Monthly Archives: May 2013

Managing Money When Traveling Long Term

After all the dreaming and planning of a dream trip, it comes to the point when you’re dealing with nitty gritty details. How will eat? How will we spend? Where will we do our laundry? Managing your money on the road is an unglamorous but totally necessary part of long term travel. In the event of theft, it helps to know that your bank will do everything to make your life easier.
We had a joint account with Charles Schwab, which has a great international debit card where all ATM fees are reimbursed – not all banks do this and we really appreciated this benefit. We used our Schwab ATM card in nearly every city, town and village in South America and faced absolutely NO issues. No ATM fees means that we could withdraw money in small quantities without worry of losing it.

The card was once swallowed by an ATM machine in Yurimaguas, Peru and we had to go to the bank the next morning to retrieve it. It was swallowed again in Uyuni, Bolivia and we did not get it back. Schwab froze the card for us, but we were still able to use mine. We maintained a small running balance in our checking account so that if our card were ever to be misused, our other accounts remain untouched. I carried a back up debit card from a credit union and we used this card when we paid for a tour and maxed out ATM transactions.

Our credit card of choice was Capital One Venture One with its zero international transaction fees. We used this on a few occasions. We kept an account of what we spent daily, but we did not have a budget. We knew roughly how much we were prepared to spend on each category in each country and as long as we were under that limit, we did not worry about it.
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Travel Logistics – Packing List

In an earlier post, I wrote about the backpacks we took with us on this trip. We’ve often been asked how we packed for four months. Packing for four months is really no different from packing from 1 month or for 10 months. You’re likely to get really bored with your clothes, but hey! what are shops for? I went shopping in Santiago and picked up a few things when I got really bored of what I was wearing.

Instead of a his and her packing list, I am going to write this list by category. We were still packing up our house until the previous day, so we really didn’t have a lot of time to pack our bags well.

Gadgets

  • 13″ Macbook Pro
  • 10″ Samsung Android tablet
  • Portable hard drives – 2
  • Pen drives – 2
  • DSLR – Nikon D7000 with two lenses (18-200) and a super wide angle lens
  • Canon S95 compact camera
  • Kindle – 2, one for each

Notes: 

Unless you work on the road or do heavy photo/video editing for a living, an MBP or apple laptop is not worth taking. As you know, most of the items above where stolen and we know a friend whose MBP was stolen too. If I had to re-do this trip, I’d take a used laptop or a chromebook. The heavy duty photo editing can wait until we return from our trip! Canon S95 is a superb travel camera – crisp images, normal looks, compact size – many pictures on this blog were taken using an S95.

Clothes

Since our travels would take us across the length of South America, we had several climate zones to pack for. It was cold in Bogota, but warm in rest of Colombia. Most of the Andes was cold and then warm jungle weather in the Amazon. But this combination worked mostly well:
  • Convertible pants
  • Cotton pants that convert into capris (light weight pants for him) -2
  • Travel skirt (Niru)
  • Shorts
  • t-shirts (4-6, including a quick dry one for hiking)
  • Tops – 2 (Niru)
  • Lightweight long innerwear – top and bottom [super useful]
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain pants
  • Fleece layer
  • Pajamas – at least 1 each – Niru found a cool one in the Otavalo market in Ecuador. Backpackers are often spotted wearing these. They are striped and really loose drawstring pants.
  • Underwear – for about a week
  • Scarves
  • Cold weather – gloves, cap, socks, sock liners
  • Socks – 3 pairs
  • Cap
  • Sarong – very useful
  • Travel towel – one each

Laundry

Laundry services are everywhere. This is one indulgence we did not compromise on. We only washed something if it was really needed – we often gave our clothes for laundry. They came freshly washed and folded.

Footwear

Hiking boots – vasque ankle length (Niru found them too heavy, but a really great pair otherwise)
Keen Newport sandals – loved them dearly. I had been wearing these for a couple of years and just took them on the trip. Wore them in a lot of places including day hikes.
Flip flops – Only Swami
Notes: If I were only traveling South East Asia, I would only carry a pair of Newport Keen sandals and flip flops. I used Swami’s flip flops to use hostel bathrooms.

Miscellaneous

Headlamps – very useful
Notebook – 1 each
Sleeping sack – we initially had this, but mailed it back
Cooking kit – brought this, but sent back
First aid kit – brought a crazy big version, but stripped it down on the road
Toiletry kit – Very basic version that we could easily replenish on the road
Mosquito repellant
Water proof matches

We packed too much!

