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#41 Patagonia – Glaciarly pleasures

That’s gonna be a quick one. Barbara and I had a few days in El Calafate, basically with the sole goal to get up close with Perito Moreno, a rare breed when it comes to glaciers. First of all, it’s really big. On average 74 meters high above the lake and about five kilometers wide. Secondly, unlike most glaciers, Perito Moreno is advancing.

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We caught a bus in El Calafate which stopped at the entrance of the Los Glaciares National Park for us to pay the park fee and then went on to the visitor center. There are several trails to explore the area and get different views of the north and south face of the glacier. There is also the possibility to get up close with it by tourist boat. Considering that we have done that in Alaska, we skipped the boat and stuck to walking.

Even when you are not on sea level looking up the glacier’s massive facade, it’s an impressive show to watch and hear blocks of ice thousands of years old breaking off and crashing into the lake.

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And as always in Argentina, some good food is never too far away. El Calafate has a range of good restaurants. As our last act in Argentina, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at La Zaina.

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Braised lamb in a Malbec Sauce…sweet baby Jesus!

With that, our time in South America comes to an end. It was an amazing experience to explore this part of the world in such depth. But as always, there are still many places to be seen. I guess we will just have to come back a few more times.

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#40 Patagonia – Dawn on Mount Fitz Roy

From Buenos Aires we flew down south to El Calafate from where our pre-arranged transport took us straight to El Chalten, the trekking and mountaineering capital of Argentina and maybe all of South America. The town itself is nothing special but there are some nice restaurants and bars around which are great after a long day of hiking.
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El Chalten

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Our hotel was a nice, chalet-style house close to pretty much everything. On the day of arrival we walked around the few streets and got some supplies from the small supermarket for our first hike planned for the next day. We went for dinner in a rustic looking restaurant called La Tapera and tried the local speciality; lamb stew. It wasn’t the last time we would eat here. sdredf
Our first hike was from El Chalten to Lago Torre, a small glacier lake at the feet of Cerro Torre, with 3’128 masl one of the highest peaks in the region. Heights in general are not a problem when trekking in Patagonia, very different from Ecuador or Peru where you already start at way above 3’000 masl.
We started at 8 AM, just a few minutes after sunrise. It promised to be a wonderful sunny day. The actual trail starts only a few dozen meters outside of El Chalten. It’s quite a beautiful hike, through bush landscapes, forests and along the river. Not too far into the hike, we could take a first look at the peaks that were awaiting us at the lake but with another 10 km in front of us it was a bit too early to think of the end. Overall, it wasn’t a hard hike and even if it had been, it would have been worth it for the views.

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First glance at Cerro Torre
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Cerro Torre in the morning sun

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Back in the hotel, we had a little apero like back home with red wine, cheese and some potato chips.
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Maybe it was the wine that suddenly made me think it might be a good idea to try and observe the sunrise up at Mount Fitz Roy. My buddy at the reception confirmed my suspicion, in order to make it for the first sunrays I would have to leave at around 4 AM the next morning. Well, it sure was a good thing I still had that headlight in my bag.
There was no moon when I left the hotel and as soon as I made it out of the town, everything around me turned pitch-black. It was a great experience, all alone in the mountains for several hours. Turning off the flashlight left me in the dark until my eyes adjusted and the clear sky exposed a sea of stars. Until the second campsite, about 45 minutes before reaching the top, the only other soul I encountered was a skunk sharing the path with me for a minute or two. It was 7.15 AM when I sat down to wait for the sun come up. A few others made it up for the spectacle from the close-by campsite. And a spectacle it was, indeed!
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A matter of minutes now…

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Mount Fitz Roy lighting up

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Usually, the way back down is rather boring and tiring. Not this time. Hiking up in the dark meant that I haven’t seen my surroundings along the way. Walking down in the morning sun let me appreciate all of it.

