Traveling to Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Kampot, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

This trip on the first half of Aug/2014 was my first time in Cambodia. If you are reading this and considering whether or not it should be in your bucket list, I say: go for it!

The impressions you find below are from the perspective of a relatively seasoned traveler who is used to explore unknown places wearing a backpack and who had been to SE Asia multiple times before.

We were four travelers (my friend Isa from California, and Cameron and Lester from New Zealand – I did not know them prior to this trip – Isa did) with coordinated itineraries for transportation, but not committed to doing the exact same things. 

Royal Palace Complex

We stayed in nice hotels (so it was not a backpacking trip), but most of my activities were local and close to the ground.

Our itinerary: 2 days in Phnom Penh (the capital, a typical SE Asia bustling city), travel by taxi and 2 days in Kampot (a coastal city famous for, among other things, “Kampot Pepper”), travel by taxi and 2 days in Sihanoukville (a party beach resort town), fly and 2 days in Seam Reap (where the famous temples are). In retrospect, this was a perfect first overview 8-day trip itinerary (thanks to Cameron, who had been there before and designed it), with a good balance of tourist crowds, off-the-beaten-path time, exploration and relaxation.

I will take the risk of generalizing my superficial perception of a short-time visitor and say that the stronger impression on me from this trip was the fact that Cambodians are nice. But not in a casual way, like when we use “nice” as a placeholder to nothing remarkable to say. I mean really nice. A combination of grace, politeness, sweetness, sincerity, lack of judgment, openness. Perhaps gentle is a better way to express the attitude I experienced there. There, I said it, Cambodians are gentle people.

Cambodians have been subject to oppression and tragedies in recent history and a significant portion of the population lives under poverty lines. It is amazing that they can live on with grace and be optimistic in situations that others would consider unbearable.

Sunset in Kampot

When researching for a visit to Cambodia, you will read about corruption in government and police, mosquitoes, unsafe tap water, landmines, lack of infrastructure. Don’t let that deter you. Yes, going there requires some planning and precaution, but once you arrive, those things cease to be negative to your experience.

You will also read that the weather is hot. That doesn’t cease to be relevant once you get there. In August, it is 33-34C for most of the time. It is the rainy season, but we were very fortunate and rain did not interfere with our trip.

Perhaps surprisingly, crime or personal safety were not factors in my experience anywhere, at any time. Big city, small village, it didn’t matter. An illustrative example: we took a bicycle tour in Siem Reap. The local guide didn’t seem to understand why I was asking if it was safe to leave the nice mountain bikes parked without locks and unattended while we visited the temples.

Balloons on the beach – Sihanoukville

Not a reason to visit, but a nice plus if you do: your US dollar is accepted anywhere and goes very far getting what you need. A nice meal in a posh place is $6, seafood dinner served on the beach front is $3. A beer costs 50c to $1. You can hire a driver to take you around for the whole day for $15-$20 (a tuk-tuk carries up to 4 people). A nice (I mean nice) hotel room goes for $45-$50. A beach bungalow is $20. A backpacker bunk bed to spend the night will cost you $3. 

Language is not a big issue. In the cities, people tourists interact with all speak English. Where English is not spoken, there is always goodwill and gestures.

Monarch Butterflies – Santa Cruz, CA

Every year during winter time, the Monarch butterflies migrate from Northern areas and congregate around the exact same branches of Eucalyptus trees near Natural Bridges Beach in Santa Cruz, CA.

The Monarches are one of the longest-lived butterfly species, with some living up to 12 months.

The fact that they live for about a year means that the butterflies that come back next year won’t be the same individuals. They will be their descendants, but will still gather around the same branches, on the same trees, on the same beach in Santa Cruz.

Half Day Tour of Silicon Valley by Marcio

 Map and step-by-step directions

Many people who come to visit San Francisco also have a special interest in technology. While travel guides will offer many suggestions of walking tours in the city or day trips to Monterey and the Wine Country, you won’t find a good tour of the Silicon Valley.

So, after taking many friends to see great Silicon Valley titans, I’ve built this map and step-by-step directions, so you can see several sites (Palo Alto, HP Garage, Stanford University, Tesla, Facebook, Museum of Computer History, Microsoft, Google, NASA, Yahoo!) in a very efficient way.

This can be done in half day at a quick pace or a full day at a slower pace. It can be easily extended to include Intel/Cisco by adding a couple more miles South on Hwy 101. It doesn’t include Apple (further South in Cupertino).