The essence of backpacking is flexibility and agility. We realized somewhere along the way that we were losing that. I was finding it difficult to walk at high altitudes with a heavy pack and decided that I’d rather do without the things I am carrying. We first went to our cousin’s house in Los Angeles before we started on our trip. Just that one small flight led us to shedding a few things at his place. A month later, we did another purge in Quito, where we shipped a few more things to my cousin (and spent a 100 bucks doing so!). We also had all the souvenirs we bought at the Otavalo market that we did not want to carry around.
The important lesson to remember is that the world is far more connected than we realize. Everything is available everywhere. South American cities are modern and carry most modern essentials. My advice to travelers is to go to a sporting store like REI or Decathlon and get things like winter layers, hidden wallets etc and then just pack whatever is at home. Carry very less and buy what you need along the way- your back will thank you.
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23 Days in Bolivia – an Overview

Our stay in Bolivia was rather relaxing – we didn’t hit too many cities or do a lot of activities. We had to deal with getting our transportation letter from the US embassy, which was needed to enter the US as our Green cards were stolen. This required a lot of documentation and as a result we spent a lot of time at internet cafes getting everything together (our laptop was stolen too).

Itinerary

– Booked three day Salar De Uyuni tour from San Pedro De Atacama. Cross the Bolivia border on day 1 and ended the tour at Uyuni, Bolivia on Day 3 after visiting the salt flats of Uyuni.
Tupiza

– Got the 2 AM train from Uyuni to Tupiza @ 71 Bs/perso. Stayed @ Tupiza for 3 nights. Did a jeep tour; a bicycle adventure trip and a horse riding trip. Used Tupiza Tours for Jeep tour, Alexander tours for the bicycle. Met with a fellow traveler we met way back in Salento and enjoyed a few hours with him.
– From Tupiza, took a but to Potosi, an old colonial city known for its silver mines. I didnt want to go exploring a mine, but Swami did. Really enjoyed walking around plaza major and market.
– Next stop, Sucre. Loved Sucre! Sucre is lower (2800 masl only!), the climate is warmer (relatively), the city is lovely and old and there is very good veg food to be found. The market is a treasure trove! We were in constant email contact with the US embassy and getting documents ready, so no sightseeing, only internet cafes. 😀 Split our stay between forrestero and hostal colon. Colon was so cute!
– From Sucre, boarded a very comfortable overnight bus to La Paz. Wandered around La Paz’s hilly streets while awaiting our appointment at the US embassy. Once that got through, we headed out to Copacabana to spend some time at Lago Titicaca.
– Isla Del Sol, the island on Lake Titicaca can only be reached via boat from Copacabana. Spent a peaceful night there.
– It was back to La Paz where we started unwinding and getting ready for the trip back to California.

Highlights:

– Salar De Uyuni is not to be missed! Its an otherwordly experience out there on the Altiplano.
– Sucre is a beautiful town and one can easily spend a few days here.
– La Paz is a big, modern city, but there is so much to see and do. Just walk around town and maybe do a trek in the nearby mountains. The food is great and hotels are really cheap.
– Isla del sol is cold and really isolated. A great place to unwind or write, but the food leaves a lot to be desired, especially for veg folks.
– Bolivians are unfailingly polite. Everyone says por favor and gracias to EVERYONE, irrespective of social status. Even the cops are incredibly patient during traffic bottlenecks.
– No Hare Krishna restaurants anywhere in the country!

Check out:

– La Paz: plaza murillo and plaza san francisco
– Shop  @ calle sagarnaga and linares
– Calle mercadores just off plaza murillo
– For B 2.50, try api at Mercado Lanza. Dont miss – we only found this in Bolivia.
– Really tasty tofu sandwiches at Namaste Restaurant
– Hitch a ride on one of those shared van-taxis with barely any leg room.
– Museums in La Paz are really cheap and nice way to spend an afternoon.
– Cholita wrestling
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Salt Flats of Salar De Uyuni, Bolovia

I remember the first time seeing a blog post about Salar De Uyuni and being absolutely smitten. I think it was one of those few images that stuck to my head and eventually propelled me to want to go travel for an extended time. White salt fields that stretch to infinity and the photography illusions that nature lets you play as a result were hard to resist.

Travel tips for Salar De Uyuni:

  • Book a four day tour from San Pedro de atacama or from Tupiza, Bolivia. From San Pedro, its a good way to get into the Bolivia part of your trip. You can also get to Uyuni via public transport from elsewhere in Bolivia and take a day trip to the salt flats – cheaper and faster, but a tour group is more enjoyable and affords the opportunity to bond with fellow travelers.
  • Ask for prices at many tour agencies. Get to know your tour group members – variety in nationality makes for a more enjoyable time. If everyone is of the same nationality and speak a single language that you dont know, it wont be  as much fun.
  • Get an itemized list of the services included in the tour package. Check with tourist office for reputed tour companies.
  • All tour companies are Bolivian as the tour begins only after you cross Chile border.
  • Pack in layers as the weather gets chilly in the mornings. On the day of the salt flat tour, you’ll leave your hotel before dawn.
Early morning at Salar De Uyuni


Waiting at the Bolivian border for immigration and breakfast

 

Rather fancy immigration building 
Breakfast at the border

 

Snow capped vistas

 

Tour jeeps

 

Country love!

