Tag Archives: Travel Tips

Indian Souvenirs in Delhi…with as little hassle as possible.

2 Oct

A legacy post, which I found in my draftbox, and duly finished up:

Delhi can be an intimidating city for a newcomer.  Its rickety apartments offer little shelter from the elements (suffocating heat or jacket-penetrating cold…there are only 3 weeks of good weather per year). The stench of humans, waste, or burning leaves mixes with the noise pollution of millions of cars gridlocked on the road and honking.  The expat becomes used to these things, but there is one thing which never goes away and is always annoying:  the haggling.

Oh, the brazenness of rickshaw drivers and merchants!   I was once told candidly that my English constituted a 10 rupee surcharge, despite having a meter inside the rickshaw.  During a shopping trip for mosquito nets, armed with the knowledge of mosquito net prices, I told vendors, in Hindi, that I lived in Delhi and had friends who had bought from them at the fair price.  I was still quoted the normal 200% markup.  My Indian friends had to argue with the shopkeepers, yelling, for 30 minutes for me to obtain the fair price.

Unless you’re a superhuman, superawesome bargainer, it is almost impossible to obtain a local price.  It is often impossible for locals to obtain a local price.  Sometimes bargaining takes knowing key words, such as “junk jewelry”–which signifies that you’re not looking for real silver/expensive stuff, but normal jewelry.  My advice would be to avoid bargaining, save your efforts, and shop at fixed price places (because it is difficult to bargain for much less than what you’ll get at a fixed price shop.  You may have knocked 70% off the original offer, but that is still 30% above fair price.)

Here’re my favourite places to shop + things to buy:

Places

  • Tribes India:   Best shopping experience in India, bar none.  There are quite a few scattered across India. Government-owned, this shop offers fixed, fair prices (much better than FabIndia, another great, though pricey store).  Best of all, your purchase is supporting the various craftsman and tribes of India.  Great selection including scarves, sculptures, stationary, jewelry, organic products, bags and even more products out of the normal touristy fare.  For example, I bought some lovely wild silk ties (made from wild silk worms) for $4 each, an awesome metal-cast pig for 50 cents, neem soap, handmade recycled paper, and a tapestry.  Wonderful staff. At the end of purchase, you’re given a 10% discount card for the next purchase and all of my items were gift-wrapped, complementary service.
  • Tatsat (Hauz Khas market): One of the few fair-trade places I can find in Delhi.  Boasts jewelry, elephant and camel poo paper, bags, paper-mache Kashmiri boxes (the cheapest I’ve seen anywhere), clothes, etc.  Cutely, your purchase is bundled in shopping bag made of recycled newspaper.
  • Lajpat Nagar market:  One of the best markets to shop at for kurthas, clothes, those sparkly shoes, scarves, and everything which a normal Indian would buy.
  • Surreal (Vasant Kunj DLF Promenade mall, bottom floor, right of Zara on first floor):  You’ll notice that foreign brands in India are super-expensive, even more so than in the U.S.  This is because of recently raised import duties.  A local brand, Surreal offers stylish Western clothes, with a touch of Indian craftsmanship and instinct for patterns.  It’s mostly geared for men, with a diverse button-down collection featuring divine textures, but the small women’s section is nothing short of amazing.
  • Van Heusen:  It can be hard to find stylish clothes without plunging necklines in the States.  A conservative country, India solves this problem for you and even makes the Chinese collar look sexy, placing it on flirty blouses.  Although its business clothes are nothing to write home about, Van Heusen’s party line is absolutely fantastic.
  • Da Milano: Don’t let the name fool you.  Though it sounds like an Italian knockoff, this locally made Indian brand of bagwear (they claim that they learned the trade in Italy) is the real deal.
Things
  • Kurthas/Saris/Cotton pants/Custom tailored dresses: You’ll need the sari for the inevitable Indian wedding.  The cotton pants are the most comfortable item in the heat (and Rs.80!).  If you can find a good tailor, they can make a satin cocktail dress for pennies.
  • Scarves/Stoles: Look for exotic weaves, such as angora (super-warm and light).
  • Kashmiri trick boxes and paper mache boxes: Believe it or not, there is a season for souvenirs, esp. those from Kashmir.  These lovable wooden boxes with a trap latch are available from Jan-May.  The paper-mache boxes are available all year long.
  • Art: I deeply regret not purchasing any art from India.  What can I hang on my walls?  There’s some nice watercolors and blue ink drawings at Dilli Haat, tourist trap.
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A guide to living in Mérida

23 Aug

As a travel-weary soul after living in Bolivia, Peru, Samoa, and India for the past 2 years, I coasted in Mérida.  Mérida,  the capital of Yucátan, México and self-proclaimed, and accurately so, city of peace–key in a narced-up Mexico, is the most comfortable city outside of the United States that I´ve ever lived in.  In fact, it could be more comfortable than some American cities.  Mérida has the culinary chops of New Orleans, cultural happenings of Chicago, the tranquilness of a small suburban city, and the malls typical of Texas.  Not to mention the superb central location for taking weekend trips around the state.  Though these attractions have brought a small community of expats and students, Mérida never feels gringified.  Below is small guide to living in Mérida.

What to Bring

There is nothing in the United States that you can´t find in Mérida.  Missing your favourite cereals?  The Costco, Walmart, Mega, Chedraui, or other large supermarket chains got them.  That said, you will be using a lot of sunscreen and bugspray, which is considerably more expensive in Mérida than in the U.S.  Typical price for a bottle of SPF 70 runs $16.  I also recommend bringing snorkel gear, if you have room.  I think you can buy them for $14 at Walmart and it´ll cost you around $10 each time you rent them.  Otherwise, most items (except for clothes) run the same price, if not cheaper in Mérida.

