Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Yellowstone National Park

Travel Dates: Last weekend of July 2010

Yellowstone is the first national park in the United States after President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park services. It has long been a draw and we had been meaning to go for a long time. The weekend was the perfect opportunity to getaway. We decided to fly to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then drive to the South Entrance, making our way around the rest of the park in 2 days. However, we didn't get to the park until 4pm on Saturday, which left us with only 4 hours to explore before sunset. We had to be back in Salt Lake City by 9pm on Sunday, which meant we had to leave the park by 3pm at the latest.

In summary, 1 day and 1 night are not enough to enjoy and explore this 2.2 million acre park. Ideally, two full days and one night (hopefully camping) would be enough to hit the highlights without rushing, and give a chance to take a couple of short hikes as well.

Prices: The entrance fee for one vehicle is $25 and is valid for 7 consecutive days. This fee allows entrance for both the Grand Teton National Park as well as Yellowstone National Park. Motorcyclists have to pay $20, and bicyclists $12.

Transportation: We chose to fly to Salt Lake City on Friday night, stay the night there, then drove for 6.5 hours in our rental car to the South Entrance of Yellowstone on Saturday. We got lunch at Jackson Hole, and continued the roadtrip through Grand Teton National Park to the South Entrance. We exited the park via the West Entrance, driving down Idaho into Salt Lake City (5.5 hours). We flew out of Salt Lake City on Monday morning.

You could choose to fly into Jackson Hole airport, which should cut down your driving time to just 1.5 hours from there to the South Entrance, but I can't imagine those flights being cheap. Also the airport is only open seasonally, as are all entrances to Yellowstone except the north ones.

If you have a couple of families going, it might be worth it to drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Yellowstone (16 hours).

Weather/Best time to visit: August-September or mid May-June before the summer crowds gather. Beware that most of the entrances to the park are closed before mid-May and after mid-September. There may also be construction happening on some of the internal roads, so do pay attention to the newsletter handed out by the ranger along with the park map when you first enter the park. During construction, the roads are typically closed between 10pm and 8am.

When we went, it was in the upper 70s and lower 80s (Fahrenheit). It was not too hot when you were driving with your windows down, but was when you were hiking.

Stay: You can choose to camp, but be sure to book campsites well in advance. The same goes for the many lodges within the park that are operated by Xanterra. If you want to take a chance, call the lodges the day before or the day of for any cancellations...and you might just get lucky! This website lets you browse through the lodges' availability and book them as well.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone, where prices for everything seem to be exorbitant!

Navigating the park: This is the high level map of the park

We went counter clock-wise, entering from the south, going straight towards Old Faithful, and then up towards Madison and Norris. We cut through to Canyon and went down to Lake, for Hayden Valley (that stretch between Canyon and Lake) is where you can see hundreds of bison grazing in the morning. Then we went back up to Canyon and further up towards Tower Falls/Tower-Roosevelt area. We made a left towards Mammoth, then down to Norris and Madison, and exited the park via the West Entrance.

Highlights of the park: Definitely don't miss the Old Faithful. The geyser erupts approximately every 90 minutes, and if you have to wait, you can "hike" around the Upper Geyser Basin that the Old Faithful is part of. Don't miss the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin. The Fountain Paint Pot and Artists Paintpots in the Lower Geyser Basin and Norris Geyser Basin accordingly are different and interesting, with bubbling mud and murky sulfur ditches. Definitely hang out in the park till after dusk/sunset for many animals come out to graze then. I've heard bears come out around 4 or 5pm, and we saw many elk and bison around 8pm.

The mud volcano and Sulphur Caldron in the Hayden Valley are nothing spectacular. However the Artist Point in Canyon Village has great vistas of Upper and Lower Falls, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The road to Tower-Roosevelt, and then onwards to Mammoth Hot Springs through the northern parts of the park have intriguing and varied rock formations along the canyon amidst vast fields full of yellow, purple and pink wild flowers.

If you're short on time, you can easily skip Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces as they have "dried up" over the years. Due to geothermal activity underneath, many of the gaps have clogged, preventing the scalding water to ooze out. No scalding water = no bacteria growth = no colorful calcite formations. You can also skip the Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin, which is labeled as the world's tallest geyser...except it hasn't erupted to its tallest potential since 2005!

Also be warned that if you're checking out Hayden Valley in the morning/evening, don't be in a hurry, for you're not going to get anywhere until the hundreds of bison are done crossing the street...and they take their time! You just have to wait patiently for them to pass, or till a ranger or a huge tourist coach bus come by to nudge these beasts along.

Resources/Links: These are the four sites I found quite useful in determining our visit to Yellowstone
Happy Camping!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Brazil Itinerary

We traveled to 4 places in 13 days (including travel time), as shown in the map below and outlined in the details below the map. We flew in and out of Brazil through Manaus, and we got to the 4 cities within Brazil using the Brazil Airpass on the domestic airlines 'TAM'.

