Travel in Rio de Janeiro

Traveling to Rio de Janeiro from the Pantanal was a bit like hopping out of Never, Neverland and back into reality.  Rio is a vibrant, lively big city, known for it’s beach culture and carnival.  The Pantanal is known for it’s birds, quiet and swamp like atmosphere.  Traveling between the two was like traveling from one end of the spectrum to the other.

One night in Rio, and we were enraptured.  It was as though we returned to Never, Neverland, just this time in a city built in paradise.

We showed up with now plans but quickly found a Rio de Janeiro hotel and immediately started to fall in love with all things Rio.  At the corner of our street a juice bar seemingly ran all night, squeezing fresh orange and citrus juices from an industrial sized blender, with bags of fruit swinging from the ceiling rafters.  The music played loudly and the crowd kept coming.  The people were as diverse as the juices the shop blended.  Of all ethnic groups, backgrounds and cultures they converged on this tiny juice stall.  The men gathered at the counter, the couples at sidewalk tables.  It was as though no other place in the neighborhood existed.  And yet every 10 feet there was another place just like it – a gathering place for a seemingly endless neighborhood of friends.IMGP2716

From our base in Catete we explored Rio on foot, by bus and by metro.  We walked the famous beaches, wearing more clothing than seemed appropriate, and covered more distance in just a few days than we ever thought possible.  Ipanema, Copacabana,  Leblon, it seemed hardly real to be at an exotic beach one moment and in a busy, thriving metropolis in the next.  We skipped the climb to Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf, opting instead to explore the picturesque architecture of Santa Teresa. What was old was also new in Rio de Janiero and the colonial architecture mixed with skyscrapers, creating a landscape that was the antithesis of planned, and at the same time, fit together like an old puzzle.

We met, dined and enjoyed the evening with local students. Unwilling to break the spell that Rio and it’s residents held over us, we talked politics, life and philosophy (as you do when you’re enthralled with a place!) until the wee hours of the morning.

And when we returned, the juice bar was still open.

IF YOU GO: Although Rio de Janeiro is full of interesting neighborhoods with their own character, and a hotel in Rio de Janeiro always seems to be well located- between the bus, metro, taxis and on foot, nothing is a long distance away. It is easy to fall in love with Rio and fall under it’s spell. Take the time to explore beyond the beach and the Sambadome, there is so much more to the city than Carnival and tiny bikinis!

Perito Moreno Glacier

When we arrived in El Calafate, we checked into our hotel and set off on foot. Thankfully we had lots of cold weather gear from hiking the Andes in Peru.  Let’s just say there’s a reason that an outdoor tough weather clothing company chose to call the company Patagonia…

From El Calafate, there’s a lot to do along the Chilean/Argentine border.  From trips to hike Fitz Roy to glacier climbing Perito Moreno, if the weather is nice it’s a great place to spend a week or two.  Unfortunately the weather was cold and windy when we were there, and although it was starting to look like spring, the warming temperatures made many of the hiking trails impassible (mud!) and the glacier walking a bit unsafe.

Fortunately we had a great time walking along the cross walks in front of the glacier.  It’s hard to get a scope for how big the glacier is- I’m still probably 100 m away from it.  As we stood at the overlooks watching the ice, which was a fabulous bright blue color, we saw chunks fall into the lake… thankfully the boats stayed back!

IF YOU GO: It is easiest to fly into El Calafate- we took a very long bus from the coast.  El Calafate is a tourist town, so expect prices to be higher than the rest of Argentina. Check out our Backpackers Guide to Argentina for quick tips and advice on traveling through Argentina.

