Category Archives: Budget travelin

5 Language-Learning Apps: Cracking the Spanish Code

When traveling to Latin America, among the top concerns of most travelers is:

“Can I speak English and get by?”

Those with basic Spanish experience may ponder:

“Is my Spanish good enough that people will understand me? Will I be able to get by and relate with the locals?”

Yes, you will get by, regardless of your Spanish level (or absence thereof). But, any effort you put into learning the language will enhance your experience substantially.

Respect is a universal language. The easiest way to show respect in any culture is to, at the very least, try to communicate in the local language. Try not to resort to your own language. Trust me, no matter how bad you sound, people will appreciate your effort.

Complete mastery of the Spanish language is a multi-year, highly-intensive task that usually involves immersion while living in a Spanish speaking country, but learning the basics of Spanish for the purpose of traveling can be as easy as dedicating a few minutes a day on your smartphone to tune your ear and voice to Spanish lingo.

Here are several apps that we have found to be effective and make learning Spanish a breeze.

Duolingo

Screenshot from https://www.duolingo.com/

Screenshot from https://www.duolingo.com/

Duolingo allows you to learn Spanish, French, Italian, German, or Portuguese during your morning commute or lunch breaks. Duolingo does not beat conjugations and vocabulary into your head like your high school language teacher. Instead, you’re trained to understand total phrases in various communication methods like writing, reading, listening. Your language studying becomes game-like. So you’re always trying to level up!

The App is totally free. No demos or trial runs. How? Luis von Ahn, founder of Duolingo, partnered with companies like Buzzfeed and CNN. These partners send documents to Duolingo that need to be translated. Those documents are used as teaching materials for Duolingo students who translate the documents. Technically, Duolingo creates a win-win situation for  its users and business partners.  

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.duolingo

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.duolingo

*Available for iphone and android users

Babbel

With Babble, you have the opportunity to learn 13 different languages. The app tests your language level and suggests different lessons for you. Sometimes you know the word you need to say, but you don’t know how to say it correctly (which doesn’t help when you need to converse with someone). That’s why Babbel provides pronunciation training as well.

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.babbel.mobile.android.en

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.babbel.mobile.android.en

Babbel also places an emphasis on vocabulary. The use of pictures helps visual learners engrave words into their memory for more effective learning.

Also, you can study languages as they pertain to different categories like:

  • Marketing
  • PR
  • Human resources

You can try a Babbel demo for free and pay for the full version later. The best value package is 12 months for $6.95/month.

*Available on iphone and android devices

 

 

 

 

 

Mango Mobile

Learn over 50 languages with Mango Languages – a program used by businesses, higher education programs, government agencies, and individual learners all around the world. Mango also adds an emphasis on cultures and dabs cultural facts into your studying. Features like voice comparison and audio listening allows you to perfect your pronunciation.

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mango.android

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mango.android

Other features include:

  • Memory building exercises
  • Learn through conversations
  • Understood and literal meanings
  • Grammar insights

Mango languages, originally an online platform, is now available on mobile platforms. But you must be subscribed to Mango Languages to use this app. It is more expensive than other applications.

The first level costs $79 and the second and third level cost $132. To buy all three levels at once costs $176.

*Available for iphone and Android users 

 

 

 

Lingibli

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.lingibli.app

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.lingibli.app

If you have ever tried learning a new language, you know you have a foundation of most used words.

For example in Spanish, verbs like “quierer,” “estar,” and “ser,” are commonly used during conversation. Mental trainer Tony Buzan claims that “only 100 words make up 50% of all conversations.” Lingibli uses this data to focus on key words and phrases to teach its users.

Lingibli is not meant to teach an entire language, however. The idea is to reduce friction and frustration when you are thrown into a different country. It’s for those moments often taken for granted in one’s home country – like ordering a meal at a restaurant or asking for directions.

Lingibli provides learning material for over 20 languages and is free to download. Internet access is not required to use this app.

 *Available on iphone and Android devices

Byki

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.transparent.android.byki.BykiMobile

Screenshot from https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.transparent.android.byki.BykiMobile

Byki teaches over 80 languages in a 3-step process aimed for speed and addiction to ensure learning that sticks. Equipped with a flashcard interface, the user is taught their new language through memorization style.

Quickstart multiple choice quizzes test your learning. Also, test your pronunciation skills with Byki’s SlowSound™ technology. 

Byki emphasizes vocabulary rather than grammar structures stating that “vocabulary is more fundamental than grammar.”