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The crystals will melt away soon

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In fact, it was such a great hike that Barbara and I did the 25 kilometers together once again the next day, half of it in the dark. We had only one flashlight, Barbara led the way and I followed for the most part. We made it up just in time for the sunrise. Although the mountain wasn’t cast in the same warm colors as the day before, it was still beautiful and something we will remember.
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Barbara on the top

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Starting the descent

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What a backdrop

Back in the hotel, celebrations were in order for Barbara’s first and possibly only night ascend ever. Oh, and there was steak, too.

 

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Cheers!
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This is why I love Argentina

Happy with our experiences, we relaxed on our last day in El Chalten and headed to El Calafate the day after. Glacier time!

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#39 Buenos Aires – Tango and meat

Nope, we didn’t dance Tango. My fault, I’m rubbish at dancing. But we did watch a Tango show, that must count for something.

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I am not usually giving unsolicited travel advice but if you ever end up going to Argentina: bring a decent amount of Argentinean Pesos or US Dollars with you! There are functioning ATMs but the fees are high and credit cards are not accepted everywhere.

We spent eight nights in the city, more than enough time to explore it properly without a rush. Our hotel was located in the city center, an eight minute Uber ride away from the famous tourist district Palermo but very close to a ton of other restaurants, bars, shopping and sightseeing opportunities as well as the modern and relaxed Puerto Madero. And although the city is huge, many of the more interesting sites can be reached on foot depending on where you are located and for the rest there is always Uber which in Buenos Aires is readily available and very affordable.

Our first walk around was in Puerto Madero and Plaza de Mayo. The weather was beautiful during our stay and made exploring the city very easy and enjoyable.

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Puente de la mujer – Puerto Madero

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Casa Rosada – Office of the president

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Plaza de Mayo – popular for demonstrations in front of the president’s office
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The famous Café Tortoni

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Another part of the city worth losing some hours to walk around and explore is Recoleta, especially on Saturday when the whole “barrio” turns into a street market. In the midst of it, there was some loud music coming from a small backyard. Of course we stepped in, and we didn’t regret it. Argentinean barbecue, beer and Rock’n’Roll, a good day had just become awesome.

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Great tunes…
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…and great food
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Devouring a classic Choripan

Located a little further from the city center, the poorer neighborhood called La Boca invites locals and tourists alike to watch Tango dancing and stroll through El Caminito, a handful of streets lined with small bars and colorful houses.

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El Caminito

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And of course, no visit to Buenos Aires would be complete without spending some time in Palermo, a district full with shops, bars and good restaurants. We walked around the Japanese Garden and neighboring parks before enjoying and aperitif in one of the many bars. A little later, we got a table at one of the city’s most revered steakhouses: Don Julio. The service was excellent (we were served a glass of complimentary champagne while waiting for our table) and the meat was delicious. So was the rest of the food, but who cares about the sides when you have a perfectly grilled, 350 gram Bife de Chorizo in front of you.

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Barbara’s lamb racks

While still in the city, we also met up with Luciano, a friend we made back in Cartagena. We got together for afterwork drinks, well, after his work. He showed us a few bars around where we were staying.

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If the picture isn’t good, the beer surely was

On another day, we took a speed ferry from Puerto Madero and crossed over to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. The sailing time is only an hour and fifteen minutes and if time permits, it’s a nice daytrip to do.

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The main dish

As I had some space left, I also had dessert. Here is a picture of that, too:

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The dessert

I had to order the second steak twice because the waitress thought I was joking. I wasn’t. It was delicious!

And last but not least, I said in the beginning that we went to see a Tango show. We did, and we had dinner there, too. “Underwhelming” probably describes our overall impression of it best. But when in Rome…, right?

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#38 Iguazu Falls – Water, so much water!

As the world’s largest waterfall-system and prominently located at the border between Brazil and Argentina with Paraguay right next to it, the Iguazu Falls hardly need any introduction. And while Paraguay doesn’t own any of the waterfalls, it is part of the second most remarkable sight in the region: the Itaipú hydroelectric dam and the world’s second largest powerplant. I could pull up Wikipedia now and throw a ton of interesting numbers at you, but I’m sure you, dear reader, are well capable of doing that by yourself.