To see the map with the step-by-step instructions and descriptions of the sights, click on the “See Larger Map” and look at it from the Google Maps site (you will also be able to download/print it).

Let me know how it works for you.

Solo Traveling in Canada – Hosteling, Technology and Photography

I took 10 days of vacation in October 2011 and visited Western Canada. My itinerary went like this: Vancouver (1 night), Squilax (1 night), Banff (2 nights), Jasper (2 nights), Lake Louise (1 night), Squilax (1 night), Vancouver (1 night).

Here is the slide show with the travel highlights. Scroll down for my thoughts on how the experience of travelling alone is changing because of technology.

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Hosteling – not only for poor students anymore

Yes, I agree I am bit too old to stay in hostels, but I still find this is the best when solo (which is how I have done most of my travel).  You meet interesting people, have the opportunity to share experiences, offer and get help, make new friends.

Hosteling International (HI) is clearly changing their target audience. They no longer call themselves “Youth Hostels” and most facilities have been upgraded to combine the advantages of a hostel (common areas, communal fully-equipped kitchens, Internet connectivity, etc) with the comforts of hotels (towels and linen, decent hot showers, 24-hour reception desks, etc).

Think about it, if you charge $30 per person and put 6 people in a dorm bedroom, that is equal to running a $180/room hotel. So there is nothing surprising about finding hostels that are better than the average tourist hotel (Banff and Lake Louise easily pass that criteria).

Some hostels are still basic like in old times, but those tend also to be interesting in some other way (e.g. the hostel in Squilax is a set of old train cars, still on the rail tracks by a beautiful lake, that have been converted into dorms).

If you have not been in a hostel in the past 25 years, I recommend you try it again, just for fun (even if you are paired with someone).

Photography and Social Media

This was the first time I did “backpack” traveling carrying an iPhone (and an iPad) with its two cameras. That was in addition to the pocketable point-and-shoot (Canon Power Shot) I carry for convenience and agility and a SLR (Canon Rebel) for telephoto or a special scene.

Rather than replace one of the other cameras, the iPhone broadened the subjects I would photograph. I was sharing what I was experiencing (rain, interesting food I was eating, a special view of the mountains,  etc) in real-time instead of seeing through an analytical eye of a photographer thinking what is the most “representative” image to share later.

So I was using the compact camera to document the trip, the SLR for creative photography, and the smart phone to socialize in real-time. It deeply changed the experience of travelling alone (several of my friends at home were there with me through the comments and responses to my posts).

Internet, Social Media and Travel Planning

On my last night in Vancouver, I went to the Gastown district for some end-of-trip bar hopping. Instead of looking up my travel books, I posted “Going bar hopping in #Vancouver – any suggestions?”

My friend @krcraft (who is in Toronto) responded and immediately connected me with a Vancouver local I did not know. I got a short list of “must see” bars in Gastown,  in real-time, literally as I walked along Water Street and stopped in front of a Starbucks WiFi hot spot.

As I enjoyed my Elk tenderloin, paired with a great local IPA at “Alibi Room”, I twitted again about and how much I was enjoying Vancouver. Another local Twitter friend picked up that and helped me to select the next place in the short list (another hit, “Chambar”, specialized on Belgian Ales).

Social Media was giving me real-time, authoritative advice on every step along the way.

Earlier, I had met Liz in front of the fireplace of the hostel in Banff. We both had iPads and both had identical red covers. So I did not have to think too hard about a good pick-up line :).

As we talked, we used the tablets to look up maps (she is from Jersey, a small island off Normandy, but part of the UK), continue to socialize our conversation with others, change future reservations and travel plans based on input from the other, share photos from family and from the trip.

Rather than negatively interfere with the conversation, I found the iPads to enrich the interaction between two travelers meeting along the way (maps, photos, plans, Wikipedia). We learned more about each other than if we were just talking.

Then she opens her backpack, gets a bottle out and asks. “Would you want to share this BC Cabernet with me?”

Brasil 2011: O futuro aqui ou exuberância desvairada?

Por que uma latinha de  Skol no Pão de Açúcar de São Paulo custa mais que uma Budweiser no Safeway de San José?

A vantagem de morar fora do Brasil é que eu visito apenas uma ou duas vezes por ano e, as vezes, percebo mudanças melhor que as próprias pessoas vivendo a realidade brasileira no dia-a-dia.

