lousy.
  • I stayed at a hostel called Los Camellos in San Cristóbol de las Casas, Mexico. It's cheap, clean, and they have WiFi. No breakfast included, but breakfasts at these places usually aren't great, anyway, so just go out for breakfast. Recommended. I was going to stay at Las Palomas, but it was full. I showed up and talked to the lady, though, and it looked really nice. Plus, they have WiFi, so if you have a laptop, consider it as an option.
  • The farther north you travel, the smaller the modes of transport seem to become. In Argentina, it was double-decker buses. In northern South America and some of Central America, it was single-deckers. Then in northern Central America it became mini-vans. The company I went with to get from Copán, Honduras to Antigua, Guatemala was Plus Travel Agency. The vehicle was in horrendous condition. The transmission sounded like it was going to explode. A CV joint went out an hour into the trip. The driver was strange. He may have been drinking. Not sure. Regardless, he was off somehow. There are only two agencies in the town that drive this route. I would try the other one next time.
  • From Antigua, Guatemala, there are tons of travel agencies you can use to get to San Cristóbol de las Casas, Mexico—or any of a number of other places. To get to San Cristóbol de las Casas, Mexico, most of them charge $60. I found one that charged $40, but I was very skeptical of the service I would get. I took them anyway. The vehicles were excellent and the drivers very professional. I told the second driver he was the best one I'd had on my entire trip. CAT rent a bus. CAT stands for Centro America Travel. They've got an address in Copán (I just noticed) so they may be the other agency there.
    • Antigua address: 6ta. Avenida Sur No. 10C
    • Copán address: Barrio El Centro (it's a small town—if you walk for a minute, you can find it)

San Cristóbol de las Casas

San Cristóbol de las CasasI’m not usually much of a shopper, but in this case I wanted the best deal, so I did a fair amount of walking. I’m skeptical of prices that seem too good to be true, but the outfit looked respectable and the gal behind the desk was cute. So, I bought the ticket that would take me out of Central America to my home continent (I paid $40 instead of $60).

The ride from Antigua, Guatemala into Mexico to San Cristóbol de las Casas would take the better part of a day, but with a good van, the best driver of my entire trip, a Cathedral in San Cristóbol de las Casasnice family from Mexico city, and an Angelina Jolie lookalike from France, my surroundings and situation could have been far worse.

On the downside, I did feel kind of sick for quite some time as the roads leading northward in this part of Guatemala to the Mexican border were as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. There was also tons of roadwork going on in Guatemala—and speed bumps. I had never seen so many speed bumps, both in Guatemala and Mexico.

Boys in the street, San Cristóbol de las CasasAs we left the lush, leafy, greenness of Central America, the landscape turned dry and rocky, dominated by pine trees.

As with many border crossings, the town of La Mesilla was hopping. I would have liked to have spent some time wandering around there, but we were stopped simply to get our passports stamped and to connect with another van. Maybe next time.

Once we got into Mexico, I was impressed with the highway. Reminded me a bit of home. Better than many roads I had seen on my trip. More speed bumps.

Part way to San Cristóbol, we pulled off to get some food. It was a nice restaurant and I was hungry. The food wasn’t spicy at all. In fact, it was rather bland. This was Man in San Cristóbol de las Casasthe beginning of a discovery for me. Throughout my time in Mexico, I would find that the food got spicier the farther north I went, and that the less I paid for a meal, the better I liked the food—and not just because I’m a cheapskate!

We arrived in San Cristóbol just in time for Iana (the French Angelina Jolie) to catch her bus back to Mexico City. She had been in an exchange program for the past 6 months and had 2 days left in Mexico before returning home. After that, the bus dropped off the Mexican family of 4 at their hotel. They were reasonably well off. They stayed at a nice hotel, and whenever we Boy in San Cristóbol de las Casasate together, it was at a somewhat pricey restaurant. I was last on the itinerary. The driver dropped me off at the hostel. I gave him a generous tip and told him he had been the best driver of my trip.

After entering the hostel, I was informed they were full. The nice lady called another hostel, however, and was told they had a room. So, with backpack, camera bag, small guitar from Salta, Argentina, and a couple bags of things I had bought in Guatemala in hand, I marched the 8 blocks in the dark to hostal numero dos. I had to stop for rest along the way, but I finally made it.