We stayed four days in Foz do Iguaçu, the Brazilian city named after the falls in the state of Paraná. On our first day we visited Itaipú. Hotels and travel agencies offer tours, all of which are completely over-priced considering that they consist merely of transportation to the powerplant and the on-sight tour which can also be booked directly at the dam. So the two of us just walked to the local bus terminal and caught a bus for about 1 USD each. At the powerplant, we decided to do the extended tour granting us insights into the inner workings of the dam, the machinery and the control rooms. Fun fact: once the tour bus drives through the gates of Itaipú, you are neither in Brazil, nor in Paraguay. Itaipú is a territory shared by both countries but owned by neither of them. It was impressive seeing and experiencing one of mankind’s biggest engineering projects. And although it is right in front of you, it seems impossible to comprehend the complexities of planning, building and running this place.
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part of the dam

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On top of the dam

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turbine shaft – one of 20 units of the powerplant

The next day it was time to start discovering the falls. Once again we took a cheap public bus that took us right to the entrance of Iguaçu National Park on the Brazilian side. The entrance ticket, with different prices for Brazilians, Mercosur nationalities and all the others, includes transportation on the hop-on hop-off buses that take you from the entrance to the final stop at the  falls. Inbetween, you can get off at several points for boat tours and different trails through the forest and along the waterfalls. We got off at the second last stop in order to walk along the water. Dozens of Coatis welcomed us there, eager to snatch some food from a careless tourist. But once we got a first glimpse at the first section of waterfalls, the enthusiasm for the animals dwindled quickly.

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A hell of an outfit!

 

It was brutally hot that day and the piers at the end of the waterfall trail that lead over the water onto a platform mounted right on top of one of the cliffs were a welcome refreshment as the mist of the thundering water all around left you soaking wet within minutes.

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When we first arrived at the park, we bought tickets for the Macuco boat tour. So once we finished the walking part, we took the bus to where the tour started. An electric cart pulling a carriage took us through the tropical forest for about 15 minutes. We walked the rest down to the boat landing. The ride on the rubber boat was a one of a kind experience. We headed upwards against the current, stopping for pictures and then it was time to get a proper shower; the captain maneuvered the boat practically underneath one of the waterfalls and it was hard to breath because of all the water everywhere. Then he gave us a quick break, just to do it once again a minute later. It was short but unforgettable.

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We visited the Argentinean side the day after. This time we arranged a driver because we needed to stop at both borders and it was quite a bit further.
The park on the Argentinean side is much less well taken care of and less organized than was the case in Brazil. But on the other side they have two connecting train routes instead of lame buses, and nothing is cooler than trains.

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In general, the views towards the falls are better on the Brazilian side, but in Argentina you are much closer to the action. The main attraction is Devil’s Throat, a gigantic waterfall that, once you reach it after crossing about one kilometer of river on a pier, just simply takes your breath away.  The amount of water rushing over the cliff right underneath and in front of you is overwhelming. And although there are hundreds of tourist around, there is some humbling solitude in the moment you appreciate this spectacle.

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the pier
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Devil’s Throat

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While less spectacular than Devil’s Throat, the other trails also uncover a beautiful scenery. At one point, Barbara was simply overflowing with the beauty of nature and had to relieve herself.

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On our last day we went over to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The city is not known for its sightseeing attractions. There are none. But nevertheless, thousands of people come every day to buy cheap electronics and brand products that are heavily taxed in other countries. The basically inexistent border controls lets people buy absurd amounts and smuggle them back into Brazil. Of course you can also find an infinite number of ilegitimate knock-offs and there are all kinds of shady sales strategies being deployed. Our goal wasn’t to go on a big shopping spree but getting to see a tiny part of another country so easily was too good an opportunity to let go. So there we went,  we hopped into a van, drove across borders without showing a passport at any point. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

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What we ended up buying? Two lipsticks for Barbara and a beard trimmer for me, not exactly what you would call splashing out.
That was the last of Brazil. I hope through our posts you could enjoy a little bit of what we had the pleasure to see and experience during these last three months.
Stay tuned for Argentina.
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#37 Minas Gerais – Tiradentes and Capitólio

Minas Gerais has quite a few astonishing spots, one of which I wrote about in the last post. This time, I’m writing about two more of them: the old colonial town of Tiradentes and Capitólio, a place of immense beauty and blue skies scattered with photo-perfect cotton ball clouds that are so typical for Minas Gerais.