Days 1-4: Rio de Janeiro (A)
  • Surf and sand time along the beautiful adjacent beaches: Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana
  • Hired a taxi to take us to Corcovado hill where the symbol of Brazil, the "Christo Redentor" statue is casting its shadow over the entire city. I wanted to take the train up the hill, but it worked out better to go in a taxi given our schedule.
  • Walked around the energetic Santa Teresa neighborhood
  • Went to Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugar Loaf Mountain, to check out the gorgeous sunset and the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro
  • Enjoyed and participated in the many street parades that where people were pre-partying before Carnaval officially started
  • Partied all night (only one of the two nights of Carnaval) with the locals in sambódromo while watching many samba schools compete
Other options for activities in Rio that we did not get to (these are suggestions from Catia, a friend of my good friend Anjali Bhantia):
  • Lots of great places to have coffee in Rio: Armazem do Cafe and Alessandro & Frederico, both in Ipanema, and cafes inside bookstores like Livraria da Travessa, in Ipanema, Livraria Argumento, in Leblon, Livraria Letras e Espressões in Ipanema and Leblon
  • If you want an interesting view of the famous Copacabana beach, you could go to the Forte de Copacabana, a former military fort, now a museum open to the public which has a restaurant and a great view of the beach. These military forts usually have great views of the city and are very safe places to hang around. There is also one with a steep way on the other side of the Copacabana beach called Forte do Leme but it is not as interesting
  • There are also good hiking areas but you should always use the assistance of guides. The most famous one is the Pedra da Gavea hiking. There are specialized companies which provide this kind of service

  • Hang-gliding is a very popular activity where tourists glide from near the twin peaks of Leblon all the way down to the beach. Rio Turismo Radical and Just Fly Rio are two of many companies that offer this activity. There were lots of people selling these activities in front of the entrance to Sugar Loaf Mountain. If you are keen on doing this, buy tickets the day you get to Rio as they tend to sell out. The activity is also very weather-dependent.
  • Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas - A large lagoon in the middle of South Zone, with great views to Corcovado and Ipanema and Leblon beaches; there are skating and jogging fields all around it
  • Jardim Botanico - The Botanical Garden, planted up in the 1800s. It is both a park and a scientific laboratory. If you take the bus note that Jardim Botanico is also the name of a neighborhood so make sure you take the right one to the entrance. The admission is $4. The gardens are well kept and very lush. Not far from the cafe, first you hear swooshing sounds. Look up and you can see small monkeys swinging from tree to tree
  • MAM - Museu de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art) - The second most important contemporary art museum in Brazil, after MASP (downtown, next to Santos Dumont airport). Modernist architecture spreading over almost the sea
  • Niteroi – island off of Rio coast, good contemporary art museum with a modern building, Itcoataria beach is good.
  • Kayaking - The Bay of Guanabara is perfect for kayaking. Avid paddler and guide Simone Miranda Duarte (tel. 021/2541-6437 or 021/9954-9632) runs guided tours out of Praia Vermelha. Her rate is R$250 (US$105) per 4-hour trip, including equipment and English-speaking guide. This works out to R$125 (US$52) per person for two, R$63 (US$26) per person with four people, and R$50 (US$21) per person for a group of five. The guides at Rio Hiking (tel. 021/9721-0594; www.riohiking.com.br) also organize kayaking tours out of Praia Vermelha in Urca out and around some of the small islands. The fiberglass kayaks aren't quite up to North American quality, but it's nice to be on the water. Cost is R$155 (US$65) for a half-day tour, including transfers, refreshments, and English-speaking guide.
  • Tijuca Park/Forest – The rainforest surrounding Corcovado hill. Lots of waterfalls, animals and greenery
  • The towns around Rio with great beaches and nature are: Buzios, Parati/Paraty (it's halfway between Rio and São Paulo) and Ilha Grande (see the next bullet)
  • Ilha Grande – a beautiful and lush island off the mainland in the region of Angra dos Reis, near Rio. Other islands in the region of Itacuruca are popular as well
  • For diving, people usually go to Arraial do Cabo
  • Lapa is THE place. There are great samba and Brazilian music places there with lots of young people and great entertainment. Two of the most famous are: Carioca da Gema and Rio Scenarium.
  • But there are other places in the same area where you can dance and see concerts of different styles such as Circo Voador, Fundacao Progresso and Teatro Odisseia.
  • Usually during the summer, there are concerts and parties at night in the Sugar Loaf area. They are great, usually with famous Brazilian musicians and DJs and the place is fantastic, offering a great view of the city at night. The event is called Oi Noites Cariocas.
  • Some of my friends usually go to a nightclub called 00 (zero, zero) in Gavea but I am not sure if it's really trendy this summer.
  • There is also a place called Baixo Gavea where many young people hang around at night near the bars.
  • Other places like this are Cobal do Leblon and again Lapa.
  • Melt - 47 Rua Rita Ludolf Leblon - Restaurant and lounge bar popular with the Carioca high society. Inspired by New York lounge bars, it's dark and relaxed with soft sofas and cushions to Melt‚ into - so to speak. The cosmopolitan menu in the open-plan dining area combines Tex-Mex with Thai delights and apart from regular cocktails in the lunge bar the Caiparoskas are top notch - there are tasty Belgian beers to get the juices flowing too. The atmosphere heats up later on with sounds from samba to techno and trip-hop and you'll want to get close to some of the lovelies who spin their tails on the dance floor.
  • Academia de Cachaca - 26 Rua Conde de Bernadotte Leblon, A laid-back yet up-market Leblon classic specialising in North East Brazilian food and great cocktails all built from the traditional Brazilian spirit of cachaca. There are at least 500 varieties of the potion to choose from - served up either straight, as traditional Caiparinhas, or as colourful fruity concoctions by barmen who are quite clearly pass masters. Try the passion-fruit Caiparinha with real fruit floating inside - best sipped while snacking on something like a manioc croquette with cream cheese. Our kind of academy!
  • Bar d’Hotel - 696 Avenida Delfim Moreira Marina Hotel, Sexy, star-filled hangout for the beautiful people with a beautiful view of the ocean - not that much use is made of it. And why stare at the ocean when glamorous customers in various stages of designer undress are also on view? Food is fancy, finessed Italian fare, the menu appearing on a chalk board ferried over by a dashing waiter, but the cocktails are the real draw. Potent, inventive creations such as the Sake Caipirinha and a champagne cocktail with a lemon sorbet mixer proving particularly popular
Click here for her list of Vegetarian friendly restaurants in Rio.