Where to live

One of Mérida´s few weaknesses is its city sprawl and slightly inconvenient transportation system (bus/combis).  Mérida is divided into many neighborhoods, which are hard to get to between them, but all have bus routes, oftentimes lengthy, to the center.  They are almost all equally safe (living in downtown can be a bit sketchy).  I suggest finding a place next to your work, because you will be transporting yourself there 5 days a week.  I lived in García Gíneres, which was quite comfortable and a short 10 min bus ride or 30 peso taxi to the center.

List of apartments and rooms in family homes from the University of Mayab

Cellphones/Internet/Banking

Cellphones start at around $30 for basic and run up around American prices from there.  My office had an extra cellphone and I never put minutes on it–never had to make many calls.  If I needed to contact someone, I sent an email from the office or home or called with Skype (it´s about $0.02 a minute to call the U.S. and probably less to call México.)

The ATM fee from Mérida is about $2 each time + the fees your bank charges.  Even on the free Bank of America partnership, the ATM will charge $2.  It´s cheaper to bring dollars from America.  There are plenty of money change centers in downtown, off calle 59, between 60 and 62 that offer fair rates and real dollars/pesos.  I haven’t had a problem with fake money, as much as I did in Bolivia and China.

I’ve heard, but didn’t bother to investigate, that short-term internet in the form of portable cards or a short-term lease is not available.  Everybody’s house is wired up and one of the advantages of renting a room in a house was that I got access.  Otherwise, there is wifi in coffee shops, free wifi in all parks (if you can withstand the mosquito attack!), and internet cafés run about 8 pesos an hour.

Where to Eat

I have to admit that I haven’t been to very many restaurants in Mérida, mainly because it’s a lot of work to get around! Also, between work and taking weekend trips, I didn’t spend a lot of free time in Mérida.  Food in Mérida is generally meat—the vegetarian side is lettuce–but chaya, a superplant filled with vitamins, is delicious and served as drink or with fish/meat.

  • Cocina Economica (calle 17, entre 16 y 18, García Gíneres, cerca Parque de las Américas, (9999) 253 9888): Solid quality economical kitchen featuring Yucatecan and Méxican dishes, such as cuchinita, mole, pollo empanizado, tortas, and tacos.  I ate here everyday and local customers bring gallon-sized tupperware to carry away the food.  It is pretty busy around 2 p.m., lunch hour.  $27 pesos for a half-plate (more than sufficient) and $40 pesos for a full order (enough to take home for dinner).
  • Los Platos Rotos (calle Colón y Av. Reforma, García Gíneres, cera the Hyatt):  Local favourite lunchspot for chalangan (D.F.) dishes.  $50 pesos for a half-plate.
  • La Chaya Maya (centro):  A tourist and local haunt, La Chaya Maya offers a superb environment (staff is dressed in traditional garb and hand-making the tortillas and panuchos in front of you!) at pretty reasonable prices.
Where to go:
Mérida’s tourism department does a sensational job of publishing updated, free monthly magazines (Yucátan Today, Yucátan Travel–both include excellent street maps of Mérida if the numbers confuse you) as well as a monthly schedule of free cultural events.   These are both available at the tourism office in the Plaza Grande.  There is basically at least one free cultural event every day, including jaranas (local dance showcasing impressive foot speed and ability to balance beers on the head) every Monday, Yucatecan guitar concerts every Tuesday, an art fair every Saturday, and mariachi parades every Sunday, If you live near the Allianza Francesa (French cultural center), there are some cultural events and language courses there, though my French roommates thought the place strange compared to other Allianza Fracesas (snobby, more expensive, and tiny.)

Nightime jarana in downtown Mérida: yes, they're balancing a beer tray on their heads

Possible weekend trips (ranked in order of impressiveness):

Calakmul, a bioreserve and Mayan ruins, Indiana Jones style

Holbox. Never been, but it's the favourite of almost everybody here

Celestun. Never been, but lots of flamingos, swampy lands.

Tulum, a lovely time. Ruins are unimpressive, but lots to do around the beach.

Chichen Itza, classic.

Uxmal, another set of Mayan ruins with a nice light and sound show

Surrounding cenotes. You can throw in a visit to an awesome chocolate musuem/plantation along the way

What to buy
  • Coffee: Coffee grown in México is soft, with warm tones and a lot of caffeine.  Supposedly, Café Organico is the best and wallet-friendly organic coffee shop in Mérida, with a delightful owner, Guadalupe.  If you’re looking for more organic shops, here’s a nice list compiled by Yucatan Today.
  • Honey: Though apiaries in the Yucatan have diminished in recent years, there is still plenty of local honey production here.  Notable products include honey candy (with flavors of chamoy, chile, seasame, and propoleo), propoleo cold spray, chapstick, and pollen (a health food supplement).  LOL Cab, calle 47, no. 519B x 64 x 66, 9999 243586.
  • Henequen: Used to make strong sailing ropes, henequen fibers put Mérida on the map, turning the city into a colonial showcase of wealth.  However, when plastic fibers were invented, the henequen industry went bottoms-up, and historical mansions converted into Starbucks and McDonald’s.  Today, you can find plenty of henequen artesanal products, such as bags, turtles, bowls, etc.  Recommend buying at the annual Dzitya Art Fairat the end of July, Casa Maya, Artesania Contemporanea Maya (Calle 10 #608 x 25B x 25C, Col. Benito Juarez-Oriente, acnmaya@hotmail.com, 999 982 6856)

    Henequen baskets (20 pesos)

  • Buying at Touristy Areas: A word of warning.  The souvenirs at Chichen Itza tables, are, obviously, not really stone, as advertised.  They are cement or plaster of paris, painted over with some good quality gray acrylic.  The value of the cement mask is less than 25 pesos and of the plaster of paris snake, less than 70 pesos.
  • Tequila/Xtabentun/Liquor of Nance: An old Mayan recipe, Xtabentun is a tourist liquor, meaning that locals don’t drink it, claiming that it’s too sweet.  As for tequila, Don Julio is widely regarded as the best, Don Eduardo is pretty smooth, and Cazadores is a good budget tequila.

