The Inca Rally: A Road Race Through South America

The Inca Rally begins in AugustLooking to add a little excitement to your summer? Then look no further than the Inca Rally, a new road race that is set to get underway in August and promises to offer plenty of adventure to those crazy enough to enter.

The three-week long event begins in Lima, Peru where racers will first barter for a car that is utterly ill suited for the roads they’ll be driving on. Once they’ve acquired their sacrificial vehicle, they’ll hit the road on August 1, driving across Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana. What route they take along the way is completely up to the drivers, they simply have to reach the finish line in time for the blowout party at the end of the three weeks.

This is pure adventure at its finest. There will be no support crews, few directives and plenty of freedom on the open road. Teams can choose to make their way through the Andes, visit the Amazon Rainforest, follow the scenic coasts or get completely off the beaten path. They can visit large, bustling cities or remote villages; they just have to get to the finish line in Georgetown, Guyana.

While the Inca Rally is meant to be a spirited adventure it will also help shine the spotlight on local charities and help raise funds for those organizations. You can find out more about the event and those charities on the Rally’s official website, where you can sign up for the race as well.

We definitely need a Team Gadling in this event!


Cheesey Street Foods Of Latin America

With the possible exception of Argentina, most people don’t associate Central or South America with cheese. Like all of Latin America, these countries are a mix of indigenous cultures, colonizing forces, immigrant influences, and varied terroir, climatic extremes, and levels of industrialization. They possess some of the most biologically and geographically diverse habitats on earth. As a result, the cuisine and agricultural practices of each country have developed accordingly.

The use of dairy may not be particularly diverse in this part of the world, especially when it comes to styles of cheese, but it’s an important source of nutrition and income in rural areas, and a part of nearly every meal.

While writing a book on cheese during the course of this past year, I tapped into my rather obsessive love of both street food and South America for inspiration. As I learned during my research, the sheer variety of cheesey street snacks from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego are as varied as the ethnic influences responsible for their creation. Read on for a tasty tribute to queso.

Arepas: These flat little corn or flour cakes from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama may be grilled, baked, boiled, or fried. They’re usually stuffed or topped with a melting cheese, but may also feature meat, chicken, seafood, egg, or vegetables.

Anafres: Essentially Honduran nachos, composed of giant tortilla chips, refried beans and melted cheese. Named for an anafre, the coal-fired clay pot the dish is served in.

Pupusas: This Salvadorean staple is similar to an arepa: a thick, griddled corn cake stuffed with meat, cheese–usually a mild melting variety known as quesillo–chicarrones (pork cracklings), or queso con loroco (cheese with the buds or flowers of a vine native to Central America).street food vendorChoclo con queso: Boiled corn with slices or a chunk of mild, milky, fresh white cheese may not sound like much, but this roadside and market staple of Peru and Ecuador is irresistible. The secret is the corn, which is an indigenous Andean variety with large, white, nutty, starchy kernels. It’s satisfying as a snack all by itself, but it’s even better between bites of slightly salty queso.

Empanadas (empadinhas in Brazil): Perhaps the most ubiquitous Latin American street food, riffs on these baked or fried, stuffed pastries can be found from Argentina (where they’re practically a religion) and Chile to Costa Rica and El Salvador. The dough, which is usually lard-based, may be made from wheat, corn or plantain, with fillings ranging from melted, mild white cheese to meat, seafood, corn, or vegetables. In Ecuador, empanadas de viento (“wind”) are everywhere; they’re fried until airy,filled with sweetened queso fresco and dusted with powdered sugar.

Quesadillas: Nearly everyone loves these crisp little tortilla and cheese “sandwiches.” Traditionally cooked on a comal (a flat, cast-iron pan used as a griddle), they’re a popular street food and equally beloved Stateside.

