The new purchase* with the most stars in the Lee-Breeden family rating system is our new Sawyer water filtration system. Nearly all the countries we have visited so far have lacked tap water sufficiently filtered for the delicate GI systems of us coddled Americans. The Sawyer system is lightweight, easy to use, works fast, and the filtered water tastes great. As soon as we arrive at each hotel, hostel, or Airbnb, or before every outing, we take out the Sawyer and refill our water bottles, which we then carry on all our day trips. This does befuddle some service-oriented hosts and tour guides who generously and thoughtfully provide refreshing ice-cold bottled water, only to be politely and repeatedly declined in favor of lukewarm water from our water bottles. Payback period from not buying bottled water: about 3 days. Good feelings from knowing that we did not contribute to the glut of used plastic bottles: priceless. Win!
*Note: We really tried not to buy too many new things for this trip. As we edited our packing lists, we often asked ourselves whether to upgrade with something new or use something we already had. In our basement, we still had perfectly functional stuff we had used the last time James and I had done low-budget international travel (25 years ago, before we’d met). We were especially reluctant to buy new stuff since we were still purging 20+ years of accumulated household stuff and realizing how much unnecessary stuff we owned. We were trying to save our money for the actual trip. We were trying to reduce our carbon footprint. Although our stuff was in good condition, technology in travel gear has really advanced in the last 2 decades.
We woke up at 7:00am under mosquito nets in our homestay on the top floor of a pretty rustic wooden home. Then we ate a Cambodian traditional breakfast of rice and pork with vegetables. Then we finished getting ready, got into a truck at about 8:00am, drove to the river, and got onto a long one-person-wide canoe-like boat. When we sat in the boat we could touch the water just by sticking our fingertips over the edge of our boat. Once we were in the boat, we drove 45 minutes upstream to a village and explored it. Then we drove back for around an hour to get to their “headquarters” where we ate lunch and had more pork and rice. Afterward, we got onto the back of a motorcycle and drove for an hour on a painfully sandy road to get to our campsite and to the jungle (was really fun). We had some time to rest and then we went on a short hike in a loop to see resin trees. When we got back to camp at around 6:00pm, we ate dinner and went to bed early.
The next morning we got up at 3:45am and after plenty of complaints (by me) we were ready to go see gibbons. We went on a long walk for around an hour and a half to a couple of tables and benches. We heard a strange sandy shuffling sound and it was termites communicating and walking around! There were around probably thousands (to be honest I have no idea how many there were but I think it’s safe to say there were a lot) in a long line going somewhere. We waited there for about an hour when we heard the gibbons and ran into the jungle looking for them. We chased the sound for around another hour. Then we finally found the gibbons and watched them for a while. And in the meantime, we ate really dry boring bread with a little bit of scrambled eggs and low-quality pork. After that, we went back to camp and on the way saw a pitcher plant. Mom and the guide also saw a tarantula nest and held up the group for a while. In the meantime, dad really had to poo so he went off the path and did unspoken things (wonder what that could’ve been). When mom finally got there she brought dad some weird soft paper-like thing (toilet paper). Then we made it back to camp where we had lunch and got on a motorcycle for our ride back to the river where we got on a fair and crossed the river. After that, we drove back to BanLung. The End
It happened. The one thing that we always knew could happen, that was always nagging in the back of our minds before any new country, it happened. A positive Covid test.
We had just returned back to the US for a week to visit family before starting Phase 3 and traveling to Southeast Asia. Our plan was to rest, hang out with family, and debrief Phase 2 before heading to Singapore. All went to plan until the day before our flight. Singapore required a negative antigen test to board the flight, so all four of us got in the car and took our quick antigen tests. After a delicious “final” (or so we thought) breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa, we got our test results. Asher, negative. Gloria, negative. James, negative. Me, POSITIVE!
We were very shocked as I had no symptoms whatsoever. Hoping it was a false positive, I took an at-home antigen (also positive) and the official antigen again (positive x3!). Knowing that it was definitely positive, I was forced into my room to quarantine. Luckily, we had good wifi, and I had all my technology so I wouldn’t get bored. One upside of being quarantined was that I got delicious, homemade meals delivered straight to my bedroom door. Our neighborhood in Carson City was not crowded, so I was able to go on short, masked walks or bike rides without bumping into anyone.
After four days of quarantining, I took an at-home antigen test which came back negative!
We were all very excited and having decided to skip Singapore, we booked our tickets for Cambodia (the only Southeast Asian country with no long quarantine period on entry). I was able to wander around the house, just masked, as CDC recommendations said I should remain masked around others for an additional 5 days. A couple days before our flight, we drove over to CVS to get our pre-flight PCR test. Much to our surprise, it came back positive!
