LAN Airlines surprises restaurant-goers with free tickets to South America

Courtesy LAN Airlines

Last night, LAN Airlines surprised nearly 200 unsuspecting patrons at Nuela restaurant in New York with free round trip tickets to South America. The Oprah-style giveaway kicks off the company’s Only in South America campaign, a multi-year effort to promote travel to the region.

In the midst of busy dinner hours, guests at the South American restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron district were directed to look under their tables for a major surprise. Moments later, everyone in the restaurant was holding a voucher for a ticket to any LAN destination in South America, including destinations in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.

“It was a genuine pleasure to see the restaurant full of dinner guests enjoying South American dishes all of a sudden receive the unexpected news that they were getting the chance to travel to where our cuisine originates, just because they were at the right place at the right time,” said Chef Adam Schop. Schop was recently awarded Star Chef’s 2011 Rising Star award, and New York Times touted his arroz con pato (duck paella) “best tasting dish of the year.”

Those who weren’t lucky enough to be gifted with tickets can still enter an online sweepstakes to win tickets to Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, Santiago or Buenos Aires by following @LANAirlinesUSA. The contest ends October 13th.

Latin America on a budget: Quito, Ecuador

budget quito Old cities are at their most pure and honest in the early morning. Before the crowds draw out to transform the peace with the trappings of modern existence, an old city seems frozen in time. Wandering through Quito in the morning feels like visiting an old stranger’s house with no one home. I inspect the pictures and look in rooms, attempting to solve the riddles my mind creates. It is lonely and haunting. Morning clouds drift though the damp cobbled streets as Indian women in black felt hats and red scarves set up their hawking stations for the day – selling loteria tickets and cigarettes and gum. Footsteps of an unseen Ecuadorian echo out across a square, and a faint motorbike exhaust burns off towards the mountains that hold Quito like a bowl. Church Bells ring and just beyond their noise, dawn fades.

Quito is certainly an old city. Originally settled thousands of years ago, many speculate that Quito is the oldest city in the western hemisphere. The Quitu tribe of the Incan civilization settled this valley between towering mountain ranges and volcanoes thousands of years before conquistadors ever set foot in South America. They built a stronghold and the Quitu kingdom prospered. When the Spaniards arrived, the Quitu decided their city would be wasted on the invaders. Led by the Incan warrior Rumiñahui, the Quitu threw their treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to the ground.

budget quito

Lucky for me, I was not an arriving conquistador. The city welcomed me into the cool night with open arms. Arriving by plane from Atlanta at midnight, I gasped a little for air as I exited the airport. The altitude is immediately evident, and my pack felt a measure heavier. At almost 10,000 feet into the clouds, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world. Locals chew coca leaves to mitigate the effects of altitude.

At this late hour, I was too tired to hassle with the cheap but efficient bus system. At about $.25 to the tourist zone from the airport, it is a great bargain. The buses marked J.L. Mera head to this popular zone, known most commonly as La Mariscal. Mariscal is occasionally called “gringolandia” or La Zona as well. It is where many foreigners find lodging and go out for drinks. It is a place of late night laughter and Salsotecas.

The seriousness and desperation of a cab driver follows a significant correlation with time of day. In the morning, a crooked smile and casual banter, but at the dead hour of midnight, these cabbies pleaded for a customer with nervous eye contact. I was someone’s last shot at the $5 fare back into town. I found a young driver that appeared to speak English, and we sped away into the empty night.

budget quito

City districts
Quito is separated into several districts. Some of the most notable are Mariscal, Centro Historico (Old Town), and Norte de Quito (New Town). Mariscal is located in central Quito with Old Town to the south and New Town to the north. Mariscal plays hosts to many visitors and expats. The bar and club scene is very lively in Mariscal and hums into the night while the rest of Quito sleeps. Centro Historico or Old town is the southern part of Quito and is filled with gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture and narrow cobbled lanes. For day time strolls though history, Centro Historico is the place to explore. New Town in the north is an area of green parks and modern office buildings.

