I was chatting about travel at work last week (surprising, I know) and a colleague asked if I eat street food while traveling. The woman who posed this question isn’t a traveler, she takes her vacation each year to Disney World, or if she decides to go wild she goes to Disneyland. I’ve traveled (for work) with this woman before. She freaks out if we try to eat somewhere she’s never heard of. She loves national chain restaurants (Olive Garden and PF Chang’s). Finally I decided, I just can’t talk travel with this woman.
I do eat street food. I like to be a traveler not a tourist. The locals eat street food and the reason I travel is to experience other cultures, including their food. Street food is usually very cheap too. Because of this I’ve had some great street food all over the world, including:
- Easy and Safe Tapas in Spain
- A wonderfully entertaining motorbike ride with multiple dining stops in Saigon
- A strange night party and carnival in Siem Reap
- A bustling market on a frigid day in Shanghai – Loved the soup dumplings
- Hawker Stalls in Singapore
I’ve been fortunate and have never gotten sick from eating street food. I’ve gotten sick while traveling, but never from street food. When eating street food, I follow a few simple rules:
- Always eat at places that have at line – the more people the quicker the food turns over. No customers mean the food ends up sitting out longer, giving more opportunity for bacteria to grow. Plus, if the food stall has a long line that means the local customers like the place. It has to be worth trying.
- See and smell the food. If you see flies or other insects on the food, you should likely stay clear.
- See the people preparing the food. Are they clean? Are their action sanitary?
However street food can be a little scary – like most things, I say trust your gut. If you think something isn’t right, you are probably right. In other words: Stay away.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten from a street vendor? Has street food made you sick? Do you have any advice for street food novices, above all else?
Bolivia was not on my short list of places to visit. I compromised on this trip and we spent a couple days in Bolivia. I had heard about this day trip by bike you could take from La Paz that really intrigued me.
See La Paz was connected to the Yungas River by the Yungas Road. The road is 65 kilometers (40 miles) and drops from 4,700 meters (15,500 feet) in El Alto (La Paz) down to 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) to the town of Coroico. This road brought tons of supplies from the river up to the city. Despite it being a major passageway, the road was barely one lane in each direction and at some points it isn’t even that wide.
The width of the road was only part of the issues. 30 kilometers were just gravel or dirt. If that wasn’t unique enough, the road snakes along the side of the mountain. In many spots along the route you find a 1,000 meter (3,000 feet) shear drop off on one side and a near vertical rock wall the other. There are no bike lanes and no guard rails.
The road was also filled with what our guide called “baby heads.” These were large rocks / small boulders the size of a baby’s head. These were especially treacherous because if you hit them they could immediately turn your front wheel and you could fly over the handle bars or worse, over the side of the mountain. While the official name of this road is the Yungas Road it is more commonly known as the World’s Most Dangerous Road or, my favorite, the Bolivian Death Road.
Obviously we didn’t do this ride on our own, we joined a tour company, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This locally owned company hired guides from all over the world. Our guide, Wolf, was a 30 (ish) year old German guy, with dreadlocks that were half a meter long. His English was great. We had two other guides on our tour too – both were very nice, but took a back seat to Wolf and his very strong personality.
We arranged this tour before we arrived in Bolivia. The night before the tour I was a little nervous. We were watching videos of the Death Road before we hit the sack. Not the smartest move.
We met in a restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. There were two groups going up on the ride our day. A private Group with one family (about eight guests) and our group. Our group was made up of four separate groups: me and Mike; three 25 (+/-) year old Canadian women; three Australian Navy men; and three Frenchmen. We quickly boarded our bus and headed up to the summit at La Cumbre (about 4,700 meters).
Once at the top, we suited up with gear provided by Gravity (it was cold so we put on pants and coats, dust masks and helmets). We tested our bikes on the plateau, perfecting the seat height and confirming the brakes worked (critically important). Finally before we began our descent we said a prayer, toasted with some high octane grain alcohol and offer some booze to Pachamama (a diety of the region).