We canceled flights again and learned that Covid particles can remain in your body for months after antigen tests come back negative. This is because PCR tests can detect even the tiniest particles in your system, even dead virus, while antigen tests are designed to work more quickly and detect the higher viral loads of someone who is definitely infectious. Even though my PCR was positive, my antigen was negative, meaning that I couldn’t spread Covid to my family.
We had booked another set of tickets to Cambodia, hoping that my next PCR test would come back negative. But, worried that I might test positive on PCRs for months to come, we started looking into countries that did not require PCR tests to enter. The time came for the PCR test and we returned to CVS where the pharmacist recognized us from a few days ago. Unfortunately, it came back positive again. We decided we would try one more time. If it was negative, we would fly to Cambodia on our re-re-rebooked flight. If it was positive, we would fly to Egypt, which just required a negative antigen.
We took our third PCR of the week, which was a spit PCR rather than swab-up-the-nostrils PCR. We spat 5 ml of spit into a tube which is much more difficult than one would imagine.
That night, we all huddled around the screen when our results came in. Asher, negative. Gloria, negative. James, negative. Me, NEGATIVE! We could fly to Cambodia!
The next evening, we drove 30 minutes to the Reno airport, took a 45 minute flight to San Francisco, waited 8 hours in an empty SFO, flew 17 hours on United’s longest flight (UA1, SFO – SIN), waited 10 hours in an empty Singapore Changi Airport, flew 2 hours to Phnom Penh, had issues at customs (since we didn’t have printed copies of our PCR tests), took our on-arrival antigen tests (all negative!), drove 20 minutes to our hotel, and promptly collapsed after our 40+ hour travel “day”!
Pomelo Homestay is located on a small island in the Mekong, a short boat ride across the river from Kratie (sometimes spelled Kracheh), 3 hours northeast of Phnom Penh. We traveled to this small town hoping to catch glimpses of the near-extinct sub-population of Irrawaddy River Dolphins that swim here. We chose this homestay because the Airbnb reviews gushed about what a wonderful host Vireak was, and they were right. When we arrived, both kids were hungry, sweaty and super-grumpy. Vireak immediately sprang into action, providing fresh cold watermelon and then proceeding to whip up a 3-course lunch, which included Oyster Mushroom Tempura served with this simple but absolutely delicious dipping sauce. We mowed through it quickly and had to make a second batch. At home, I will plan to double or even triple the recipe!
2 tbsp lime* juice
1 tsp ground black pepper**
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp fish sauce (more traditional) or salt
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Mix everything together!
*The limes that are widely available in Cambodia are tiny – the size of a large grape or maybe small walnut, and have a bit of a stronger taste than the variety sold in American grocery stores. A bit of grated lime zest would kick this sauce up a notch.
** For an authentic Cambodian taste, use Kampot peppercorns, which are grown in southern Cambodia and have a floral hint and deeper flavor than other varieties. Using freshly ground black pepper – of any variety – will provide a better and stronger flavor.
As of just 48 hours prior to landing here in Phnom Penh, we were still unsure whether we would be going to Cambodia or Egypt next. Today we need to figure out how we will get to Sen Mororum tomorrow for our 4 days of volunteering with the Elephant Valley Project. We haven’t yet booked lodging and tours for next week. And we don’t know what country we will go to after Cambodia. For anyone who knows my strong penchant for a thorough plan, this might come as a surprise.
Lots of countries on our original itinerary, like Australia and New Zealand, are still closed to tourists right now. That is why we were even able to spend so much time in South America. Then during Phase 2, we lost money because we had booked cheap non-refundable air tickets and then couldn’t get into Chile (twice). We tried to “plan” Phase 3 during the still on-going and migrating Omicron spike, and every week, different countries announced changes to travel restrictions and entry requirements. And we learned the hard way that for any given flight or border crossing, we can’t be sure that we’ll all test negative on pre-travel COVID tests.
So we’ve realized that extreme flexibility is a necessity for traveling right now.
This is definitely a stretch outside my comfort zone! Fortunately, James is the spontaneous sort and this type of travel is just fine for him!
Argentina has stunning natural beauty, stylish people, excellent Malbec and delicious ice cream in abundance. What they lack is smart monetary policy, at least from a tourist’s perspective.1
Before leaving for Southeast Asia this morning, James and I decided to visit the ATM for more U.S. dollars cash, just in case, because we are now paranoid of running out of cash.