Depois de bater no fundo do poço no início da década de 90,  cada vez que venho ao Brasil fico feliz com os avanços em todas as áreas, e principalmente na economia: controle da inflação, redução da pobreza e diferenças de renda, redução do desemprego, estabilidade da economia, abertura para o mercado internacional, projeção internacional.

A escolha do país para sediar a próxima Copa do Mundo e Olimpíadas parecem ser símbolos marcantes da ascenção do país no cenário internacional.

Mas dessa vez (estou na última de 3 semanas de uma visita a trabalho) está sendo um pouco diferente.

Algumas coisas estão tão positivas como em minha última visita. O Brasil vive uma situação de pleno emprego (desemprego em torno de 6%), e o clima é de otimismo. A economia está crescendo, empresas internacionais investem no país e novas multinacionais brasileiras extendem o alcance fora das nossas fronteiras.

Mas eu estou um pouco preocupado lendo os jornais e principalmente na minha experiência no dia-a-dia de um visitante.

Começou com a reserva do hotel. Estou no Íbis de Campinas. Um hotel business básico. A diária é R$139. A diária no Íbis de Munique na Alemanha, da mesma rede, cobra diárias de 59 Euros (R$135). Um hotel da mesma categoria na cidade onde eu moro na Califórnia cobra cerca de US$75 (R$120).

Ou seja, a diária de um hotel no Brasil está igual ou mais alta que hotéis equivalentes em cidades do mesmo porte na Europa e nos EUA. Como imagino que o salário dos funcionários é bem mais baixo no Brasil, a diferença pode ser atribuída ao risco de se fazer negócios no Brasil (a Accor, dona do Ibis precisa ter lucro maior) e principalmente da carga tributária (o famigerado “custo Brasil”).

Está bem. Eu estou acostumado com preços de artigos importados e serviços para a classe média alta e empresas ser alto no Brasil.

Mas a surpresa maior veio com artigos do dia-a-dia. Nesses dias, meu almoço no bandejão no campus do CPQD de Campinas (buffet por quilo, o lugar mais barato para se comer nas redondezas) custou de R$12 a R$17. Essa é exatamente a mesma faixa do meu almoço na California ($7 por fast-food, $11 por um bentô no Japonês). Uma latinha de Skol no supermercado custa R$1.40, enquanto uma latinha de Budweiser na California sai por menos (uns $.75).

Preços de produtos e serviços locais utilizados pela população geral no dia-a-dia comparáveis aos preços da Califórnia (o lugar mais caro dos EUA)?

Também notei uma atitude de consumo nova entre as pessoas com quem interagi (uso de crédito, aspirações de consumo global, etc).

Tudo isso é muito bom. O Brasil é parte do mundo global e o consumidor brasileiro deveria pode ter as mesmas aspirações e acesso a consumidores de qualquer outro lugar. Talvez o futuro tenha finalmente chegado para o país que brincava de dizer sempre seriamos o país do futuro.

Mas ao mesmo tempo, a inflação beira os 7% com pleno emprego. Embora o governo tome uma parcela alta das receitas, a infraestrutura do país (energia, portos, aeroportos) está para trás. Boa parte da boa fortuna econômica está atrelada ao boom dos últimos anos no preço de comodities e no agro-negócio. Moeda valorizada, e inflação subindo… uma combinação perigosa. Vários fatores que me deixa nervoso (e, aparentemente, os economistas também).

Sinais do progresso ou indícios de exuberância insustentável?

Fico torcendo que seja o futuro que tenha chegado.

Uma Visão Brasileira do Vale do Silício

Dois dias (ou décadas) no Vale do Silício

Era um domingo em 1991 quando recebi uma ligação. “Quer ir morar na California?”. Em 92 me mudei de São Paulo, onde nasci e cresci, para o Vale do Silício. Vim para ajudar a construir a Cyclades (uma empresa brasileira que se tornou global), com a idéia de passar dois ou três anos nos EUA. Duas décadas depois ainda moro lá (estou escrevendo esse post de Campinas-SP, durante uma viagem de negócios).

Tenho escrito muito a respeito de Mídias Sociais, Marketing e Tecnologia, mas sempre em inglês. Nas últimas semanas, depois de ter sido listado como um dos “50 brasileiros todo empresário deve seguir em Twitter” me conectei com bastante gente no Brasil e resolvi começar a publicar em Português também.