The family from Mexico City—Vicente (dad), Tere (mom), Vicente Jr. (son), and Renata (daughter)—was going to swing by my hostel the next morning so we could spend the day together. The only problem was that I was in a different hostel than I had told them I would be in and they Overlooking San Cristóbol de las Casas on the way back from San Juan Chamulawould never find me. Despite my horrendous memory, I remembered where they were staying and I caught them in the lobby as they were heading out to drop off their laundry. After the laundromat, we went to a nice restaurant for breakfast. Following that, we spent all day bumming around the area together.

San Cristóbol de las Casas is a city only slightly smaller than my hometown of Tacoma, with a population of just over 140,000. A church in San Cristóbol de las CasasIt sits much, higher, though, at almost 7,000 feet. It was named after a Spanish priest who actually defended the rights of the natives rather than slaughtering them—a pleasant bit of history unlike much of Latin America’s tumultuous past. Nice to have someone stick up for you when most folks just want to kick your ass and take your stuff. And of course, most of the inhabitants are Catholic, with a mix of indigenous beliefs thrown in for good measure.

Besides bumming around San Cristóbol de las Casas for several hours, we traveled in a minivan to a small town a few miles away called San Juan Chamula. It has only a few thousand inhabitants who live around the perimeter of the town and on farms outside the town. In the center of the town is a large plaza which hosts a daily market and a church with its own grand plaza, The market and church in San Juan Chamulacomplete with gazebo. When we were there, some kind of ritual was going on with tree branches scattered around the perimeter of the church’s plaza. They were preparing to walk that perimeter and weren’t allowing photos. Also, cameras weren’t allowed in the church. I bought a few tangerines and clay figures in the market. We weren’t there long, but it was worth the jaunt. We crammed into a taxi for the ride back to home base and split the fare. The driver stopped on the way for me to shoot a few photos overlooking the town.

Cheesy neon lights in a church in San Cristóbol de las CasasSomething that cracked me up in Mexico was the lights in churches—fluorescent lights as the primary light source (very cold, dark, and dreary), light bulbs standing in for candles, and strips of neon framing a painting of Jesus. Hilarious.

After getting back from San Juan Chamula, my friends went to their hotel to clean up and I went back to my hostel to put on warmer clothes. We were to meet in the plaza to go out to dinner together and I showed up about an hour early. I saw many young girls—probably 6 years old and up—selling blankets, necklaces, and other things tourists might want to purchase. They wore sandals, had filthy feet, and the weather was getting colder and colder as the sun went down. Apparently, there aren’t any child labor laws in Mexico. I felt sorry for these little girls.

Workers in San Cristóbol de las CasasThat night, we went out to a nice—and expensive—restaurant with live music, first two fellas playing a marimba, then a man and woman playing classical guitars and singing. After that, we went to a small but popular coffee shop where they were roasting their own coffee. After that, I exchanged hugs with my new Mexican friends and we parted ways. They invited me to stay with them if I ever visit Mexico City. Although I enjoyed San Cristóbol de las Casas and San Juan Chamula, the highlight of my visit was spending time with my new Mexican friends.

Next on the itinerary? Oaxaca for a day, then Christmas with my friends Tim and Barbara-Lee Glessner in Puebla, Mexico.

   Cotton candy, anyone?   A nativity scene in San Cristóbol de las Casas  Inside a church in San Cristóbol de las Casas A girl in San Juan Chamula Church of Guadalupe, San Cristóbol de las CasasChurch of Guadalupe, San Cristóbol de las CasasThe market in San Juan Chamula   El Fogón de Jovel, San Cristóbol de las CasasThe market in San Juan Chamula The church in San Juan Chamula The market in San Juan Chamula      Dinner with my friends at El Fogón de Jovel, San Cristóbol de las CasasPlaza of the cathedral, San Cristóbol de las Casas

Friday, December 19, 2008

Antigua, Guatemala

A pimped out bus There were three things that stood out to me in Antigua—the myriad churches, the gargantuan market, and the stunning girl behind the desk at the hostel, Ana.

Robb Wilkinson, a Cal Poly student whom I’d gotten to know on our adventurous trip up from Copán, and I decided to spend the day together getting acquainted with Antigua. Robb was a real mellow guy from what I could tell and was perfectly happy hanging out with me. This is good because a lot of folks wouldn’t be happy doing what I like to do, which is walking around taking pictures. To hang with me when I’ve got my camera and there are lots of really old, crappy buildings around, it takes someone who’s not in a hurry. Robb was great.