Let’s go! We started down the mountain on a wide, paved and we’ll maintained roadway. We rode for just a few kilometers before we stopped to make sure everyone was comfortable on the bikes. This was also a great stop for photos and to hear a bit about the area.
While I do push myself to try new things, I was by far the most cautious person on the ride. I rode slowly and didn’t screw around at all. The Aussies and the Frenchmen were going at breakneck speeds and the Canadian women weren’t far behind. I was like the turtle – slow and steady. No one made me feel badly for taking a slower pace. Everyone was really welcoming and encouraging.
We stopped about 8 times throughout the whole 65 kilometers journey. Sometimes we’d stop for the view. Sometimes we’d stop to see where cars, trucks or other bicyclists had flown off the road to their deaths (that’s a sobering experience to see a burned out bus frame, or a cross for a fallen cyclist).
The road isn’t used as a main route of transport anymore, a more modern freeway (of sorts) was put in just a couple kilometers away. You still see some locals using this road though infrequently on our day. We passed only four vehicles and the drivers were very respectful, slowing or stopping and allowing us by (mostly they were heading up the mountain).
Gravity isn’t the only tour company, but from what I can tell they take safety the most seriously. Another group (which the Gravity guides called the Power Rangers because of their outfits) had fully enclosed motorcycle style helmets. Evidently these helmets are much more dangerous because they almost completely destroyed your peripheral vision and limit your ability to hear what is going on around you. That’s just terrifying. These guys were hot shots too. They would come up behind you at a high speed and pass you on all sides. I felt very uncomfortable when they were nearby.
The ride itself was downhill and you could just coast most of the way. There was a section where there was a bit of flat land and even some elevation gain – nothing major, but it was tiresome at that point.
The only wildlife we saw on the ride was a couple of monkeys standing in the middle of the road at the very end. It was like they were trying to hijack us as they stood in your path and when you would swerve they would lunge after you. A Canadian woman was in front of me and she really distracted those monkeys. This allowed me to shoot on past without getting my pockets picked.
We arrived at the end point – a village with bathrooms and beer about 90 minutes before we were schedule to – Wolf said we were one of his fastest tours ever…even with slow poke Tim on the ride. I was proud that we went at such a great pace. We drank beers and got to know each other better.
We had an optional excursion at this point too – zip lining. I’ve zip lined in Mexico and in Zimbabwe and I love it. I hate heights, but I want to push myself to try new things. Joining the Australians and the Frenchmen for a few circuits of zip lining over the valley was a great way to close out the trip. I didn’t snag any pictures of this, but I was glad I did it. I was nervous before I stepped off the first platform, but those fears just melted anyway so I was flying between the stops on the circuit.
The trip ended with a visit to a wildlife sanctuary where we ate a big pasta lunch (mediocre at best) had a hot shower and saw some animals. This last part wasn’t anything to write home about.
The worst part of the trip was the 4 hour drive back to La Paz. Everyone was a little bit drunk and were acting dumb. Our guide, Wolf, kept asking the same question for the first hour, then repeated it every 30 minutes uses until we got back to La Paz, he’d say “Who is going to suck my dick?” Not sure where that came from, but he just kept on asking. So strange and awkwardly inappropriate.
We had a choice take the old road (the one we rode down) or the new modern road back to La Paz. The old road had stunning views, that we likely missed on the way down. Riding down, you are mostly focused just on the road ahead, trying to avoid baby heads, understanding the terrain and not falling off the edge. You have limited ability to see the breathtaking vistas. We all agreed the old road was the way to go. Little did we know or realize that almost all of our trek back would be in utter darkness – we couldn’t see the panoramic views. Making this 4 hour schlep even better, I was starting to get sick. I was frozen to the core. Half way through our return, I was tortured and wishing we had taken the new road. I wanted to be back in my cozy bed again.
Biking the Death Road was an amazing experience. It was my favorite thing we did in Bolivia. A once in a lifetime experience that I can’t recommend enough. I really felt safe with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. When the road was in full use and there were no viable alternative routes, on average more than one person would die each day. Now there are only a handful of deaths each year. Some of those are Mountain Bikers – but the stories we hear is that the riders were screwing are round or not paying attention. At each stop along our trek, Wolf explained the safety concerns for the next leg and would also tell us tales of people who got hurt on this specific leg.