Byki is also available as an online program. For mobile platforms, each language costs $7.99.

 

 

 

 

 

What language tools do you use to prepare for your travels? Share them with us!

On the Road – Peru: Free Hiking Near Arequipa

Last week, I filled you in on 10 free attractions awaiting travelers in Arequipa. But many tourists arrive here to do some trekking in the Colca Canyon. The recent increase of the canyon’s entry fee to a staggering $26 for non-Latin Americans will leave many shoestring travelers in the dust.

 

Not to fear, though. Arequipa’s campiña (countryside) offers several great opportunities to get out of the city for some fresh sunshine and incredible vistas. The awards along the way include waterfalls, ancient rock paintings and traditional villages.

El Misti from Yanahuara’s mirador. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Two miradores just west of downtown give splendid views of the volcanoes: one in Yanahuara (2 km / 1.2 mi from downtown Arequipa) and another called Carmen Alto (6.7 km / 4 mi north of Ca Puente Grau and Av Bolognesi; follow the signs).

 

In the Cayma district west of Arequipa, a 15-kilometer (9.2-mile) Inca trail runs through the Valle de Chilina, along west bank of the Río Chili to the Santuario La Virgen de Chapi de Charcani (General Varela 1070, Acequia, Alta Cayma). Along the way are waterfalls, and places to rock climb and fish. There is one campsite.

 

Cayma’s Oficina de Desarrollo Turístico publishes a rough map of the route (Plaza de Cayma 408, Cayma. Tel: 054-254-648, E-mail: turismo@municayma.gob.pe, URL: www.municayma.gob.pe).

 

The Valle de Chilina may also be hiked along the eastern bank of the river. From downtown Arequipa, walk north to Parque Selva Alegre, turn left to the end of that road, then right at the end of that one. Continue straight and take the third path down. This road also leads hikers through a landscape of ancient terraced farm fields, forests and scrub-brush lands overshadowed by Chachani and El Misti volcanoes.

Paisaje Arequipeño. Photo by Carlos Zúñiga.

Just to the southeast of Arequipa is the Ruta del Loncco, places where you may hike through the bucolic countryside, to waterfalls, petroglyphs (petroglifos) and traditional villages. Yarabamba (15 km / 9 mi from Arequipa) are the Petroglifos Gayalopo y Guanaqueros. A few kilometers to the south is Quequeña, where you may hike to the Petroglifos Cerro Boracho, Trompín Chico and Quebrada de la Zorra creek. Further south is Sogay, with waterfalls. In these towns, there are campsites.

 

These villages’ websites have more information about their attractions: Yarabamba (URL: http://www.peru.gob.pe/Nuevo_Portal_Municipal/portales/municipalidades/358/entidad/pm_municipalidad_tematicos.asp?cod_tema=39505), Quequeña (URL: www.muniquequena.gob.pe) and Sogay (URL: www.sogayarequipa.com). Minibuses for Yarabamba and Quequeña pass by Venezuela and Avenida Mariscal Castilla ($0.60).

Waterfall. Photo by Carlos Zúñiga.

Any of these hikes may be done as day trips from Arequipa. Bring along food (a picnic would be perfect) and water, sun protection (hat, sun screen) and good walking shoes. Keep valuables back at the hostel. The more tranquil hikes are in the three villages south of the city.

 

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

 

VIVA’s New Colombia Adventure Guide

It’s the equinox and time to start planning upcoming vacations. One of the hottest destinations in Latin America and a magnet for in-the-know travelers is Colombia, which is leaving its dark history behind.  After months of anticipation, VIVA’s Colombia Adventure Guide has hit shelves and iPads all over the world, and is providing all the information you need for a safe and enjoyable trip.

 

Nobody knows Latin American better than VIVA, based in Ecuador. Its writers delve deep into the cultural and natural beauties of Colombia. No corner of the country is ignored.

Providencia (Old Providence) Island.

Colombia Adventure Guide’s main writer, Lorraine Caputo, has taken 10 extended trips to Colombia since 1992. On her recent journey, she traveled the breadth of Colombia, from mountains to sea, from green jungles to concrete jungles. With this pioneering book, she opens huge swaths of the country previously little-covered by any other guidebook, such as the Llanos, Putumayo, Guajira, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and even a float down the historic Magdalena River. She takes you from small, out-of-the-way villages to the bustling cities, and throws in fantastic sand beaches from Coveñas to Punta Gallinas for good measure. She lends her experience working in national parks to give travelers insight into Tayrona, Cocuy, Puracé and Colombia’s other nature reserves, and her interest in archaeology to delve into past. For travelers heading to Panama, she details no fewer than four ways to do so.