Church on a map When you pick up a copy of the tourist map after arriving in Antigua, you’ll notice no fewer than 23 little icons representing the churches you might want to visit while wandering the quaint, 16th-century city’s narrow, cobblestone streets. Robb and I wandered those streets for several hours, but couldn’t quite find it within ourselves to visit all 23. While church hopping, we noticed smoke belching from the peak of Volcán de Fuego every fifteen or twenty minutes. That was pretty cool. Another pleasant surprise was running into Jes and Haley, a couple Canook gals I’d gotten to know while learning to SCUBA dive in Honduras. We dived with the same outfit and in fact stayed in the same dorm.

Carved wooden masks So, the four of us headed to the market and bummed around there for a while. The market in Antigua is one of the most amazing markets I visited on my entire trip. Its awesome factor was up there with the market I visited in La Paz, Bolivia. It was broken up into a few clearly different chunks.

First was a nice, covered area, surely targeted at tourists. It was pretty spiffy with quite nice spaces for the vendors to lure in the visitors, people like me who wanted to buy some nice keepsakes to take home. I had bought hardly a single thing on my trip up to this point. Here, I bought a handmade quilt and a few hand-carved wooden masks. I wish I had bought a hammock here, but we were being sticklers on price and we didn’t get the deal we wanted. Robb and the girls were all pretty hard core barterers.

Girls in the market Second was an outdoor area with many food vendors, but interspersed with all the other typical vendors selling random things. Since Christmas was just around the corner, you could find Christmas trees and various decorations for said trees.

Third was an area I explored alone. The next day, I went back to the market by myself and passed through the same area where the food vendors were located. After another inexpensive meal of chicken, rice, and a Coke, I continued farther along this outdoor market street. Toward the end of the street, there began what I would discover was an enormous covered area—primarily a world for locals. It wasn’t nice like the tourist area and didn’t sell carved masks or hammocks. Let me repeat, this area was Christmas lights in the plaza vast. Here were sold spices, meat, fruit, vegetables, weaved baskets, clay pots, and other items required daily by every family. Also in this area were table after table after table of used clothing and shoes, apparently shipped in from the States.

While in this dark and dirty Latin American supermall, I ran into a gal I recognized from Honduras. She had also been on the island of Útila. A common friend had introduced us back then and we recognized each other in the market. Jennifer, a New Zealander, had been travelling for 6 months Templo, a local Guatemalan band playing at a restaurant in Antigua and had 4 to go. She had met a guy earlier on her trip and was really into him. And I mean really. She was so into him, she was going to the spend the next 3 months with him taking meditation classes near Antigua. We found some fresh fruit juice and then I proceeded to hang with her for a bit while she looked through mounds of clothing. I can’t take much of that so I headed off to explore more of the market before too long. Once again, I found that the people I met were a highlight of my trip.

Volcán de Fuego The second day I went to the market, Robb climbed a volcano. Jes and Haley had done it and highly recommended it. I didn’t feel properly equipped to make the climb, so I passed. Back in the hostel room, some new people showed up: a girl from the States who had moved to Honduras to teach—where kidnapping are rampant, she said—and a couple brothers who were spending their two weeks of vacation in a few Central American countries. While we were visiting, Robb got back to the hostel after his run-in with the volcano. He hadn’t fallen in, but he was a mess. He hadn’t heeded the advice of Jes and Haley. He had worn his sandals instead of getting hardier footwear. In all fairness, we One of myriad old churches in Antigua did look for shoes for him in the market, but didn’t encounter anything quite big enough for his feet. His feet were absolutely filthy and a bit scratched up, but he was in pretty good condition, considering what he’d just done.

We all went to a club where there was to be Salsa dancing. At first it was just our female roommate, the brothers, and I. After showering, Robb showed up. I never did get up enough nerve to ask any locals to dance. Our female friend became quick A girl in the market acquaintances with an Antiguan guy. Us guys didn’t stay too late. The next morning when I got up to leave, the gringa still wasn’t back. She either got murdered or got lucky. I’ll probably never know.

Ana, the gal at the desk, was stunning. She was a local and had just gotten a new fully-manual 35mm camera. I offered to help her learn how to use it, nice guy that I am, but unfortunately, we never did connect.

Were I to travel more extensively in Central America, I would most certainly return to Antigua to visit Ana and see how her photography is coming along.


Inside an old church  A colorful house In the tourist's market—this woman made the blanket I bought   Selling Christmas decorations in the market  Old woman in the market Vegetables in the market The market in Antigua The market in Antigua Latin American efficiency Bored at work A bird chillin' at churchDucks hangin' at the market—are they dinner? Cutiepie at the marketNeed some shoes? A common way to carry one's baby in Central AmericaGreen from painting Christmas trees Rope in the marketBaskets in the market Pottery in the market