Guide: Hiking the “W” Trail – Torres Del Paine, Chile

Hiking the ‘W is a must do for all backpackers who manage to make it that far south. In our opinion, most do it in a way that is either more expensive or more work than necessary. Below is what we did, then some suggested changes to our path to maximize your enjoyment and minimize your time and expense. Doing this trek in 5 days, if you are a regular hiker, to me, is downright silly.  If you want to do a longer hike, with less people, do the circuit.
Access: To Puerto Natales there are daily buses from Rio Gallegos and Peritto Moreno (El Calafate)in Argentina. From Puerto Natales there is a twice daily bus, making the several hour trip from town to the park, the first leaving in the morning around 8am and the second leaving around 2pm. Both buses pick hikers up for the return trip from the park to town.

Our time in Torres del Paine:

IMGP3275Day 1: We arrived on the morning Puerto Natales bus and made it to the start of the trail around the middle of the day. We set out immediately hiking all the way up the first leg of the ‘W’ to the Torres themselves and then back down again and almost to the second leg of the ‘W’. We slept that first night in Refugio Los Cuernos.  Many would do this portion over two days but traveling with minimal gear we were able to make it with relative ease. Camping there and using the hut’s supplies rather than our own cost a couple of dollars extra but given that we didn’t need to rent equipment in town, this balanced out. It is important, even during low season to have a reservation if your planning to rent equipment.  We made a reservation and they still didn’t have enough sleeping bags to go around! Plan ahead!

IMGP3247Day 2: We had planned to get up early and hike either the second or the third leg of the ‘W’ and get to the ferry to return to the bus to return to town in the early afternoon. As I’d started the trek with a cold we decided to just walk to the ferry at Lodge Paine Grande, but this was only because of my failing health, not lack of time. Had I started the trek healthy and we gotten up and began our walking at first light we would have been fine to do at least another leg of the W.

Other options:

IMGP3230One Day Hike: Not as hard as it seems. Take the afternoon bus from Puerto Natales and overnight at the first camp, staying comfortably in their lodge or huts. Begin walking before first light and you’ll have more than enough time to do the whole trek and make it to the Lodge Paine Grande camp at Laguna Azul before dark, spending a second night there and either taking the ferry the next day or walking to park headquarters to catch the bus back in the morning. This could be done in reverse as well.  This is for seasoned hikers only who know what they’re doing.  If there is a sudden change in weather you will likely need to alter your plans dramatically and you need to be prepared for that.

Two nights on the Trail: This is probably the best option for doing the entire trek with minimal time, expense, and discomfort. If you do your first day as we did above, then you can make an easy second day viewing the second leg of the ‘W’. Get up early the third day to visit the final leg or make a longer second day and do both legs there. Whichever way you divide the final two legs, plan to spend the second night at camp.  Had I been healthy we would have gone with this option

You can pay to stay in the huts or in the hut campsites. Equipment is available for rent within the park for camping, more expensive than in town but you don’t have to carry it, or just stay in the dormitory or the refugios. Full board can be purchased at each hut as well so if you don’t want to carry your food either, you don’t have to. When we were there everything for purchase was cheaper if paying with U$D rather than Chillean Pesos so ask in town before departing. All itineraries above can be done in reverse.

Be sure to take care of yourself while there, use the long days to pack in extra miles but don’t forget to go to sleep. Here’s a picture of the Torres del Paine National Park Topo hiking map:


Photo Tuedsay: Kids in the Trees

Hiking through the hills around Banos, Ecuador we heard a noise above us.  Two kids hanging out in the trees giggled and hid from us as we looked up.  They were minding a herd of sheep along the path. Waving and chatting with them, the kids turned shy and refused to engage us in conversation.  Turning to continue our hike, we heard the landing of a berries on the path.  As we looked back the kids waved at us, smiling micheviously from their perch.  On our return back down the mountain they chatted with us a little more and thankfully we were spared from their berry artillery.

Malaria: Our Decision

If you think something small can’t make a difference in life, think of a mosquito. One sleepless night, ruined picnic or one sore arm, a single mosquito can be the cause of so many of life’s displeasure’s. Unfortunately for travelers and many in the developing world, it is a little more serious. Mosquitoes carry two serious vector borne diseases: dengue and malaria. While there’s no vaccine or cure for dengue, there are chemical prophylaxis to help prevent malaria.