Provoleta: This Argentinean and Uruguayan favorite is made from a domestic provolone cheese. It’s often seasoned with oregano or crushed chile, and grilled or placed on hot stones until caramelized and crispy on the exterior, and melted on the inside. It’s often served at asados (barbecues) as an appetizer, and accompanied by chimmichuri (an oil, herb, and spice sauce).
provoleta
Queijo coaljo: A firm, white, salty, squeaky cheese from Brazil; it’s most commonly sold on the beach on a stick, after being cooked over coals or in handheld charcoal ovens; also known as queijo assado.

Croquettes de Queijo: Cheese croquettes, a favorite appetizer or street food in Brazil.

Coxinhas: A type of Brazilian salgado (snack), these are popular late-night fare. Typically, coxinhas are shredded chicken coated in wheat or manioc flour that have been shaped into a drumstick, and fried. A variation is stuffed with catupiry, a gooey white melting cheese reminiscent of Laughing Cow. Like crack. Crack.

Queijadinhas: These irresistable little cheese custards are a popular snack in Brazil. Like Pringles, stopping at just one is nearly impossible.

Pão de queijo: Made with tapioca or wheat flour, these light, cheesy rolls are among the most popular breads in Brazil.

[Photo credit: Empanada, Flickr user ci_polla; food vendor, Provoleta, Laurel Miller]

Tips For Backpacking South America

south america Backpacking South America is a worthwhile adventure I recommend everyone to have at least once in their lives. Before I arrived on the continent, I was unsure of what to expect. To help prepare you before you go, here are some things I wish I had known before I left for my trip.

Know the Exchange Rate

The exchange rates vary considerably from country to country in South America. For example, while travelers can spend a lot of time in Bolivia and Peru, stretching their dollar very far, popular tourist cities in Brazil, Chile and the Galapagos Islands can be expensive. If you’re on a budget, look up which cities are the most affordable beforehand. For example, I noticed in Argentina that the farther south I went – basically the farther into Patagonia – the
more expensive things cost. For example, my usual chicken sub went from being 10 to 15 Argentine Pesos ($2 to $3) in Buenos Aires to 45 to 60 Argentine Pesos ($10 to $14) in Bariloche.

Moreover, don’t always think “roughing it” will save you money. Making use of the shelters on the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine and camping your way through the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu are quite expensive. In fact, one night in a “refugio” in Torres del Paine will cost about $40 to $60 – and that only includes the mattress. Camping in the park is free if you bring your own gear; however, this can be tricky as the hike is difficult at times and you will have to carry your own
equipment. Moreover, to trek with a good company for the Inca Trail will cost about $500 to $650 for the trek.Likewise, bring a mix of US cash, debit cards, credit cards and foreign currency with you. It is not uncommon in smaller towns for ATMs to run out of cash, so it’s good to be prepared. Additionally, make sure to tell your bank and credit card company you’re leaving the country beforehand. If you don’t, you may find yourself with a frozen account.

Check the Weather for the Places You Want to Go Beforehand

While most people will check the weather for the first city of their trip, it is a good idea to check for each area when traveling in South America. For example, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, you may be able to walk around in shorts and tank top, while heading to Bariloche in the same country may require a hat and coat. Furthermore, don’t think that because it is a certain season in the country the weather will match that season in your home country. Autumn in Patagonia or Brazil is a lot different than autumn in New York.

photography Get Familiar with Photography

Traveling to South America, you will have many opportunities for extraordinary landscape and nature shots. Even if you don’t have a DSLR camera, I would recommend taking a photography course, or at least getting familiar with your camera’s features and how to properly use them. You may also want to practice at a park in your hometown at different times of day and night, to figure out what the best settings are.

Bring Your Sweet Tooth

In many places in South America, you will be surrounded at all times of day by delicious cakes, cookies, pastrys and candies. I especially noticed this in Brazil, where it is not uncommon to eat sweets for breakfast. In fact, at all of the Brazilian hostels I stayed in, treats like chocolate cake with sprinkles and chocolate sandwich cookies were served in the morning.

