- Donkeys are painted as zebras on Avenida Revolución.
- Mariachi bands in traditional Mexican dress are not merely a legend, they do in fact exist.
- Tipping 10% is normal.
- There is a restaurant called Caesar's – they claim to be the birthplace/home of the Caesar Salad.
- There is an alleyway called Colectivo 9, which is basically an outdoor food court. Here are two of my favorite restaurants found there, and delicious (vegetarian) food to try:
- Empanadas 19/87 - combo of 1 Terra, 1 Margarita, salad and the coconut water with nuts (yes, nuts in the coconut water).
- Indie Burgers - The Porto.
- Baristi is a great cafe chain. Check out the one located on Avenida Revolución. Try the bagel sandwich (double Swiss cheese, no ham) and iced coffee with vanilla or caramel flavoring.
Tijuana (also known as TJ) has a very different feel than its neighboring US cousin, San Diego. While you will find some similar food and friendly locals in both places, the official language in Tijuana (and Mexico) is Spanish, and there is more poverty there than in San Diego. I did not find as many tourists as I thought I would have in TJ. This may be due (at least in part) to the perceived danger there. I did not encounter any issues. Now, for a list of random facts about TJ:
Sporting consistently sunny skies, warm weather, a lack of humidity, and amazing sunsets, it's no wonder why San Diego takes the cake year-to-year when it comes the best places to live both in the US and worldwide.
San Diego is a progressive city that offers lots of great restaurants, vegetarian and vegan options too, and no shortage of nightlife! The best areas to spend the evening are the Gaslamp District/Little Italy area if you want moderate to pure chaos, or North Park if you're deeper into the hipster scene.
Parks you might ask? Yupp, San Diego's got that too. Balboa Park is a particularly beautiful park with many sections including several museums, a botanical garden area, and even a dog park nearby! Check out the alluring variety of cacti - stunning!
The public transportation system, which consists mainly of buses and trolleys, does a pretty decent job connecting the different parts of San Diego. Should you decide you want to venture out of the city, train and bus connections will conveniently take you north toward Los Angeles to meet movie stars, or south to Tijuana if you're curious what’s on the other side of the border.
The main takeaway is that although it’s an expensive city, it's definitely a very livable and enjoyable place!
Although I usually like to write about my experiences in short essay-style format, I am going to let the statistics do the talking on this one:
1) 10,000 miles driven = equivalent distance between New York, United States & Sydney, Australia
2) if we continued traveling for about 2.5 years at the same pace, we would have reached the moon
Challenging drives: Highland Scenic Byway in WV, 40mph winds in Kansas and Nebraska, operation bunny avoidance in Nevada
Animals seen: Dolphins (Shem Creek, SC), alligators and bullfrogs (Achafalaya Basin, LA), bison, pronghorns, white-tailed deer(?) (Custer State Park, SD), Prairie dogs, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep (Badlands, SD), Pronghorns, mule deer (scenic drive from SD to WY), donkey (town in southern Nevada), large (jack?)rabbit (southern Nevada)
Best hotels: Cambria in New Orleans, Hilton Americas in Houston, Ramada Plaza Atlanta Downtown
Food All-Star List (vegetarian/vegan):
- Bru Burger Indianapolis: mushroom patty burger & mushroom & garbanzo bean burger
- Lulu's (vegan) St. Louis: Buffalo fried cauliflower bites with ranch sauce, crunch wrap
- *Biscuit Head Asheville: Asheville Benedict, soy chorizo
- Wet Willie's Savannah: vegan burger (1st customers to try)
- MELT Birmingham: Mac n cheese egg rolls with chili sauce, pretzel covered cheese bites with jalapeno ranch, mac n cheese burger (with egg added), beer battered fries with rosemary infused ketchup and spicy/sweet mustard combo, banana stand
- Oceana Grill New Orleans: Cajun Vegetarian Stew
- Killer Poboys New Orleans: Cheddar omellete Poboy
- Walk-Ons in Baton Rouge - veggie burger, waffle fries & Cajun queseaux dip w/ chips
- India's in Baton Rouge: Honey chili cauliflower bites
- Arlo's in Austin: BBQ Burger & Bacon Cheese Burger
- Vegan Nom in Austin: Tempeh Bacon & Organic Tofu Scramble breakfast taco, Three Amigos Taco, Jalisco Chicken Fajitas
- Goro in Oklahoma City: Yasai Ramen (with chili bomb)