 

Altitude check – altiplano is really really high!

 

Flamingos and red lake

 

Train graveyard

 

We were excited that we’d get to take cool photos with our really nice DSLR (Nikon D7000 for the photo enthusiast) and our handy compact camera Canon S95. We lugged it around the rest of the continent and got great pictures, but as luck would have it, two things happened. Our DSLR got stolen with a bunch of other things, and our S95 got ruined thanks to a sandboarding event at San Pedro de atacama. We were thoroughly disillusioned that we were suddenly camera-less for the last one month of our trip and that too, in Salar De Uyuni.
 
All this happened in San Pedro De Atacama, a really small town in the atacama desert. So we had to go back to Calama (not our favorite city at all) and went to a really swanky mall there to buy a basic digital camera way overpriced than the rates at Amazon (we really missed Amazon.com).
 
Sadly, the rest of our pictures, including those from Salar De Uyuni would be from this camera, though we should be fortunate for having one at all. We were not able to get those cool shots travelers get from Uyuni, but had to make do with some of these.
 
4-day trips to Salar De Uyuni can be arranged from San Pedro De Atacama from any tourist agency. The tour begins in Chile and can either end in Uyuni or you can return back to Chile. The four day tour costs 68,000 chilean pesos or ~USD 140 and includes food, stay, transportation and guide in a jeep that can carry 5-6 people. You will visit the salt flats on the 4th day, but the first three days are through a national reserve area at high altitudes (called the altiplano region).

Sunrise at salar

 

 

Yummy! Breakfast

 

 

Our cook and her things make a pretty picture

 

Kiss time!

 

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A Guide to La Paz Bolivia

We spent a lot of time in La Paz, Bolivia. Nearly 10 days in all. We had to go early to the US embassy to get our transportation letters (having lost our green cards) and our flight back home wasn’t departing until 10 days later. We did take a side trip to Copacabana and Isla Del Sol, but we still had a lot of time to spare.

La Paz is incredibly hilly, cold, high, bustling with life and activity and a great place to walk around. We did take a side trip to Copacabana and Isla Del Sol, but we still had a lot of time to spare.


This was the last stop on our backpacking journey, so we were taking it easy and not doing anything hectic. Also, I was getting a bit stressed out that the trip was ending. I wasn’t sure what I had to look forward to – in terms of my career, in terms of living in India etc.
The view from Valle Del Luna
La Paz street scene
Here’s a recap of what we did in La Paz, if you have a lot of time to kill:
– We walked a lot. A LOT!! We walked tens of blocks every day and it was amazing. La Paz is extremely hilly and this is a superb workout.
– Spend time at Plaza Murillo. Plaza Murillo is the central plaza and one my favorite ways to spend time in any new Latin American city. People actually come here in droves in the evening and relax after the day’s work is done. I can never imagine this in Silicon Valley, where we’d still be at the office or heading home to watch Netflix or browse the web.
– From Plaza Murillo, walk to Mercado Lanza. Explore the labyrinth like multi-level shopping and living center. The shops are categorized by food, breakfast, meals, artisanal stuff, beauty products and everything under the sun.
– In the breakfast stalls, get Api every morning. Get the purple one, not the yellow one. Its a porridge made out of purple maize and is highly addictive.
– Palta sandwiches. I am a huge fan of palta sandwiches, ask any of the breakfast booths to make this for you.
– Walk up from Mercado Lanza on Calle Sagarnaga. Plenty of great souvenir shopping on this road. Check out all the side streets. We wandered a ways once and I happened to look up, only to spot a vegetarian restaurant out of the blue.
– Get a haircut! I got a great haircut for 45 Bs which included the wash, set and cut. Swami’s was much cheaper, but I went to a salon in the mall.
– We explored all the veg restaurants. We’d walk many blocks to each of them and just enjoy the process.
– Valle del luna. Nice day trip from the plaza. A nice hike there too.
– Check out Cholita wrestling. Hilarious Bolivian wrestling, where mean-looking women come to fight turned out in perfect Bolivian traditional wear, skirt and all. It is not advisable to go alone as the areas safety looked questionable, but with a tour organized by your hotel.
A street market scene at night
Mercado Lanza – must go for people watching and getting a dose of local living
In one of the ‘booths’ in mercado Lanza
Api – super tasty porridge like drink made from purple maize
Tiny stalls on the main road for selling stuff 
Palta (avocado) sandwiches are very easy to find and the vegetarian’s budget lifesaver
Cholita Wrestling – highly entertaining female wrestling