Try the Local Specialties

While there are many preconceived notions that exist on what “South American food” is like, each country, and even the different cities within a country, has their own local specialties. For example, Argentine empanadas are delicious; however, their ingredients differ from city to city. Additionally, in Brazil eating açai is more than just a treat, it’s a cultural experience. Ceviche in Peru, cuy in Ecuador, seafood stews in Chile, giant steaks and matte tea in Argentina, barbeque in Brazil – these are just some of the delicious options waiting for you on your backpacking adventure.

cocktail Prepare Your Liver

Not only do the countries of South America feature unique and appetizing foods, many are also known for their national drinks. In Brazil, you must try the caipirinha, a strong cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime. Moreover, Argentina is world-renowned for its Malbec wine, while the Pisco Sour, created using pisco and lemon juice, is typical of Peru and Chile. In Colombia, make sure to try aguardiente, or firewater, which is made from sugar cane molasses converted into alcohol. The proof is usually 60%, and many times sugar is added to make the drink sweeter.

Take the Bus

Bus transportation in South America is very good. While the popular bus routes usually take hours, the drives are very comfortable and scenic. Beautiful desert, mountain and lake landscapes that would be missed by taking an airplane can be photographed from your bus window. Another great thing about bus travel is you can usually travel overnight, saving you money on accommodation and allowing you to not waste an entire day traveling. Moreover, food, beverages and sometimes even champagne and wine are usually included in your ticket price. One tip: spring for a cama bus. This will allow you to recline your seat far back. Doing this, along with pulling down the leg rest in front of you, will allow you to almost feel like you’re sleeping in a bed.

Keep a Loose Itinerary

With such convenient bus transportation, keeping a loose itinerary is easy. You can arrive in a city, peruse the different bus routes and then figure out where you want to go. I’d also advise talking to other travelers in your hostel to get recommendations. For example, when I arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, I immediately went and booked a bus ticket to El Calafate, simply based on the fact that I had read this is what you were “supposed to do in Patagonia.” After talking to other backpackers in my hostel, however, I realized I was skipping over El Chalten, a hotspot for my favorite activity, hiking. If I had waited to book my ticket, I could have stopped there first and then moved on to El Calafate.

hiking Plan Your Big Hikes in Advance

That being said, you should plan out any big hikes in advance. For example, if you want to trek the Inca Trail in Peru, you’re going to need to book it months in advance if you want to ensure you have a spot. Moreover, doing the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine, or even a shorter version of it, requires some beforehand planning. Will you camp, stay in a refugio, or book a nearby hotel? Are the refugios open when you’re going? If it’s high season, they may even be booked up. Where will you store your pack? Will you trek with it? I’d also recommend checking the weather, as this windy park can be difficult to trek in stormy weather.

No Matter What the Weather Is, Pack Layers

Like I mentioned above, the weather in South America is very different from city to city, even if you’re still in the same country. Additionally, while certain places may be hot during the day, such as desert areas, they can be freezing at night. It is also worth mentioning that the buses tend to be very hot or cold, depending on what the weather is outside. For instance, when taking an overnight bus from São Paulo to Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, I wore a tracksuit, figuring I would be warm enough if there was air conditioning. I ended up shivering all night long from the Artic temperatures of the bus. What was really funny was when looking around, I noticed everyone – including the bus drivers – had gloves and scarves on and were wrapping their coats around their heads. Despite this, the air conditioner was never touched.

Interact With Locals

While I believe this is a good idea no matter where you travel to, I especially recommend it for South America. In most places, it is really easy to meet locals, as they are very friendly. For example, when flying from Miami, Florida, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I sat next to a Brazilian girl on the plane. By the time we landed, I had made a new friend, was being brought to her house to meet her mom and was given a grand tour of the city. Likewise, at a bar in Buenos Aires, a local overheard me speaking English and was excited to practice his own as well as tell me all about the city’s history and must-see sites. I also noticed many people in South America tend to backpack around their own countries, so you’ll be able to meet a lot of natives in your hostel. Even though South America is often thought of as one culture, each country, and even each city, is very interesting and unique. For example, not all of Brazil eats the same exact foods or dances the same way. It depends what city you’re in.