Where to stay and Nightlife
budget quito The best lodging options are found in La Mariscal and Centro Historico. Since this series is titled “Latin America on a budget,” and I was limited to a $150 budget during my weekend stay, I found a quaint hostel in Centro Historico – Hostal Quito Cultural. It is a quiet colonial hostel with a beautiful courtyard and rooftop views overlooking a stretch of Old Quito gradually fading into the hills. The nightly rate is $20 for a private room with shower. This includes a breakfast of tea, fresh fruit juice, tasty Ecuadorian bread, and an omlette. The beds are comfortable enough, but the pillows are similar to the Ecuadorian flat bread served with breakfast. My pillow had a deathly appearance – flattened with no life left. It was more a suggestion of a pillow than an actual comfort device.

My principal gripe with the Centro Historico district is its nightlife. There isn’t any. For those that want to stay close to the nightlife scene, Mariscal is the place to lay your head. The Mariscal bars and clubs pulse with energy. The sounds of Cumbia jousts with the rhymes of Lil Wayne and the night air fills with a cultural soundclash. Some of the more popular dance clubs are Bungalow 6 and Seseribo. The latter is a great place to get aquainted with the term Salsoteca.

Getting around Quito is very cheap by cab and even cheaper by bus. Cabs are measureably safer, especially if traveling with luggage or anything of value. Buses are a notorious stage for theft in Ecuador, and most cab rides only cost a few dollars. However, for those freewheeling around without valuables, the extensive bus network will suit the traveler fine.

Ecuadorian cuisine is tasty, affordable, and quick. Whether grabbing a bite at a street stall or in a sit down restaurant, it is easy to have a feast on a budget. Since I fancy myself a bit of a gourmand, I always budget a significant portion of my funds to eating. In this department, Ecuador did not disappoint and hardly put an dent in my funds.

budget quito Empanadas are stuffed with beef or delicous cheeses and served steaming in a crispy shell. Spicy soups are served as an intense first course, opening up the sinuses for the feast to follow. Crispy Guinea Pigs are blackened over fires on spits. Potatoes are ubiquitous; chicken is dark and flavorful.

For a sit down dinner, I ate at Cafe del Teatro on a square open plaza. I ordered a spicy onion and tomato based soup, cheese empanadas, corn tortillas, and half a chicken for under $6. My stomach did not so much as hesitate with its regular function and everything was delicious.

Street stalls serve some of the best food in Ecuador. The center of the Quito street food universe is Mercado Central where stalls line up and serve regional delights for a few dollars or less a serving. Locro de Papa is an excellent introductory Ecuadorian soup with potato, cheese, and avodcado. I highly suggest grabbing a bowl of this to build faith in the Quito street market enterprise. From there you can gnaw on a guinea pig or sample fritada – fried pork. The market is open from morning into the late afternoon.

Quito has a number of great museums though just walking around the “Old Town” is free and provides a worthy museum experience. Some of the better Quito museums are La Capilla Del Hombre, Museo del Banco Central, and just north of Quito at the equator, Museo de la Cultura Solar. La Capilla del Hombre houses the largest collection of art by master Guayasamin.

Like any large Latin American city, Quito is home to a fair number of thieves. In fact, on my last day in Quito, I was mugged for my camera in a heist that involved a bucket of feces.

budget quito Before heading to Quito, read my primer on the top ten types of travel theft. If any sort of theft takes place, find a police officer and file a report. Definitely purchase insurance if travling with a large DSLR camera or other valuables. Almost all types of travel theft are of the nonviolent variety and 99% can be avoided by just traveling smart.

At night, it is wise to always take cabs, espeically around Centro Historico.

Getting there
Quito is five hour flight from Atlanta on Delta Air Lines. Quito is also serviced on American Airlines from Miami and Continental Airlines from Houston.

U.S. dollars are the principal currency though centavo coins are also printed by the Ecuadorian government and used for small transactions.

My budget
On a tight budget, opportunity cost plays a prominent role. With $150 to spend over an entire weekend, I was forced to govern my choices based on the utility each opportunity would likely provide. Luckily, Quito is not a huge tourist destination and getting by on a budget was extrememly easy. I spent $20 per night on my hostel with a private room. My most expensive meal was $6, and it was a legendary spread befitting royalty. My other meals all cost under $4. Prices for food are more expensive in La Mariscal and cheaper in Centro Historico. I brought Clif Bars with me for mid-day snacks. Beers were a dollar at my hostel. I drank a few ice cold Pilseners in a rooftop hammock that overlooked Quito at night. Relaxing, but hardly expensive.