This is what happened: We didn’t know about the differential between the Blue Dollar and the official exchange rate until we got to Argentina.2 This differential meant that we would essentially pay double if we didn’t pay in U.S. cash or Argentine Pesos exchanged at the Blue Dollar rate. We are cheap, and hate wasting money by paying more than necessary. So instead, we wasted many frustrating hours trying to get cash.
Instead of using ATMs and credit cards, we sent ourselves money using Remitly (which is designed for overseas remittances) and Western Union.3 But first we had to convince our bank that these were not fraudulent transactions. Then we had to find Western Union outlets that were 1) actually open; 2) had a system that was functioning; 3) had cash on hand. We traversed entire towns in search of places that met all three criteria. Then, we had to wait in long lines, along with Argentinians who were trying to pay their electric bills. And then the cash limits meant we sometimes still couldn’t get enough cash (glaciers hikes and penguin-watching are both activities run by monopoly providers and thus quite expensive). Luckily, Argentinians try to save in U.S. dollars, so our taxi driver, a tour company clerk, a baker and an airbnb host all were willing to exchange U.S. dollar bills for AR$ at almost the Blue Dollar rate. Unfortunately, we were not traveling with very many U.S. dollar bills.
So sometimes, we just paid with a credit card through gritted teeth, knowing we were then paying 50% more. When all else failed, we went to an ATM, which eked out tiny sums of Argentine pesos at the official rate minus exorbitant transaction fees.
Thankfully, the pain of the entire experience was eased by decent Malbec that was only $3 per bottle!
1Although I think economists also agree; just google: Argentina AND IMF.)
2 Are you wondering why? I was too, and have now spent way too much time reading up on Argentinian economics. Long story short: history of hyperinflation + local mistrust of banks + currency restrictions = huge spread between official and black market exchange rates. The crazier thing is that this has been going on for years and is an open secret; newspapers and websites publish both the official and the unofficial “Blue Dollar” rates. As of January 2022, the official government-enforced exchange rate was about 100 Argentine pesos to 1 US dollar, whereas the supply-and-demand-based exchange rate is about 200 ARS to 1 USD.
3For some odd reason, Western Union is not currently forced (like banks and credit card companies) to comply with the official government exchange rates.
I had read that the Mount Fitz Roy hike in El Chalten was very difficult. I may have neglected to tell the rest of the family….
We woke up at around 8:45, had a quick breakfast, and took a taxi 30 minutes to the Hostería El Pilar. Normally, hikers start in El Chalten and go there and back. But, our host told us about the El Pilar path, which is “easier,” slightly shorter, and point-to-point rather than a back-and-forth (meaning more gorgeous and different views). The only downside is the 30-minute ride to get to the start, which isn’t much of a downside as the car ride scenery is stunning as well.
We thanked our taxi driver and started on the hike. Patagonia is known to be windy, and it certainly was. The first 30 minutes was relatively flat and we even crossed a couple of creeks.
In the distance, we spotted a rainbow.
The next couple of hours was a gradual uphill, with the occasional view of Mount Fitz Roy peeking through the forest. Luckily, it was mostly sunny.
After 2 kilometers, we stopped at the viewpoint for the Piedras Blancas Glacier and Lagoon. It was pretty but not as cool as the Huemul Glacier (which we got to see much closer).
We kept hiking until the crossroads, with one trail leading to El Chalten, and the other leading to Laguna de Los Tres and Fitz Roy.
Asher and I quickly powered ahead of our parents, since they are a *little* bit slow. After the crossroads, there was around 1 kilometer of flat, and we crossed a nice bridge over the Rio Blanco. It was at the bridge where the popularity of the trail hit us. Signs instructed one person at a time to cross the bridge, and crowds quickly piled up on either side as people crossed (some pausing to take pictures, slowing everything down even more).
Even before the bridge, there was a campsite that was filled with a minimum of 50 tents.
The last kilometer+ (labeled as a kilometer, felt like much more) to the lagoon was very, very, very steep. It was close to straight uphill and to make it worse, there were plenty of loose rocks, gravel/sand, random crevices from erosion, and lots of switchbacks with high, narrow, and irregular stone steps. To add to the difficulty, there were many people heading back down, people stopped to rest, and people who wanted to go faster and pass. There were numerous signs urging people to stick to the official trail, but with so many people, the official trail was usually the most eroded and hardest to walk on. Not to mention, half the people ignored the signs and just went whatever way they thought was the best.
It was definitely a real slog. We needed to pay attention to the ground so we didn’t fall, the sun was beating straight down (no tree cover), the beautiful view was to our backs, we were low on water, and we were trying to go relatively fast so we could make it back in time to meet our taxi driver.