ushuaiaBring a Sense of Adventure

No matter what thrills you, you’ll find it in South America. Surfing Rio de Janeiro’s beautiful beaches, hiking glaciers or ancient ruins, hang gliding over picturesque Patagonia, trekking the Andes or Amazon and scuba diving the clear waters of Paraty – these are just a few of your options. If you think about it, simply backpacking South America is an adventure in itself, as you never know whom you’ll meet, what cultural discoveries you’ll make or where you’ll end up the next day. When I was in Paraty, Brazil, there was one night I felt particularly tired and lazy. Despite that, I went to the beach bar across the street from my hostel for a caipirinha, just to feel social. I ended up hanging out with locals all night, learning how to forró dance and going to the town’s signature nightclub, Paraty 33. It ended up being one of my most memorable nights of the trip.

Know Where You Need to Take Extra Precautions

I don’t care if you’re in your hometown, you should always be alert. Bad things happen everywhere, not just when you’re traveling. That being said, there are certain cities – and areas within cities – that you need to be extra vigilant in. When arriving at a hostel, I always make sure to ask the staff to circle the areas on my map that are more dangerous. For example, when in Buenos Aires, the hostel staff told my friends and I to be very careful when walking around in the southeast part of the city near La Boca. Not listening, a friend of mine not only went and walked around the area alone, but also made it obvious he was carrying a camera and stored it in his backpack – where it was completely out of his sight. It wasn’t surprising to me that by the time he returned to the hostel, his camera had been stolen. Moreover, on a bus ride in Bolivia, where you should always be on high alert, one traveler fell asleep with her DSLR camera sitting in her lap. Luckily her boyfriend was awake, because one local actually reached over to snatch it off her lap. He was able to stop the theft from occurring, but the situation could have been avoided if the girl would have been more cautious. Keep in mind, these are examples of petty theft. You also want to keep yourself safe from physical danger.

[photos via H.L.I.T., alexkerhead, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey]

Holistic Healing Practices From Around The World

licorice rootNowadays, it seems like there’s a pill or shot to cure every illness. But do we really know how safe these unnatural remedies are? Throughout my travels and by talking with locals from other cultures, I’ve learned there are many natural treatments that are also effective in promoting good health. For those who’ve ever wondered about the holistic secrets of other cultures, here are some answers.

Turkey

In Turkey, the trick to staying healthy is mesir paste. The concoction was invented in Manisa during the Ottoman Empire, when the wife of Sultan Yavuz Sultan Selim and mother of Suleyman the Magnificent became very ill. No doctor was able to find a cure, until one created a unique spice blend that seemed to bring the woman back to life. The mixture is a blend of 41 different spices that form a thick paste, and is used as a general cure-all and tonic. Some of the paste’s ingredients include black pepper, cinnamon, licorice root (shown above), coconut and orange peel. The country is so proud of their natural remedy, they celebrate a Mesir Festival in Manisa each year.lemonUkraine

One effective yet simple remedy that can be learned from Ukraine locals is eating a lemon slice – peel and all. Apparently, the zesty flavor of the peel and citrus of the fruit can help aid digestion, reduce bloat and help breathing maladies.

Singapore

According to Cecilia Soh, a Traditional Chinese Medicine Specialist at Singapore’s Eu Yang Sang, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sees “food as medicine and medicine as food.” Since 74 percent of Singapore‘s population is Chinese, TCM is widely used. For example, many Asians will boil chrysanthemum flower tea to clear “excessive yang” from the body. This includes symptoms like sore throat, indigestion, constipation and excessive eye mucus. Peppermint is another herb used as tea that alleviates these symptoms as well as headaches and upper respiratory infections.

perilla leaf Another common remedy is Perilla leaf (shown right), which helps alleviate seafood-poisoning symptoms. It is often cooked with seafood in order to stop the problem from happening in the first place. For cough, healthy digestion and smooth peristaltic movements, Apricot seeds are used.