Las Minas, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Lorraine also provides glimpses into some of Colombia’s nearly 100 indigenous nations, examining Wayu’u language, customs and etiquette; the Amazonian elixir of the gods, yagé; and the ways of Kuna.

 

Colombia Adventure Guide takes you where few other guidebooks dare to tread, giving you all the information you need to explore an incredibly diverse, but often overlooked, country. Special attention is given to the forgotten travelers: budget and families. Lorraine gives tips on the many free things to do and opens the doors to locally owned businesses, family artisan workshops and volunteer projects.

El Cocuy National Park.

Working with locally based writers, travelers and communities, VIVA brings you the most current, accurate guide to Colombia available anywhere and with a fresh perspective. VIVA’s Colombia Adventure Guide simply covers more regions and has more travel wisdom built in — over 100 pages more info than any of the competing Colombia guide books. With dozens of easy-to-use maps, tons of travel tips, packing lists and before-you-go information, Colombia Adventure Guide is the only guide you’ll need.

 

Colombia Adventure Guide is available in a variety of e-book applications directly from VIVA, as well as in print format from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

On the Road – Peru: Nine Great Northern Coast Get-Aways

Peru’s Northern Coast, from Trujillo to the Ecuador border, is lined with delightful beach resorts. This region is famous for its world-class surfing, though other marvels await visitors to this landscape that changes from desert scrub forest to mangrove swamp. After a day of kite boarding, deep-sea fishing or zip-lining, head to the thermal baths to relax your muscles. Birdwatching and hiking are also excellent adventures. The seafood cuisine is superb.

 

The most famous of these are Huanchaco and Máncora. V!VA Travel Guides also takes you to some that are not so well-known to international travelers. Many make easy day trips from the major cities. But all have lodging, if you want to spend a night watching the moonlight slithering across the waves.

 

Huanchaco's famed caballitos de totora.

Huanchaco

Just 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) north of Trujillo is Huanchaco, which according to Chimú mythology was the landing-spot of Takaynamo, who ordered the construction of the famous ancient city of Chan Chan. Huanchaco is famous not only for its surfing, but also the fishermen who still use caballitos de totora for their daily outings. Ask to use one of these reed rafts to ride the waves.

 

 

 

Pimentel. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Pimentel

Pimentel, only 11 kilometers (6.5 miles) from Chiclayo, has a broad, pale-grey peach. The seaside malecón is lined with beautiful gardens and mansions dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is another good surfing spot. Archaeology buffs can check out Huaca Agujereada and Huaca Blanca. Pimentel is another village where fishermen still use caballitos de totora.

 

 

 

Paddling a balsillo in Yacila. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Yacila

Piura’s port is historic Paita, birthplace of Almirante Miguel Grau (hero of the War of the Pacific against Chile) and where Generala Manuela Sáenz (Simón Bolívar’s confidante) lived her last days. Seventeen kilometers (10 miles) to the south of Paita is Yacila, is a fishing village on a small, rocky cove. Here men here still use balsillos, traditional rafts made of five logs. To the south of Yacila are other beaches, like Los Cangrejos, La Islilla, La Laguna, Hermosa, Gramitas, Té para Dos and Las Gaviotas.

 

A glorious sunset at Colán. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

 

Colán

Colán, 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the north of Paita, has long been one of northern Peru’s great beach resorts. Oystercatchers, several species of gull, whimbrels, pelicans, frigate birds and blue-footed boobies are frequent visitors to the five-kilometer (three-mile) long Playa Esmeraldas. At the southern end of the beach, fossil-rich bluffs meet the sea. The sunsets are absolutely stunning here.

 

 

 

 

 

Cabo Blanco. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Cabo Blanco

Cabo Blanco’s earned its fame many decades ago with its world-record catches of marlin and albacore. It drew Hollywood stars, sport greats and industrial barons. The old Fishing Club closed several decades back, but slip a few soles to the caretaker to let you see the fishing trophies and Room 5, where Ernest Hemingway stayed when The Old Man and the Sea was filmed here. Cabo Blanco is still renowned for its fishing, as well as kite boarding and a world surfing championship. While in town, drop into Restaurant Cabo Blanco to chat with Pablo Córdova, Hemingway’s bartender, while enjoying an absolutely delectable chicharrón de mariscos.

