About Ben Casnocha
Ben Casnocha is the author of the bestselling business book
'My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley", which the New York Times called "precocious, informative, and entertaining." He founded Comcate, Inc., an e-government software company, at age 14. Ben's work has been featured in dozens of international media including CNN, USA Today, CNBC, and ABC's 20/20. At a conference in Paris PoliticsOnline named him one of the "25 most influential people in the world of internet and politics".
BusinessWeek recently named Ben "one of America's top young entrepreneurs." He writes prolifically on his blog which the San Jose Business Journal called one of the "Top 25 Blogs in Silicon Valley." He's also a commentator for public radio's "Marketplace."
In addition, Ben has given speeches at dozens of universities and organizations around the world. He has traveled to more than 25 countries and he also co-runs the Silicon Valley Junto, an intellectual discussion society for business and technology executives. In his free time Ben enjoys playing chess, ping-pong, reading, and writing.
Latest Posts by Ben Casnocha
The Rio airport is pretty dinky. First impression is not of a global city that’s hosting the Olympics in a few years.
Exiting the baggage area there’s a booth where you can secure a pre-paid, government authorized taxi. As we approached the desk, three different ladies from three different tables screamed at us and tried to get our attention. I stopped and asked them, “What’s the difference between you guys?” “No difference, just different companies” they said, and then kept on waving us to their desk. Of course, I thought, there had to be a difference — why else would there be competition stationed right next to each other?
In fact there was no difference. Three official companies, offering the exact same taxi service, for the exact same price, to the exact same locations — and each vigorously competing for your business. It was rather unnerving to encounter the sales theatrics. They would do better to at the least alternate / take turns in securing customers. Or, better, do as Chile does: have just one official taxi company or have multiple companies that offer different services.
After buying the pre-paid voucher, we left the secure area and entered the main airport terminal. Zero taxi touts. It was calm and quiet. A man came up to us and politely pointed us in the direction of the taxi. Far less chaotic than the Santiago international arrivals section.
The first Saturday morning the hotel breakfast was packed with Brazilians and other foreigners but noticeably few gringos. This set the tone — throughout our time in Rio we’ve seen only a few Americans / English speakers. Where are the Americans? Perhaps they come during the U.S. winter…
Our first days walking around Rio were spectacular. This is a beautiful city. We’re staying on Copacabana beach. It’s huge, stunningly beautiful, and behind the beach are jagged mountains which makes it seem all the more tropical. Unlike in Costa Rica, the big, bustling city of Rio bumps right up against the beaches — it’s truly an urban beach city, and the city is substantial.
An iconic mosaic tile promenade continues all along the beaches. Free of cars, it’s a lovely multi-hour stroll. At one point in the promenade there’s a “Muscle Beach” weight lifting area, Venice Beach style.
On Sunday J. ran The Rio half-marathon with some blog readers and then we all met up for a massive all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet. Delicious.
Safety — no problem. Even though everyone I know seems to have been robbed in Rio, the Leme and Ipnemna neighborhoods seemed safer than B.A.
Dogs — no stray dogs in Brazil. Beats Chile on this front.
Beauty stereotypes — about women are true.
There’s a nice theater around the corner from where I live. A Russian ballet company was coming to town to do “Don Quixote.” Why not go?
We arrived with tickets in hand, gained entry, and hurried to the upper level to find our seats before the performance started in 2 minutes. Almost everyone else was seated. We showed our tickets to the person manning the aisle. He pointed us to aisle 10. We looked down the row at seats 7 and 9. People were sitting in them. In fact, the whole row’s seats were taken. The culprit was a 40-something mother with her two young children. We squeezed down the aisle and then showed our tickets to the women sitting in our seats.
Chaos ensued. Rapid Spanish. People checking their tickets. Usher comes over and looks at our tickets, looks at hers, says random shit. People are moving around but people still in our tickets. The clock is ticking. We discover that the woman in our seats is not in her assigned seat — she was trying to sit in between her kids.
She denied the truth. We held firm. Everyone was looking at us. She then tried to grab our tickets to get a closer look. I said loudly to J., “Be careful of a bait and switch.” Oldest fucking trick in the book. I took the tickets and held them arm’s length from the short woman even as she grabbed for them.
We exited the row. The usher then said some stern words and the family left. We got our seats. Gringos: 1, Chileans: 0.
5 minutes into the performance, the woman behind me puts her hand on my shoulder and asks in a firm tone, in Spanish, “Can you move down a bit in your chair? I can’t see anything.” “Lo siento,” I replied, “Soy alto.” (Y fuerte.)
For Part 2 we sat in the way back in the farthest side aisle, where there were two empty seats, to be away from everyone else and so I could stretch my legs.
By the end of Part 2 my water bottle was expired and I needed more water, so I went home, while J. stayed for Part 3.
Just another day of ballet.
At the British Ambassador’s residence in Santiago. Quite a crew came out, including local TV cameras. Here’s the US Ambassador with British Ambassador:
Singing the national anthem:
We spent Wednesday through Saturday the other week in La Serena and Valle de Elqui in the north of Chile. We were debating whether to rent a car, bus or fly to La Serena. We drove a rental car six hours and so glad we did — it’s a beautiful coastal part of Highway 5 north, unlike in the south where the highway is inland. Plenty of rest stops along the way to deal with both the call of nature and the call of hunger. It felt like Highway 1 in California.
La Serena and its beaches are popular in the summer. In the winter, not as much, so tourists were sparse. Fortunately, the sun was out. We had the beach all to ourselves!