Even though there were no clouds in sight, it randomly sprinkled a little bit, though not enough to warrant taking out the ponchos. On the way up, Asher and I spotted what we think were a few Andean condors.
Hoping we would be greeted with the lagoon at the top of the uphill, Asher and I scrambled up the last section, only to be severely disappointed. Just when you think you’ve finished climbing, there is one more small-ish, sandy hill to climb.
After non-stop complaining, we reached the crest of the final hill and were presented with an amazing view of Fitz Roy and the brilliant blue lagoon in front of it.
We waited a while for our parents while soaking in the beauty and scenery. Once they got there, we had the lunch our mom brought and took plenty of pictures.
Knowing he would have trouble on the downhill, my dad started back down. Asher, my mom, and I went down to the lagoon, took pictures, and even saw an adorable little Andean fox!
Asher and my mom, being slower than me, headed back while I explored the area a bit more. I walked about 5 minutes more along the edge of the lagoon to an additional vista that looked straight down to a different, much lower, but still bright blue lagoon.
The way back down wasn’t too bad, but there were some sections that were steep and sandy, which was a little scary. I caught up to Asher and my mom around two-thirds of the way back down. We filled up our water bottles at the river since all the glacier water is potable (and ice-cold!).
We got to the crossroads and headed towards El Chalten with views of Fitz Roy behind us the whole way back. It was pretty much flat and we passed through forest, marsh, and scrubland.
We set a pretty good pace, around 4km/hour. We made it to a junction with two paths, one to a viewpoint of Fitz Roy, the other Laguna Capri.
We went right to the lagoon, where we were rewarded with views of Fitz Roy behind the stunning lagoon.
We finally caught up with my dad at the lagoon, and I even spent some time “gazing into the distance” at Fitzroy.
We hiked around 2 km of flat and then we began a descent into El Chalten. We even passed a section where all the trees and bushes were covered in these cool-looking spiky caterpillars.
We had views of the blue-purple Rio Blanco to our left as we descended.
We finally made it to the bottom on time, grabbed dinner and our bags before heading back to El Calafate.
By the end, we had hiked around 10 hours, a total of about 16 miles, and according to Asher’s Fitbit – 47,000 steps. Asher, my mom, and my dad all say no more long, tough, poor beauty-to-effort hikes. As for me, I can’t wait for another awesome, long hike!
Towards the end of our Phase 2 travels in South America, we visited the Patagonia region in Argentina. It was December when we visited, so it was the middle of summer. Due to Patagonia being so far south, the sun didn’t set until around 10pm. After flying from Buenos Aires to El Calafate and staying a couple of days, Leandro (who my dad had charmed when he first drove us from the airport to town) drove us north 2 hours to El Chalten. El Chalten is known as the Argentine Capital of Trekking. Its most famous hike is the Laguna de Los Tres hike to see Mount Fitz Roy. Named after Robert FitzRoy, captain of Darwin’s ship the HMS Beagle, the mountain is also on the logo of outdoor recreation gear company Patagonia. Though we did the Fitz Roy hike (article here), our favorite hike by far in El Chalten was the Glacier Huemul hike.
After checking into our hotel room and dropping our bags, Leandro took us an hour deeper into the Patagonia wilderness for a short but gorgeous hike. The drive was quite bumpy since it was on an unpaved, gravelly, rocky road. The views just from the car ride were definitely worth it. We drove along an icy blue river, through a mossy forest, and past a shrubby marsh, among many other views.
The Glacier Huemul hike (2 miles round trip) was definitely one of the best hikes we’ve done. We parked in the parking lot and paid the relatively cheap entrance fee. We hiked around 45 minutes mostly flat along a bubbling stream through a picturesque mossy forest.
It wasn’t difficult at all, but we stopped so often to take pictures that it took much longer. There were also a couple of pull-offs along the trail that offered views of the valley we had driven through and a couple of smaller waterfalls that feed into the creek.
The last 200m was a steep uphill. They even had installed rope railings along the side to help you climb up. Even if it was difficult, it was well worth it as we were presented with a deep-turquoise glacier lake at the top.
We took plenty of pictures and spent a little while absorbing the beauty of the lake.
Afterwards, my mom and I explored a little.
After climbing one more ridge, we were rewarded with a view of the Lago Desierto (near the parking lot).
All four of us agreed that it was one of the best beauty-to-effort hikes we’ve done. It was super easy, relatively quick, and most definitely gorgeous. On the other hand, the next day’s hike was beautiful, but certainly NOT low-effort.