Day 5: Foz do Iguaçu (B)
  • We spent half a day checking out the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls

Days 6,7: Salvador (C)
  • Crazy night of Carnaval in its rawest state!
  • Igreja de Sao Francisco - The famous San Francisco church
  • Forte de Sao Marcelo - A fort along the picturesque beach
  • The Historic Lighthouse
  • Capoeira performance by the locals. Capoeira originated in Salvador!

Days 8-12: Manaus (D)
  • Meeting of the Waters - where water from two rivers (Rio Negro and Rio Solimões) don't mix as their constituencies are very different
  • Navigated the pitch darkness in kayaks to spot caimans
  • Explored the flooded forest ecosystem in kayaks while following howler monkeys and looking for sloths
  • Pink dolphin spotting
  • Spear fishing and Piranha fishing
  • Witnessed a gorgeous Amazonian sunset and moonrise at Lake Mira, which is just a section of stagnant water amidst a tributary
  • Hiked within the rainforest and camping in the jungle on hammocks
  • Visited a local family and 'harvested' branches of açaí, and helped make delicious açaí juice freshly crushed and sieved in front of us
  • All of the above was part of an all-inclusive package deal we found through Amazon Riders
  • Teatro Amazonas - the ornate opera house located in Manaus
  • My lunch at an all vegetarian restaurant, Casa da Pomonha, right next to Teatro Amazonas
  • The tangy and spicy tacacá soup at the central plaza that made your tongue go numb for a few minutes

Zaza Bistro Tropical
Rua Joana Angelica 40, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Phone: 21-2247-9101
Saturday and Sunday for lunch only. (Expensive, but worth it. Snazzy)

R. Dias Ferreira 199, Leblon, tel 2274-7843
Site: Celeiro
Comment: Ambitious with over 40 different salads and a strong organic profile, only open for lunch. (lots of good reviews!)

Associação Macrobiotica
Praça Mahatma Ghandi 2 nr 104, Centro, tel 2220-7585
Comment: Macrobiotic, vegan-friendly

R. Senador Dantas 84 Store G, Centro, tel 2240-5388
Comment: Lacto, juice bar, salad bar

R. Santa Luzia 405 nr 207, Centro, tel 2262-6306
Comment: Macrobiotic, closed Sunday

Reino Vegetal
R. Luiz de Camões 98, Centro, tel 2221-7416

Restaurante Tempeh
R. Primeiro de Março 24, Centro, tel 2232-8007
Comment: Vegan, buffet, salad-bar

Restaurante Vegetariano Beterraba
R. da Alfândega 25, Centro, tel 2253-7460
Type of Food: Vegan

Universo Organico
R. Conde de Bernadote 26, Leblon, tel 2274-8983
Comment: Raw, vegan, organic, juice bar, organic natural foods market and raw food restaurant. (reviews look really good!)

Vegan Vegan
R. Voluntários da Pátria 402, Botafogo tel 2286-7088
Comment: Yes, vegan. (reviews look good!)

Empório Saúde
R. Visconde de Pirajá, Ipanema, tel 2522-1494
Comment: Vegetarian

Gávea Integral
R. Marquês de São Vicente 75, Gávea, tel 2512-2283

R. do Carmo 38, Centro, tel 2252-5356
Comment: One of the first vegetarian restaurants in Rio.

Le Cafè Vert
R. Barão de Jaguaripe 182, Ipanema, tel 2522-0669

Sabor Saúde
R. da Quitanda 21, Centro, tel 2252-6041

Verde Vício
R. Buenos Aires 22, Centro, tel 2233-9602

Restaurante Vegetariano Beterraba (Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurant)
Rua da Alfândega, 25 A - Centro, Rio De Janeiro
Type: Vegan-friendly, Brazilian, Not 100% Vegetarian (looks good!)

Bistrô do Paço
Praça Quinze 48, Centro, Rio de Janeiro 021/2262-3613
A good option for a light lunch, the daily buffet of salads (R$14 per person) includes carrot salad with oranges, potatoes, and apples. You also can try an onion, cheese, or spinach quiche.

Vegetariano Social Clube
Rua Conde de Bernadotte 26, Loja L, Leblon, Rio de Janeiro 021/2294-5200
Vegan restaurants are rare in Rio, and this is by far the most sophisticated. The small eatery has carefully prepared dishes free of any animal products that go much beyond brown rice or burdock. Sunday and Wed for traditional Brazilian food. Sunday is lunch only.

Doce Delícia
Ipanema, Rua Anibal de Mendonça, 55C

New Natural
Ipanema, Rua Barão da Torre, 173 (Good acai juice!)