 

 

Los Órganos

Los Órganos is a relaxed, little-touristed beachside resort that is the jumping off point for deep-sea fishing and other boating excursions. If you happen by between August and November, hop aboard for a ride out to see the migrating whales. Another popular activity kite surfing.

 

Las Pocitas and Vichayito

These two towns just south of Máncora offer a more peaceful scene. The long, broad beach is edged with lush vegetation. Enjoy days soaking up the sun and sunset strolls along the strand. These are perfect places to rent a bungalow and do a maximum chill. They are especially good for families.

 

Máncora's raison d'être: Surfing. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Máncora

Máncora is the perennial favorite for national and international tourists. This once-upon-a-time fishing village has grown tremendously in the past three years, drawing not only backpackers, but also travelers with deeper pockets. Máncora’s surfing is famous globally, and many of Peru’s greats have set up schools here. The scene is diversifying, with kite boarding, wind surfing, zip lining in the inland desert forests and mud baths.

 

 

Sunset at Zorritos. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

 

Zorritos                                

Between Máncora and the Ecuador border is Zorritos. This mellow town has over 30 kilometers (18 miles) of broad beach to stroll along and a sea that is warm year-round. Near town are several national parks protecting desert forests and mangroves. Take a day trip into Puerto Pizarro to boat around islands full of nesting frigate birds and to a crocodile breeding center. Head into the hills to soak in your choice of hot springs or thermal mud baths.

 

 

 

 

The sea is cold up to the Máncora area, where the Humboldt Current veers westward to the Galápagos Islands. Surfers will need to use a wetsuit.

 

Another warning to travelers: These beaches are a popular get-away for Peruvians and Ecuadorians during holiday seasons, when prices rise steeply. In a few weeks, it’ll be Semana Santa, or Easter Week — one of the biggest vacation times. If you’re looking for relaxation and tranquility, you may want to head elsewhere April 1-8 this year.

 

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

http://shop.vivatravelguides.com/peru-2.html

On the Road – Peru: Chinese New Year in Lima’s Barrio Chino

The sharp cracks of fireworks fill the streets with pungent smoke and shreds of paper. The booming drums, the clang of brass cymbals announce the arrival of the dancers. Humans beneath the cloth dragon, lion and other animals raise the creatures up in the doorways of businesses, ensuring a bountiful coming year.

 

In China Towns all over the world, this millennia-old ceremony was celebrated to mark the beginning of the Year of the Dragon. In Lima’s Barrio Chino, shoppers were lured by the unusual music. Snapping photos with their cell phones, they followed the parade down the crowded streets.

 

 

During the second half of the 19th century, some 100,000 Chinese arrived to Peru. Most came to work in nitrate mining or on the plantations after slavery was abolished. Many were indentured servants, living a semi-slave life. In the 20th century, a second wave washed upon these South American shores. Today, Chinese descendants make up about 0.5% of the nation’s population.

 

 

The Barrio Chino is near Lima’s Mercado Central, just a few blocks east of the Plaza de Armas. Walking up Jirón Ucayali (a.k.a., Calle Cantón), you soon come to the large red gateways inviting you to stroll down the pedestrian mall paved with the 12 sign of the Sino horoscope. Several stands offer newspapers from China and another kiosk attends to spiritual needs.

 

The neighborhood extends from Jirón Junín to Jirón Puno, and from Andahuaylas to nearly Huanta. These bustling streets are jammed with dozens of chifas, (Chinese restaurants) with roasted ducks and pigs hanging in front windows. Import shops provide everything from foods to knickknacks. There are also several acupuncture clinics. Businesses – including banks – brandish signs in Spanish and Chinese.

 

Come down for a few hours, to savor a different flavor in Peru. Have a quick lunch at a chifa and wander through the dozens of market stalls tucked off the streets. Before heading back to the run-of-the-mill Peruvian reality, pick up some authentic ingredients to whip up your own stir fry back at your hostel.

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Chile’s Carretera Austral: Ten Adventures to Get Your Adrenaline Fix

Taking a rest.

South America’s summer officially begins tonight, but already travelers have been hitting Chile’s Carretera Austral (Ruta 7), which extends 1,247 kilometers (775 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Bicyclists are battling the infamous Patagonian wind as gravel kicks up around their tires. Some backpackers stand by the roadsides, thumb outstretched, to explore the road that way. Very few travelers take the public buses or rent a car. This is a highway where dreams can be made reality.