Together with Ana Cristina and Fabio which you might already know from our Rio de Janeiro blog-entry, we packed the car with a bag, filled the rest of the trunk with beer bottles and left Rio behind us. We started late and it was clear that we will have to break the nine hour trip into two and sleep somewhere on the road. Once you get out of the urban area, proper accomodation becomes scarce and all that was left at 2 AM in the morning was a more or less cosy love motel close to Barbacena. The bed was surprisingly comfortable and we definitely enjoyed the massage function, but try to style your hair in that mirror!

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In the morning we enjoyed a breakfast anonymously delivered to our room through a hatch. Again we were surprised by the quality and variety of it, although we skipped the cream and drank our coffe black.
Not losing much time, which the hotel would have charged extra on an hourly basis anyway, we continued our journey. We agreed to stop again in  Tiradentes, a charming little city Barbara and I already knew from an earlier trip but loved to visit again. It’s part of the Estrada Real, a set of colonial roads which were built in the late 17th century to transport gold, diamonds and precious metals found in Minas Gerais. Today, you can find dozens of cute cafés, restaurants and local shops around the central square and along the cobblestone streets of the town.

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Arriving at our hotel outside Capitólio, Pousada Rio Turvo, we stocked the fridge with beer and let the rest of the day slide. We had a few days here and were in no rush as the only things to do were relaxing in the Pousada, relaxing next to a waterfall and relaxing on a motorboat.

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Pousada on Rio Turvo

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On the evening of the second day we got visitors: Ana Maria and her husband Luciano from Bom Jardim also booked a night at the same Pousada and spent some time with us. The next day we went on to discover the area a bit more together. Wonderful waterfalls, canyons and lakes can be found all just a short distance apart.

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FLTR: Barbara, Ana Cristina, Fabio, Luciano, Ana Maria, me

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Lago de Furnas

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This is for sure a great place to unwind, take in the beautiful surroundings and relax for a few days with good friends.

The last stop in Brazil that we will post about was Foz do Iguaço, the Iguazu Falls at the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

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#36 Minas Gerais – Bom Jardim and Ibitipoca

Barbara and I have both travelled extensively in the state of Minas Gerais on other occasions. This time around, we made two separate trips there; one to Bom Jardim de Minas and the other one to Capitólio.

Barbara, her sister Gabriela and I spent a few days at their mother Helena’s house in Mendes. From there, the four of us made the long and bumpy ride to Bom Jardim de Minas. We got rooms at the small hotel belonging to old family friends. As a teenager, Barbara’s family regularly spent time in and around the town. We visited the old bakery, the remarkable blind aunt Celi and her brother Jaci and we went for hearty food and local Cachaça (the Brazilian firewater made from sugar cane), quite a bit of Cachaça.

Around the small city, there are inumerous hiking trails and waterfalls. We visited a place called Toca and a taller waterfall named Boqueirão that could be reached after about 30 minutes of walking. Their friend Alessandra and her brother Maurilio who is promoting Ecotourism in the area with his agency MD Radical Livre accompanied us to Boqueirão. They haven’t met in many years, so the day was a good opportunity to catch up.

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Toca – the place has seen more water in the past
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Toca
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Boqueirão
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FRTL: Gabriela, Alessandra, Maurilio, Barbara and me
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Boqueirão – recent rain left the water brownish, but still fun to swim up the stream against the current

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I thought that the road to Bom Jardim was rough at times, but it was nothing compared to the way to Parque Ibitipoca where we went the next day. The last 25 kilometres were dirt road with so many holes there was barely any road left. At one point, my passengers had to get out in order for the 1.0 Volkswagen Fox to make it up the steep and destroyed road. We were happy to finally reach the park and stretch out our shaken bodies. The hiking and the landscape around us were beautiful. In two loops, totalling just a little over five kilometres, there were several overlooks, various waterfalls and a few natural pools we could swim in.

