A European Mountain Resort in Brazil – Gramado, Brazil

Farima’s friend, Douglas, recommended a place called Gramado for us to go visit, so the following day we headed to this quaint little town. Gramado looked like a mountain resort town straight out of Switzerland and it appeared to be Christmas all year round. We checked into our hostel, where besides us there was only one other family staying there. Both the owner and manager were amazing, telling us all the possible activities to do in town. After settling in we walked to the center to admire the Swiss like architecture. We learned quickly that Gramado was an upscale resort destination with fancy shops and pricey restaurants, much like mountain resort towns back home. We were told by the owner of the hostel that while in Gramado we must try fondue (exactly like Switzerland). We found a restaurant that was a bit cheaper than most and we were ready to get our grub on. First, you start off with cheese fondue accompanied by bread, broccoli, potatoes, cubes of jelly (not our favorite), and some sort of fried potato. We didn’t want to get too full on the first part of the meal, but we ended up finishing everything except for the cubes of jelly, it was too good to waste. Next came the meat (both steak and chicken) along with a stone to cook it on and about 10 different sauces. The meat was extremely delicious and even though we didn’t know what the different sauces were we tried those too! The last but definitely not the least part of the meal was the chocolate fondue accompanied by strawberries, bananas, grapes, pineapple, and melon. Telling you we were full would be an understatement. We headed back with full and satisfied bellies for a peaceful night of sleep. IMG_4898

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The next day the sun came out, perfect for a stroll through Ecoparque Sperry, a trail through the surrounding mountainside. We walked along the forest trail past 4 waterfalls, all beautiful in different ways. Besides two other people, we were the only ones on the trail making it incredibly peaceful. After completing the loop, which took us about an hour and a half, we headed to town for lunch and to try to catch the Iran vs. Bosnia game. Unfortunately, every restaurant in Gramado were only playing the Argentina vs. Nigeria game so Farima had to watch through live updates. The sun didn’t last long and it began to rain so we headed back to the hostel for cover.

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We were headed to Florianopolis on a night bus the following night, so we decided to do our first ever hop on hop off bus to see as much as we could in the little amount of time we had in Gramado. We hadn’t realized there was so much natural beauty and hiking in Gramado or we would have stayed longer. The hop on hop off bus had some very interesting stops on them including a Hollywood dream cars stop, a railroad museum, a miniature world, a perfume museum, a house built without nails, and a Hollywood actors museum (kind of like a wax museum). At almost every stop, there was some sort of cartoon like character depicting the stop we were at. I felt like I was constantly on a Hollywood movie set. The first stop we got off was at a chocolate factory, but it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. You went through various rooms each telling what I believe was the history of chocolate (it was all in Portuguese). I felt as though I was on a ride at Disneyland, like snow-white or one of those storybook rides where in each different room there are different characters. At the end, there was a café and gift shop, I ordered hot chocolate just to get something with chocolate since I was at a chocolate factory. We bypassed a bunch of stops so that we would have time to see the famous cascata (waterfall) before the 1 pm USA vs. Germany game. When we arrived at the Cascata do Caracol we couldn’t believe how stunning it was. The water goes over a 131m-high cliff into the middle of dense forest. You can hike 744 steps down to the foot of the falls (and back up), but we only made it down 600 when we had to turn around because we ran out of time. Our next bus was on its way and we couldn’t miss the USA game. We rode the bus back to the center of town where they had a big screen playing all the world cup games. We watched the first half of the game at a restaurant (Madre Café) nearby and ordered a typical Brazilian dish consisting of steak with an egg on top, rice, black beans, fries, and a salad. Then for the second half we went over to watch it on the big screen. I really thought we might have a chance at beating Germany, but it didn’t turn out in our favor. Even though we didn’t win, we still celebrated our advance to the next round! We’re coming for you Belgium!

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After the game, we hopped back on the bus for our last stop, Lago Negro (Black Lake). It was a beautiful lake in the middle of a neighborhood. We took a walk around the lake and contemplated riding a swan boat, but decided against it. We hopped back on the bus one last time as we made our way back to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to the bus station. Boarding yet another overnight bus (we’ve taken so many I’ve lost count!) to Florianopolis.