- The Donut Whole in Wichita - drip coffee, medium roast w/ sugar & Irish cream
- Black Hills Bagels in Rapid City: white chocolate chip bagel with brown sugar and cinnamon cream cheese; egg and American cheese on a cheddar cheese bagel; egg and pepper jack cheese on a sour dough bagel with cream cheese; egg, pepper jack cheese, olives, jalapenos, lettuce, and tomato with cream cheese on a plain bagel; White Mocha (espresso drink)
- Paramount Cafe in Cheyenne - M.O. 35 (drink)
- Watercourse Foods in Denver - Cuban Sandwich & vegan seitan wings
- Matador in Boise: Veggie burger (beyond burger), side of fries, salad, crispy brussels sprouts
- Wayward Vegan Cafe in Seattle: The Real Deal
- Next Level Burger in Portland: Special Sauce Burger
- Kati in Portland: Pad See Ew, Pad Kee Mao, Panang Curry, Vegan Iced Thai Tea, Iced Green Tea
- Ramen Yamadaya in Los Angeles: Vegan Ramen
Cool nightlife spots: Baxter's - Louisville, Tree House - Savannah, Atomic Lounge - Birmingham
States visited (32): NY, NJ, PA, MD, WV, KY, IN, IL, MO, AR, TN, NC, GA, SC, AL, MI, LA, TX, OK, KS, NE, SD, WY, CO, NM, AZ, UT, NV, ID, OR, WA, CA
Coolest small towns: Casey, IL; Lucas, KS; Goldfield, NV
Pittsburgh is also called "The City of Bridges", and I found out why shortly after arriving. The city has 446 bridges I believe. Wow, that's impressive!
So aside from a plethora of bridges, what else does Pittsburgh have going for it? Sports! This is a city which boasts a more-than-impressive level of local patriotism! I observed many people in jerseys of the local sports teams. I actually stayed in a hotel sandwiched between the stadium where the Pittsburgh Steelers (football) play and the stadium where the Pittsburgh Pirates (baseball) play.
So aside from bridges and sports, what else does Pittsburgh have going for it? Friendly people! It's known for its kind people, and my experience certainly supported that statement. The friendliness was to a much higher degree than what I usually experience in New York, which was very nice! Upon walking into a bar, locals almost immediately struck up a conversation with me. On a separate occasion, another person told me to "make sure you get his good side" when he saw me taking a picture of a statue of a historically famous Pittsburgh Steelers player named Franco Harris. I observed people walking away from their charging phones, and leaving luggage with strangers (something which is not advisable to do in New York). My impression of the events mentioned in the previous sentence is that there is a higher level of trust in this city than in many others which I have visited.
So aside from bridges, sports, and friendly people, what else does Pittsburgh have going for it? Livability! It’s a decent sized city but it’s not overcrowded. It’s clean, with a low crime rate and contains a fair amount of job opportunity. The cost of living isn’t high here either.
So aside from bridges, sports, friendly people, and livability what else does Pittsburgh have going for it? Food! Pittsburgh has recently come to light as a city known for serving up some of the finest meals in the nation. I had some good pizza at a local spot called Slice on Broadway. I also tried the well-known restaurant chain called Primanti Bros., where all sandwiches come on the same type of bread. The walls of this local food joint are plastered with cartoon versions of iconic Pittsburgh sports figures from various time periods.
Although many people think of a drug-ridden warzone when they hear the word "Colombia", I was able to dispel those notions by visiting the country in person. Staying away from known problem areas (as you would do anywhere in the world you are), I did not feel in danger during my 3 weeks there. I traveled by bus, something which definitely would not have been advisable in the past. Colombia has some scary history, but has come a long way! In fact, the majority of travelers I met traveling through South America claimed that Colombia was their favorite country! There are a whole lot of wonderful things to do and places to see! I will give a quick rundown of the places I visited and what each has to offer:
Bogota: The weather isn't always so great here - I was only there for 2 nights, and it was raining quite a bit during that time. The nightlife is rather good though and makes up for the often inconvenient weather, you can usually find a party any night of the week!
Cali - the Salsa capital of the world! I observed some of the best dance moves I have ever seen in my life here.