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In the evening we organized accommodation in Ipitipoca, the small and charming village just outside the state park. For the next day, we decided to split the group in two: Barbara and her mom would stay in town while Gabriela and I would go to Janela do Céu, or window to the sky. We didn’t want to risk getting into one of the region’s common afternoon storms, so we had an early start, got some supplies from the bakery across the street and managed to enter the park just after it opened at 7 AM. With 18 kilometres of trail in front of us, we didn’t lose much time and started our ascend on the east side of the loop. Janela do Céu is located at the northern end of the park’s territory. The way led us up along a ridge that allowed for unobstructed views to all sides.

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The ridge
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funny bird

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Only a short time before reaching our main attraction there are dozens of caves off the main trail. We went on to discover a handful of them. And then we finally reached Janela do Céu, a small pond giving way to a waterfall about 50 metres tall. The water was very cold, but Gabriela and I followed the stream meandering through the tight and steep little canyon for some time. And of course we took a few pictures of this remarkable spot.

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Janela do Céu

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The way down on the western side was long and hot as the sun got stronger. We made it back to town by 2 PM. After lunch we packed up our stuff, loaded the car and drove all the way to uncle Luis’ place in Resende in the state of Rio de Janeiro. To finish off the day we drove to close-by Penedo for dinner at a German Restaurant. A storm came and it was raining heavily. By the time dinner was served there was thunder and lightning. Suddenly, the lights went out and our delicious meal turned into a candlelight dinner. Everything is well that ends well, they say…

Next up: Capitólio

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#35 São Paulo – Family, Friends and Surfing

São Paulo, Brazil’s megacity home to 12 million people. I have learnt to appreciate the good sides of this beast on earlier business trips and was excited to show Barbara, who only had distant childhood memories of the city, some of my favourite places. Because what many people don’t know, is that São Paulo is rich in restaurants of a variety and level only comparable to a few cities around the world. But more importantly, there are friends and family in and around São Paulo that we wanted to visit.

The first time we went there this time, we took a bus from Rio. My friend Carlos had invited us to stay at his home. His beautiful house is located in a quiet residential area known as Jardins and we were welcomed by his lovely girlfriend Katia. The next two days were full of good company, drinks and amazing food.

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Parque Ibirapuera with Katia
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Monumento às Bandeiras
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Lovely dinner at Dalva & Dito
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Breakfast table at Carlos’
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At Aizome we enjoyed some of the best sushi of the city

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We had planned to leave the city behind us on the weekend and head to Itatiba. Instead, Carlos insisted that we accompany them to his Fazenda on the countryside for another two days; An invitation I couldn’t and wouldn’t refuse. He had freshly refurbished and modernized the place. It looked fantastic and the size of the land belonging to it, including enormous soy plantations, corn fields, a forest and a river, is impressive. As an example: It took Carlos and me over an hour to race our quadbikes through the mud around a single soy field.

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Our amazing room
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Carlos showing off his cooking skills
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…the result – delicious

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time to get dirty…

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We had a great time together and Barbara and I are very grateful for his hospitality.

Then we finally made it to Itatiba. It’s a smaller city in São Paulo’s in the countryside that actually doesn’t have a whole lot to show for. But we didn’t come for the sightseeing anyway. We spent a full week with Barbara’s cousin Christiane, her husband Luiz Henrique and the kids relaxing, playing cards and videogames and drinking bizarre amounts of beer and eating way too much. In short: Life at its best.

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Itatiba
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Luiz Augusto going for a Strike

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We didn’t have to sit in the bus for too long until our next stop. We spent two short days in Campinas with Tootsie, Barbara’s cousin from her father’s side and her husband Woody. They are both professors at UNICAMP, which is why we got an interesting tour of the campus after meeting with their son Robin and his girlfriend for lunch. In the evening we headed for a beer at a local place with live music. Thanks for having us Tootsie and Woody!