We’ve gotten a lot of questions over the last 16 months about malaria medications and we’ve asked plenty ourselves. Here’s how we came to our decision.

To drug or not to drug, that is the question.

The ever growing global discussion on vaccines, use of pharmaceuticals and immunizations is alive and well in the world of travel. We met several long-term backpackers in South America who took no prophylaxis against malaria. On the other hand, we didn’t meet a single traveler in Africa not using a chemical prophylaxis. To put that in perspective consider this: approximately 90% of deaths due to malaria occur in Sub-Saharan Africa.

We began researching our options and speaking with our doctors regarding the different drugs. We wanted to take a chemical prophylaxis for a few reasons: 1) we didn’t want to get malaria, 2) we believe that the potential side effects of the drugs are less damaging than the disease itself and 3) we did not want to contribute to the spread of malaria across regions. Spreading Malaria is no joke, if we were to be infected with a particular strand in one region we risk spreading that strand to another region when we travel there. In some countries malaria accounts for over half of hospital admissions and public health spending. We try to be responsible in our travels and for us we didn’t want to take the chance that we could carry a new strand to a previously unaffected region.

We based our decision on where we would be, the potential side-effects and the convenience of the drugs. We knew we didn’t want to carry a daily drug with us, the storage space aside, its never good to show up at a land border carting around boxes of pills. Also, we wanted to take a drug that’s effective in nearly every region on our itinerary. I wish I could say my regular doctor was helpful in leading the discussion about the options, but she unfortunately was not. Although Danny’s doctor was more willing to educate himself on the possible side-effects and have an informative discussion with him, I think the situation I faced is probably more normal. If your regular doctors is unfamiliar speak with someone at a travel clinic who can guide you through the options.

Besides taking a chemical prophylaxis, we also bought an insecticide treated mosquito net. Although most places we slept in had mosquito nets, it was good to have our own for the few places that didn’t.

The Options

There are several chemical prophylaxis options on the market. You should discuss with your doctor which one is best considering your time frame, travel locations, risk of transmission and medical history. No matter your choice you should always take precautions against mosquito bites, especially dusk to dawn when transmission occurs.

COST: inexpensive
AREAS: Central America
OUR EXPERIENCE: 5 months in Central America, no problems.
COST: inexpensive
AREAS: South America, Asia and Africa
OUR EXPERIENCE: None. Doxycycline was impractical for us, it upsets Danny’s stomach and we didn’t want to carry 365 or more doxycycline pills each. We’ve met several travelers taking this and the most commonly side effect seems to be sun-sensitivity. An added benefit of Doxycycline is that because it is an antibiotic, it also helps when you come across a questionable meal or two. If we had trouble with Lariam this would have probably been our backup.
Lariam (Generic: Mefloquine)
COST: expensive
AREAS: South America, Asia and Africa
OUR EXPERIENCE: Lariam is probably the most controversial anti-malarial on the market. We took Lariam for several consecutive months in South America, Africa and Asia and have experienced no negative side effects. For us this was the most practical choice: weekly, effective and not as outrageously expensive as Malarone.
COST: very expensive
AREAS: South America, Asia and Africa
OUR EXPERIENCE: None. We’ve met other short-term travelers taking it. Most frequent complaint we hear is the cost. For us this drug was impractical because of cost and frequency; too many pills to carry and too expensive at that.


Several promising vaccines are under development around the world, however none has yet been proven to develop immunity to the disease. You cannot build up immunity to malaria by drinking the local water. Seriously. People with sickle-cell disease or carriers of the trait have a substantial protection against malaria. Because the disease causes a deformation of the red blood cell, the malaria causing parasite attached to the red blood cell is destroyed before it has a chance to reproduce.