A guide to Tulum

3 Aug

A smattering of simple, but well-preserved Mayan ruins in a manicured, palm tree-adorned lawn and off a turquoise ocean, Tulum can be called Cancún: the Mayan theme park extension.  Its proximity to Cancún and Playa del Carmen make it the 3rd most visited archaeological site in Mexico (the other two are also closely located to Cancún and Mexico City).  Though the ruins are underwhelming and dare I say boring when compared to the grandeur of Calakmul or Uxmal, Tulum boasts the beast beaches in the Mayan Riviera and an excellent grand cenote.  In fact, if you’re looking for an uncrowded beach with clear waters and powdery sand, skip Playa del Carmen and Cancún and head straight to Tulum.

Trip Details

What to Do

  • Get a map: Wonderful little tourist information desk on Avenida Tulum, about 4 blocks from the bus station.  They have great maps and great advice.
  • Tulum Ruins: Seeing the ruins will take 30 minutes.  The beach is the best part, as the best beaches in Tulum are located closer to the ruins & further away from the fancier hotels (yes, there is a reason why the Mayans built their ruins there).  The waves are the biggest, the sand is powdery white, and it’s just majestic to relax in the ocean while looking at centuries of history.  Entry cost = 50 pesos.

One of the bigger buildings at Tulum

The beach at Tulum

Ruins + beach = popular

  • Gran Cenote: The entry fee may be pricey at 100 pesos, but totally worth it.  Hands down the most exciting cenote I’ve seen.  It looks like nothing from the outside, but if you rent snorkeling gear (70 pesos), the water below reveals a whole new underworld, making you feel like an explorer on the Discovery Channel.  The cenote slopes down fairly fast, and you can peek at crevices, see the dark shadowy extensions of passageways which are sure to continue for miles (myth has it that all cenotes in the Yucatan are connected), and chase fish.
  • Akumal:  Nice beach (slightly more crowded than Tulum), but the real star of the show are the sea turtles, stingrays, fishes, and coral reefs.  They say that  these endangered sea turtles may have to be found, but I easily saw at least 4 sea turtles and even got charged at by one giant 1.5m sea turtle.  I may have reacted like a shark was after me.  We brought some drinks to the beach (wonderful liter of refreshing chaya blended with pineapple sold at Don Cafetos), rented snorkel gear (100 pesos), skipped the tour, and swam out to where the boats were and sightings were.  Akumal is located 20 km from Tulum and a combi, running frequently, will take you there and back for 60 pesos roundtrip.
  • Za Zil Kin beach:  Rumored to be the prettiest beach in Tulum.

Za Zil Kin at sunset and on the brink of a storm

Transportation

  • From Mérida, we took a 4.75 hr ADO bus that left at 6:30 Saturday morning coming back at 12:15 a.m. Sunday night/Monday morning.  Cost = 410 pesos roundtrip.
  • Along Avenida Tulum, you can walk easily to the center from the bus station.  You will need to take a taxi, combi, or bike to the ruins, the beach, or the cenotes.  Taxis have fixed pricing and will never rip you off.  Combis are substantially cheaper.  For example, a 10 peso per person combi ride to the ruins will cost 40 pesos total in a taxi. A bike can be fun and cheap, as rentals are 50-60 pesos per day.

Lodging:  

  • I stayed at Mama’s home (three blocks off the main Avenida Tulum, Calle Orion entre Venus y Sol Oriente, (52) 984 87 122 72), which was an excellent, no-fuss, new business (6 months old) with a great in-town location. Dorms run 150 pesos per person for a 4-bedroom and private bedroom for 2 runs 400 pesos total with a kitchen included.  Prices include free internet access and large breakfast, with eggs, beans, toast, fruit, whee!  Bike rental is 50 pesos.  I’m glad to report that I did not get bed bugs.  
  • Posada los Mapaches is another excellent option, with all positive reviews on Trip Advisor.  We almost stayed here, but the owner, an incredibly nice and honest gentleman named Daniel, reported that he had bedbugs earlier and was working on containing them.  He does take lot of precautions such as spraying all incoming backpacks down and hiring a terminator every few months.  The place is immaculately clean but “rustic” so you will get bitten by mosquitoes during the night.  

Food

I ate at three restaurants and all were wonderful.