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Then Barbara headed home to see her mom and friends again. Being so close and having the time is just too good of an opportunity to let go.
I on the other hand, was ready for some surf. My friend Brian still had some days off and he suggested that we stay at their weekend apartment in Riviera de São Lourenço for two weeks. So I took a bus and headed down to Santos on the so-called Litoral Norte de São Paulo where he picked me up. The apartment is part of a beach resort in an enormous condominium. They have pools, saunas, tennis courts, a gym and most importantly: waves!
So for two weeks our only worry was to figure out where to surf the next day and make sure the fridge had food and beer in it. Doable. Not easy, but doable.

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Brian paddling out
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My first attempts to selfie shoot a GoPro video while surfing

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Gabriel Medina’s new project in Maresias

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But even the relaxiest of times come to an end, or probably especially those. By the way, did you see that trailer in the last picture? That is where they make the most awesome Caipirinhas both in size and taste. A single one around 11AM and you’re afternoon program is fixed, or out the window, depending on what you planned.

After that, it was time to meet Barbara again in São Paulo. While our time in Brazil was definitely coming to an end, we still had no clue how to continue our adventure. We got a hotel in the center for four days. And I mean, just because you have stuff to figure out doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your stay, right? So we went to some of our favourite places and also met up with my dear friend and former co-worker Alessandra who was also in town these days.

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Chef at Ohka doing his magic

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Amazing Churrasco at Barbacoa
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São Paulo skyline
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Sky Bar at Hotel Unique

Besides having a great time in the city, we managed to plan the next stage of our trip; Argentina, NYC and then Vietnam. But first, there are one or two more stops in Brazil that we will post about.

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#34 Rio de Janeiro – Christmas, New Year and Carnival

Now, before we dive into Brazil, where we would stay until the end of March 2017, I should point out the following: As we were travelling around and staying in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo several times, the Brazil posts will be organized by destinations, rather than chronologically.

I arrived in Rio on December 23rd, and while Christmas was just a few hours away, it was not what I was most looking forward to. After two months, I would finally see Barbara again!
Reunited, we spent a lovely Christmas with a ton of family at Barbara’s cousin Ana Cristina’s house where we practically lived throughout our repeated stays in Rio de Janeiro. There was music, a lightshow(!), a Secret Santa was organized, an actual Santa visited the children of the condominium riding on top of a pick-up and of course there was  a truckload of food. Quite different from European Christmas festivities, but a great party nevertheless.

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Secret Santa

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Santa in da House

The following days until New Year’s Eve can basically be summarized in three words: heat, barbecue and beer. With 38 – 42°C during the day, all physical activity that goes beyond lifting a glass of cold beer becomes incredibly exhausting and appears completely pointless. But even though I have been to Rio many times before, there is always stuff to be discovered. This time on the bucket list was getting to the top of Morro dos dois irmãos which offers great views over the city. So Fábio, Barbara’s lovely sister Gaby and I made our way to the trail which starts at the northeast end of a Favela called Vidigal. This community has been pacified and can nowadays be considered as relatively safe. The trail itself is quite steep and has several viewpoints along the way. It was so incredibly hot that day that it was impossible to drink water as fast as it left your body through your pores. But worse than the heat was the fact that the top was completely covered in clouds. Zero visibility. I was lucky enough to be around for quite some time, so I came back on my own a second time about two weeks later; and it was just beautiful to sit on the top and appreciate these incredible views of Rio de Janeiro.

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Cidade Maravilhosa

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Rocinha from the top – Biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro
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First attempt in the clouds

Then came New Year’s Eve, number two of the big events in Rio. The place to be on New Year’s Eve for gringos like me is Copacabana. Literally millions of people, many of which are traditionally dressed in white, and fireworks that illuminate the beach and the surrounding hills. Just don’t forget to hold on tight to your cell phone if you are keen on keeping it.

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Happy 2017!