Então além de @Marcio_Saito (temas usuais: Social Media, Marketing, Tecnologia, Montanhismo, em Inglês), vou tuitar em @Marcio_SaitoBR usando hashtag #diretodovale com foco na conexão Vale do Silício – Brasil.

Esse é o meu post inaugural, então decidi falar um pouco do Vale do Silício. Não as histórias tradicionais de “empresários de sucesso”, mas uma visão mais pessoal de um brasileiro morando no dito cujo a tanto tempo.

Onde fica esse tal de Vale do Silício?

O Silicon Valley cobre a área ao sul da Bahia de San Francisco. O nome vem de Silício, a matéria-prima para os chips que iniciaram a revolução digital, mas hoje e associado a tecnologia em geral (ainda normalmente relacionado a computação, mas também incluindo biotecnologia e “green”). Cobre várias cidades parte da região da “Bay Area”, incluindo San Jose (Cisco), Santa Clara (Intel), Cupertino (Apple), Mountain View, Palo Alto (Google, Facebook), Redwood City (Oracle). No mapa acima, mas ou menos desde San Mateo na península até Fremont no lado leste da Bahia.

O coração do Vale do Silício é a cidade de San José, que tem cerca de 1 milhão de habitantes e fica 70km (uma hora de carro) da mais famosa, mas menor, San Francisco.

Como as pessoas vivem no Vale do Silício?

A vida é suburbana. São várias cidades emendadas. As pessoas vivem em casas térreas e as áreas residenciais são espalhadas com ruas largas. Algumas “freeways” cruzam a região (101 na peninsula, entre San Jose e San Francisco, 237 no Sul, e a 880 de San Jose a Berkeley no lado Leste da Bahia).

Uma das maiores surpresas quando cheguei aqui e fui para um shopping: o burburinho não era em inglês. Demograficamente, os americanos são minoria no vale. A maior parte da população é formada por imigrantes de outros paises: México, Índia, China, Vietnam, Filipinas, etc. Viver no vale é um exercício de diversidade e tolerância, com gente do mundo inteiro. Essa experiência é visível na variedade de restaurantes, arquitetura, vestuário, etc.

Ninguém sabe o tamanho exato da comunidade brasileira na área por que ela inclui imigrantes sem documentação e imigrantes transitórios que vão para ficar por tempo limitado. Mas existe uma comunidade emergente de brasileiros ligados a Universidade de Stanford e a tecnologia do Vale do Silício.

Em business, a cultura é anti-mainstream e casual. Não se usa gravata. Não é incomum encontrar gente de chinelo de dedo no escritório.

Por que a tradição em tecnologia?

É difícil de isolar um motivo para o sucesso sustentado do vale na área de tecnologia. Tem a ver com a diversidade (gente do mundo inteiro vem ao vale para “dar certo”), as Universidades (Stanford em Palo Alto, UC em Berkeley, etc), o eco-sistema (venture capitalists, empreendedores, mão-de-obra qualificada, infraestrutura).

E tem terremoto mesmo? É verdade que nunca chove?

Tem dezenas de tremores pequenos todo dia. O Vale do Silício é cortado de norte a sul no lado da peninsula pela San Andrea fault e no lado leste pelas Hayward e Calaveras faults, as linhas de deslocamento da crosta terrestre, onde a placa do Pacífico está sendo empurrada para baixo da America do Norte. Em San Jose, uma vez por mês você sente um tremor (de magnitude 4) em algum lugar perto. O último terremoto grande (6+) foi em 1989 (Loma Prieta).

Então, eu que moro no Vale do Silício desde 1992, ainda não peguei “the big one”. Para ver e acreditar: Mapa de terremotos na California essa semana.

Entre Abril e Outubro, as pessoas marcam casamentos ao ar aberto sem se preocupar muito pois chove muito pouco. No inverno chove e a temperatura chega próximo de zero. No verão chega a 40C, mas o ar é muito seco então a sensação de frio ou calor é menos extrema que em São Paulo.

Dois dias no Vale do Silício

Se você resolver me visitar e tiver dois dias para visitar o vale, aqui estão algumas sugestões:

Palo Alto e Universidade de Stanford – University Ave, saída da Hwy 101. Visite a garagem onde começou a HP e o campus da universidade berço de várias das empresas do vale (visite a maior coleção de esculturas do Rodin fora da França, incluindo “O Pensador”).