Salento – I joined one of the famous coffee tours, Finca Don Eduardo, and it was worth paying a bit more than the other tours for. The (Australian) owner gave the first hour of the tour in English, describing the full process of how coffee is produced. Following that, one of his workers, Julio, explained (in Spanish) and demonstrated parts of the process, and then we actually went out into the fields to see where and how the coffee cherries are handpicked. This was an eye-opening experience, and one of my favorites on the trip! I will never look at another cup of coffee with such simplicity again. From Salento, you can also do a hike through Valle de la Cocora, which has amazing wax palms and a hummingbird sanctuary.
Pereira - I stopped in this city on my way up to Medellin to experience a less touristic Colombian city. It was nice, though I have nothing special to report about it.
Medellin - The days of Escobar are long gone and some of the seedier parts of the city have been transformed into uplifting projects and governmental departments. Riding in the cable cars to get a glimpse of the city and its recent accomplishments is a great idea. Taking the free walking tour in Medellin is an ever better idea - you will gain an unbiased view of the city and how it has transformed over the years!
Cartagena - The old city is beautiful, majestic, and certainly worth at least a day or two of exploration!
Before heading to Machu Picchu, I visited Cusco, which is an incredibly beautiful and historic city. It's worth spending at least a few days there, and is also a fantastic jump-off point to Machu Picchu!
I had been wanting to see Machu Picchu for a long time, and figured that it was finally time to go! Seeing Machu Picchu in person is just as amazing, if not more so than seeing the pictures on the internet - you definitely won't be let down! This village in the mountains was created for a select few - aristocrats, scholars, etc. Lllamas and alpacas inhabit the beautifully lush, green scenery, and the complex contains intricately built stone structures. This civilization was far advanced for its time - even an irrigation system was built! I won't bombard you with the entire history of Machu Picchu because you can find that information online and on the tour; just know that it's one of the most amazing places on Earth and you must visit at least once in your lifetime!
So how do you get to Machu Picchu? If you didn't already reserve a spot on The Inca Trail hike (usually a 4-day hike, with prices ranging from $200 to $800 USD) or a similar route, you can take a pricey train From Cusco to Machu Picchu and back, the Hiram Bingham (name of the American explorer credited with discovering Machu Picchu) being the most expensive of the trains. The cheaper alternative is to go with the "car" option, which is actually a van which takes a bunch of people from Cusco to a place called Hydroelectrica. From Hydroelectrica, it's a 2-3-hour walk (depending on how quickly you walk and how many pictures you stop to take) alongside train tracks to a town called Aguas Calientes. You spend the night in Aguas Calientes and head to Machu Picchu in the morning. I would recommend arranging the tour in Cusco - the prices range from about $85 - $105 USD. Make sure you get a tour that will include your meals as some tours offer this service and others don't. All of the tours should include the transportation to and from Hydroelectrica, your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, and a professional guide for the first 2-3 hours of your experience (the rest of the day is yours to do as you please). It's also important to know that you have to get up much earlier if you plan on walking from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. If you choose not to walk, you can take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (and/or back), which is $12 USD each way.
I also visited Lima but didn't spend much time there. I went on to Iquitos, which is a great jump-off point to the Amazon River and Rainforest, and wow!!! The Amazon was an incredible opportunity - I got to see tons of beautifully-colored birds, butterflies, plants and fruits, huge centipedes and other insects, and much much more! Here are the details of what my unforgettable Amazon adventure entailed:
Day 1 - We visited an island called Monkey Island where many endangered animals/reptiles are - I held a sloth and a huge snake, saw exotic birds and monkeys, and went piranha fishing. I caught two different species of catfish, (one with 4 huge whiskers), one of my group mates almost caught one black-bellied piranha, and another almost caught a red-bellied piranha - we let all of the fish go after catching them. We took a night walk and observed many interesting species including a stick bug, a very large centipede, a large green frog, and a rainbow boa constrictor. We slept in a lodge on the Amazon River that night.
Day 2 - We visited a tribe and participated in a ritual welcome dance. I learned that piranha teeth are used to sharpen the darts which they use to hunt. This tribe then coats the tips of the darts with venom extracted from poison dart frogs, which is kept in a small pouch. Later that day, we visited a village which produces drinks from nature and plants, learned about some natural (aphrodisiac) drinks, and took a tour of a local village with Julio (our local guide). Dinner that night was served on enormous banana leaves. We saw huge trees, observed the jungle from a lookout point, rafted through the waterways at night and spotted a few caiman by the reflection of their eyes at night (they glow red) but we didn't get close enough to catch get a good glimpse. I found a black and grey parrot snake coiled around a tree and ready to attack, apparently an extremely venomous snake. It was visible at night due to the reflection which its eyes gave off. We slept that night in a camping area in the jungle enclosed by a mosquito net, and each individual mattress was also surrounded by mosquito nets for extra protection.