São Paulo

We did not visit São Paulo, but here are some recommendations from Catia and Anjali for what to check out and where to eat in this bustling city:
  • There is a very interesting Japanese neighborhood, called Bairro da Liberdade with a huge Japanese colony (the largest concentration of Japanese people outside Japan)
  • An interesting park (Ibirapuera)
  • Sophisticated places to visit include the Jardins, Iguatemi, Oscar Freire Street, Iguatemi Shopping Mall, Cidade Jardim Shopping Mall, Daslu (uber chic mega store)
  • There are also good art museums and a great nightlife with lots of different and excelent restaurants, clubs and bars
  • As for day trips, people usually go to Guaruja and Ibatuba for the beach but I don't think these places are as great as the ones near Rio.

Vegetarian Friendly Restaurant Recommendations in São Paulo:

Alameda Santos, 2214, São Paulo (at Cerqueira Cesar, Jardins, Metro: Consolação, between Haddock Lobo St and Bela Cintra Vegetarian and organic restaurant. Menu features pilaf, veggiemeats, tofu, yaki soba noodles, banana curry, mushroom risotto, and more. Segunda a sexta das 12 às 15 horas, sábado das 12 às 22 horas, domingo das 12 às 16 horas.

Galeria Nova Augusta, Rua Augusta - 2077 - Loja 03
Cozinha vegetariana. Sao Paulo vegetarian restaurant, more like an eat-run-back-to-work kind of place. Friendly service. Maybe closes around 4pm.

Vegethus Restaurante Vegetariano
Rua Padre Machado, 51, São Paulo (at Rua Domingos de Moraes, próximo ao metro Santa Cruz, Via Mariana, Zona Sul)
Sao Paulo vegetarian restaurant. Mostly vegan with some organic options. Accept credit cards. Open daily for lunch. Segunda a sexta das 11:30 às 15 horas, domingo das 11:30 às 16 horas.

Rua Haddock Lobo, 899, São Paulo
Fulô offers organic food and drinks in a charming setting. Open 11:30am-11:30pm.

Galleria Organica
rua Oscar Freire, 2273, São Paulo (at metro Sumarê)
Galleria Orgânica is an organic vegetarian restaurant using certified organic ingredients and featuring 5 types of organic wine and 1 Brasillian organic beer. Lunch is served Mon-Sat 11am-3pm with choice of either cooked or raw and includes a soup, salad, and dessert for R$16. The pizzeria features all-you-can-eat for R$25, and is open Thur-Sun 7pm-11pm. Fri-Sat nights features after hours pizza-lounge with dj spinning music.

Maha Mantra
Rua Fradique Coutinho, 766, São Paulo (at Vila Madalena)
New ownership since April 2008. Lassi, chutney, pakoda, poori, feijoada vegetariana, organic salads. Cash only. Closed Monday.

Cheiro Verde
Rua Peisoto Gomide, 1078, Jardim Paulista, São Paulo
A la carte menu dining. Open Mon-Fri 11:30-15:00, Sat-Sun 12:00-17:00.

Av. Pompéia, 2544, São Paulo (at Sumarezinho)
Try the Shiitake strogonoff on Sundays. Segunda à sexta das 11:30 às 15:30 horas, sábado e domingo das 11 às 16 horas.

Rua dos Buritis, 54, Loja 31 - Shopping Jabaquara
Brazilian, Juice bar

Anna Prem
Rua Muniz de Souza, 1170 (01534-001) (at front of Aclimação Park)
Lacto, Vegan-friendly, Organic, Indian, International, Juice bar, Delivery
Bistrô e Restaurante Natural. The restaurant occupies two levels of the house while the bistro is at front by the sidewalk. Features four daily options of combinations and 2 options of juice and dessert.

Casa do Natural
Rua Fradique Coutinho, 910, São Paulo (at Vila Madalena)
Also store selling lots of natural products. Almoço diariamente das 12 às 16 horas domingos e feriados cardápios especiais.

Casa Prema
Rua Diogo Moreira, 312, Pinheiros
Veggie buffet. Open Mon-Fri 11.30-15, Sat 11.30-15.30.

Cereal Brasil
Rua Rodésia, 242, Vila Madalena
Ovo, Lacto, Vegan-friendly, Brazilian, International, Buffet

Espaco Improprio
R. Dona Antônia de Queiróz, 40, Bela Vista
Vegan, Fast food, Salad bar, Juice bar, Brazilian
Espaço Impróprio is a vegan restaurant in Sao Paulo. Open Tue-Sun 10-23.

Frazao Vegetariano
Rua Chafic Maluf, 193, Brooklin
Ovo, Lacto, Vegan-friendly, Brazilian, Buffet, Juice bar

Gostoso Restaurante
Rua Frei Gaspar 71, Centro Santos, São Paulo
Simple place that's hidden. Look for the little sign inside the hall up the stairs. Approximately 10 reais for buffet that includes drink and dessert. Non smoking.

Recanto Vegetariano
Rua Florida, 1442, São Paulo (at Brooklim, a uma quadra da Av. Eng. Luís Carlos Berrini na praça Lions Monções)
Large buffet spread featuring salads, breads, fruits, and hot foods. Almoço das 11:30h às 15:00h.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Travel Dates: February-March 2009

We had been wanting to go to Brazil for a long time, especially to witness the craze and see if there was any truth to all the stories we had heard about the infamous Carnaval. I also had lots of images of the rainforest and the mighty Amazon that all put together made the country quite mysterious and fascinating. What we didn't realize is Brazil is huge in terms of geography. Getting from one place to another, especially airfare and that too during Carnaval, was getting very expensive and long. After doing some research, we zeroed in on visiting Rio de Janeiro, Foz do Iguaçu (home to the famous Iguassu Falls), Salvador da Bahia, and Manaus (biggest city in the state of Amazonas and embarkation point to many a rainforest adventures). Salvador didn't live up to its hype for us, though it was a quaint little colonial town that was the entry point for a lot of Africans into the country who were brought in by the Portuguese as slaves.