GooglePlex – Arrume alguém conhecido que trabalhe na Google em Mountain View e seja convidado para almoçar lá. Você vai notar o ambiente desestruturado e informal e a cultura empresarial dominante no Vale do Silício. Se não conseguir ser convidado, almoce no Calafia em Palo Alto, o restaurante do primeiro “chef” contratado pela Google para cozinhar para os funcionários, uma amostra da perpectiva Californiana da cozinha (organicos, locais, ingredientes frescos).

Vinícolas de Santa Cruz Mountains – Quem pensa em vinho Californiano normalmente pensa em Napa e Sonoma, que são regiões vinícolas de renome internacional. O que pouca gente sabe é que a região vinícola de Santa Cruz Mountains é mais acessível e tem vinícolas tão interessantes e produzindo os melhores Pinot Noirs. Como as vinícolas são pequenas, os vinhos não são encontrados e outros lugares.

Santana Row  Santana Row é o equivalente local da Rodeo Drive em Los Angeles. É onde estão as lojas das marcas de luxo, em um “open air shopping mall”. Aproveite para visitar o showroom da Tesla (carros elétrica). Em um final de semana, jante no Straits Cafe (um restaurante com preços moderados e cozinha de Cingapura). Depois das 10, o restaurante vira night club e você vê uma amostra da diversidade do vale vestida para caçar.

Museus de Tecnologia – Para mim, um museu de tecnologia é um paradoxo. Mas tem várias opções. O mais interessante é o Tech Museum no centro de San Jose que tem atrações para crianças e marmanjos. Museus mais focados: Intel Technology Museum em Santa Clara mais focado em chips e silício e o Computer History Museum em Mountain View.

Empresas de tecnologia – O melhor é conhecer alguém que tenha acesso, mas dá para pegar um pouco do ar simplesmente passando pelas empresas. Dirija pela 101, 237 e você vai todos os nomes em tecnologia: Oracle, Yahoo!, Google, Intel, Cisco, …

Restaurantes Brasileiros – Se ficar mais tempo e sentir saudade. Não tem muito não, reflexo da comunidade pequena. Churrascarias viraram moda nos EUA nos últimos anos. A melhor é a “Espetus” em Burlingame. Para comida mais caseira no vale do silício, a gente vai no “Senzala” em Mountain View.

Quando vier, me avise. Terei prazer em oferecer dicas adicionais. Até então conecte comigo em @Marcio_SaitoBR e acompanhe o hashtag #diretodovale.

Visiting Brazil (for US Americans)

So I was born in Brazil and have lived in California for more than 20 years. I am often asked about travel in Brazil by my American friends. This post is meant to collect helpful information.

How many days I need to visit Brazil? Where to go?

Most people find surprising to learn that Brazil is larger than the continental US. So there is no way to “visit Brazil” in a few days of vacation. Because the flight from one of the US hubs (Dallas, Houston, Miami, …) to São Paulo or Rio is about 12hours, it is reasonable to plan at least a week to go anywhere in Brazil.

Most business visitors go to São Paulo. It is a cosmopolitan very large city. At its best, it feels like New York. At its worst, it can be feel like the worst in New York. Other than business, São Paulo has world-class gastronomy, culture and nightlife. Traffic is really bad.

Most tourists go to Rio. It is a large city with the problems of a large city (including crime and the shanty towns – “favelas”). But it is a beautiful place (world-famous beaches – Copacabana, Ipanema and landmarks – like the Corcovado and SugarLoaf). It is your choice to focus on the good or on the bad.

The capital cities along the Northeast coast combine beautiful beaches, a slower pace of life, historical landmarks, and a unique cultural experience.

The North of Brazil is dominated by the Amazon rainforest.

In the South, there are the majestic waterfalls of Foz do Iguaçú.

If you have less than a week, get a tour package and visit Rio or two Northeast capitals. If you have two weeks, combine Rio with either a Northeast capital or Foz do Iguaçú. If you have a lifetime…

Is it dangerous?

From a personal safety perspective, if you have traveled internationally before and/or have some common sense, not particularly. But if you wear Tevas and Flower shirts, have a camera around your neck and a Panama hat on your head and decide to walk around one of the large cities pointing at buildings, you will probably be mugged within the first 15 minutes.

From a health perspective, you will survive fine in any of the cities along the coast doing the same you do at home. If you plan to spend a week going down some remote Amazon river and visit a remote place deep in the jungle, you may want to ask your health care provider about recommended vaccinations.

