Lessons Learned and the Best and Worst of Latin America
02/28/2007 - 06/04/2007
The clothes are washed, the backpacks stashed and the photos (all gazillion of them) stored on the computer. Mentally, though, it's been a slow readjustment from life in Latin America to life back in our Brooklyn apartment.
For our farewell posting, Geoff and I thought it would be cool to intersperse some of the things we've learned over the last three months, a few recommendations for travelers who might find themselves in some of the same countries and a final batch of fun pictures that never made it onto our previous blog entries.
Like this one, in which Monkey, our fearless travel mascot, makes new friends at a bird sanctuary in Copan, Honduras (they're rescued red-lored parrots, by the way, and were rather friendly despite keeping their distance in this photo).
Travel items we're really glad we had: duct tape, rope (surprisingly handy), a Leatherman and pocket knife, Nalgene water bottles and a battery-less handcrank LED flashlight (particularly useful during Central America's frequent power outages).
Items we could have done without: our mosquito netting and water purification filter, both completely unnecessary and a big waste of space.
Chile's Torres del Paine National Park and the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls were probably our favorite natural wonders, with Guatemala's Lago Atitlan, Nicaragua's Isla de Ometepe and the high mountain passes along Peru's Inca Trail claiming honorable mention.
Machu Picchu in Peru, Copan in Honduras and Antigua in Guatemala had the best ruins and the Galapagos Islands were by far the most spectacular location for wildlife, though Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica and Chalalan Ecolodge in Bolivia's Madidi National Park were also remarkable. And, of course, Geoff's Holy Grail of birds (the resplendant quetzal) appeared to us in the vicinity of northern Panama's terrific Amistad and Volcan Baru National Parks.
As for our more intimate wildlife encounters, here's a peek at one of the smaller tarantula specimens that shared a cabin with us on Nicaragua's Isla de Ometepe, here gracefully posing near an arrangement of local flowers.
Not to be outdone, this white-faced capuchin monkey gave us a nice view of its pearly whites while blocking our way in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park (we eventually had to detour around the rather grumpy monkey rather than risk being pounced on).
And who could forget the chickens? What, you don't remember them? Here's a picture of Geoff generously feeding trail mix to some chickens in Chile's Huerquehue National Park. Note the ones flocking to him from half the country. Our original posting of that intimate encounter has a follow-up photo in which we're running for our lives. OK, actually jogging as I was laughing too hard to go very fast.
Of the 11 Latin American countries we visited for more than a few hours, our favorite is still Guatemala. Beautiful handicrafts, a strong and vibrant indigenous culture and incredibly friendly people have made us vow to go back someday. As for South America, we'd love to explore the northern half of Chile (no more chickens, though, please) and see more of southern Peru and Bolivia.
In Bolivia, we learned from a mural celebrating the joys of polio vaccination that painful or uncomfortable experiences can ultimately be good for you (note the gray sponge-like flying viruses and the delighted smile on the child with the syringe protruding from his rear end).
Of the several dozen hotels, inns, guest houses, lodges and hostels where we stayed, we would steer other folks well clear of only three: Hotel Modelo in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (at least the sketchy wing where we stayed), the dismal and warren-like Hostal Jose Luis in Lima, Peru and El Castillo in Santiago, Chile (more on this gem later).
On the other hand, we loved Casa del Mundo in Jaibalito, Guatemala (on the shores of Lago Atitlan) and the Los Quetzales Lodge-owned cabins in the cloud forests of Guadelupe, Panama, for their jaw-dropping locations and views; La Montana y El Valle in Boquete, Panama, for its obsessive attention to detail and incredible pampering; and the boutique hotels of Indigo in Puerto Natales, Chile, plus Buenos Aires' BoBo Hotel & Restaurant and Vain. In the budget category, we were particularly impressed with Hotel Aranjuez in San Jose, Costa Rica, despite its ridiculously complicated reservation policy, and with Lazy Bones in Leon, Nicaragua (rooms are bare-bones but the place has tons of perks for the price).
In Nicaragua, we also learned that you should never, ever lose your head - like the headless priest lovingly portrayed at a museum dedicated to local legends and folklore (the giant golden crab is a whole other story).
As for restaurants, the only big disappointment was in Uruguay's Colonia de Sacramento, where an attractive and well-located restaurant called Pulperia Los Faroles served food that was only a half-step up from a high school cafeteria lunch. On the other end of the scale, we had fantastic meals at Ego in Panama City's Casco Viejo; La Montana y El Valle in Boquete, Panama; Buenos Aires' Cabana Las Lilas and BoBo; and Hacienda San Lucas in Copan, Honduras.
As for cities, we absolutely loved Antigua in Guatemala and were able to find something we really liked in nearly every other city: the partially restored elegance of Nicaragua's dueling colonial powers, Leon and Granada; Panama City's equally fascinating colonial neighborhood, Casco Antiguo; the revitalized Calle Ronda barrio in Quito's Old Town and the terrific new Malecon 2000 waterfront promenade in Guayaquil; Lima's great pre-Columbian museum treasures and La Paz's vibrant street life; the Recoleta cemetery, San Telmo antique fair and cafe culture of Buenos Aires; and the remarkable mix of Catholic and Quecha cultures in Cuzco.
If pressed, however, we might admit to being less than infatuated with the razor wire and metal bar-fortified capital of Tegulchigalpa in Honduras or Chile's capital of Santiago. Our feelings for Santiago, sadly, might have been tainted by our accidental stay in a glorified love motel our first night there - the kind of place, a motel worker informed Geoff, where most clients prefer to pay by the hour. If early-morning sounds are any indication, several other guests were definitely getting their money's worth.
Oops. Live and learn.
Thanks for staying tuned these past three months. It's been a great ride.
Geoff and Bryn