If we had more time: We would have rather cut our rainforest adventure short to 2-3 days (we spent 4 days 3 nights there) and instead visited the azure oases and white sands within the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. The next time we come back to Brazil, we would also like to check out Chapada Diamantina National Park, Pantanal (the world's largest wetland), Paraty (the colonial town that's nestled between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro), the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, and of course Rio de Janeiro. Rio is one of the most beautiful places we've been to in terms of diversity of nature as well as the people!

Prices: At the time, one Brazillian Reais/Real was worth around $0.40. Other than local foods at the hole-in-the-wall places or stalls along the streets, the food was not necessarily cheap. The fresh fruit juices, especially açaí berry smoothies were absolutely delicious and inexpensive! The bottled açaí stuff you get here doesn't even come close to the amazing goodness of the non-preserved real açaí in Brazil! Be prepared for everything to get exponentially expensive during Carnaval time.

Transportation: As mentioned above, you may not realize how huge Brazil is until you start researching transportation options for getting from one city to another. It took a 6-hour flight to get from Manaus (Amazon area) to Rio de Janeiro - the same amount of time it takes to fly coast-to-coast in the US! The best thing to do to avoid super expensive a la carte flight prices is to buy an airpass. We bought the Brazil Air Pass offered by the Brazillian airlines TAM. The idea is you use 1 coupon per leg of your flight, and you pay a certain amount based on how many "coupons" you need. We were visiting 4 places in Brazil, hence we got the first level pass, which allows 1-4 coupons/stops. It's in your best interest to find non-stop flights between the cities you want to go to so you don't have to spend coupons unnecessarily.

However, note that if there's an included stop-over at a city in your flight, then you don't have to spend your coupon over it. For example, we landed from the US into Manaus, then took a flight from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, which was 1 coupon. However, it stopped at Brasilia en-route for a connecting flight and we didn't have to spend an extra coupon (1 for Manaus-Brasilia, and 1 more for Brasilia-Rio). When you call TAM to buy the air pass, be sure to have decided on which cities you want to visit and are flexible in terms of dates and even the sequence of your visit. We had to change the sequence of our visits to the cities based on the availability of the non-stop flights. It cost us $730 each for the airpass (which was cheaper than what the individual flights would have cost us all summed up!). If you buy the international airfare with TAM as well, you'll get a discount on the Brazil airpass. We only got a partial discount because we had already booked our international flights on Delta, which is a TAM partner.

Within Rio de Janeiro, we either took taxis, trams or the subway/metro to get to places. We took the bus to get to Iguassu Falls and back to our hostel/airport, and we took taxis around in Salvador. In Manaus, we got a package deal for the rainforest adventure which included all transfers, including to/from airport. More about that in just a bit.

Weather/Best time to visit: It was only hot and humid in Manaus (rainforest) when we went. The weather in Rio de Janeiro was actually in the pleasant mid-70's. It was warm (80's) and humid at both Iguassu Falls and Manaus, but not unbearably so. I suppose early winter in North America, which is late spring/early summer in the southern hemisphere, should be a pleasant time to visit Brazil as well.

Also, be sure to not visit Salvador on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after a week long celebration of Carnaval, when the place is almost dead. Everyone's recuperating from the hedonistic festivities and a lot of the popular spots (like churches, etc.) are also closed!

It was rainy season in the Amazon when we went, which proved advantageous to us because the forest floor was flooded and we were able to explore deeper on canoes rather than walking/hiking. It also made for extremely humid conditions with no breeze when you're within the forest - an almost suffocating situation when you're covered with bug spray, sleeping in hammocks stacked next to each other like sardines, with mosquito nets around each hammock. Take a well ventilated rain jacket with you for it can start pouring at any time as well!

Carnaval: The two biggest Carnavals in Brazil are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. They're both quite different, and we went to both (kinda), so here's what you need to know for both.

In Rio, there are several Samba schools that compete with each other to be able to present their school's floats in the infamous carnaval parade in the Sambódromo. Sambódromo is actually a street on which the parades go by, but it's become somewhat akin to a stadium now with bleachers built on both sides for audience to view the parades from. Only around 14 Samba schools are chosen to participate in this 2 day long parade which starts at 9pm and ends at around 9am each day. The winning school that has the best theme and dancing and costumes gets the bragging rights till the next year's competition. Each school gets 1 hour 20 minutes to complete the parade down the street, showing their tricks and everything along the way. During the entire time a school is on, if you're in the bleachers sitting with its supporters, they will not sit down till the parade is finished! Brazilians know how to party, albeit on the bleachers! The judges are in the middle section, and of course the seats in those sections are more expensive than those in other sections. We also took the metro to the Sambódromo and walked with the crowd to where the entrances were.

The seats sell out up to a year in advance, and are MUCH cheaper if you know someone local there who can buy them for you. If you don't, like us, then just have a nice dinner the night you want to go, and arrive at the Sambódromo closer to midnight and bargain your way through buying the tickets from scalpers outside. Since the parade has already begun, the scalpers are willing to go lower on their asking price. Be careful, but also confident. I bargained in Spanish, and once we bought the tickets (which is an eletronic card key that you swipe to get through), one of us tried it out to see if it worked. Once it did, I paid the money in full (came out to $115 per person) and the rest of us went through as well without any hiccups!

