Dirty, Dirty Ihla de Mare: Brazil

It’s gritty, it’s poor, and it’s not much of a tropical paradise, but all that’s part of the charm.

Northern Brazil’s region of Bahia is peppered with beaches of every variety: surfer, hippie, resort, etc. There are also the small, undeveloped, car-less fishing islands with very little infrastructure for tourism. Ihla de Mare, located off the coast on hour south of Salvador, is one such place.

We wouldn’t have considered or even known about it if a French student we met hadn’t invited us. It also helped that his Portuguese was better than ours (we sadly retained little beyond “cerveja”).

The Portuguese proved integral, because getting there wasn’t easy. From the touristy confines of Salvador’s Pelourinho area, my travel mate, myself, and our trusty French sidekick rode a city bus for one hour through Salvador’s loud, dusty shantytowns and favellas.

Everything was bustling and everyone was, for some reason, yelling. We eventually hopped off at a somewhat random stop, walked for another hour to find a beach, boarded a tiny, shitty little boat at the end of a pier, and proceeded to teeter across the choppy sea for what felt like 20 years. Every treacherous lurch and stomach-churning drop was met with wild screams (delight? terror? not sure) from the passengers, followed by a massive spray of salt water.

Of course I vomited on the ride. Choppy teetering isn’t ideal when you’ve eaten several fried shrimp sandwiches for breakfast.

When we arrived, the operation got even more budget. We were ushered into a wobbly rowboat, which taxied us for around 100 meters, where we were told to get out and wade to the shore in waist deep water. Glad I didn’t wear my designer swimsuit cover-up (that’s a joke).

I was doubly glad after I slipped on a rock and slid down a muddy hill. Anyway…

We explored rugged, rocky beaches, kicked a pelota with some friendly children, waded through packs of roosters, and downed a few very cold cervejas. It wasn’t beautiful or a slice of paradise, but it was definitely a slice of life. The island was the first place I’d found in Brazil where I could hear my own thoughts–a relief after three weeks in the bustling cities of Rio and Salvador, where all places, at all times, blare samba. Or the Black Eyed Peas. Ihla de Mare felt removed from reality by by 20 years; I imagine it will for 20 more.

By: Erin Griffith, Photos By: Travis Harwood

La Paz Witches’ Market: Bolivia


La Paz is home to rough-around-the-edges attractions like Chola Wrestling (women beating the crap out of each other), Route 36 (a gringo coke den), and a famous Witches’ Market hawking dried llama fetuses and spells for fertility. Surprisingly (or not?), the Witches’ Market is the most Disney-fied of the three. Don’t get me wrong, this market has got some weird, weird shit. But overall, you won’t find the lawless craziness you tend to expect out of Bolivia here. In fact, for Bolivia, you’ll feel quite safe.

This is, after all, the country that offers rides down Death Road (Yungas Road), a treacherous mountainside path with a one mile drop, and tours of mines in which each touring party blows up his or her own dynamite. A tour of the country’s breathtaking salt flats may result in an alcoholic driver or a loss of ones luggage. An overnight bus ride takes you past burnt wreckage of countless buses that could have been yours. But at La Paz’ Witches’ Market, you don’t have to worry about those elements of danger.

The Witches’ Market is basically several blocks of stores with a handful of stands in front. They sell your typical touristy alpaca gear–supposedly handwoven sweaters, hats, blankets and bags, leather purses, trinket-y jewelry, and other various South American novelties. It’s all so cheap that one needs to show restraint to avoid looking like the ultimate SA backpacker cliche, clad in head-to-toe alpaca.

One also needs to listen carefully, as the sneaky saleswomen will often mumble “baby alpaca” when pointing at a sweater or hat, but they’re actually saying “maybe alpaca.” Meaning, it may be alpaca, but it may not be. Lame trick, I say. Either way, don’t pay up for anything.

And while fuzzy wool sweaters and socks are nice for La Paz’s freezing nights, this is the majority of the Witches’ Market’s offerings. Only a small handful of stands sells the crazy shit you’ve come here to see, and admittedly, that small amount of shit is indeed crazy. You can buy the carcass of a llama fetus, dried with fur or without, as a good luck charm. They aren’t exactly good for those of us trying to pack light, and I’m not exactly sure one could safely cross into the States with one’s llama baby, but, you know, its nice to see some genuinely witch-y stuff. Other finds include creepy masks and various spells offering beauty, luck, money, sex, fertility, less jail time, revenge on enemies, etc. Most of the spells are a packet of weird plastic trinkets, glitter, and maybe some pieces of food, with lots of dried herbs, which you throw into a boiling cauldron and stir (seriously).