  • Cameo: Local favourite seafood watering hole.  Up a little ways on Avenida Tulum, but worth the trip.  Seafood is fresh. Plates are large.  Prices are reasonable.  I ordered the flakiest, scrumptiest shrimp po-boy sandwhich.
  • La Villa d Bella: Off Za Zil Kin beach, this expansive restaurant under a high-arched Mayan roof offers beautiful front-porch views of the beach and exceptional service.  We ordered a seafood platter for two, which included lobster, snapper, squid, octopus, shrimp, 2 alcoholic drinks, and dessert (well, the waiter threw in dessert) for 720 pesos.  Be careful at night—strangely, the hotel doesn’t have a telephone and may not be able to call a cab for you.  Cabs pass by rarely at night, since it’s an isolated area.
  • Don Cafeto: Situated on the main drag and boasting an Italian restaurant mafia-style collection of celebrity/governor sightings at the restaurant, this tourist favourite has the joys of large quantities of food, good drinks, and good times.  Get the chaya drink.
A Word about Bedbugs
  • There is a strong possibility of catching bedbugs here, as many backpackers bring them in from other parts of Mexico.  Many other pernicious bugs are present in the beach sands.  My friend returned back with clusters of bites on her feet.  Both hotels I talked to fumigated regularly to combat the problem and one hostel spends $3,000 annually in fighting the bedbug war.
  • To keep the bugs at bay, I suggest leaving your beach towel and all other things from the beach outside your hotel room, taking a warm bath immediately after returning to the hotel, and possibly boiling your clothes (just to be extra safe.)

A guide to Buena Vista and San José de Chiquitos

21 Jan

This route is completely off the beaten path and this time, it’s the road less traveled for a reason.

The Lonely Planet claim that San José “merits a visit even if you miss all the others”?  Bullocks!  The reaction I got when I told locals that I went to San José was one of bewilderment. Apparently, San Xavier and then Concepción is the recommended route; not only is less travel time but the transportation is much easier, contrary to Lonely Planet reports.  San José can be seen in less than 2 hours and though there is a scenic outlook atop a 3-hr hill climb, it’s much too hot and humid to do anything but splay in your hotel room with the fan on.  They do make good textiles though, cotton-woven purses made from looms, but I hear that the artesanías in Concepción are much more interesting.  The “neighorhood of artisans” marked on the tourist map is nothing more than private houses, but the women inside are incredibly friendly and willing to show you how they weave.  All of the people I met in San José are incredibly nice, from the hotel owner to the tourist agency to the people working inside the church to the salteña vendor.  When I arrived from Buena Vista with a warty hand of mosquito bites, the tourist agency gave me medicine.  When I got burnt badly by a too-hot salteña, the church tour guide rushed off to find burn medicine.  When I returned to tell the salteña vendor that his salteñas were too hot, he took me out to lunch and showed me around the town.  Apparently, gasoline is smuggled to Brazil from here and hence, they also sell it in 2-liter coke-bottles!

Buena Vista is the launch point for more interesting Parque Amboro sites than you can see from Semaipata.  However, because there are not many tourists here (I was the only one there at the time) and because the drive is much muddier and longer, the price for a tour is steeper, around $100/day and you will want a minimum of 2 days.  Although I did not go on the tour, I had a thoroughly good time, visiting the Buena Vista coffee plantation (alledgedly the largest coffee exporter in Bolivia and they supply base beans for Starbucks), accidently eating some species in low population (in my defense, a referred friend recommended the dishes to me!  And they told me that the jochi was a kind of pig, so I really thought that there were a lot of them out there and did not know that they breed only one youngin once a year), and going bird-watching/hiking in the 43-hectare forest plot of land adjacent to that of famed birdologist Robin Clarke. I caught ticks in the end, the effects of which I’m still feeling one month later, but I hear that all forests have ticks, even in Rurrenabaque.  In an update, if you got bitten by ticks here, you will probably not have Lyme Disease.  I got myself tested and it was negative.  Phew!

After bees got stuck for 5 minutes in my humidity-inflamed hair.

José's adorable son, Andreas

Trip Details:

Buena Vista

  • Transportation:  From Cochabamba, you can take the bus to Santa Cruz and ask to be dropped off at Buena Vista.  They will drop you off at a gasoline station and from there it is only a 5-block walk straight down to hit the main plaza.
  • Lodging: La Casona is nice and cheap but there are no locks on the doors. I stayed at Residencial Nadia which was quite comfortable and included a private bathroom.
  • Guides: I left my notebook of numbers and names at home, so forgive me for being vague.  A good guide for Parque Amboro is the large office on the corner, right opposite to the Internet/telefone place on the corner and on the same street as Residencial Nadia.  There is large advertisement of Robin Clarke’s lodging in the office and tons of pictures.  The owner is exceptionally nice and polite to the whole town.  If you’re looking to do a little birdwatching, José is an excellent guide and man.  He is very knowledgable in tree and bird species and not only can easily identify all birds by their calls, but he can scout one out for you.  The only possible downside is that he has an extremely cute and adorable 3-year old son who, being an adorable kid, can make a bit of racket in the forest and scare away wildlife.  But in the fall, a lot of birds and toucans stop by José’s house.  He has also built a comfortable guest house and will prepare you meals gladly.  José is German and speaks Spanish and no English.  A 3-hr tour will cost about Bs.70.  His email address is: sepp.mitterer@gmx.de
  • Coffee Plantation: Hacienda El Cafetal is one of the highlights of Buena Vista., especially if you’re interested in seeing how coffee is cultivated.  It’s not the best coffee in Bolivia, due to the sandy soil (In fact the company produces most of its coffee in the Yungas and keeps the plantation in Buena Vista for tours.)  You can call the office from Buena Vista and they will pick you up.