Above is a picture of Sambódromo's layout. The bleachers are divided into sectors, and the parade starts from Sector 1 and ends at the arch/Sector 13. Sectors 3, 5, and 7 are great for viewing the entire parade. Sector 9 is the tourist section with bilingual guides, which I don't think is worth it because you won't be able to hear them anyway. There's so much noise and dancing around you all the time! We were in Sector 5, across from the judges, so we got to see a lot of the schools' tricks (albeit the back view). We left at around 6am (competition/party was still going on) and found that the wait for taxis was at least 3 hours. We thought of taking the metro back, but found a lone taxi along the road and came back to the hotel in that (he charged us $30, which is 5x more expensive and he knew if we wouldn't pay, somebody else would).

In Salvador, the Carnaval is a lot more "raw". The parades go through actual streets and there are 3 or 4 different circuits. Makeshift bleachers are built on either side of the street and seats are sold to people. If you want to participate *in* the parade, you have to buy a t-shirt representing the group you want to participate with. The t-shirt costs as much as $100-500. The safest place, we were told, was to be within the group, for if you're a spectator outside, unless you're on the bleachers, you are guaranteed to be groped by everybody. There are no huge costumes or floats here - each group just has a big truck with lots of speakers on it. There's a singer who jumps to the top of the truck and starts singing karaoke style as the truck parades down the streets, and its "groupies" follow along behind.

Amazonian Rainforest Adventure: Having gone all the way out there, we were very keen on spending some quality time in the rainforest. After doing some online research, we chose Amazon Riders as the company to go with. We went with their "Anaconda 2" package deal, which was 4 days 3 nights of an all-inclusive adventure. Check out the link for details on what was covered in the package, but the highlights were staying in a jungle lodge (quite rustic, perhaps a 1 or 2 star), meeting other travelers like us, camping in the rainforest on hammocks, exploring the rainforest and listening to the howler monkeys, caiman spotting at night, pink dolphin spotting (they look like flying/swimming pigs!), "harvesting" açaí berries and making + consuming fresh açaí juice, and playing with a wild sloth! They also took great care to cook vegetarian meals first and separately from the non-vegetarian dishes, which was perfect too!

We had a very good experience with these guys. We had one English speaking guide and another local Brazilian guide who only spoke Portuguese and drank cachaça like it was water! They customize these packages for you, like if you wanted 3 days 2 nights instead, and they're also flexible. We didn't really want to spend another night camping in the rainforest as Nishant got sick, so we came back to the lodge the 3rd night. We paid $250 all inclusive, including a hotel night's stay the 4th night since our flight was on the 5th morning. In retrospect, I think we should have done a 3 day 2 night package and checked out Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in the extra 2.5 days we had!

Cuisine: Brazil is a very big meat eating country. There are churrascarias (Brazilian steak houses) everywhere, providing endless supply of meat selections on gigantic skewers brought to the table. Their national dish seems to be Feijoada, which is a black bean stew with a variety of pig parts. Simple tomato garlic spaghetti is served as a side almost everywhere, along with manioc flour (from the cassava/tapioca root) and a shot of cachaça (sugarcane liquor) to wash it all down. At the hostel we stayed near Iguassu Falls, the hostess made special vegetarian feijoada for my friend and me, which was pretty much like a black bean chili. Brazil has really tasty cheese breads called Pao de Queijo, and even more amazing fresh fruit juices, including soothing coconut water at all beaches! I could have lived off those entirely. It's a sin that the US doesn't have decent fresh fruit juices, and no, Jamba Juice does not even come close! Guarana is another fruit of the Amazons that is supposed to be an energy booster. Needless to say they would find a way to commercialize it in the form of an "energy drink". It tasted alright...quite a bit like the drink 'Inca Cola' from Peru, or Mountain Dew with a slight after-taste.

Salvador had more interesting flavors in its dishes due to the African influence. The dishes used a lot more palm oil and quite a lot of pimento oil (oil with spicy pimento peppers in them). One of my favorite dishes was Acarajé, which is lentils fried in palm oil (a little like larger falafels) cut in half and stuffed with cucumber salad, pimento oil and shrimp. I got the non-shrimp version of course, and was delicious!

If feijoada is their national dish, Caipirinha (pronounced as 'kai-pi-rinya') is their national drink, made out of the ubiquitous cachaça. It is quite refreshing actually :)

Vegetarian Acaraje with tamarind coconut dessert (left) and Feijoada (right)

Stay: We really wanted to stay at some of the quaint Posadas, or bed and breakfast places, but most of them were booked during Carnaval, and if not, they required a minimum of 7 day stay. Hence we ended up staying at chain hotels. We stayed at a very lovely hostel in Foz do Iguaçu called Hostel Natura. And of course in the Amazon rainforest, we stayed two nights in the jungle lodge, one night under the stars in the rainforest, and one night at a hotel.

Language/People: Portuguese is the language that's widely spoken throughout Brazil, but a majority of them also understand Spanish, which was a great help for us! I could read Portuguese and infer the meaning of phrases, however when I heard the language, it was impossible for me to follow! The people were all quite pleasant. We didn't have any bad encounters with anybody from the wrong side of the neighborhood as we were careful about where we went and went only to well lit areas with a lot of people. That being said, we didn't feel the least bit threatened or scared walking along the beaches of Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana at night.