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New Year’s Eve preparation

And then at the end of February, after intermezzos in the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina and Paraná which you will read about in other posts, it was time for one of tbe biggest parties on the planet: Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. There are basically two different kinds of events: The famous and televised parade in Rio’s Sambodromo for which the best samba-schools of the city practice for most of the year and the so-called Blocos which are the central part of the common street celebrations. Some say the parade isn’t the “real” carnival, others are of the opinion that the Blocos are two crowded and dangerous. In my view, you simply have to do both.
Barbara experienced many carnivals already, so she thought it would be fair for me to have a chance and do this on my own. So Fábio, Matheus and I hit the streets and participated in Blocos in Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra da Tijuca. In Copacabana I once again met my friend Hejko. With his facial hair still uncut since I first met him in Alaska he was already past Reinhold Messner and going full Chewbacca.
On Sunday, February 26th 2017, was the day I finally got to be in Sapucaí, also known as the Sambódromo. The parade was as spectacular and flashy as always. Although we didn’t have the best seats, it was still amazing to witness Rio’s carnival in its full grandeur.
For safety reasons we didn’t bring cameras, so there are not many pictures of these days, but at least I got one or two.

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Hejko AKA Chewbacca and me
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Metro Party
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Maybe next time we take part in the parade…

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But there were some other opportunities in and around Rio de Janeiro to snap some pictures. Here they are…

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Churrasquinho in Jacarépagua
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Local Cachaça distillery at a farm outside Mendes, RJ

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Grandmother-in-law celebrating her 90th birthday with smokes and booze – the recipe for a healthy lifestyle
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Family lunch at Aki Ki Nois Fica in Mendes, RJ

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Meeting a friend in Rio
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Folia de Reis in Mendes, RJ
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Some good Rodizio in Fogo de Chão

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Visiting the oldest coffee house in Rio – Cafeteria Colombo

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Barbecue in Bangú at the place of a friend’s friend

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Next up is goint to be São Paulo and surroundings. We had a great time in the region meeting several friends and also family. Be sure to check it out! Abraços e até logo!

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#33 Uyuni -Salt’n’Sand

The undisputed highlight of my time in Bolivia was the three day tour through the salt flats of Uyuni and the desert landscape of Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna. Still on the road with my buddy Hejko we took an early flight out of La Paz to Uyuni where we met up with Mr. Harrison who you might remember from the post the Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu. At the time our Bolivian tour guide picked us up with his jeep we met our companions for the next three days; a Brazilian called Henrique aka Frank and two Polish girls. We hived our luggage on top of the vehicle and cramed ourselves inside. Seven people in the car for three days, in the desert. I couldn’t wait.

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The city of Uyuni

Our first stop was just a few kilometers outside the city borders: the Train Cemetery, a picturesque place with antique trains and rails which used to transport minerals to the ocean. They were abandoned in 1940, after just 50 years in use.

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Uyuni Train Cemetery

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After strolling around for some time, frenetically trying to get a picture without a ton of tourists in it, we quickly stopped at a handycraft market before making our way into the world’s largest salt flats. And flat it was indeed. Our Subaru SUV cruised across the salt and soon that became the only thing around us. After some time we reached the place where we would have lunch. The building was made out of salt bricks and so were the seats and tables inside it.

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Find the Swiss flag…

Lunch was basic, but at least well salted. It might be that my piece of meat fell on the floor before it landed on my plate, I will never know for sure.
That was the last building we would see for the rest of the day. We drove around 30 or 40 minutes into the flats before stopping for photos and “sightseeing”. Never before was it such a great experience not to see anything or anybody. That is, besides King Kong of course. I kicked his ass, but I guess that is a matter of perspective.

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Later, after I don’t know how many kilometers of just driving through this incredibly empty but nevertheless beautiful landscape, our captain took course towards an island in the midst of this white sea of salt. A few cactus-ridden hills appearing from nowhere. We were informed that these cacti grow about one centimeter per year, which makes some of them several hundreds of years old.

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With the day coming to an end, we stopped one last time to view the sunset. Close by was a tiny production site of salt bricks which came in quite handy for a few nice pictures.