You also can buy yourself a cheap bag of coca leaves with the alkaline “enhancer” but don’t expect the sales ladies to show you how to chew it. (Read up online, alternatively just stick a wad of the leaves in your mouth with a tiny piece of the alkaline and chew very lightly.) Yes, its what they make cocaine from, yes, its legal, and no, its not much of a drug experience. Yes, it helps with altitude and appetite, and yes, it tastes like soggy crap. Just, you know, don’t try bringing that back to the States, either.

By: Erin Griffith, Photos By: Travis Harwood

Anti-Touring The Sacred Valley: Cuzco, Peru

Several miles outside of Cuzco, Peru’s tourist mecca and the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, lies the Sacred Valley. Of course, you can tool around its breathtaking mountain-hugging curves in a tour bus, where, upon hitting certain vistas, you’ll be ordered to climb out and take photos. (Picture a tour guide barking “SACAR FOTOS! SACAR FOTOS!” to a van full of people.)

Alternatively, you can experience the Sacred Valley’s dramatic landscape from within your very own VW Beetle.

We found the rental place in Cuzco’s bustling Plaza de Armas, nestled between your typical Machu Picchu tour operators and countless massage parlors. We negotiated for a price of 30 soles for the day, or around $10.

It was all quite simple until we realized, out of four people, two were without a drivers license, one refused to drive a manual, and the last remaining candidate–a Brit–had only ever driven on the left side of the road. We decided to take our chances with the Brit, and he passed the round-the-block driver’s test.

As the four of us crammed in to the 1984 model with our picnic and cameras, we were instructed over and over “never faster than 70!”  Converted into miles per hour, I believe that amounts to a whopping 40. So we didn’t exactly fly through the valley. The car was rickety enough that we may have topped 70 once on a massive decline; I blame that on the shoddy brakes. We also  stalled five or six times. No big deal.

Within the first 10 minutes outside of Cuzco we encountered countless brilliant vistas, both of the city and of the various ruins surrounding the city. We almost ran the car off a cliff at one point when “reverse” got stuck in “first.” At each pull-over point, we admired the terraced mountains, often worship points for indigenous people, we ogled at the damage from Peru’s January mud slides, and we marveled at the tough-as-nails Peruvian women we encountered on foot (How long have they been walking? Where are they going? What do they have in those massive packs on their backs?). We snapped glamour shots on the hood of our road beast, snacked on Peruvian chocolate (not amazing, for the record), and argued over the limited CD selection. (Choices: Fugees, the Beatles, Elton John, and Shakira,; all of which were exhausted quite quickly.)

We eventually reached the town of Pisaq, a sacred town where lots of gringos go for spiritual shaman experiences that involve fasting and drug taking and vomiting. We opted out this time. After parking our chariot among autorickshaws and mules, we wandered through another in a very long line of artisan craft markets. After some  thick banana smoothies and haggling over panflutes, we embarked on a long, curving journey back to Cuzco. After several hours, with pollution and altitude clearly increasing, our Beetle sputtered back into town, just in time for me to dive out and puke on the sidewalk. Sudden altitude, plus curvy roads, plus two hours of pollution intake, does not equal a happy stomach. (The solution, I learned, is Agua Con Gas: you’ll be farting for days, but your stomach will never be happier!)

By: Erin Griffith

Chewing the leaf – Coca in Coroico, Bolivia

I love a lot of things about Bolivia. It is an incredibly beautiful country, first of all, mountains, plains, rivers, valleys, giant freshwater lakes with silly names really high in altitude…Still though, the Andes (and especially Bolivia) is the only place where the coca leaf is chewed as a matter of course. It is of course the raw ingredient behind cocaine, which is of course illegal everywhere since it is a dangerous drug. This has given the coca leaf some undeserved notoriety. By itself, it is harmless—the number of leaves it takes to create a small amount of cocaine is staggering—and in any case, as an old Bolivian man said to me,  shrugging, “One makes wine from grapes”.

No one gets pissed about grapes, was his point. So don’t get all worked up from the coca.