The town itself is nice and sleepy. There’s a big mall that we frequented twice for the ice cream store and bathrooms and awesome American music they play on the speakers. There’s an all-you-can-eat Peruvian buffet restaurant along the beach that was unbelievably tasty, authentic, and, of course, all-you-can-eat, so hard to go wrong.
After two nights in La Serena, we drove to Valle de Elqui, a more rural region most famous for being where pisco is grown / produced. Beautiful scenery. Mountains like those of Colorado, canyons like those of Arizona. The tourist thing to do in Vicuña is star-gazing but (for the second time now for me) it was canceled at night due to fog. Still a cute, small town to witness, with a very different vibe from Santiago.
‘Everyone talks about the south of Chile, but so far, I’ve enjoyed the north more.
Santiago is like San Francisco in that there are many close getaway locations for weekend adventures. There are also microclimates abound — in a couple hours you can be in snow or in beaches.
This past weekend J. and I hiked Cerro Pecho. We found this blog post and followed it all the way. Beautiful views, and noticeably cleaner air. Only hassle were the dogs. Unlike Atacama, there wasn’t rape happening all around us, but they were loud with their barking…
There are three main tours to do in Atacama. Two of them leave very early in the morning to catch the sunrise, the other leaves in the afternoon. As a tour salesman began explaining the morning tours, we interrupted him: it’s ok, we’re not interested in waking up at 4 or 6 AM, regardless of what the tour actually involves. First, one sleeps. Then, one lives.
We signed up for the afternoon tour of Luna de Vieja. It was a delightful experience. Van picked us up, guide explained what we were going to do, we got out, and started walking across the desert landscape.
There were big drop points, Grand Canyon style, as well as white salt plains that inspire the name “moon.”
We walked down a huge sand dune. We crawled through a cave. We trekked (gently) through canyons that resembled Bryce or Zion in Utah. The guide explained the different rock formations. I made small talk with a Canadian woman and a Mexican woman. We chatted with two Germans who denied that there was such a thing as a “German breakfast.” As an American, I felt empowered to promptly correct them about their own culture. (Joke, joke.)
At the end, we drove to an area where we could rock-climb to the top of a canyon and watch the sun set. Quite a beautiful sight — desert for as long as the eye can see, with the sun setting behind a canyon in the distance. Our guide, who appeared to be dating one of the participants on the trip, turned on a Queen song and blasted it out of his iPod. Bizarre and at first unwelcome, I soon warmed to it as the soundtrack of the sunset moment, in the middle of a vast expanse in the remote part of northern Chile.
To get to Atacama, the driest desert in the world and a top tourist attraction in Chile, you fly to Calama which is a 2.5 hour flight north of Santiago.
Lonely Planet, which tends to be charitable to just about every nook and cranny in the world, begins its section on Calama: “This place is a shithole.” Don’t hang around, it says. Go straight to San Pedro, the small tourist town near the desert, where adobe covered hotels and restaurants line the sandy streets.
Except Lonely Planet didn’t actually give any info for how to get to San Pedro from Calama. So Steve and I took a taxi from the airport to the bus station — looking out the window of the taxi, the shithole description seemed right, though maybe “poor” would have been the better catch-all. At the bus station, we asked a guy if the bus was going to San Pedro. He said yes and urged us to board right away and pay on the bus. Later we found out why: we paid him directly and didn’t go through the official ticketing station, so he pocketed the money (after first trying to get us to pay him more than the original quote). It didn’t feel great to unknowingly partake in a mini-corruption action, but as Steve said, “We didn’t know what was going on.” (Oh, the rationalizations. To be fair, on many buses in Chile, you do pay once on-board….)
Almost immediately we were on a road with complete nothingness in every direction. Middle of nowhere. Desert. Redness. Dryness. If the bus had broken down, we would have been fucked, especially since I neglected to pack Cliff Bars or nuts which is downright shameful I know. Fortunately, the bus held out OK, and we made it to New Mexico-like San Pedro.
Cute town. A couple thousand inhabitants, some true locals, most tourist-industry implants, and then the tourists themselves who seem to come from all over. About four or five main streets.
As nighttime fell, the stars were coming out and the Hotel Kimal was giving off a good vibe.
We each sat down with our laptops, and OD’d on our respective RSS readers.
We rented a car in Puerto Montt, a medium-size city at the southern end of the lakes district, and drove north. It’s about a 15 hour drive to Santiago and we did it over 2.5 days.
The Lake District is in the central valley of the country and it’s where many Chileans go to do outdoor sports and trekking.
We stayed on the Pan-American Highway and didn’t veer off the road much to look at the lakes. The sights from the highway were similar to those in California, except for the big old volcano forever in the horizon.
We stopped in Valdivia which is increasingly becoming a tourist town especially for those coming from southern Argentina. Still lovely with the lake and German influence.
We spent the night in little Osorno, which is not known for much, but it actually has some charm. We took the free city tour – 3 hours! – of this little town. It was great fun, if one hour too long. The tour stopped at very mundane places (“here is a gym in the city”) and reviewed when certain stores opened and closed. One long-time resident joined the tour and tried to challenge the young tour guide’s knowledge of the city. She stayed in the back and talked to us about the different sights. Some listened to the main tour guide, others to the renegade.
One observation: driving a car taught us that many streets in Chile are one-way! It’s hard to drive around a city even if you know how to walk it. I’d say 50-75% of the streets are one-way. Some streets even turn into one-ways at different hours of the day…which makes Google Maps less useful. Wonder why this is…