So, relax. Your are on vacation.

Geography and History

Brazil is in South America. Being in the South Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed compared to the US (i.e. Christmas trees are set during summer and July is winter).

Most of the large cities in Brazil are 1 hour ahead of US EST during the US summer (i.e. noon in New York is 1PM in São Paulo) and 3 hours ahead during the US winter (daylight saving times are reversed as well).

There are no Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Snow, or any extremes in weather in Brazil. In the South and Southeast, winters are mild (temperatures don’t go below freezing). In the North/Northeast, it is always summer (but high temperatures rarely go above about 90F).

Brazil is the Latin American exception colonized by the Portuguese (your Spanish vocabulary may help, but not much). The population is about 200 million.

Brazil is a direct democracy. The president is elected directly every 4 years (as of 2015, the president is Dilma Rouseff and Brazil is in the midst of a political crisis). The country is divided into 26 states.

Culture, Dress Code

Ethnically, Brazil is a mix of the Portuguese colonizers, African slaves, and mostly Italian, Japanese, German immigrants from the early 20th Century. The South has mostly European (Italian, German) influence. The biggest cities are in the Southeast: São Paulo (where you go for business, Italian, Japanese influence) and Rio de Janeiro (Portuguese, African). The Northeast has a slower pace and a beach lifestyle, with mostly African influence. The Midwest is dominated by the “Pantanal” wetlands and the North Amazon rain forest have relatively low population density.

Brazilians are generally perceived as friendly, welcoming and warm. They will go out of their way to make sure you’re happy in their country. But don’t expect people from a large city like São Paulo to be very different from New Yorkers.

Most Brazilians dress casual, but not sloppy.  They are fashion-aware. Don’t wear shorts and flower shirts in the city unless you want to stand up as a tourist.

The business culture is close enough to American. So, if you dress and behave like you do at home (unless you are from California, in which case step up a notch), you will be fine.

Most Brazilians are Roman Catholic.

Soccer is, by far, the most popular sport. Formula One racing is popular as well. Brazil usually does well in team sports (basketball, volleyball, etc).

Money, Driving and Passports

The Brazilian currency is the Real (R$). As of 2015, thinghs are shaky in the economy and US$1 = R$4. The country is on sale.

Generally, Brazil will feel inexpensive to an average American visitor. Imported articles will cost about the same as in the US (shopping mall, McDonald’s, fashionable clothing, etc). Basic necessities and services (food, taxi rides, local products, mid-range hotels, etc) will be about half of what you are used to.

Credit cards work in large cities, shopping malls and high-end restaurants, but you probably want to carry local currency. The best way to get local currency is to use your ATM card (not all ATM machines will take your US card, so you need to look for the network logos).

Nobody will complain if you tip above the nominal fee, but most restaurant checks already include a 10% service charge and it is not necessary to tip taxi drivers. For other tourist services (hotel, tour guides, etc), you can do as you would at home and you will make people happy.

Driving is similar to the US. Exception: No right turn on red. Generally, driving in Brazil is a lot more aggressive than in the US. It is easier and cheaper to get a taxi, don’t rent a car unless you know what you are doing.

US Americans need a Visa to visit Brazil. There is a reciprocity policy, so you will be treated similarly to how the US embassy treat Brazilians (expensive fees, slow service). It is a nuisance, but nothing out of the ordinary.


Food is not to be experienced as a comparison, but compared to the US, Brazilian food will be generally saltier and less spicy. It will change depending on where you are, but is is not exactly “exotic”.

You will probably try fruits that are fresher and more diverse than you have ever seen anywhere else.

The “typical” food will be “Feijoada” (black beans and pork stew, served with a variety of side dishes) and “Churrasco” (cuts of meat, mostly beef, served Gaucho-style).

The everyday home food for most of Brazilians is rice, beans, beef, green salad.

In the South, food will have strong European (Italian, German) influence. Beef is good and plentiful.

São Paulo is the food capital. Cosmopolitan, with word class Italian and Japanese.

In the Northeast, you will find spicier food, more seafood and cassava (yucca) or maize as the staple starch.

Table etiquette is not very different to what you are used to. People use fork and knife to eat pizza. Otherwise, behave as you do at home and you will be fine.

There is not a big wine tradition in Brazil. Most people drink beer (usually, not very memorable Pilsen). The national liquor is “Cachaça”, made of sugar cane, similar to rum. Order a “Caipirinha” (mix of Cachaça, lime and sugar).