Day 3 - We ate breakfast and lunch with locals, walked through the jungle (in water up to our waistlines at times) looking for medicinal plants and learning about the ways people communicate in the jungle/notify others of their location, especially if lost - they do this by slamming a heavy stick against a large tree, creating a loud, bellowing sound which echoes through the forest. Along this walk we found very large ants called bullet ants and learned that they can be quite dangerous if provoked. We found fruits used by tribes to paint their faces, learned that sap from certain trees is used to alleviate stomach problems, and learned that leaves from certain trees are used to create a gel and alleviate itchiness caused by mosquito bites. We even survived a storm on the river in our small boat upon our return to Iquitos, Peru!
Brazil was of course, amazing as it always is - this last trip was my 3rd!
Brazil is experiencing an economic crisis at the moment, there is a lack of employment and the people are really feeling the effects. I found it interesting that more than a few people I met were actually driving for Uber full-time because they were unable to find work in their respective fields.
There are currently lots of protests going on, largely because the people don't like what the government is doing and are fed up with corruption. I actually had to reschedule a flight due to the threat of a nationwide strike.
Onto the amazing beaches: Rio de Janerio of course has many of those! I stayed with my Brazilian family down there (my friend's family who have basically become my own) and had an amazing time as usual! I also visited Recife, Natal and Fortaleza, all of which are along the Northeast Coast and have their own respective incredible beaches!
Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia has a particular charm and is the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture. It houses Pelhourinho (the old town), and that place is amazing (though it can be a bit dodgy at night so I wouldn't recommend choosing an accommodation in that area).
Argentina...after years of being bereft of breathing the air in the country where I studied abroad, I finally made an epic return!
I remembered the taste of the coffee, and that it was served with 2 medialunas (crescent-shaped croissants, served either sweet or not). I remembered all of the Argentine smells - the buildings, the city of Buenos Aires, and so on. I remembered oldschool, huge, bulky Argentine building and door keys! I remembered seeing all of the same topics on the news: Messi & soccer, inflation & corruption, and robberies & crime, yet this time around there was more of a focus on women's rights/the women's movement. I remembered that agua (water) is available "con gas" (with bubbles) or "sin gas" (without bubbles), which always made me smile :) I found the strawberry yogurt-filled chocolate which Cadbury offers in this region again, and remembered how delicious it is and how much I used to enjoy it! I remembered dulce de leche (similar to caramel), and alfajores (sweet bakery-like sandwiches with a filling (often dulce de leche or chocolate), covered in chocolate. I remembered the slow pace of life, which in restaurants can be construed by those not from Argentina as bad service.
Argentina is famous for a few things: 1) Gauchos, or Argentine cowboys. 2) Tango, the classic Argentine dance. 3) Late night everything - Argentinians eat dinner late...very late...we are talking after 8pm late, and they go out even later. You might start at a bar/restaurant anywhere from 10pm-12am (eating may continue until 1am or 2am), and if a nightclub is included in the plan for the evening, expect to be there anytime between 3am and 7am. I believe that Buenos Aires deserves the title "The City That Never Sleeps" much more than New York does.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit my host families from when I had studied abroad on this journey, and even luckier to have had the opportunity to take a 12-day road trip down to Bariloche and Puerto Madryn with my host father, what an incredible experience! We saw some stunning scenery and lakes in Bariloche, made a lot of animal friends of all sorts in Puerto Madryn, and met some wonderful people along the way! Puerto Madryn is the place to be if you want to see penguins, marine life, guanacos (like llamas), pink flamingos, ñandus (like ostriches), and much more! I was so lucky to have my host father, a seasoned Argentina expert, with me for the journey because he knew exactly where to go. Having a vehicle to transport us made all the difference in the world!
In a city called Salta in the north of Argentina, I tried some amazing (vegetarian) food! Hotel de la Linda offers an incredible selection from their own kitchen, and if you venture out of the hotel, only a block or two away you will find a place called Doña Salta. This joint has some of the most incredible food to be found in Salta - they are known for their incredible empanadas! You can find empanadas filled with all types of ingredients there, along with something called humitas, which consist of corn pudee and cheese wrapped in corn husks.