Cabs are also inexpensive. The cost to or from the airport is $5. Most fares around town are just a few dollars as well. It is very refreshing to pay a $1 cab fare.

budget quito

I decided not to spend any money on museums and planned to climb a nearby volcano on the day I was robbed. Instead of paying a cab driver to chaeuffer me to the volcano at the edge of Quito, I spent the afternoon sitting in a police station feigning pleasantries with policia while covered in shit. The dynamism of travel is readily evident when best laid plans are burst asunder for unknowns.

I spent a little over half of my budget on my affairs in Quito – $86. I blew the remainder on a stuffed Alpaca made with real Alpaca fur for my fiance. At the end of the day, it is all about priorities. The best travels are those without any.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.

I was robbed in Quito and all I got was this poo stained t-shirt

It began like any other day in the life of a travel writer – gingerly exposing my limbs, one at a time, to the arctic water gurgling out of my hostel’s shower head. It was Tuesday morning, and I had just arrived in Quito. My research had left me in a state of premature love with this UNESCO heritage city almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes. While hyperventilating in the relentlessly cold stream, I decided that I would open my Quito story with an interesting historical anecdote.

The original inhabitants, the Incan tribe of Quitu, settled the city now known as Quito in roughly 2000 BC. This makes Quito one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. In the 16th century, the conquering Spanish forces decided to take the ancient city, but the Incans were not willing to give it up. The Incan warrior Rumiñahui threw the Quitu treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to dust. The Incans could not bear to see their city wasted on the Spanish invaders.It was the ultimate middle finger to the colonial outsider. Razing your own town to deny the conquering forces its completeness is a twisted breed of poetic justice. But what really makes a city? As I took to the cobbled colonial streets and pastel Spanish structures of Quito, I thought about the irony of this all. The Spaniards rebuilt Quito to their own standards. It is not the treasures or buildings that make a place what it is, but rather the people. The people are still here, and later that Tuesday, they robbed me.

After spending the morning photographing Quito, I sat at an outdoor cafe on a huge open plaza, gorging myself on crispy cheese empanadas and locro soup with maize tortillas. An epic bare knuckle boxing match broke out just meters from my lonely table. These men beat the living hell out of each other. In one corner was a short fat man with messy childlike hair. He wore a tight orange shirt that held up his bulging belly like a rubbery girdle. He swung at a tall droopy man with a disheveled beard and crusty stains on his gray slacks. A group of security guards and cops watched the fight, laughing. They winced and turned, grabbing each others’ shoulders when the taller man appeared to knock out the combatant in the orange corner. But it was not to be. The proverbial David stood up tall and tackled the man in the stained pants. After beating his pudgy fists into his downed opponents head, the guards finally intervened and broke up the fight. Both men went back to sitting on their benches, idling in the Ecuadorian sun.

I thought to myself – Ecuador is going to be awesome.

I finished my late lunch and returned to my Lonely Planet “Old Town Walking Tour.” As I turned up Venezuela street, the heavenly Basilica del Voto Nacional came into view. Unlike its similar Spanish counterparts, the towering Gothic marvel is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and tortoises in the place of gargoyles and saints. I stood there, thinking about how awesome it will be to get some sweeping HDR panoramas from the soaring tower of the old church. It was around this moment that someone from the roof of a charming colonial building dumped a bucket of shit on my head.

It startled me immensely. I ducked into a doorway and assessed the damage. My Nikon d700 was covered in what appeared to be diarrhea. My hair was damp with the same disgusting brown liquid. My backpack was mostly spared with just a light sprinkling here and there. If you have never had a bucket of fecal matter dumped on you from above, then congratulations, your life is less demeaning than mine.

It is a functional part of the robbery. Appeal to the senses, get the mark to focus on something close, make them nearsighted, shock them away from their natural balance, and then take what they have. Governments utilize this approach to push through agendas during times of crisis when the populace sees in only the short term. Crooks behave similarly. Like focusing a camera on something near, the background fades to a blurry bokeh, and you can only see the crap on the hand you just ran through your hair. This is when the muggers come for you.

About 10 seconds into my shitty assessment, two Ecuadorian men rushed me. One went for my backpack and the other went for my camera. Preparation and travel IQ go out the window if someone wants what you have bad enough. They roughed me around a bit as I shouted something pathetic along the lines of “Nooooo…not my camera.” Luckily, I held on to my backpack tight. They only made off with my prized camera rig. Each man took off in separate directions.