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Futbol all day everyday – Porto Alegre, Brazil

This is just the start of a life revolving around watching futbol! We arrived in Porto Alegre on Saturday and found our way to the Airbnb we booked. Thankfully with the world cup in full swing we were still able to find a place to stay that wasn’t too outrageously priced. Our host for the next two days was named Felipe. He was awesome and very accommodating. Farima wanted to catch the Iran vs. Argentina game so we headed to an area called Lima e Silva, a street lined with a bunch of bars. After the game we made our way to Rua Padre Chagas, home to upscale bars, restaurants, and shops. Along the way we came a across a beautiful park lined with multiple stands selling all kinds of various stuff. Of course we had to stop and have a look! While in Padre Chagas we stopped in a sports bar called the Malt Store for a beer and to watch yet another game (Germany vs. Ghana). We headed back “home” to get ready for a night out. We convinced Felipe to come out with us and show us all the local spots in Porto Alegre. First, the three of us went out to dinner in Padre Chagas at a Thai food restaurant, a nice change from what we’d typically been eating. Then we walked down the street to a bar named Thomas, but the line was really long and Felipe told us he could take us somewhere better. We headed to Lima e Silva where at night the area turns into a big street party. All the locals come here to hang out and drink on the street. There are various vendors selling beer, as well as a local Brazilian hot wine drink, Quentao. I love to try local food and drinks, so I ordered a Quentao and it was perfect for the cold night. It tasted like a mixture of hot apple cider and wine. After hanging out for a bit on the street, we went into a bar and all got a Caipirinha, another local drink made up of cachaça (sugar-cane liquor) mixed with fresh lime, sugar, and ice. An interesting thing about Brazilian bars and restaurants is that you are given an individual card upon entry where everything you order is documented, then you must pay and show your validated ticket at the door when you leave.

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The following day was game day! First we met Farima’s friend, Douglas, who she originally met when we were in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. We walked around the waterfront with him for a bit and browsed the various food stands. Then Farima and I headed to Fan Fest to watch the USA vs. Portugal game. At first we couldn’t find any other American fans, but after a little searching we spotted a few in the distance. We all started to go crazy in the final seconds of the game as we anticipated the USA win over Portugal. But then came a moment of disappointment as Portugal scored in the last few seconds. Still proud of our team for playing a good game, we all headed to Lima e Silva to celebrate.

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The main reason we came to Porto Alegre was to watch the world cup games at a Fan Fest. Fan Fests were set up in all the major cities where games were being held as a way for fans who didn’t have tickets to watch the games. Therefore on our last day in Porto Alegre we headed to Fan Fest one more time to watch the Brazil vs. Cameroon game. We thought Fan Fest would be filled with Brazilian fans, but we found more Argentines than Brazilians, which we later found out was because of the Argentina game on Wednesday in the Porto Alegre stadium. It was an awesome first stop in Brazil, really immersing ourselves in all the excitement the world cup had to offer.

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Deserted beach towns – Montevideo and Punta del Este, Uruguay

Carol, Farima, and I arrived in Montevideo greeted by pretty crappy weather. It was cold and gloomy, not exactly what I was expecting from the Uruguayan coast. After checking into our hotel, yes for once not a hostel (thank you Farima for using your rewards points), we grabbed lunch and watched the Iran vs. Nigeria game. We took a quick power nap before we headed to a bar to watch the USA vs. Ghana game. I realize I’ve been writing a lot about all the games we’ve been watching, but that’s pretty much a lot of what we’ve been doing lately since futbol is such a dominant part of South American culture. The bar we went to was pretty empty, but I enjoyed a delicious chivito (a local snack similar to a steak sandwich) and USA took home the win! Carol and I then tried to go to Baar Fun, a local bar where you can watch top tango dancers, but it just so happened to be closed on Mondays. After our failed attempt to experience Montevideo’s nightlife, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed catch up sleep!

With all of us a bit more energized, we set out to explore the city of Montevideo. First we walked down the pedestrian only street, Perez Castellano, to reach our main destination Mercado del Puerto. Mercado del Puerto is a market with several restaurants (or more like stands) selling various cuts of meat. We decided on a restaurant and all shared a cut of baby beef. It was the best meat I’ve tasted thus far and the atmosphere wasn’t bad either. Farima and I then took a tour of Teatro Solis, the most prestigious theatre in the country. Unfortunately, there were no shows playing at the time or it would have been fun to experience. The three of us then decided to walk to the waterfront to see what Montevideo is really known for. Sadly because it is currently winter in Uruguay, there wasn’t really a beach, the water level was too high, and it wasn’t as beautiful as I had imagined. Back at the hostel, Carol wanted to try out drinking Mate since she had purchased all the necessary equipment that day. Mate is a grassy tea and the national drink in Uruguay. You rarely see someone who is not carrying the thermos, pots, and metal straws. Her first attempt didn’t go so well, but fortunately for her an older local Uruguayan man staying at the hostel told her he would teach her how to prepare and drink mate. Mate is a social drink and it is very common to pass it around in a circle. There were about 5 of us in the kitchen watching the older man prepare the mate and then as is customary we passed the pot around for everyone to drink. I wasn’t particularly fond of the taste, it must be a taste you acquire.