The most sought after of all holistic medicines, however, is ground up pearl. During ancient times, royal families and wealthy merchants were the only ones who could afford this ancient health and beauty secret. The power can either be ingested or applied to the face for clear skin and anti-inflammation, although a doctor should be consulted before consuming.

honey Australia

The indigenous ingredient used by many Aussie’s to promote health and beauty is not only natural, it’s delicious. Ligurian honey, found in South Australia‘s Kangaroo Island, is very rare and powerful. In fact, it is where you can find the only strand of pure Ligurian bees left in the world. When I visited Kangaroo Island, I actually visited the Ligurian honey farm where they sold an array of honey foods, products and treatments. For beauty, the honey contains Vitamin E to help lighten blemishes and promote clear skin. Moreover, in terms of health, pure honey – like the Ligurian variety – is naturally anti-bacterial, and can be used to treat everything from minor wounds and inflammations to ulcers and arthritis.

There are also many natural remedies discovered by the Aboriginals in Australia. Tea tree oil, which is still common today in many parts of the world, is created by crushing up tea tree leaves and either applying the paste to wounds, or drinking as tea for internal ailments. The concoction works wonders and is thought to be more effective than over-the-counter prescriptions. Moreover, washing cuts and wounds with Emu bush leaves has been found to be just as effective as antibiotics, and more natural.

lizard Aruba

In Aruba, there are two very natural remedies used to cure asthma. The first makes use of the aloe plant. Cut a piece, remove the skin, and slurp up the gel. While it may not smell or taste wonderful, it will help your respiratory system and promote good digestion. The other treatment involves boiling gecko lizards, and drinking the hot broth. According to the locals I’ve spoken to, this holistic trick cures asthma permanently.

Bolivia

Because a common problem experienced in Bolivia is altitude sickness, locals use their cash crop of coca leaves to help cure the ailment. You can either chew the leaves, or boil them for tea. Coca leaves are high in calcium and other nutrients, and can also be used to treat illnesses like malaria, asthma, headaches, wounds and even a low sex drive.

barkBelize

According to Joshua Berman, author of Moon Belize, the people of Belize still use many traditional herbs and plants to treat various illnesses, especially the Maya. Travelers can find “medicinal herb trails” throughout the country, and Maya healers are found in the Maya Centre and in some southern villages in the Toledo District.

Herbal medicine, often referred to as bush medicine, is a big part of Belize’s cultural heritage. Plants are used to treat everything from everyday headaches and coughs to more serious ailments like diabetes and infertility. One popular cure for digestive problems and upset stomach is taking allspice tree leaves and making them into a tea. Moreover, the native scoggineal plant is helpful for relieving headaches and fevers by tying it to the forehead. For the common cold or flu, contribo vine can either be made into a tea or soaked in rum. And, if you’ve got itchy or burning skin ailments, like sunburn or bug bites, relaxing in a bath prepared with gumbolimbo bark (shown right) is very helpful.

Colombia

In Colombia, natural remedies are very popular. For instance, using Rosemary by itself will help clear your lungs, while mixing the herb with ginger, half a lemon and honey is a cure for the common cold. If you want improved blood circulation, combine garlic and honey, and if you have swollen eyes you can put manzanilla (camomile) on your eyelids.

aloe veraTo help alleviate a strong cough, there are two remedies you can borrow from Colombian culture. One treatment is to ingest drops of eucalyptus. The other is placing half a potato near your pillow when you’re sleeping, which will not only help your chest, but will also put you to sleep. Furthermore, for times when digestive problems arise, Colombians will often boil an aloe vera plant (shown right), drink the water, and eat the plant with sugar or honey. Apparently, this cure is very fast acting, although not the greatest tasting.