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We spent the night in a simple hotel somewhere at the south border of the salt flats, together with several other groups. The interior was once again made out of salt, including the bed.

Next day we headed into the desert. Our way led us along various volcanoes and small lakes of different colours, some of them populated by hundreds of Flamingos.

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In the late afternoon we reached our place for the night. A few very basic brick houses, a shop and a bar somewhere in the middle of the desert. We gathered in the bar and played some serious table tennis before dinner.
In the desert, the nights are cold and clear. No lights around. A great opportunity to look at the stars.

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Hejko vs. Mr. Harrison

The last day began early, we had to get to the Chilean border close to San Pedro de Atacama; the two Polish girls left the tour here and got a bus to Chile. On the way there, we stopped to walk around steam geysers and to take a bath in a natural hotspring.

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The rest of the tour was basically just an endless way back to Uyuni with a few rather unimpressive stops in between.
Back in town Hejko, Harrison and me went for dinner with the first wifi in three days. We didn’t talk much, it was great. From there we caught our nightbus back to La Paz.

From there I travelled to Sucre where I spent a few days and on to Santa Cruz, from where I took my flight out to Rio de Janeiro for Christmas with Barbara and her family.

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#32 La Paz & The Death Road

La Paz, the highest capital in the world. What else? I have been sitting over this for a while now and it might be that I’m not doing the city justice, but there is just not that much I can say about it. The sightseeing is extremely limited and the vibe of the city in general is not very inviting. By far the biggest plus of the city is its proximity to some cool and stunning outdoor activities such as the Death Road, a famous downhill biking experience and Huayna Potosi, supposedly one of the easiest ascends to over 6’000 masl in the world.
A cablecar connects the lower part of the city, which starts at about 3’200 masl, with its highest point called “El Alto” at 4’100 masl. The ride up to El Alto makes for one of the few activities in the city itself.

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View from El Alto

Together with my Swiss friend Hejko which I first met in Alaska and then again in Aguas Caliente near Machu Picchu, I spent a few days in the city. We also met his friend Emre and we decided to go on the Death Road adventure together.
We booked with Gravity Bolivia. They are the most expensive operator, but also the ones with the most experience on the route and the newest equipment. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling very well the day of the ride. Probably something I ate some of these days. I slept badly and didn’t have any breakfast by the time our two vans with a downhill bike for each one of us mounted on top of it headed out of La Paz and up to around 4’700 masl. The weather got worse as we kept getting higher and by the time we reached our stop it was ice cold and raining. We got out and everybody got assigned a bike.

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Equipped and almost ready to go

From this stop we would reach the start of the Death Road after a few kilometers riding down the rural road. After ten seconds on the bike, my gloves were drenched, my fingers cold and my butt wet. The visibility was quite poor due to the heavy fog and our guides stopped the group at a road checkpoint which offered shelter from the rain. I leaned my bike to the side of the road and my view got blurry. The thin air of the altitude, the cold and my weakend immune system were too much; I passed out. Twenty seconds later – reboot. I could get up and soon felt better. Another rider passed out right in front of me.

We got some hot tea and soon we were back on our bikes. The Death Road was awaiting us.

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warming up from the inside – Coca Tea

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The Death Road, actually called the Yungas Road, was notorious for being the world’s deadliest road until a new, safer road has been opened in 2006. The 65km long downhill gravel road meanders above steep cliffs and rarely has any crash barriers. Damn, it’s a hell lot of fun to ride it down! Step in the pedals, breaks loose and let the bike take the shocks while you race over gravel, small rocks and a few stream crossings.
I quickly forgot all about my earlier passing out and enjoyed every second of the way.

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Not too much wiggle room on my left…

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Hejko and me

Once we got to the bottom, a cold beer was in order. Everybody made it, 100% survival rate. That was the first time!

Yeah alright, it wasn’t the first time. But it was still good that nobody got seriously hurt ( I say “seriously” because one girl fell three times durin the ride).

I’ve seen enough of La Paz. Uyuni and the Salt Flats are up next…