What do you think? Would you bike down the Bolivian Death Road? What are some of the more harrowing things you’ve done on vacation?
Like in Arequipa, Peru, we wanted to stay in a local hotel – not a western chain. Our research led us to the Casa Piedra Hotel Boutique in La Paz. We would be spending three nights in this hotel, which was just a 3 minute walk to the Plaza San Francisco and the neighboring church. The hotel was about 25 minutes from the main airport in El Alto. The hotel didn’t have an elevator, so you had to schlep your luggage up the stairs from street level to the lobby. The restaurant is on the street level and our room was on the main floor with the reception area.
After we landed, we headed straight to the hotel, arriving at reception around 14h45. When we approached reception, we were greeted by name (again). Either we stick out like sore thumbs, or we were the last ones expected to check in that day. In any event, we were given our keys (actual metal keys) and shown to our room, which was just off the main stairs.
We booked a double room with two twin beds. We will book two beds if we think it is important to do so culturally (not necessarily the case here) or if the king beds don’t look like actual king sized beds. We’ve gotten burned many times when booking a king bed and getting stuck with a double. I need room and space when sleeping. Little did we know that the beds would be perfect for us on this stay – La Paz was rough on us.
Our room had a private bathroom, which was elevated from the rest of the room (likely, the bathroom was added as an after thought and it needed to be elevated to accommodate the plumbing requirements). The beds were small (narrow), but pretty comfortable.
Our room had a lofted space with a small dining table and two chairs. The room had great ceiling height, but in the lofted space you were so crowded, it was virtually unusable.
Our room also had a small desk, which under normal circumstances would have been great to write post cards, or do a little work, if needed. We used the desk only to store our hats and nothing else.
The room itself was perfectly comfortable. The door wasn’t all that secure – it never came open, but if someone wanted to get into our room, it wouldn’t be difficult and it likely would go unnoticed by everyone on property. I just made sure I kept all my valuables with me at all times. The bathroom (I failed to take pictures of the bathroom for some reason) had pretty respectable water pressure and access to hot water.
I thought the building itself was a charmer – a lovely old colonial building that has rustic, but not overly so. The floors creaked as you walked across the room or down the hall, but not so much that it bothered you while you were sleeping or relaxing in your room.
We had dinner one night in the hotel and the food was mediocre at best. We were feeling the affects of the altitude at this point. We were short of breath and were really feeling some GI distress. I didn’t realize that altitude would wreak havoc on your stomach as much as it did to us in La Paz. That’s another issue I had with the hotel (and it is likely an issue with many older hotels in La Paz) – you couldn’t flush your toilet paper, you had to put the soiled TP in the waste bin next to the toilet. In general, that wouldn’t be a big problem – we’d just make sure that we used the facilities while out and about or before the room was serviced. Unfortunately, with our upset stomachs, we spent a lot of time trapped in the room and the waste bin filled up quicker than it normally would. I tried a couple times to get the bin emptied, to no avail. Gross, I know. We had upset stomachs and the room didn’t smell as fresh as it should have.
In general, the hotel worked out fine for us and I would likely return, if I needed to be back in La Paz again. That being said, I really don’t think I’ll ever be going back to La Paz again. The altitude sickness really soured me on the City.
Where did you stay on your visit to La Paz? Do you prefer to stay at traditional western chain hotels, or more locally owned and operated properties? What do you think about the inability to flush the toilet paper?
A couple weeks ago I posted my 2016 Travel Year In Review and I’ve done so for the past several years (2015, 2014, 2013, 2011 – yeah, I don’t know what happened with 2012). I thought I’d share with you my most popular blog posts from 2016. Let’s look at that metric two ways 1) The most popular post that was issued in 2016 and 2) The most popular post from any period in 2016.
Interestingly enough, both of these posts are reviews of premium cabin airline travel. First, let’s take a look at the most popular post I wrote and released in 2016. This post comes from February 2016 and goes into the details of my flight in Business on Austrian Airlines from Chicago to Vienna (OS66). Such a great flight and a perfect way to kick off a long weekend in Vienna.