It is said that the best coca is found near a small town called Coroico, which is a mountain town on the way down the scariest highway in the world, an epic, one-track road, collapsed in places, steep, narrow, and teeming not only with reckless drivers but burros and people and rocks and mud. Most of the time is spent veering near the edge of thousand-foot cliffs. In any case, the Coca of Coroico is sweeter, stronger, and more desirable. A large bag will set you back about 15 cents at a market or so, unless you get cheated, which you most certainly will. Don’t sweat it though, because getting cheated means you’ll pay like $2 instead of 15 cents, still no big deal. I spend $2 on dumber shit in NYC.

Coca has been used for centuries by Andean natives, and was valued for its healthful and stimulating properties. Placing a chaw in your cheek for a bit you’ll enjoy the lightly sweet flavor and perceive over a short length of time a sense of energy, power, confidence, and well being. Your breathing is easier, you can hike on forever, even at high altitudes. In fact, the first time I was there, I was helping to lead a group of kids through the country, translating for them and forcing them to chew coca leaves and so on, and I often prescribed coca, or a tea made from it, to combat altitude sickness, malaise, and homesickness.

From Wikipedia: “Besides cocaine, the coca leaf contains a number of other alkaloids, including methylecgonine cinnamate, benzoylecgonine, truxilline, hydroxytropacocaine, tropacocaine, ecgonine, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, nicotine and hygrine. When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue.”

None of the euphoria or psychoactive effects which result in the irritating sociopathology of cokeheads are present when chewing coca, though tests have shown that trace amounts of cocaine are present in coca-chewers’ bloodstreams after chewing—but experts agree that the addictive properties of cocaine are not an issue, or very much present, in the unprocessed leaf in its natural state.

Because folks up here tend to shit their pants about everything they can possibly figure out how to judge each other for, even the harmless coca leaf is illegal to buy and sell here in the US, but there are several googleable online stores from which you can buy it in teabags—and I’m sure you can find whole coca leaves as well. Still, it’s nothing like Coroico; the air is thin, mountains surround the area, the sun shines brighter, and the coca tastes like the energy of the intense Andean sun. Go to Bolivia for the myriad cultural and ecoantitourism possibilities, but don’t forget to try the coca.

By: Ben Britz

Santiago: Fuente Alemana

The warm, smoggy afternoon in Santiago is siesta time; at least it was for us. After our power naps, we headed back out to see one of Santiago’s iconic sights-Cerro San Cristobal and the statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcion. It just did not seem like a good idea to travel the great distance to Santiago with much more ground to cover ahead of us and not visit the hill named after the patron saint of travel safety.

Before going to Cerro San Cristobal, we decided to eat. Having eaten recently, we were hardly hungry, but we couldn’t pass on Fuente Alemana (210 Pedro de Valdivia), a noted sandwich place very near The Orly, our hotel in Providencia.

Situated on the edge of a residential neighborhood, Fuente Alemana looks from the outside more like a small town’s newspaper office than a restaurant. For a moment, as we walked to its entrance, we thought that the restaurant, with its draperies drawn shut, might not be open. Once inside, the restaurant was busy with most of the bar stool style seats lining the counters and the walls full of patrons. We sat at the counter overlooking the sparkling stainless steel of the kitchen. The stainless steel and the staff’s white uniforms and hairnets gave the interior a 50’s era dinner appearance.

To characterize the food at Fuente Alemana as sandwiches is misleading– from the North American or European standard. Yes, the main event is wedged between two slices of a bread-like substance, technically fulfilling the sandwich criteria. However, the meats, cheeses, avocados, and tomatoes overflow the bun out onto the plate making it an impossibly messy proposition to eat with your hands. When the food came to us, I stared at
it plaintively trying to figure out how to lift the overstuffed sandwich and get a significant portion of it into my mouth. Eventually, I gave up and used a knife and a fork. A sideways glance revealed that this was the technique used by the all the other diners. In the operational sense, these were not what the Earl of Sandwich had in mind.

Taste-wise, the sandwiches at Fuente Alemana were most analogous to Mexican tortas that you can find in the States. The ingredients on the Lomito included luxurious shredded, slow cooked pork loin, a tomato paste-like condiment, mayonnaise, and the ubiquitous avocado that you seem to find on nearly every plate in Santiago. Mustard and hot sauce in bottles on the counter let you spice the sandwich to your particular taste. Overall, it was a filling, comfort food experience.