If the adventure of biking or hitching the Carretera Austral isn’t enough for you, V!VA Travel Guides Chile presents you  with a cornucopia of high-adrenaline activities to keep you pumped going down the highway. This region has many legs of the national hiking trail network, the Sendero de Chile (www.senderodechile.cl). Local families provide homestay and guiding services for not only trekking, but also birdwatching, horseback riding, fly fishing, rock climbing and other sports.

So dig out the hiking boots and pack in the provisions because it’s time to hit the open road.

 

1 – Parque Nacional Horniporén

Parque Nacional Horniporén, near the start of the Carretera Austral, protects important transition zones of flora, fauna and geology. Over 13 kilometers (8 miles) of hiking trails wind through this fascinating landscape. The nearby village of Río Puelo is the starting point for an even more challenging trek: four nights, five days across the Paso Río Puelo border to El Bolsón, Argentina.

Kayaking on the Futaleufú River.

2 – Futaleufú

Rafters and kayakers, get your gear ready to shoot through the rapids of the Futa, one of the world’s three most challenging rivers. The toughest stretches are the “Infierno” (22 kilometers / 14 miles, Class III-IV) and the “Terminator” (7 kilometers / 4.2 miles, Class V). The Espolón River is renowned for its fly fishing. Dry land adventures are horseback riding and hiking near town and in Reserva Natural Futaleufú.

Further down the highway you can get another whitewater  fix on the Río Baker’s Class III rapids at Puerto Bertrand.

 

3 – Palena

Reserva Nacional Lago Palena offers horseback riding, fly fishing and a half-dozen hiking trails ranging from four kilometers (2.4 miles) to 13 kilometers (8 miles) in distance. It is also the staging ground for a 65-kilometer (39-mile) stretch of the Sendero de Chile, from Palena to Lago Verde (near La Junta).

 

A waterfall in Queulat National Park.

4 – Puyuhuapi

The delights around Puyuhuapi, a small German settlement on a fiord, never ceases to amaze travelers. After hiking to the hanging glaciers and waterfalls in Parque Nacional Queulat, soak your tired muscles in one of two hot springs near the village.

 

5 – Coyhaique

While you’re restocking on money and other necessary supplies in the Northern Patagonia’s major city, take some time out to explore the three national reserves near town: Monumento Nacional Dos Lagunas, Reserva Nacional Río Simpson and Reserva Nacional Coyhaique. On the coast is Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, most known for its boat tours to the glaciers. But it also has several hiking trails, ice climbing (for the experienced and equipped) and camping.

Coyahique is also home to Escuela de Guías de la Patagonia, a school that trains the region’s guides. During the summer, it also teaches travelers camping, rock climbing and other skills to survive Patagonian rigors.

 

Cerro Castillo.

6 – Cerro Castillo

With geological features much like Torres del Paine, Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo has a distinct advantage: It is virtually unvisited. The challenging 45-kilometer (28 mile) Valle de la Lima-Villa Cerro Castillo trek, which takes three to four days, wraps around the base of the mountain, with stunning views of icy lagoons and glaciers. If time is short, you can visit the park on horseback from the village.

 

7 – Bahía Exploradores

The boat tour of Río Tranquilo’s marble caves provides a respite from Chile’s Northern Patagonia’s trekking opportunities. But it’s now time for the next challenge: Hiking out the 59-kilometer (37-mile) road towards Bahía Exploradores, and ice trekking Glaciar Exploradores.

Capilla de Marmól, near Río Capilla.

8 – Cochrane

Besides being the last place along the highway where you can pick up on money and basic supplies, Cochrane has the Reserva Nacional Tamango. Also near town is Laguna Esmeralda with swimming, kayaking and great trout fishing. If you’re ready to roll up the ol’ sleeves and help restore natural habitats for huemul and puma, then volunteer at Valle Chacabuco nature reserve.

 

Caleta Tortel.

9 – Caleta Tortel

The entire village of Caleta Tortel is a hiking experience, with over seven kilometers (4.2 miles) of cypress-wood boardwalks. This is also where the southern sector of Parque Nacional San Rafael and Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins are accessed.  Both have hikes to glaciers. Caleta Tortel is also a prime kayaking destination.

 

10 – Villa O’Higgins

Villa O’Higgins is the last town on Chile’s Carretera Austral. From here, you’ll have to backtrack north to Cochrane or Lago General Carrera to cross over into Argentina. Or you can boat across Lago O’Higgins and hike to El Chaltén, Argentina—what has been called one of the world’s most beautiful border crossings (Paso Dos Lagunas). Before you leave this end-of-the-road town, though, take some time to hike or horseback ride one of the seven trails in the area, including two in the northern sector of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins.