And I don't need to tell you that the people in Rio de Janeiro are just as beautiful as the city itself. We got so tired of seeing people with six-pack abs! And to our surprise, Brazilians really like Indians and all things Indian! They even have a soap opera called "Caminho das Indias" (translates to 'The Indian Way/Street') which has Brazilian stars speaking in Portuguese but the plot is entirely like a Bollywood movie! Watch a clip here :) We befriended a Brazilian girl on our way to Brazil and she said I looked like one of the actors on the show! :)

Visa Requirements: It costs $130 for US citizens to obtain a Brazilian visa! The Brazilian consulate in San Francisco was not shy in disclosing the reason, as it was stuck on posters all over their wall: They were just reciprocating the fees US has posed Brazilian citizens to enter the US! It's only $20 for Indian citizens. We got our visas in a week (we dropped off our passports and picked them up a week later).

The highlight of this trip was definitely Rio de Janeiro! But there's still so much to see...we will definitely be back!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Japan Itinerary

We traveled the middle part of Japan as shown in the zoomed out map below. The adjacent map shows all the places we visited on this trip (listed in detail below).

Day 1:
  • Arrived in Tokyo (A)
  • Checked out Asakusa Temple, Imperial Palace (which doesn't have much to check out), Akihabara neighborhood (electronic/gadget town) and ended the day at the ritzy Roppongi Hills

Day 2:
  • Explored Tokyo Tower and surrounding areas, Ginza, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo. Dined in Shibuya at the hole-in-the-wall mentioned in the previous post
Day 3:
  • Took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto (B) and stayed at the night at the Ryokan mentioned in the previous post
Day 4:
  • Explored the Gion district, known for its Geisha sightings, but unfortunately didn't catch a glimpse of any
  • Also visited the Kiyomizudera Temple, Sanjūsangendō (Hall of the 1001 Buddhas and other statues of Hindu/Buddhist mythology), Nanzenji Temple, and Sagano Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (not as impressive as the guide books made it seem; easily passable)

Day 5:
  • Day trip from Kyoto to Nara (C), a beautiful and serene place
  • Followed the tourist map on a circuit. We went there during their lantern festival where hundreds of lanterns were lit at night and lots of press had congregated to cover the festival
  • Visited the famous Todaiji Temple with the Great Buddha Hall, the Kofukuji Temple and the Kasuga Shrine among others
Day 6:
  • Half day trip from Kyoto to Himeji (D) via the Shinkansen, where you can take a guided tour of the Himeji Castle that looks like a white crane perched atop a cliff
  • Then on we went to Hiroshima (E) - A beautiful city if you didn't know about its somber history. From the Shinkansen JR train station, we took a local tram to the ferry port, and then hopped on the ferry to check out Miyajima, the site of the famous floating red Torii of Itsukushima Shrine
  • We then went to the Atomic Bomb Memorial and the museum before we boarded the Shinkansen back
  • Stopped over in Osaka (F) on the way back to Kyoto (B) for dinner. We also checked out the famous Umeda Sky Building, which resembles the Petronas towers in Kualalampur
Day 7:
  • Back to Tokyo (A) on board the Shinkansen
  • Checked out the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market where most of the fresh fish shipped to America are from
  • Visited the Sony building and went back to Roppongi Hills
  • Watched a Japanese play at a nearby Kabuki theater
Day 8:
  • Day-trip to Mt. Fuji-Hakone National Park (G) via the Shinkansen

Day 9:
  • Day-trip to Nikko (H), which is a gorgeous member of the UNESCO World Heritage List, is home of intricate and ornate mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns. It is surrounded by a cedar tree forest, which gives you a feeling of being in a meditative retreat at some fabled hilltops. We didn't check out the waterfalls there as we figured the snow would not have melted yet to have enough water, but as Nishant and others enjoyed some authentic ramen, my friend and I thoroughly immersed ourselves in the authentic shojin riyori at the amazing Gyoshin-Tei restaurant
Day 10:
  • Day-trip to Kamakura, another gorgeous city by the ocean side! Wish we had more time to explore more of this amazing city!

Monday, June 21, 2010


Travel dates: Feb-March '08

Mt. Fujiyama

We went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Hiroshima, Osaka, Nikko, and Kamakura, all in one week (9-10 days counting both weekends). Our bases were Tokyo and Kyoto, and we took Japan Rail to go to all the other places. Kamakura and Nikko are each an hour away from Tokyo and you need a whole day at both places. Mt. Fuji is on your way from Tokyo to Kyoto. Nara was a day trip from Kyoto, and we finished Himeji and Hiroshima in a day (half a day at each). We had dinner in Osaka and came back to Kyoto, but I wish we had half a day and a night to spend in Osaka as it's supposed to be the party town.

If we had more time: We would have spent at least another day in Kyoto, stayed a night in Kamakura and explored it more the next day, and spent at least a day and night in Osaka. I would also love to check out the Japanese Macaques chilling in the hot springs in Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park as well as the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Prices: Everything was expensive in Japan, even after the currency conversion (it wasn't any cheaper than the Bay Area in California). The multi-course typical Buddhist meals (called shōjin ryōri) were especially pricey, coming out to $50 to $70 for 10 or 15 (small) course meals!