It happened so fast that I could not even tell which one stole my camera. A gaggle of Ecuadorians were shouting and pointing in one direction, so I took off at a full sprint. I caught up to one of my assailants and noticed that he did not have my camera. My mind reeled through the possibilities of what I could accomplish by tackling or tripping this man. I slowed down.

The police presence in Quito is excessively robust. It is one of those places where there are so many cops that it makes you feel more nervous than reassured. Within minutes, several members of the police force had arrived at the scene of the crime, flashing toothy smiles and nodding in confusion at my English explanations. I ineptly described the circumstances of the robbery. They spoke no English. It was like tossing a dinner roll at a wall and expecting it to stick. After questioning several witnesses and inspecting my hair and backpack, they sent me off to the Quito police station.

As I sat in the police station, reeking of shit and explaining the robbery with mutant Spanish inelegance, I could feel myself settle at a new personal traveling nadir. At this moment, as I watched several other westerners solemnly file into the station with their own tales of stolen belongings, I decided that I did not deserve Quito, and Quito did not deserve me. I phoned Grant, the super-editor of Gadling, and he put me on the next flight home.

Risk and reward is an inherent component to nearly every arrangement of our lives, and walking around any large Latin American city with thousands of dollars in camera equipment is a risky proposition. I understand this completely. This is why I carry insurance. Traveling can be risky, but one thing to remember is they cannot take from you what you do not have. There is a lot to be said about traveling simply and traveling in groups. If I had been a part of a large group or did not have a nice camera, then I would have been left alone. It is easy to minimize the risk of traveling without sacrificing the reward of visiting new lands.

Latin America is as dangerous as you make it. While the large cities possess a certain breed of desperation that has always worried me, the countryside is a beautiful place filled with kind strangers, dramatic jungles, and breezy beaches. If there is one thing to be gleaned from my story it is this – travel safely and watch for falling shit. The last time I came to Latin America I met my future wife, so it is not all bad.

Also, buy insurance. World Nomads is great for general travel insurance with $500 of electronics coverage included with a medical policy. If you carry expensive equipment, then take out a valuable personal property policy. I carry my policy with USAA, and I was fully reimbursed for my stolen gear within three days.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Win a travel documentary scholarship to the Amazon

Gap Adventures and National Geographic are teaming up to give one aspiring filmmaker the chance of a lifetime. The two organizations are giving away a film scholarship that will allow the recipient to work with veteran film producer Trent O’Donnell, who will mentor the budding documentarian in the art of making a film, while exploring the depths of the Amazon Rainforest. And once the project is finished, the film may make its debut on the Nat. Geo Adventure Channel, an opportunity filmmakers often wait years to get.

This scholarship is open to anyone, whether you’re a film student or not, with the only requirements being that you must be at least 18 years of age, and hold a current passport. You should also have a healthy sense of adventure, a love of films, and be reasonably fit, as there will be some jungle trekking involved.

All applicants are required to make a 3-minute video, in English, based around the theme “Local Encounters”. The video should demonstrate your love of adventure, and show how your “encounter” changed your perspective on the world. A panel of judges will review the entries, looking for originality, the ability to tell an engaging story, and a passion for filmmaking. Once your film is complete, upload it to YouTube and head over to to fill out the scholarship application. From there, you’ll complete the process by embedding your film and telling the judges about it in 200 words or less. The deadline for entry is August 1st.

The winner won’t just get the opportunity to make a film with Trent O’Donnell. They’ll also receive a flight to Quito, Ecuador sometime in the last two weeks of September, where they’ll have the chance to explore the Amazon with O’Donnell and Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of Gap Adventures. They’ll actually stay in the rainforest with the local Quichua tribes, learning about their way of life, and creating a film on sustainable tourism.

To find out more about this great opportunity, click here. Then go blow the dust off your video camera and get filming. Who knows, you might be on your way to the Amazon in just a few short months.

Ten outdoor destinations with everything!

Who says you can’t have it all? For many travelers vacation time is limited. Those in search of adventure want to maximize that short window of travel time. Here are ten cities where adventure-seekers can expand their options with a range of heart-pounding choices.