San José de Chiquitos

  • Transportation: You can take the 6-hr train from Santa Cruz.  Normal class is Bs.22 while first class is Bs.50.   Impressively and unlike the rest of Bolivia, there is plenty of food offered for sale on this ride.  You will not go hungry.
  • Lodging: Hotel Turubó is highly recommended.  Not only is the owner extremely nice, but so are the rooms and it is about Bs.70 for a single with a private bath.  (less pricey than what Lonely Planet mentions).  I accidently left my external harddrive here and they recovered it and shipped it to Santa Cruz.
  • Hospital: In case you have funkiness stemming from the jungle in Buena Vista, there is a nice hospital and clinic located here.  Except it is only open for appointments around 3 p.m. but you have to show up at 1:30 p.m. to get a ticket for the appointment.

A guide to Sucre

16 Jul

Since I’ve lived for a month and half in Sucre as a tourist, people always ask for travel tips.  You can find a novelistic description of Sucre and detailed information at WikiTravel (an excellent source) and pictures at my gallery, but here are my barebones recommendations, gathered after wandering Sucre on foot in search of the best and cheapest.

Sucre from the rooftop...the white city

Where to Stay

  • Honorary French Consulate, Calle Dalence 383, c_moris@hotmail.com.  The best lodging I’ve been at in Bolivia, hands-down.  It’s a well-kept secret; notably the owner, the honorary French Consulate, doesn’t advertise or lists in any travel guide, mainly because this place is his residence and he has a lovely family.  The rooms resemble a well-manicured French salon and room options range from single w/a bathroom shared b/w two rooms and a common kitchen to suites with kitchen included.  It can be pricey with singles at 90 B/day, but one week is 50B/d and for a month, it’s 30B/d.   The suite with kitchen is about 1400 B/mo.  Wifi in certain areas.

The single room at the French Consulate...ignore my mess

Where to Take Spanish Classes

  • Private Lessons:  your cheapest option, usually around 28-35B/hr.  I recommend Pepe (roadaway@hotmail.com, 73475561) or Cheryl (bela1406@hotmail.com, 79303248).  Pepe used to have his own Spanish school but now teaches independently to make time for computer programming and poker.  Cheryl is a banker and teaches part-time to raise money for MBA school.
  • Best Value School: Fenix [I’m not sure what the exact address is, but the people at Fox Academy would know] is the cheapest school (40B/hr individual classes) and your fees go to subsidizing English classes for local Bolivians.  Fox Academy has the same concept, but it’s a little shady where your money goes in that case.  But Fenix & Fox simply act as middle-men for supplying a teacher, there are little activities organized (only Wallyball and cooking classes on weekends) and you will rarely see the other students, except in the office when you pay.
  • Fun Schools:  Academia Latinoamerica de Español is immensely popular and your best bet if you’d like to meet other gringos and have organized activities.  Group classes are $90/week for 20 hrs. 

Where to Volunteer

  • Teaching English: The most rewarding experience I’ve had as a volunteer English teacher was helping out during classes at Sucre’s largest university.  The students are college-age and training to become English teachers, thus they are super-eager to learn and need the most help in practicing with a native speaker.  You can contact Monica, one of the most wonderful persons in Sucre, at 60316674 if you wish to help out.  Likewise you can also volunteer at Fox Academy’s english classes and they will set you up with orphanages too.

Where to Eat: One of the best secrets of Sucre are the pensiónes, family restaurants with cheap meal plans.  Ask any restaurant where you see Bolivians eating if they have a pensión and you will get your meal discounted by 40-60% if you eat there for a few days or a week.  Daily lunch places listed front, splurging restaurants listed last.

  • La Vieja Bodega Calle Nicolás Ortíz #38.  Right off the main plaza, next to Joy Ride Café, and is my daily lunch spot.  It’s wonderful in every way.  Good-value, great atmosphere, the best tasting pension in town, and a nice and strangely trusting owner.  Serves Bolivian fare with a twist and refills of juice and soup to your heart’s content.  The meals are so large that I had to take a shower afterwards to stay awake.  Pension price is 15B (only need 2 days purchase) and normal price is 25B.
  • Don Coco, Junin & Dalence, a block or two west of the plaza [in the direction away from the main plaza].  Bolivian pensión–have never seen a gringo here, but the food is pretty good, clean, and cheap.  Classic Bolivian fare served in the classic Bolivian style.  12B for almuerzo complete, 7B pension.  I was about to buy a pensión here until I discovered La Vieja Bodega.
  • El Huerto, Cabrera 86.  Best restaurant in town, per everybody’s opinion.  If I owned a restaurant, this is how it would look like.  The Lonely Planet description is spot on, “atmosphere of a classy lawn party, great service, and stylishly presented plates.”  I remember that I called once to make reservations for 10 and they told me there were closed.  I kinda misunderstood them and called again and apparently they opened the restaurant just for us.  Order the mondongo (50B) and the guayava juice–one of the best, though highly-seasonal fruits, but everything’s good on the menu.
  • Cumaná, Plaza Cumaná.  Have never been here but Pepé raves about it as “so much meat” for 40B.  It’s a bit far from the center.
  • Mirador, La Recoleta (uphill).  Owned by an Italian and has great views of Sucre with excellent juices.  A bunch of Italians took me here and told me that the food was great, but I kinda thought the bolognese was a bit too salty.  It is authentic, to say the least.
  • La Taverne, Arce 35.  Dependable French fare about a block from the main plaza.  It’ll be my second favourite fancy restaurant after El Huerto.  Around 40B.
  • Riko’s, Arce, in b/w the plaza and the market, but a block away from the market. I’d go here whenever I needed a cheap, filling dinner.  The plate of 1/4 rotissiere chicken comes with rice, fries, and a bowl of soup and costs about 13 or 15B.
  • Other opinions: El Germen is better, though more expensive than Freya (16B vs. 10B).  There isn’t good Chinese food anywhere in Sucre, including Chifa Hong Kong.  I got food-poisoned by the salsa at El Oriental late at night, but I’ve been there at an early, more-reasonable dinner hr and haven’t gotten poisoned.