Mexico

flowerIn Mexico, holistic healing practices are very common, as there is a lot of indigenous heritage there. Before actual medicine arrived, people used many fruits, vegetables and herbs to cure ailments. One very common natural remedy is eating seedless prickle – the fruit that comes from cacti – for diarrhea. For constipation, papaya and prunes are helpful. If you’ve got a case of conjunctivitis, many locals will make a “chicalote” infusion. This refers to a type of flower with thorny leaves, so you must be careful when picking it. Simply saturate cotton balls with the mixture and dab the eyes. In a few days, the problem will be gone.

acaiBrazil

In Brazil, there are many natural remedies used to treat ailments. First there is açai almond (the actual fruit), which provides a dark green oil commonly used as an anti-diarrheal. Found in Pará in northern Brazil, it is thought to have strong energetic properties. The juice has an exotic flavor and is high in iron – excellent for people with anemia. Guaraná powder is another ingredient that is widely used to help intestinal problems, stop bleeding, relieve headaches and improve brain function. To use it, mash up a guaraná until it turns into a thin, reddish powder. The substance is extremely high in caffeine – four times more than regular coffee. There is also sucupira seed, which contains alkaloids used to help fevers, arthritis and acne. In fact, some pharmacological studies have found the oil from the seeds to be effective against schistosomiasis.

cloveMorocco

In Morocco, where Berber Pharmacies, or herbalists, are popular, many locals seek medical help the holistic way. For example, pavor seeds are used to help soothe nasal congestion. Simply put them in a piece of cloth and knot it to form a ball. Then, place the sack under the clogged nostril while covering the other, and sniff. When having a toothache, Moroccans will put a clove on the tooth that is experiencing pain. These are the dried flower buds of the Myrtaceae family tree (shown right).

If dealing with insomnia, one popular holistic remedy is infusing red poppy flower into a tea. And, for fever or itchy eyes, locals will saturate a clean, white cloth with rose water and place it over their eyes or forehead, depending on which ailment they have.

India

In India, it is popular to use turmeric for acne. Grind it into a paste and apply it directly to the skin. You can also do this with sandalwood for the same effect. For an upset stomach, shaved ginger is often put on salads and other foods and ingested. Moreover, congee, or boiled rice with water, is eaten like porridge to promote general wellness.

Are there any natural remedies you’ve learned about along your travels?

[photos via avlxyz, dearbarbie, titanium22, Siona Karen, kthypryn, cyanocorax, Adrian Nier, Pixeltoo, borderlys, Koehler Images]

Hilton launches “Authentically Local” programs in the Caribbean and Latin America

Can a mega-corporate hospitality chain with 3,750 hotels provide authentic local experiences to travelers? Select Hilton Worldwide hotels are giving it a shot with the just announced “Authentically Local” packages. Available through the end of the year in the Caribbean and Latin America, the packages are aimed at introducing travelers to local cultures and languages through experiences such as dinners featuring local flavors, dance lessons in the local style, destination and tour suggestions hand-picked by locals, and more. There is even the opportunity for hotel guests to choose wearing a “language immersion pin” that identifies them as someone hotel employees will only speak to in the local language.

Options under the new package include tasting conch at the British Colonial Hilton Nassau in the Bahamas, learning rumba at the Hilton Cartagena in Colombia, snorkelling in the clear waters at the Hilton Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela, or touring the Mercado Municipal when staying at the Hilton São Paulo Morumbi in Brazil. The hotel chain also says culture consultants will be avialable at each participating property (full list after the jump) to help guests learn about the most celebrated experiences in the destinations.

So, is Hilton’s new initiative to help travelers partake in authentic experiences when staying at their hotels a way the chain is reaching out to the community, or is it just a marketing ploy? It could go either way, but no matter what it’s nice to see more travelers will be learning about local cultures.PS. For those interested, the “Authentically Local” package is being offered at the following locations: Hilton Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hilton São Paulo Morumbi, Brazil; Hilton Belem, Brazil; Hilton Bogota, Colombia; Hilton Cartagena, Colombia; Hilton Garden Inn Santiago Airport, Chile; Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort; Hilton Mexico City Reforma; Hilton Villahermosa & Conference Center, Mexico; Hilton Garden Inn Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico; Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa; DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Central Pacific – Costa Rica; DoubleTree Cariari by Hilton San Jose, Costa Rica; British Colonial Hilton Nassau, The Bahamas; Hilton Barbados Resort; Hilton Curaçao; Hilton Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre.

[Photo: Man selling conch shells in Nassau, Bahamas by Libby Zay]