The highway’s end.

 

Traversing the Carretera Austral once the snows swirl in late autumn provides other ways to get the old adrenaline pumping. The road becomes impassable and many of towns remain isolated for weeks at a time. The best place to use as a base is Coyhaique. You can snowshoe and cross country ski in the three national reserves near that city or in Cerro Castillo just to the south. Coyhaique also has a downhill ski center, Centro de Ski el Fraile.

The Carretera Austral can be accessed by several border crossings from Argentina, or by boats arriving at Chaitén, Puerto Chacabuco (near Coyhaique) and other villages.

There are many other towns along the Carretera Austral that provide many other delights. Pack along your V!VA Travel Guides Chile for the most complete coverage of the region than any other guidebook on the market.

Fantastic Nature Reserves on Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The most talked about spot on Argentina’s Patagonian coast is Puerto Madryn. The whales, elephant seals and other wildlife at Playa El Doradillo and out on Peninsula Valdés draw thousands of visitors every year. Sports enthusiasts come for the prime windsurfing and scuba diving. The new V!VA Travel Guides Patagonia Argentina takes you there—and to lesser-known places on this Atlantic Coast that every traveler should put on the itinerary.

 

The restringas at low tide.

Las Grutas, an über-popular summer balneario (resort) with a Mediterranean-village feel to it, is barely on the foreigners’ radar screen. At low tide, the sea here—the warmest in all Patagonia—retreats up to two kilometers and forms pools in the rock-bed restringas. You can walk south along the coast to the fascinating Piedras Coloradas, El Buque, with a rock formation that looks like a ship and lagoons filled with mussels and small Patagonian octopus, and Cañadón de las Ostras, where 15-million-year old fossilized oysters stud the stone. Inland are Salinas de Gualicho, Argentina’s largest salt works and perfect place for star gazing, and Fuerte Argentino, reputed to be the refuge of the Knights Templar. Las Grutas is within a large nature reserve, protecting migrating whales and dolphins. Vuelo Latitud 40 is a migratory bird refuge and research center.

 

Whales can be spotted all along Argentina's Patagonia coast.

Further south on Ruta 3 is Parque Marítimo Costero Patagonia Austral, Argentina’s newest national park and the first one dedicated to preserving marine habitat. It stretches from Camarones in the north all the way to Caleta Córdova, near Comodoro Rivadavia. Within the park is Cabo Dos Bahías, home to 13 main species of birds, with a population totaling over a half-million residents, including Magellanic Penguin and Antarctic Giant Petrel, as well as a sea lion colony. The upscale resort at Bahía Bustamante is another prime birdwatching spot. In spring, whales are seen all along this coast. The best place to access this new park is at Camarones, which was the hometown of Juan Perón.

 

 

The Ría Deseada's beautiful landscape.

Puerto Deseado is the gateway to the Ría Deseada Nature Reserve. This over-40-kilometer canyon is the product of a freak geological accident millions of years ago, when the glaciers were receding. It is now a natural lover’s paradise with five types of cormorant, Magellanic Penguins, terns, skuas and dozens of other birds. Fur seals and sea lions tread the waters, and guanaco and rhea roam the plains. Kayak up the ría, following in Charles Darwin’s footsteps, to the Miradores named for him. Off shore from Puerto Deseado is Isla Pingüino, with Patagonia’s only colony of the yellow-tufted Rockhopper Penguins.

 

 

 

Cabo Curioso

Another place to follow in Mr. Darwin’s footsteps is at Puerto San Julián.  It was at this port that the Patagonia legend was born. With a deep history of pirates and explorers, this safe harbor also drew HMS The Beagle in for a spell. The Circuito Costero, stretching 22 kilometers up the coast, is a fantastic place to hike. The landscape is bedecked with birdlife, wild horses and ruins from Patagonia’s recent past. Cabo Curioso’s giant oyster fossil-studded cliffs caught Darwin’s imagination, and stirred his mind to theories of evolution. In the city itself, a waterfall forms at low tide, with a lagoon where flamingos, black-necked swans and other waterfowl can be spotted.

 

To enjoy the stunning natural beauties of these places, come in spring or fall, when migratory marine mammal and bird populations are at their peak. In summer, you’ll get to experience the culture of migrating Argentines on vacation. All of these destinations have year-round campgrounds, which make them affordable destinations even for shoestring travelers.

 

If your trip will take you all over this great country, pick up a copy of V!VA Travel Guides Argentina, which is available in print and e-book formats.