Transportation: We bought the Japan Rail (JR) Pass for 7 days (around $230) which gives unlimited rides on any JR line in Japan for those days. You will need to buy the voucher for this pass in the US before you get to Japan (Locals: you can buy it from the JR office in San Jose, California). Then you'll need to redeem this voucher for the actual pass when you arrive in Japan, at any JR office at any train/metro station. Usually all long distance trains between cities are JR lines (except for the Nozomi train - the fastest bullet train - it's not included in the JR pass). The pass paid for itself with just the round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. All other rides were kind of a bonus for us. For transportation within Tokyo itself, you can always hop on the metro - very convenient. Some are owned by JR and so your pass will work on them. Others aren't so you will have to buy tickets (which aren't that pricey). The maps at the metro were bilingual, so we had no trouble figuring out how to get to places on our own. The subways also had heaters below the seats which warmed up your legs very comfortably during your journey :-) I think this is why all the Japanese girls are able to wear such short skirts even when it's snowing outside!

Best time to visit/weather: We were there for two weeks (one week for work and one week for vacation). We went in the last week of Feb and first week of March. It was quite cold (I wore a sweater + a thick pea-coat along with gloves, scarf and a beanie). It barely snowed or rained, which was good. We missed the cherry blossoms though, unfortunately, which bloomed 2 weeks after we left. Late March to mid-April is probably the best time to catch cherry blossoms, which is also the busiest tourist season for the local people as well, so you're forewarned that there will be crowds at that time! I've also heard that Fall (October/November) is a nice time to visit as well since the fall colors will be on full display.

Cuisine: If you are non-vegetarian or pescetarian, you will have no trouble finding food in Japan. However, if you're a vegetarian like me, you'll have to try a little bit harder, but it's definitely not impossible to get GOOD vegetarian food there. I had looked up restaurants that served shōjin ryōri in Kamakura and Nikko so I had a great time (it came with the complete experience of eating while sitting on the floor on tatami mats, etc.). The restaurant was called Gyoshin-Tei in Nikko. In Kyoto, check out Shigetsu, a restaurant within the Tenryuji Temple (Saga Tenryuji Susukinobanbacho 68) that also serves shojin ryori. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Koyasan and you can experience more shojin ryori in their temples.

In general (both in Tokyo and Kyoto), I had to probably ask about 4-5 restaurants before the 6th one would make something custom-vegetarian for me. Minor inconvenience, if you ask me. And they were all extremely apologetic when they realized they couldn't satisfy a customer. We had dinner at an amazing, tiny hole in the wall (but slightly upscale) restaurant in Shibuya district of Tokyo where they served fresh orange flavored tofu that even my husband loved (he LOATHES tofu). An omelet made the Japanese way with some of their spices, tofu, ginger, wasabi and other condiments, along with a pint of Kirin 14000 on tap made for a delicious, satisfying meal in the market area in Kyoto.

Breakfast at the Ryokan

Soba in soy vinaigrette
Fried Tofu Omelet

Savory Vegetarian Crepe

We also had several yakitori dishes, which are street finger food. I mostly had skewered soy beans and semi-sweet mochis. To this day, my husband dreams of the ramen he had in Japan and drools. When it comes to dessert, I don't think anybody can beat the Japanese. Their cakes seem to be cut with laser beams as their corners and sides are that precise! They are soft and not too sweet and absolutely delectable! The Daimaru store in Tokyo's main metro station has tons of sweet delicacies where I felt like a kid in a candy store...literally :-). I also realized that their version of mochi ice cream is just ice cream, with mochi balls (essentially rice flour balls), and red beans! Quite different from mochi ice cream you find here in the US! We love red bean and we love ice cream, so we enjoyed it thoroughly. I was also introduced to dishes with yuba (tofu skin) and soba with plum sauce while in Japan, which I was amazed at how tasty they made any dish!

If you get a chance, participate in a tea ceremony - it's very serene and calming. Another calming activity is hanging out in the onsen, which is Japanese for a hot tub. Onsens are all over and typically fed by streams that are piping hot, heated naturally from the underground geothermal activity. Some onsens are in an open setting while others are inside buildings. Some are co-ed while others are strictly for male or females. But one thing they do have in common is you're not allowed to wear bathing suits when you get into them. You do have to strip down, shower with soap before getting into the onsen. Hence we went in the wee hours of the morning when nobody else was there in our respective onsens ;-) The water is really really hot, and I certainly couldn't stay in there for longer than 5-10 mins. The experience was definitely awesome though, especially since I got to look out the window into the snow on the trees while I was relaxing in a hot onsen!

Stay: We stayed at some chain hotels, but I did want to stay at a Ryokan and try out the traditional Japanese hospitality. It was a great experience! We slept on futons on the floor, spread on a tatami mat, enjoyed a welcome tea ceremony, and relaxed in the onsen that was on premise. I highly recommend it, though it's not any cheaper than a hotel room for a night. We stayed at Ryokan Yachiyo in Kyoto. Many times the ryokans arrange for traditional kaiseki dinners if you'd like as well. We paid $120 for one night (for 3 people total) including a traditional Japanese breakfast.

Language/People: Though we don't know a lick of Japanese, we were able to get by with no problems. We took the metro, the shinkansen (bullet trains), local trains, ferries and local buses without any problems mostly because the locals are so incredibly nice and helpful. Even if they don't know the answer to their question, they will go out of their way to find out and take you to your destination. We have had this happen to us many times on this trip!

Visa Requirements: US citizens don't need a visa if your stay is less than 90 days. Visa requirements for non-US citizens can be found here.