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The following morning we headed to Punta del Este, home to some of the best beaches in Uruguay. Little did we know that Punta del Este is not somewhere people typically go in the winter. It was a ghost town, except for the few people staying at the same hostel as us. We had a feeling it would be pretty quiet, but we didn’t except for it to be completely deserted. Almost all the restaurants were closed and it was way too cold to hang out at the beach. While checking in at the hostel, we randomly ran into our friend, Fabio, and decided to go explore with him. The last time we saw Fabio was in the amazon in Bolivia so it was awesome running into him again. We headed to the Hand in the Sand sculpture, which is seen to locals as both a warning sign and a symbol of hope. “The Hand” symbolizes a drowning person as a warning to swimmers or of hope that a life can be saved. After taking a few photos, we headed to the lighthouse which was a fairly long walk away and sadly anticlimactic. Night life in Punta del Este in the summer is supposed to be quite an experience, but in the winter it is non-existent. It is crazy how drastic the change in population and atmosphere can be from one season to the next.

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The next day Carol, Farima, and I tried to take a boat to Isla de Gorriti, but of course just our luck the waves were too big and no boats were going over to the island. Instead, we made our way to Casapueblo after first confirming it was open. Casapueblo was once the home of artist Carlos Paez Vilaro, but is currently home to an art gallery, hotel, and restaurant. It’s a beautiful white building of odd shapes and angles with amazing views overlooking the ocean. After enjoying the view, we headed back to town to catch the Uruguay vs. England game, which Uruguay won. On our walk back to the hostel, cars were honking and waving their flags out the window in honor of the Uruguay win! Back at the hostel we had another relaxing night as we watched 21 jump street (in black and white, the hostel TV was broken) and went to bed.

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Farima and I parted ways with Carol, she was headed back to Argentina and we were headed to Brazil. We had planned on seeing more of the Uruguayan coast but after doing some research we realized all the beach towns would be deserted, so we decided to head to Brazil earlier than planned. As Farima and I went to book our overnight bus to Porto Alegre we were informed the bus was completely full. It’s always an adventure when traveling and most of the time things don’t go as planned, therefore we had to figure out an alternative way to get there. We booked a bus to Chuy, a town boarding both Uruguay and Brazil and home to duty free shops. Chuy is literally divided in two, on one side on the street people speak Spanish and accept the peso uruguayo while on the other side of the street people speak Portuguese and accept the Brazilian real (and it’s called Chui on the Brazilian side). From Chuy we booked an overnight bus to Porto Alegre, but unfortunately we still had 8 hours to kill before our bus left and there was literally nothing to do but shop. Chuy kind of reminded us of the downtown LA shopping district. Between shopping and watching futbol games it was finally time to leave this town, but at least we were leaving with some American pride apparel to wear in Brazil for the USA games!

Meat and lost sleep – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Arriving in Buenos Aires around 4 pm, we checked into our hostel the Art Factory in San Telmo and immediately headed to Florida Street to exchange money. The American dollar in Argentina is worth significantly more on the black market than the actual exchange rate a bank would offer. We received 11.4 Argentine pesos for every American dollar versus the bank rate of 8.13 Argentine pesos for every American dollar. Exchanging money felt a little like a drug deal (not that I would know what that is) or like shopping for knockoff purses in New York City. There are dozens of people on Florida Street, a famous shopping district, dressed like everyday shoppers yelling cambio as you walk by. We picked someone who we thought looked legit, who then took us to his office above one of the shops, where we exchanged our money. We made sure to check every bill for authenticity, the watermark being the key. On our way back to the hostel, we stopped at Café Tortoni, Buenos Aires’ most famous café, for a quick coffee. We made plans to meet Carol (my old roommate) for dinner, a reunion in Argentina!

We headed to Carol’s Airbnb in Palermo with two of our friends Cherie and Baron, who we met in San Pedro and then ran into at the Art Factory Hostel, for some wine before dinner. After talking and catching up for a couple of hours we headed to one of the well-known steak houses in Palermo, La Cabrera. Of course we all ordered steak. The pieces that were cooked medium (what we ordered) were delicious, but the ones that were overcooked were a little disappointing. It was nice to have a fancy dinner, but it was definitely way more expensive than expected, especially for meat that had been overcooked. Even still the company was awesome and I was so happy to be with my old roommate again.

Farima and I explored the area of San Telmo the following day wandering around Chile Street and popping into various antique shops and markets. If only I wasn’t backpacking I would have liked to purchase a record player and a bunch of records for my future home. Later that afternoon it started to rain so we quickly hurried back to our hostel for shelter. Once again rain was ruining our chance to explore and see the city, but luckily the hostel was offering a free tango lesson that night so at least we could do something cultural. Tango is more difficult than it looks and the steps are all controlled by the movements of the man’s shoulders. I tried to look down at my feet to follow the steps, but I was always corrected to keep my eyes up and feel the movements. It was an hour lesson in total and I really enjoyed learning at least the basics of tango, maybe I’ll take more dancing lessons one day! Since we had spent so much money on dinner the previous evening, Farima and I decided to go to the market and cook dinner at the hostel that night. While at the market, we met a local (he lived right across the street) who out of pure kindness wanted to buy us a gift. He bought us grapes and told us to stop by and say hello whenever we were around the area. Our two nights at the Art Factory were pretty low-key in preparation for a weekend in Buenos Aires.