The meal cost us about 8000 pesos (around $13 USD) for two sandwiches, a large beer, and a Coke. We’d definitely seek it out if we were back in Santiago. Also on the same street in Providencia was another stylish sandwich place, Domino’s, which seemed to have similar offerings as Fuente Alemana. We’d have to check this one out as well to see whether their food offerings conform to the Earl of Sandwich’s design standard.

If you are in Santiago and looking for lunch, head to Fuente Alemana in Providencia. Good sandwiches, good service, and a cool, retro restaurant interior.

By: Dave Oare

Peruvian Wine in Ica, Peru – Bodega San Martin

I don’t know if you all remember this, but in the summer of 2007 a city in the Peruvian desert called Ica was partially destroyed by an earthquake—I have to say, though, when Ica is not being destroyed by an earthquake, it is a fantastic place to visit. Luckily I was there about a week before the earth started shaking so I got to enjoy some delicious Peruvian desert food and weather without being buried by rubble—always something I try my best to avoid while on vacation.

Ica is not really a destination place. It’s not particularly beautiful, kind of a hot and crowded city packed as full as it can get with motorcycles and orange sellers, but it is cheap, the people are nice, and it is close to several bodegas, or Peruvian wineries. We actually stayed in a hotel rather than pitching the tent outside somewhere, a rare luxury for us, and it was about $9 a night for a large double with hot showers, a TV, and free porn. It was an easy sell. It was twice as much as the hotel next door, but that one didn’t have glass in the windows or running water, so really, a no-brainer.

There are a number of wineries close by, so oenologists and alcoholics will be interested to learn about Peru’s wine- and spirit-making processes. It’s easy to take a tour of one; a cab from Ica will cost a couple soles or you can just hitchhike, but bear in mind the driver will probably ask for a little money for the trouble. I’m sure that any of the bodegas are worth seeing, but we went to Bodega San Martin. There’s a free tour and they walk you through the whole process. According to my friend, who is a sommelier, the way they make the wine is unique to Peru: among other things, the wine is aged in small clay vessels rather than large wooden or steel barrels, and the end product is surprisingly sweet. It was too sweet for me, so I moved right on to pisco, which is just distilled wine, kind of like an un-aged brandy. I’m not sure if our waitress was new or just generous but she served me a full pouring of this 80 proof liquor in a large wine glass so I don’t really remember much about getting back into town, but back at the hotel I found that I was carrying a whole bottle of it. At first I debated the wisdom of carrying a fifth of liquor in a heavy glass bottle on a backpacking trip in the wilderness of Peru, but it worked out for the best in the end: we found ourselves in the back of a vegetable truck with some hostile locals while hitchhiking to Machu Picchu and they were pacified only by my alcohol and cigarettes.

In fact I recommend keeping a healthy supply of both at all times in case of an emergency, whether you need it to sweeten deals with savvy bargainers or if you just have one of those days and really need to get your drink on.

Peru’s claim-to-fame in the world of drinking is their Pisco Sour, a fine contribution to the cocktail canon whose fame is inhibited only by the fact that no one ever has pisco. Delicious and refreshing, it is sure to liven nights and elevate the spirit.


2oz pisco
1oz lime juice
some sugar or simple syrup
1/2 egg white

Shake it vigorously with ice, and then party!

By: Ben Britz

Belem to Manaus on the Amazon River

The Amazon is a notoriously difficult place to get around in.  There are only a few highly inaccessible roads, and if you want to catch a flight to the jungle’s interior it’s Manaus or bust, an option that’s too pricey for most jungle residents and backpackers alike.  But who cares about these dull and isolating modes of transport when you can catch a ride on the river.
Starting in Belém, one of the easternmost port cities on the Amazon River, my travel partner and I bought our tickets for the trip to Manaus one day in advance, plenty of time to ensure a spot.  Of the many options offered by the “travel agents” who’ve taken up residence at the docks, we went with a boat oh-so salaciously titled “The Clivia,” a vessel of the cheaper, older, and more battle-worn variety.  For about $200 US each the fare included a spot to fling our hammocks (don’t forget to pick one of these up before boarding!), three meals a day, and five of the most awe-inspiring days of my life.
Since traversing the Amazon via the river is really the only practical way to go, and because we’d opted away from the cushier and ludicrously more expensive “tourist” boats, our traveling companions ranged from Peruvian farmers, to families returning to their homes in the jungle, to a bevy of chickens that settled into the lower deck. Continue reading