Did you just liberate people from decades of colonial oppression and want to make a good first impression? Here’s my guide to help you build the next great South American destination! During Phase 2 of our travels, we spent a significant portion of our time in large South American cities. We stayed in Quito (the capital of Ecuador), Bogotá (the capital of Colombia), Lima (the capital of Perú), and Buenos Aires (the capital of Argentina). The city centers are big and dense, while the larger metropolitan areas have populations up to 13 million (Buenos Aires)! Other major cities we visited include Riobamba and Guayaquil in Ecuador, and Cuzco in Perú. Given that these countries all share common history, being colonized then liberated from the Spanish Empire by Simón Bolívar and/or José de San Martín, it is no surprise that all these cities have similar design features.
Plazas and the Old Town
To build a South American Metropolis, one must start with a colonial city. Nowadays, the cities are much bigger and have been built around the old colonial town. The centers of the old town tend to be a large plaza or park, surrounded by a massive cathedral and government buildings. In Lima, the central Plaza de Armas has the Catedral de Lima on one side, the Presidential Palace on another, and the Municipal Palace on a third. In the center of Quito’s old town, the Presidential Palace, old Archbishop’s Palace, Quito Metropolitan Municipality, and Catedral Metropolitana de Quito surround the central plaza which has a massive monument to independence in the center. Be sure to put a giant monument dedicated to independence in the middle of your plaza. A statue of Simón Bolívar on a horse is a classic.
Now you have a city with housing and historical significance, you need streets. In South America, the street names tend to fall under 5 categories. The first option for naming your streets is to choose another country. You could have Canada Avenue or Paraguay Street. In Quito, we saw Calle Haiti, Calle Guatemala, and Calle Venezuela.
Your second option is to use another country ‘s city. For example, in Buenos Aires, we saw Riobamba street (Riobamba, Ecuador) and Avenida Córdoba (Córdoba, Spain). Quito has Calle New York, Calle Buenos Aires, and Calle Asunción.
Your third option is important historical dates. The massive 16-lane thoroughfare in Buenos Aires was named Avenida 9 de Julio after their independence day which is celebrated every year on July 9th. In Quito, we stayed near Calle 9 de Octubre which is the date that the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil gained independence.
A fourth choice is historically significant people. Almost every South American city has a street named after General Simón Bolivar. A majority of the streets in Lima are named after people such as generals, presidents, politicians, journalists, actors, and other people of note. Another common appearance is saints. San Diego, San Felipe, Santa Anita, San Miguel, San Martín, etc.
A final option is a concept. Lima has Calle Independencia, Quito has Calle Progreso, and Buenos Aires has Avenida Libertad. The concepts tend to be positive, reflecting the country’s aspirations and values.
Congratulations on building and naming your city’s streets! Now, how are your citizens going to get from place to place? Cars are expensive, and your city is now far too big for everyone to walk everywhere. Why not install some public transportation?
First, you’ll want a metro system. Unlike in the US, where “metro” often means subway, “metro” in South America means an extensive bus system. Buses are a very important means of transportation throughout South America. They are fast, reliable, and the infrastructure is well-maintained. Bogotá, Lima, and Buenos Aires all had extremely strong bus systems. On the highways and throughout the cities, buses had a dedicated lane, meaning they are not slowed down when there is traffic. The lane is also available to government vehicles and emergency vehicles like ambulances. In Lima, we took a food tour and used the metro. It was cheap, easy to use, stations were well-labeled, and the stations even had attendants helping direct traffic and answer questions like “which line do I take to get to the old town?”. The buses get pretty crowded at times, as with any public transportation system.
You might not want to bother with a subway. The only city we visited that had an underground train system was Buenos Aires. When we took it, it was virtually empty. When trying to pay, we realized that you needed to register on the government website to get a subway card, and there wasn’t an option to get a single-use ticket. Luckily, the guy manning the turnstiles was nice enough to just let us through. We walked through the empty hallways, down the empty stairs, and onto the empty platform. The stops on the subway were just named after the streets they stopped at, so we had to google which stop to get off at. The cars were typical subway cars but were almost completely empty. Only a couple of people got on and off in the six or so stops we passed. Given that the bus system is cheap, intuitive, reliable, and fast, a subway system is completely optional in your metropolis.
Ending with taxis, those are easy. Just make sure to add space in the airport for taxis. Every South American city we visited had plenty of taxis. They tended to be the stereotypical bright yellow and were reasonably priced. There are Ubers in most of the major cities, but the taxi drivers are more numerous and have more of a voice, making Uber illegal in cities like Bogotá and Lima.
These are just some of the similarities I observed when we visited the large cities of South America. Be sure to take these into account if you want your beautiful metropolis to fit in. Happy Building!