Pebguins are also spotted all along this coast.

Quito's Crafty Nuns

When you think of nuns, often the image of “penguins” slapping parochial schoolchildren’s hands with a ruler comes to mind. But other Catholic orders dedicate themselves to tasks in service to others, or to making homemade goodies and medicines.

 

This is the work of three convents in Quito’s Centro Histórico: Santa Clara, Carmen del Alto and Santa Catalina. If Quito’s dry air is taking a toll on your skin, or you’ve picked up some sort of bug while out in the jungle, head over to their shops. If you’re more interested in sweets and other delectables than in natural medicine, these crafty nuns can fulfill your desires, too.

 

Convento de Santa Clara‘s (Rocafuerte and Cuenca), founded in 1596, is one block south of Plaza San Francisco. Among this convent’s offerings are a cucumber cream to soothe your skin at these high altitudes and a makeup remover. The sisters here also produce wine and have a bakery. While at the convent, stop by the church for a guided tour of the Baroque art collection (Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Entry: $1).

 

Two blocks to the east is Monasterio e Iglesia del Carmen del Alto (Rocafuerte and García Moreno). This is one of Quito’s oldest convents. It was originally the house of the city’s first saint, Mariana de Jesús (1618-1665). Upon her death, her family donated the building to the Carmelitas Descalzas, who enlarged the house according to the saint’s wishes. The work was completed in 1661. The convent is a closed cloister; the sisters do not enter public and pass their lives speaking only a few hours per day. The only parts the general public may visit are the church and the shop.

 

The Barefoot Carmelites of this convent specialize in raising bees, and many of their goods are made from that. They also make crafts which are for sale at their shop. The sisters are especially renowned for their embroidery work, sweets and holy wine (said to be the “star” creation of these Carmelitas Descalzas).

 

From the Iglesia del Carmen del Alto, walk two blocks east to Plaza Santo Domingo and cut across the square to Calle Flores (the street the Trole takes). Take Flores four blocks to Convento de Santa Catalina, on the corner of Calle Espejo. It is located in Barrio San Marcos, on the site where the Incan Aclla Huasi (House of the Chosen) was.

 

This convent has probably the widest range of health and beauty aids, some made by its community and others by outside producers. Besides lotions and creams, this religious order’s members craft products your great-grandmother probably whipped up in her kitchen. There is horseradish syrup for coughs, and all manner of teas and potions for other ailments. The honey-bees’ wax cream is exceptionally good for relieving dry skin and nice for massages. While at Convento de Santa Catalina drop by its museum (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Entry: $1.50).

 

These convents create products from their own huertas, or garden-farm plots. Besides being the way they fulfill their calling, this is also how the nuns can raise much needed money for their communities and projects. The shops are typically open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Weekend Entertainment in Quito's Centro Histórico

Some travelers prefer to check out the nightlife in La Mariscal district, dancing and drinking until the cocks crow. But Quito has other ways to enjoy weekend nights, that even families may enjoy, right in the colonial heart of the city.

 

La Ronda at a quieter moment.

Once upon a time, La Ronda was the soul of Quiteña culture. Just two blocks south of Plaza Santo Domingo was where many poets lived, and here many of the old-time songs were composed. Already by the 1990s, this two-block-long neighborhood had become one of the most dangerous in the Centro Histórico, plagued with robberies, prostitution and drug dealing. For several decades, the residents tried to get the city to help them recuperate their barrio. Finally, in middle of the 21st century’s first decade, the city agreed—but wanted the people to move out. The families fought to remain, saying that they would work together.

 

In 2007, the renewed La Ronda opened as a tourist attraction. Generations-old family shops, making artisan candles, sweets and espumillas (fruit-flavored whipped cream), found new clientele. Some families opened restaurants featuring traditional Quiteño cuisine. Children played the barrio’s music. Visitors stopped to sing and dance along in the narrow, cobblestone lane.

 

Within months, La Ronda became THE place to go Friday and Saturday nights. The blocks around the district become one massive parking lot. The streets are crowded with couples and families strolling from café to café, drinking canelazo (a warm drink made of fruit juice and cane alcohol), dining and listening to music. Now many establishments are owned by non-barrio residents, and a variety of music is now heard (not just the traditional Quiteña sounds).

 

Boogying to quiteña music.