The most popular post of all time (and the most popular post viewed in 2016) is another airline review. This time it is on Asiana’s unfortunately named Business Class called Quadra Smartium from Seoul to Chicago (OZ236). I had two disappointments on this flight – they weren’t serving bibimbap (breakfast service only) and the outlandish fact that they ran out of champagne midway through the flight).
I’m not sure why these two posts are the most popular – I figured my flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok (TK 941) in First Class would have been the number one post. They were some of my favorite flights I’ve taken and perhaps they are more approachable – business class seats cost fewer dollars and fewer miles than first – plus usually there is more availability for award seats in business class than in first.
We didn’t have much time in Arequipa, but what little time we did have we loved. First things first, Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, with nearly 900,000 people. The city, founded in 1540, is 2,300 meters (7,600 feet) above sea level and has a very temperate climate with average monthly high temperatures of about 21C (70F) and lows of about 8C (45F). It was perfectly sunny during our visit and at this altitude the sun is quite strong. I’m glad I wore extra strength sun screen this morning.
We checked into our hotel first thing in the morning then immediately headed out to explore. Through some pretty basic research we found the city offers complimentary City Tours at 10h00 and 15h00 daily. We hit the first tour and had about 20 people on the tour with us. We were the only Americans in our group.
The tour itself was good, especially considering it was a free tour. The fast paced tour had a nice mix of history, local anecdotes and geology (Arequipa is surrounded by active volcanoes). The tour ended at a rooftop bar, where we all had a final toast of a Pisco Sour. I’m sure there are better tours of the area, but I thought these guys did a great job. You can find more details by visiting FreeTour.com.
Santa Catalina Monastery
We spent the rest of our arrival day and the next wandering the city. We spent a couple hours touring (both self guided and with the help of a complimentary English speaking guide) the old Santa Catalina Monastery, which was built in 1579. The space was beautiful and I learned so much about the 16th and 17th Century Clergy. Little did I know that the for many families it was expected that one of your children would enter the clergy either as a priest or a nun. To enter this prestigious convent, the family had to pay a substantial sum, but you could also have your servants help out (cook, clean, etc for you). I guess being shipped off 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) and likely never to see your family again is pretty rough, but bringing along your own servant should make it a little more bearable.
Museo Santuarios Andinos
One of the attractions I’m very pleased we visited was the Museo Santuarios Andinos. The main reason most people visit this museum is to see the mummified remains of Juanita – a young Incan woman who was sacrificed by the local priests as an offering to the God’s so they would spare the city destruction by the active volcanoes. Before you see Juanita, you learn about both the archaeological expedition that found her and the theoretical idea on how she actually got to 6,300 meters (20,000 feet). We spent about 2 hours at the museum. If you are in Arequipa, you need to visit Juanita.
Casa Museo Mario Vargas Llosa
The final thing we did in Arequipa was to visit Casa Museo Mario Vargas Llosa. We didn’t know own anything about Vargas Llosa before visiting the museum. Vargas Llosa is an author, journalist and Nobel Prize Winner. We arrived at the museum about 45 minutes before it closed. We had to really push the receptionist to allow us to enter the museum. Little did we know that we couldn’t actually walk around ourselves, we had to have a guide who would take us room to room.
She was very accommodating and powered through about three quarters of the museum, in about 30 minutes. It seemed like we were running through exhibits at a couple of points. The tour was completely in Spanish and the guide spoke clearly yet very quickly. I think I probably picked up about half of what she was saying. I was pleased with her and proud of myself.
We didn’t have anything else on our list to see in Arequipa, but I was disappointed we left when we did. I really like the city. My biggest struggle with the city was the air pollution though. There were so many vehicles and it sure felt like the emission standards were dramatically lower than those we see in the US or Western Europe.
When you put together your plans for travels through Peru, you need to take some time and explore the city of Arequipa.
What did you think of Arequipa? Was it worth your visit? Did you have enough time or did you feel rushed? Was the weather perfect for you like it was for us?