Bars: Touristy but dependable spots include, in order of preference:  Florin (hip, music at night with cover), Joy Ride Café (very gringo-y despite its slogan, but the most popular spot in town, so if you’re looking to meet people….), Café Amsterdam (a little empty sometimes, but popular trivia nights supporting charity).  Mito’s is a great dance-hall where all the young Bolivians go, closes at 3 a.m and is far from the center.  If you’re a man, you’re almost guaranteed to meet a Bolivian girl here.

What to See:

  • Textile Musuem:  According to Christophe (the honorary French consulate), it’s the best attraction in Sucre by far.  Enormous musuem which will take you the day to go through, if you actually read everything, meaning that they actually offer English translations!  (and free tea/coffee, b/c you will spend a lot of time there).  There’s weavers too, demonstrating the art and if you go across the street, you can see more weavers, though they use manual looms to make Gap-looking products.
  • Casa de la Libertad: Best tour I’ve been on of a musuem.  You have to go here, not the least because of the history.  You will understand Bolivia and South America so much better.  If you think of history as boring, you haven’t heard of Bolivian history–there’ve been at least 104 presidents since 1826, some lasting only a few days.
  • Castillo de la princesa Glorieta:  One of my favourite places, located a short 40-min minibus ride away from Sucre, and it’s nice to get out of the city.  The palace is intriguing for its many different styles (Gothic, Russian, Baroque, Dutch are smashed into one building here, looks like the princess wanted to bring the entire world back to Bolivia) and the garden is supposedly modeled after Versaille.  Free tour with admission, not more than 10B.

Garden of the Castillo

  • Tarabuco:  Hear that the Sunday market is nice for textiles and other artesanal goods, but there’s nothing else to do here.
  • Hikes:  CondorTrekkers, fantastic company with a social mission, offers 3, 5 day hikes to the volcano crater, waterfalls, and dinosaur park (which is really not worth seeing.  You walk through amusement park fake dinosaurs and the longest dinosaur tracks in the world are about 100m away, visible through binoculars costing 2B per min.)
  • Cementery: One of the biggest and nicest in Bolivia–it’s interesting if you’ve never been to a cementery in S.America before, b/c the graves are mostly above-ground (a la Marilyn Monroe).  Also there’re kids hanging about willing to give you a tour including on the history of Bolivia–note:  as with all guides in S.A., some facts may or may not be true.

    Graves in the weeds (the poorer section)

  • Watch a soccer game: Universitario, the Sucre club, plays on Saturdays/Sundays (schedule).  Not very packed, cheapest tickets are 15B, interesting for the competing cheerleading squads who bring their own band and fireworks.
  • Free entertainment: The main park in Sucre is really nice with 200 yr old trees and an Eiffel tower imitation which also imitates the Leaning Tower of Pisa in its instability.  The tower sways when you climb up it, but some people would consider that part of the fun.  There’s also an amusing singing fountain show lasting 30 minutes and going through an orchestra of classical music and neon lights–a cross b/w Fantasia and Vegas.  It’s sponsored by the only factory in town, the cement factory.
  • Origens: Never have gone, but heard it’s a fantastic folk dance show.  70-80B usually, students nights 2×1 on Wednesdays.

Where to Buy:

  • Alpaca Andina, Calle Calvo 41, cute purses and hand-made crafts, with some fairly original ideas, such as pillows, toaster-mitts, headbands, etc.  The owner started the store as a way to employ some of the campesinos and tours of the small factory are given.

Random Tips:

  • Do your grocery shopping at the supermarket instead of the market.  It’s usually cheaper and cleaner, saving you the hassle of having to bargain and perhaps getting diarrhea.  Except, if you’re looking for wheat pasta, that’s cheaper at the market.
  • Eat at pensiones if you’d like to have an authentic experience.  Usually you get put in a table with other people and this is a great way to chat people up and practice Spanish.
  • They say pineapple tea (found at the supermarket) is great for diarrhea.  If you’re having further problems, brush your teeth with boiled water or get a blood test at the local hospital.
  • The movie theater in town has 2×1 specials on Wed, but buy your tix earlier as they sell out quick.
  • Guayava jam is sold at the market for about 5B a packet…delicious!


A guide to Cochabamba

10 Jul

*Please note that this guide has been edited to include additional tips learned from living 3 months and counting here.

I came to Cochabamba on the heels of a terribly cold winter in La Paz and after reading The Frugal Traveler’s “All Advice Leads to Cochabamba, Bolivia” article.  The Frugal Traveler, Seth Pugel, mostly talks about food in Cochabamba and though that is reason enough to come to a place, there’s really nothing much else to do here.   It’s a city, the 3rd largest in Bolivia with around pop. 600,000 and 1,000,000 greater area.  My first day in Bolivia was spent in wonder, loving the weather (LA, California-like with year-round avg is 70 F and the temp. stays consistent) and thinking that Cocha looked almost like Texas.  It’s the first city in Bolivia that I’ve seen with good street-signage at every corner and it has modernly wide-streets for cars, very tranquilo compared to the cluster-fuck of minis and micros in La Paz, and just like a town in Texas.  The city is modern, filled with many students from Brazil, because of the med-school here which is top-quality and cheap, and NGOs.  My consequent week here was spent slighty sick, from the pollution trapped by the mountains here.  My laptop gets a little layer of dust from just a few minutes outside in the street.  Daily-living in Cochabamba is also expensive, contrary to what Lonely Planet tells you.  Everything is higher-priced than both La Paz and Sucre and especially as it’s tourist season now, the prices have risen again.  Cochabambinos travel outside more so than people from any other department of Bolivia (also a fair portion of Cochabamba is poor…farming is life here).  I’ve been approached here by kids selling jewelry or shoe-shining more so than any other place in Bolivia.