 

On Saturday nights, Quito offers Noches Patrimoniales. These tours, conducted by guides in period costumes, last 45 minutes and depart at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. from the tourism office (Calle Venezuela and Calle Espejo. Tel: 257-2445/295-4469, URL: www.quito.com.ec). Participants learn about the history and legends of the Centro Histórico, and visit different museums. The cost is $6 per person. Contact the tourism office for more details.

 

Also on Saturday nights, Biciacción (Tel: 245-6156) invites people to join it on bicycle excursions through Quito’s Historic Center.

 

 

After checking out the Centro Histórico’s nightlife on Friday and Saturday nights, take it easy Sunday morning when the entire downtown becomes a pedestrian mall until 2 p.m.

 

Artists, craftspeople and musicians perform along Calle García Moreno and Calle Sucre. The main plazas—Grande, San Francisco and Santo Domingo—vibrate with free theater, dance, music and puppet shows. Sometimes events also happen at Plaza la Merced (Calles Cuenca and Chile) and Plaza del Teatro (Calles Sucre and Manabí). Many of the churches and museums are open. Vendors come out, selling baskets of fresh fruits, cups of espumilla and toys.

 

There are plenty of happenings for children, too, with face painting, games and crafts.

 

Ciclopolis (Tel: 290-1920, URL: www.ciclopolis.ec) sponsors the Ciclopaseo from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. This 27-kilometer (16.2-mile) bicycling circuit runs from Parque de los Recuerdos in the North, down Avenida Amazonas, into the Centro Histórico and South as far as Quitumbre. Mechanics are posted at four spots along the way.

 

If you happen to not have a bike, you can lease one for the day, for $5.60. Rentals can be arranged at several points along the circuit (Jorge Washington, Tribunal del Sur or La Kennedy) or by phoning Ciclopolis. Some form of identification must be left as a “deposit.”

 

The carefree spirit in downtown Quito’s streets, however, continues well past the stages are broke down and the artists have packed their instruments. Until sundown, children continue to chase the pigeons in the squares, neighbors sit to chat and vendors to sell fruits.

On the Road – Colombia: La Niña Adventures Continue – & Free in Cartagena

La Niña Adventures Continue

The La Niña rains are continuing in most parts of the country, adding a different dimension to travelers’ Colombian adventures. The TV news shows images of the extensive flooding in Medellín, Honda and the Magdalena River Valley. Mudslides cause temporary delays in bus trips. But most people journeying by that means are arriving safely (though a bit late).

Bicyclists, though, are facing tougher challenges. One Danish couple riding from Mexico to Colombia is due to fly out from Bogotá. They began down the road from Cartagena to the capital, but had to turn back. All roads – save La Línea (a high-altitude pass) – are affected. Others are deciding to stay a while yet on the coast, until the rains stop.

All travelers, whether in bus or car, on motorcycle or bicycle, are advised to check Invías’ (the national highway department) website for up-to-date information on road condition.

Casa Museo Rafael Núñez is easy on the wallet. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Free in Cartagena

The only part of the country not having heavy rains seems to be the Caribbean coast. Even though it is officially the rainy season, it is anything but that. The days swell into a sultry stupor, but rarely erupt into a thunder-bumper. So many travelers are deciding to stay on the coast until road conditions (hopefully) improve.

Unfortunately, shoestring backpackers are dumbfounded by the cost of Cartagena’s museums, and excursions to Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario are. These journeyers wonder they can do here on a meager budget. The answer is, Plenty.

Grab the camera and had out to wander the streets of the Old City, savoring the plazas and colonial architecture. Take a rest on the fortress walls, enjoying the sea and passers-by. Stroll over to Isla Manga and take in its seaside promenade.

Free dance & music. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

To cool off on these sultry days, pack a picnic and head to one of the near-by beaches, like Marbella and the ones on Bocagrande peninsula. For a few dollars, take a buseta out to La Boquilla where the best mainland playa is.

If museums are more your thing, you aren’t totally out of luck. The Museo del Oro Zenú and Museo de la Esmeralda are always free, and Museo de Arte Moderno is gratis every Wednesday. The Casa Museo Rafael Núñez costs less than a dollar. The last Sunday of each month, some of the pricey museums are fortresses are free.

A fine dose of rhythmic culture can be savored every afternoon (5-6 p.m.), when troupes perform Afro-Colombian dance and music at Plaza de los Coches. The various cultural centers in town host free art exhibits, movies and other events.

Click here for details on all these activities.

Another free event budget travelers could take in this past week was the Semana Santa processions that wended through the Cartagena’s streets. I close out this week with some images from Good Friday’s cortege – and until next week.

All Photos by Lorraine Caputo

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.