A couple of other random tidbits I noticed:
- At a grocery store, there was a shortage of coins, so instead of giving me back my change in coins, I was given candy!
- Argentinians often shorten the word "facebook" to "face".
- PDA (public display of affection) happens...it happens a lot...and it is excessive, so be warned. You'll be sure to see couples who appear to be in dire need of a hotel room in parks and other public areas.
- "Gauchito Gil" is the name of some small, red memorials consisting of flags and small man-made structures alongside many roads in Argentina. These were allegedly created by Gauchos/poor people in memory of the famous Gaucho named Hill.
- Many Venezuelan immigrants are in Buenos Aires working or looking for work. They fled to Argentina to escape the situation back at home, which is quite rough at the moment (especially in Caracas).
- Fernet (mint-flavored liquor) is an extremely popular drink and is often mixed with a form of soda and consumed in social settings.
La Paz was my first exposure to Bolivia and I suffered quite extensively from altitude sickness. I believe that this was mainly because I went from a low altitude to a very high one without any adjustment period. I realized that everything from going up the stairs to changing clothes becomes challenging because the air is thinner! In order to combat the effect of the altitude, people drink coca tea (coca leaves in water) or chew on the coca leaves to achieve the same effect. The coca plant also provides the body with energy and alleviates hunger. A pill called sorojpil is available at drug stores for people suffering from altitude sickness, and may be taken in cases where the coca leaves do not provide enough relief. Aside from the altitude sickness issues I experienced, I found the city to be charming and enjoyed my time there!
La Paz has 3 forms of taxis available: taxis, trufis (shared taxis), and minibuses. All of which, most travelers would find to be very inexpensive! People are happy to cram into vehicles and roam through traffic without fear of being hit by a car.
I found chulitas to be interesting. "What are chulitas?" you may ask. Chulitas are Bolivian women who are dressed in traditional attire and can be identified by their extremely colorful clothing with a circus-style (awkward-looking and also brown) top hat. I estimated about 5-10% of the visible population to be chulitas.
Perhaps the coolest part of my Bolivian experience was the Salt Flats; this was my main reason for visiting Bolivia! I had an amazing tour with Salty Desert Aventours for just $150 Bolivianos, which is just over $20 USD. We had an awesome and patient guide, were able to take incredible perspective and reflection pictures, and even had sunset on the flats and vegetarian food included in the package! It was surreal to experience how the the sky and the ground become the same entity. Words can't do it justice, and they don't have to. Pictures do, so check them out at the end of the post :)
After getting horribly burned at the salt flats, I learned some local sunburn alleviation tactics which may initially sound as ridiculous to you as they did to me when I first heard them - covering myself with slices of banana, using milk on the sunburned spots, and covering the affected the skin with slices of tomato - however all seemed to do the trick.
A few cool and different drinks I tried:
- api (a [purple] drink): made from fermented corn. Interesting taste but definitely not my favorite..nauseating after drinking too much
- mocochinchi - dried peaches left in water overnight, boiled with cinnamon and sugar, served cold.
Other random unhygienic tidbits:
- As I have found in other countries which don't necessarily have the best plumbing, paying to use the bathroom is the norm and TP goes in the trash, not in the toilet.
- Dogs are not treated particularly well - they are usually kicked out of their homes at night and forced to roam the streets until morning.
As the saying goes, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". So, I guess you really should stop reading right now..but a) that will now be impossible after I just told you to not read ahead, and b) I don't really have anything to mention here which needs to be censored.
One of the things I loved about Las Vegas was that I was able to combine the old with the new. I saw Fremont Street, which is where the action in Las Vegas used to be, but also walked around the new strip. The new strip is a lot longer than I had anticipated, so if you choose to walk this route, make sure you give yourself a lot of time, and drink some Gatorades along the way to recover! Also, not to miss is the amazing fountain show which occurs outside of the Bellagio hotel to a new song every few minutes!
I was lucky enough to get a retired taxi driver to show me around Red Rock Canyon. Located in the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon is an incredibly interesting natural rock formation which looks as if someone put tape over the rocks, spraypainted over them, and then ripped the tape off, leaving strikingly odd, yet beautiful color patterns. Don't take my word for it, have a look at the picture and see for yourself.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.