But the food here is fresh and piled high.  There are many restaurants to try out and it is impossible to order anything that is not enough for 2 or 3 people.  Perfect place for couples to share dishes.  The men here have little stomach pooches and it’s not considered an appearance defect.  Though it is considered one for women, of course, and they watch their weight.

The Lonely Planet (2010 edition) doesn’t have a terribly great or comprehensive list of hotels or restaurants, but you can find a pretty good listing here–it has descriptions from Lonely Planet or other travel guides, but offers a much better list.

The best recommendation I can make is to go to Casablanca (next to Plaza Colon on 25 de Mayo)–it’s a cafe with wifi and very happening amongst Bolivians and gringos.  They also have a fantastic, reasonably-priced menu, where you can find fresh ceviche (raw trout from the river) for 25B or $3.50, lattes (7Bs), irish coffee (20Bs), sandwiches (16Bs), pasta (26Bs), beers (10Bs), etc.

The tourist office on Plaza Cólon (east side, paseo independecia) offers great info and maps.  For cultural offerings, you can pick up a monthly calendar from the cultural office at CBA (Centro Boliviano Americano, 25 de Mayo off Plaza Cólon.)

Trip Details

Taking the Bus from La Paz: Boliviar is the best company, with plush cama seats.  They leave almost every 1 1/2, beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m.  The journey is approx 8 hrs, if you take the morning bus, and 7 hrs if you take the night bus.  Cost of a ticket for cama for the 6:30 a.m. bus is 50Bs, and I believe the cost for a cama for the night bus is 90 Bs, semi-cama 70Bs, and normal (not worth it!) 50Bs.  Ask if there are any road-blocks, because when I went, there was a road-block an hr away from Cocha due to cocoa-farmer protests and I had to take another mini  for 20Bs.  The best way to find this out might be to see if other companies are leaving at the same time too.

Pricing Guide:

  1. Taxi:  5B anywhere in the center, anytime of day.  Drivers will try to charge 8-10, but let them drive away.
  2. Minibuses or Buses:  1.50B.  Most of them go toward the center.
  3. Average Hotel:  No European-style hostels here, so the cheapest individual room with shared bath will be 35-45Bs and with private bath is 50Bs.  Try to negotiate “sin factura” (without tax receipt)
  4. Internet:  2-4Bs per hour; places around Plaza Cólon are 3B, around Avenida de las Heroinas is 2.50B.
  5. Average non-street food meal:  30Bs for a shit-ton of food.

Lodging: I’ve only stayed at 2 places:  Residencial Familiar & Hostel Jardin.  Of the two, I prefer Hostel Jardin, b/c it is cleaner with sturdier doors, but though I’ve never stayed at Nawpa, it seems amazing.  I’ve heard that you can negotiate “sin factura.”

  1. Residencial Familiar:  central location, near the main plaza.  35B for a single with shared bathroom and 55 for a single with a private bathroom.  I stayed here a night, though it was slightly creepy, because the doors are only padlocked with a 99cents store lock and the room is tiny, barely wide enough to fit a twin-size bed.   The bathroom was a bit dirty–don’t get me wrong, it was newly-tiled and all, but not cleaned very often.   No internet.
  2. Hostel Jardin: disad would be its location, but still near the center and about 10-min walk to Plaza Colon.  30B for a single with a shared bathroom with breakfast (bread and tea) and 50 for a single with a private bathroom.  The single room comes with two twin beds and smells a bit like cleaning-fluid.  Bathrooms are really clean, but the hot water comes and goes b/c of the electric shower.  No internet.  If you stay more than 10 days, you get a discount to 25B/day.
  3. Hostel Buenos Aires: I didn’t stay here, but it has a great central location, though I’ve heard that it’s a bit busy and noisy.  40B for a single with a shared bathroom and the room looked fairly large with 2 twin-beds.  No internet.  Electric showers.
  4. Nawpa Hostel: Located right in central Cochabamba, with a relaxing colonial courtyard and a vegetarian restaurant.  I heard that because it recently opened, the beds are new.  40 Bs. a night.  No internet.
  5. Homestays: Very worthwhile is the option to stay with a Bolivian family, meals are typically included.  You can inquire at Volunteer Bolivia ($90 for a week, which is the minimum) and at Serve Abroad’s Language School (4525992, Avenida Ayacucho Nº 835 between Teniente Arévalo y Costanera, serveabroad@gmail.com) where it’s $10 a day.

Restaurants: Top-pick for fancy restaurant goes to Caso de Campo—really great and reasonably-priced steak/chicken/fish plates stuffed with food; it’s like your favourite local hole you go to with tons of friends on your birthday; for almuerzo completo goes to Sabor Como Una Piedra; and for night out goes to Vinnopoli’s.  Addresses are listed here.