Tourist Destinations

In approximate order of popularity:

  • Rio de Janeiro. Worldclass beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema) and landmarks (Corcovado, Sugar Loaf).
  • Northeast. Capitals along the Coast. Salvador and Recife are the most popular. Lots of colonial history, African influences, slow pace of life, beach life.
  • São Paulo. Large cosmopolitan city. Business, Gastronomy, Nightlife.
  • Foz do Iguaçú. Big waterfalls.
  • Amazon rainforest.
  • Pantanal. Wetlands in the mid-west, with a very large fauna variety.

Visiting Iguaçú Falls – Brazil (May 2010)

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Panoramic View of Iguaçú Falls

I was born in Brazil but had not visited Cataratas do Iguaçú (a.k.a Iguassu Falls, Iguazu Falls) until this past weekend. Here are some photos and some information that might be useful if you plan to make the trip there.

To visit the falls, your gateway city is Foz do Iguaçú (on the Brazilian side) or Puerto Iguazu (on the Argentinian side). A visit to the area is a 2-3 day affair. You can get to Foz do Iguaçú through São Paulo (1.5h flight).

The Iguaçú (big water in the native Tupi Guarani language) River runs through the southern state of Paraná and forms the falls. It then joins the larger Paraná River (which feeds the Itaipú hydroelectric plant) to form the natural borders between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

The Falls were declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site in 1984 and is short-listed as a candidate to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature (you can help to elect it by voting at They are within National Parks on both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides.

Quati - they are everywhere

Most of the falls are on the Argentinian side, so you get the best panoramic views of the majestic falls from Brazil. Bring a light raincoat or buy a plastic one at the entrance. You will get wet.

The admission to the Brazilian side is R$22 (about US$12 as of Jun/2010) and the walk along the main trail 0.8 miles can be done in a bit more than 1 hour and the entire visit won’t take more than three hours. You can take a van from the hotel, get to the park on a taxi or drive yourself.

There are optional tours (bird park, jeep safari), but I have not done them.

Vista Point on the Brazilian side

Visiting the Argentinian side is an all-day endeavor, with a good amount of walking (some 5 miles total – my 76-year-old father and 70-year-old mother were able to do it fine). While the panoramic views are less magnificent than from the Brazilian side, you can get a closer experience of the waterfalls.

It doesn’t matter how you get to the entrance of the park (tour van, taxi or your own), private cars stay at the entrance. The entrance fee is 45 pesos (about US$12 as of Jun/2010). Beat the tour buses by arriving a bit before 9AM. Plan to stay until about 5:30PM (or break the visit in two days).

From the park entrance, you can take a small train to the Cataratas and then to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) station. A 1km walk (round-trip) on catwalk takes you to the top of the Devil’s Throat fall for an amazing experience. This takes about 1.5 hours.

From the Cataratas station, you get access to the “Upper Circuit” (about 1 hour), with the most panoramic views, and the “Lower Circuit” (about 1.5 hours) with close-to-the-water experiences.

I recommend taking the “Nautical Adventure” (a power boat that takes you very close – or under – the falls), boarding from the lower circuit. There are additional optional tours (jeep safari, other boat tours).

Power boats take you literally under the waterfalls

I would not expect a restaurant inside a park to be an attraction, but I really enjoyed the lunch break at the La Selva Restaurant, which offers an authentic Argentinian Parrilla experience (all you can eat beef on the grill) and an incredible value (45 pesos/person).

Argentinian Parrilla at the La Selva restaurant.

After visiting both sides of the Falls, optional tours from Foz do Iguaçú include shopping in Paraguay (very popular among Brazilians, but really not recommended for American visitors) and a tour of the Itaipu Hydroelectric plan (a gigantic facility, the world largest in energy production and the second in size to the Three Gorges).

Itaipu is still the world largest hydroelectric plant in energy production

If you plan to visit Foz do Iguaçú, feel free to contact me for additional pointers. If you are in Brazil, you can save some money by self-guiding and using cabs. If you are visiting from elsewhere and is not familiar with Brazil or with the language, I recommend using a local travel agency to provide the airport/hotel transfers and local tours.

We did use an agency and were very happy with it. Free Travel Brazil is a small family-run agency. They work with all Foz do Iguaçú Hotels and cover the Brazilian, Argentinian and Paraguayan vicinities. They balance the flexibility and friendliness of a small operation with the resources to organize groups and serve very specific needs.