Buena Vista, Colorado
Buena Vista translates to “beautiful view.” It’s easy to understand why the name stuck. Nestled into the central Colorado highlands, this Colorado town just might be the hidden adventure gem of the Rockies. Peak-baggers have twenty 14ers within roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from Buena Vista, making it a perfect base camp for high-altitude hiking. Ski Cooper, Monarch and Aspen are all close by for a winter sports fix and the class III-V Arkansas River provides thrilling whitewater rafting all summer long.

Cape Town, South Africa
South Africa is considered by many to be the adrenaline capital of the world. Cape Town has no shortage of blood-pumping options. Traditional sports like sea kayaking and mountain biking are epic here, but there’s also more unique endeavors like sand boarding. If that’s still not enough to get adrenaline junkies excited, there’s always the shark cage diving experience.
Vancouver, Canada
Adventure pursuits like sailing and kayaking are synonymous with this famous Canadian coastal city. Of course, skiing is the main draw in Vancouver, a fact reinforced by the city’s selection as host of the 2010 Winter Olympics. One visit to Whistler Blackcomb, among the top ranked snow resorts in North America, and the powder crazed will fall in love.

Quito, Ecuador

I was on the summit of a 15,763 foot active volcano within four hours of leaving my hotel in Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. This short trek with dizzying altitude is but one of the quick fixes found in this city of less than two million. Rural Ecuador is still developing its adventure sports attitude, but when using Quito as a starting point guides can be found easily. Cotopaxi, one of the world’s most perfectly shaped volcanoes, is only a two hour drive from town. Cycling and mountain biking have seen a huge boom in recent years and bike rental companies are eager to take visitors on epic rides through the Andes for up to two weeks in length.

Bar Harbor, Maine
In Summer, the population of this quaint Maine fishing village swells from around 5,000 inhabitants to 18,000, and for good reason. Surrounded by paddling and sailing opportunities, those making their way into the area’s bays can not only watch whales and seals but can spot a variety of stunning bird species such as Bald Eagles and Puffins. During my stay I found that land based options are equally as spectacular with Acadia National Park sitting just out the back door. Hiking provides views of the channels and bays while the park’s abundant exposed rock opens up endless climbing opportunities. There is even a climbing school in the city for those uninitiated to the sport.

Castries, St. Lucia
Once travelers work their way past the cruise ships and trinket shops, a world of adventure awaits in Castries, the capital city of St. Lucia. Professional mountain biker Tinker Juarez designed a trail system specifically for the Anse Chastanet Resort. Beginner, intermediate, and expert single track trails wind their way through former plantations and lush jungle vegetation. Diving and snorkeling opportunities abound along St. Lucia’s shore. More experienced divers will find wreck diving just off the coast. This Caribbean island is even home to a diving shop named Scuba Steves. What more could a beach bum want?

La Paz, Bolivia
Trek along ancient Inca trails, raft the class II-IV rapids or the Rio Tuichi, or take on the world’s highest ski resort Chacaltaya. If that’s not enough adrenaline, mountain bike the Death Road, reported to be the most dangerous mountain bike ride in the world.

Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland boasts average highs between 59 and 75 degrees year round. The mild temperatures make for an ideal adventure sports hub. Rappel into massive caverns with Waitomo Cave Adventures to explore the underworld of New Zealand. You will need at least two weeks to take in all the adventure Auckland has to offer. Surfing, horse trekking, sailing, and magnificent hiking can all be found near this city in the “Land of the Hobbits.”

Bend, Oregon
With a beautiful trout stream rippling through town and ski slopes just up the road at Mount Bachelor, Bend accommodates Winter and Summer visitors alike. I found a trail run around Todd Lake that was the perfect way to take in a pristine alpine setting. Backpack the 40-mile Three Sisters Loop and enjoy jaw-dropping views of these triplet peaks.

Chamonix, France

France’s Chamonix has long been known as the site of world-renowned ski resorts and awe-inspiring vistas of the Alps. But these days, the French city is also home to an “air park” where brave visitors can paraglide from just below snowy summits and soar above green pasture. For those who prefer their adventures a bit closer to the ground, there’s the Via Ferrata course. Via Ferrata takes rock climbing to the masses with metal steps and small ledges for climbers to use, all while clipped in to a secure cable system.

Having your cake and eating it too was never so easy. Any of these world-class destinations should be a crowd-pleaser for even the most ambitious adventure travelers.