  1. Yerba Buena: Right across the street from Casablanca, it has a sizable almuerzo completo serving unique, non-Bolivian food for 16B.  When I went, I had a beet soup (tasty, actually), radish-salad, large serving of pasta with a creamy egg and herb sauce, and jello.  Pretty good bar/night-spot as well and good taste in music.
  2. Jacaranda: Not near the city center at all, but it has the reputation of best charque joint in town.   I was told that I couldn’t leave Cochabamba without trying the charque, though it does really just taste like fried beef jerky.  Charque is beef jerky which is dried, then baked in the oven, then fried for the ultimate crispiness.  I got the half-plate at Jacaranda, which comes with at least a pound of dried beef jerky, 2 boiled eggs, and the tastiest choclo that I’ve had so far (oooh the cheese slab was so thick and crumbly).  The half-plate was about a 5-inch high pile, ran 50B and fed me for lunch and dinner and probably another meal if I didn’t have to chuck it out due to a lack of a refridgerator.
  3. La Estancia:  Upscale and pleasant Argentinian steak place.  Portions aren’t of the legendary Cochabamba size, but rather of the normal steak-portion size.  I’ve heard that the salad bar is amazing.  I had a cut of chicken breast fillet (still recovering from poisoning myself with chicken soup) for about 35Bs or so.  You can get those skinny skinny chip-like potato fry crisps here.
  4. Zhou: This place was recommended to me by a couple who’d lived here for 4 years, so I walked out of my way to find this place (fairly far away), and was a tad disappointed.   The food here isn’t the most authentic Asian either and not even a good P.F. Chang imitation.  Needless to say, the couple wasn’t Asian either.  It’s slightly pricey, with sushi (mostly trucha-salmon imported from La Paz.  Part of my disappointment was that I couldn’t find good cuts of fresh surubi, trout or other river-fish sashimi here in Cochabamba.) running 50Bs.  I had a classic soba (30B) but the noodles looked suspiciously like they came out of a Maruchen ramen noodle package.  And I felt slightly sick after the meal.  My conclusion:  La Paz has better sushi.  Go to Ken-Chan, run by the Japanese society, and you will find excellent, more authentic Japanese food.
  5. Wistpiku (sic): A chain of empañadas, but these are the most delicious! Stuffed with chicken or charque and beats a salteña any day.  Get the one al horno, from the oven, for 5.50B.
  6. Casa de Campo: For once, Lonely Planet was right.  This is a large, cheerful, sunny, outdoor and indoor watering hole serving big piles of food.  I ordered the half-platter of pork ribs which came with at least a pound and a half of ribs, fries, broccoli, and salad (pretty good salad) for 37B and still had leftovers.
  7. Buenos Aires: Great airy location right on the Prado, next to Brazilian Coffee, and serves a decent almuerzo complete for 18B (25B on Sunday).  Although the food is presented prettily, the quality is más o menos (quantity is certainly menos), but has the advantage of not being greasy and comes with an open salad bar.  Latté 7B, salads 26B, steak (large portions) 30-40B.  Accepts VISA.
  8. Sole Mio: An Italian joint, whose specialty is pizzas from the oven, and supposedly the best pizza in town.  Gael Garcia Bernal was seen here eating last year when he was filming a movie on location about Cochabamba’s water wars.  Pizza comes out remarkably fast but the service isn’t.  It’s a decent quality, not as good as in the U.S. but better than Eli’s.  Pizzas run about 50B for a medium and 40B for a personal, though watch out for overcharging.
  9. Cristal:  Decent chain of Bolivian restaurants (maybe like the Applebee’s of Cochabamba).  Almuerzo completo for 19B, not including drink which costs 5B.  Very stuffing and very good soups.  The restrooms are also impressively clean considering the amount of traffic that runs through Cristal.
  10. Sabor Como Una Piedra: Excellent upscale but casual restaurant in the Recoleta that offers refined dining at affordable prices (almuerzo complete: 20 Bs).  Their lunch offers 4 well-dressed entree options which always include surubi, chicken, beef or pork and the wait staff is the most professional and attentive I have ever seen in Cochabamba.  Some of the staff are students from the culinary institute.
  11. Miraflores: Local favourite and perhaps a more authentic version of Casa de Campo.  Here is where, supposedly, the Pique Machu was invented.
  12. Vinoppoli’s: Comforting wine bar with broad international palate.  An amazing Spanish omelet with chorizo.
  13. Lai Lai: If it’s the first one you see while entering the Recoleta, never go here.  I hear the second one, further along the Recoleta, is much better.

Wifi Spots: Though there’s plenty of internet cafés here and plenty of cafés, there’s not many cafés with wifi.  The best place to go to is Casa Blanca, off of Plaza Colon.

  1. Casablanca, C. 25 de Mayo N-344, also has sangria for 12B, Latte for 7B.  If you’re sensitive to smoking, there’s a non-smoking section in the back.
  2. Tunari, El Prado, a restaurant with faster connection than Casablanca but very few power outlets.  On the upside, there’s less smoke than Casablanca, but more dust if you sit outside.  My computer got blanketed in a manner of minutes.
  3. Brazilian Coffee, right off the Prado next to Hotel Diplomat, but v.expensive.  Latte for 11B (small teacup).  An alternative if you need to use the wifi is to sit close by at Dumbos or at Wis’upku (sic) and connect long-range. Password currently is a1 b2 c3 d4 e5 (without the spaces)
  4. Burger King, other end of the Prado
  5. Espresso Cafe Bar, Esteban Arce 340 esq Pasaje Catedral, next to Plaza 14 de Septiembre.  Old-fashioned, cute coffee bar where there’s always many old men sitting and reading.
  6. Havanna (CineCenter), Latte for 11Bs, and very good chocolate.