Highly recommended: Contact Viviane Rak at

Visitando Puerto Rico (Sep 2009)

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Taking advantage of expiring airline miles and a short period of unemployment, I took a very quick trip to Puerto Rico (just three days) in Sep of 2009. Given the short time, I stayed in San Juan and did not explore other areas of the island.

Bride looking at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, one of the tourist attractions of Old San Juan.

Puerto Rico is easy and accessible to a visitor from California. It has some of the feel of a different country but there is no need to calculate currency exchanges, carry a passport, give up your favorite fast-food, or speak different languages. A perfect “international” destination for the unseasoned traveller.

Pastellitos and Medalla - local bar food.

From my perspective, San Juan shares amazing similarities with some of the cities in the Northeast of Brazil I have been to. Same Iberic architecture (from the fort you see above to the colonial construction style below), similar food, similar ethnic mix, similar attitude. Just a bit cleaner and easier. So, I say: if you have the time and the sense of adventure, visit Salvador in Bahia. If you prefer the pasteurized version or have just a few days, San Juan is a fine destination.

Old San Juan feels a bit like Disneyland (too pretty, people don't really live there)

I missed some of the beach life and atmosphere, but the beaches near San Juan are nice. Fine sand, warm water, lots of sun.

Beyond Old San Juan and exploring the real-life suburbs of San Juan city, I also visited the Bacardi distillery. It is a quick ferry trip away from the city.

Visiting Alaska (June 2008)

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I had for years wanted to visit Alaska and I finally did it in June of 2008. I arrived in Anchorage on the summer solstice. During that time of the year, it never gets completely dark and there is about 20 hours of sunlight. Practical travel season goes from late May to early Sep.

Amazing views and landscapes in Alaska

My original plan was to travel independently, but after some research I decided to join a guided tour with REI. I know, I know. Joining an organized tour was a first for me, but in the case of Alaska the trade-off between flexibility and efficiency is harder than usual, so I took the easier way.

For a 12-day trip, even with no-frills trip (camping, cheap eating) the cost will be more than a couple thousand dollars. It is possible to do the same with less money, but Alaska is expensive. If you want to save some $$ by going direct, the company that runs the tour for REI is Alaska Alpine Adventures – highly recommended.

Bald eagles and black bears are common views near Anchorage. Carrying a tripod and the long zoom lenses paid off in this shot of the eagle above our camp.

With the exception of a couple of lodging nights, we were camping. And rough camping it was (I was prepared for anything, but I was still surprised – 4 showers in 11 days). Positively surprised that is. It was a great experience and the only way to experience true Alaska is being very close to the ground.

Kayaking to the face of a glacier

The itinerary: Anchorage, drive to Prince William Sound, regular ferry trip to Cordova (a small fishing village), a floatplane ride to Valdez (a fishing village of Exxon Valdez fame), visit to the Matanuska Glacier, and a couple of days exploring Denali National Park. I think that is a good first-time-in-Alaska itinerary.

The activities: Lots of hiking, glacier crossing, ice climbing, kayaking (paddling to the face of a glacier is an unforgettable experience), river rafting. You will see lots of bears (including some close encounters) and bald eagles. In Denali, with some luck, you get to see moose, wolves, more bears, caribou, mountain sheep, etc.

Ice Climbing - Matanuska Glacier

I have lots of photos and stories. Here is one: I signed up for the trip as a “single”, which means they assigned a travel partner (to share a tent and other activities). When I met Ken in Anchorage, I was a bit worried as he looked a bit old for such “adventure” trip. We opened a couple of beers and were exchanging stories and he said “… that is where I was working when the war started…”.

What? You were working when the war started? Which war? He was 83 years old. Not particularly athletic, but extremely sharp and intelligent – and Republican (many of our late night debates around the fire were on politics). A great kayaking and ice climbing partner. He joined the group because his family would not let him hike Denali by himself.

An amazing  and inspiring guy. His secret: Never be afraid. Never stop.

Yes. I do plan to do Alaska-from-a-cruise-ship thing when I am older than Ken.

I hear such close view of a wolf is extremely rare. He is distracted eating a hare he had just caught.
Denali - not all visitors are lucky to be there in a clear day.
Endless days were topped with Alaskan beer and political debates around the campfire
Denali, the highest mountain in North America is so huge, it looks surreal in the horizon