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It was the start of the weekend and Farima and I checked out of Art Factory to move to Milhouse, a more popular party hostel. After we were all checked in, we met my cousin, Andrew, his friends, and Carol at El Alamo, a local bar to watch the opening game of the World Cup. It was really fun to be in an atmosphere where futbol (soccer) is so popular. After the game, we all headed back to our hostel bar and hung out for a few hours. We met some other guys; Mikey, Matty, and Adam, who were also staying at our hostel and we all headed to another bar a few blocks away (same hostel chain just different location). Everyone was headed to a club later that night, but Carol, Farima, and I decided to call it a night and we headed home around 3 am, which is fairly early for Buenos Aires’ nightlife.

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We woke up around noon the following morning and signed up for the bike tour of southern Buenos Aires at 2 pm. Our first stop was Plaza de Mayo, where paintings of white handkerchiefs circle the plaza representing mothers whose children were taken away from them during the Military Dictatorship and given to families with similar beliefs as the dictatorship. These women wore white handkerchiefs and marched around the plaza every week for over thirty years demanding information about their children’s whereabouts. Finally, a blood bank was formed and any child born between 1976-1983 could donate their blood and be potentially matched with their biological parents. Next, we headed to Puerto Madero, home to the wealthy and more commonly known as the center of money laundering. A few minutes from Puerto Madero along the river’s edge where once used to lie a beach and is now an ecological reserve, we stopped for a quick snack. Farima and I had a steak sandwich, while most people tried the national favorite, choripan (sausage in a roll). La Boca was next on the tour and is one of the poorer neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. The area is full of brightly colored buildings and became this way because of the paint that was available to them. Each day ships that came to dock near La Boca would have leftover paint that was given to the locals and whichever color they happen to have that day would be the color of one section of a building. La Boca is also home to one of Argentina’s leading football clubs, Boca Juniors who rival the River Plate team located on the other side of town. A fun fact we learned on our bike tour was about the origins of Tango. It originally began between two mob men at gambling bars and was used to show one’s dominance over the other. Later these men used tango as a sort of foreplay with prostitutes (but is now danced by everyone in Buenos Aires), which is why today you typically see the man dressed as a mobster and the woman dressed rather sexy. The tour ended around 6:30 pm, where we met up with a few friends from the hostel and decided to head to Palermo, which is supposed to have the best clubs in town. First, we tried a club that reached capacity just as we reached the front of the line. The second club we tried had a strict dress code for boys and not everyone in our group could pass (those Californians wearing shorts). It was not looking like our night to get into a club and since our group was pretty big anyway we found a bar for all of us to hang out at.

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The next day was a relaxation day…well at least until it was time to go out again. We slept in late and watched the England vs. Italy match at our hostel. Our hostel had a big screen TV in the common area playing all the matches of the world cup. This one was especially entertaining since almost half the people staying at our hostel were English. I was secretly rooting for Italy, but couldn’t be too enthusiastic as I was outnumbered by English fans. One guy, Adam, was so confident he bet his friend that if England lost he would do 10 shots in 10 minutes. Unfortunately for him, Italy ended up winning, the mood of the room drastically changed, and Adam had to take 10 shots. Later that night the hostel had organized buses to go to one of the famous clubs in town. Carol, Farima, and I along with our roommates at the hostel, Connor, Brent, and Liam, and a few others including, Adam, Mikey, and Matty all headed to the club together. The club was huge with 3 different dance floors all playing various types of music. After dancing the night away, we headed home around 5 am and were some of the first to leave. I’ve come to realize my body can no longer handle partying so many days in a row, nor do I particularly want to.

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It was Sunday, a day of rest and open-air markets! Farima and I headed to the Feria de San Pedro Telmo, a Sunday market easily taking up at least 20 city blocks selling everything and anything you could imagine. Farima and I both ended up buying some boots since our current shoes had come to the end of their existence. After walking the entire market we headed to El Alamo to meet up with Carol and watch the Argentina vs. Bosnia game. Matty, Mikey, and Adam from our hostel also met up with us to watch the game. It was a lot of fun to be watching the Argentina futbol game in Argentina with such passionate fans. Argentina won and everyone in the bar celebrated! For once we called it an early night since Carol, Farima, and I were headed to Montevideo early the next morning.

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