from the travel story “Surprise Studded Crossing of South America”
(Click here for the text-only version)
started out from Buenos Aires on 6 October and returned there on 30 October,
having travelled close to 10,000 km. Other backpackers that had a lot more time
than I were joking: "Why didn't you take a group of Japanese with you?
They'd be thrilled at this speed."
My itinerary: Buenos
Aires - Santiago de Chile - Lima - Arequipa - Cuzco - Machu Picchu - Puno -
Titikaka - La Paz - Sucre - Potosi - Uyuni - Salar de Uyuni - Tupiza - Salta -
Iguazu - Buenos Aires.
the trip, people asked why I needed to do it, when there are good documentaries
to watch and travel books to digest at leisure?
But do they tell all? Aren’t
they selective, often out-of-date, inevitably biased?
Your own reality may turn out different.
Do travel and get your surprises. Get
your own selection of adventures!
surprise: Buenos Aires and Santiago are modern, almost elegant cities,
European than I had anticipated. Perhaps
more expensive than my home country New Zealand or Central Europe.
Even Peru was not particularly cheap.
Another surprise, or rather, relief:
Peru impressed me as less dangerous than its reputation.
Sure, when travelling you've got to be alert at all times. If tired, crash somewhere in a safe place and recover before
continuing. Have your passport,
cash, credit cards and any valuables stashed away safely.
Bear in mind, fear and lack of self-confidence mark you as an easy
I'm not going to repeat any of the sad or even frightening stories I've heard.
Most Peruvians are friendly, warm-hearted people. I treated all of them
as friends and if this may have included any potential thugs – they
fortunately didn't reveal themselves to me as such.
By the way, I only lost two things on my entire trip – temporarily. I
got both of them back from people that had found them!
boasts a new Museo de la Nacion, very worthwhile for an overview of the
Peruvian archaeology. The Inca
culture is only the tip of a huge iceberg of Indian cultures.
This may be a surprise to many people as well!
There's also the famous Museo de Oro. I spent four hours enjoying the priceless collection of
artefacts. It's in private hands!!!
For my photo safari in the old town centre of Lima the cold drab layer of coastal smog lifted and allowed the sun to light up the amazing facades of churches and palaces.
Peruvian coast is desolate sandy desert. As
the road veers away from the sea, climbing up towards Arequipa, the
terrain changes slowly to become rockier, but it's still desert, with threadbare
patches of grey dry grass and cacti resembling poles stuck into the ground.
The few villages we passed were desolate, with clay boxes lacking decent
roofs as the houses of the "better-off", and in the background mere
shelters, mats hung from poles, as the living quarters of the poor.
There was rubbish everywhere, blown away or cast out of the dwellings,
rolling down slopes, stuck in crevasses. As
we climbed higher, we saw boulders rise, stacked up by natural forces, sand
oozing from cracks. Valleys
deepened, plains changed to a bashful green.
there's Arequipa, the "White City", 2300 m above the sea, with almost
a million inhabitants Peru's second largest city, in a grand mountain setting, a
"Spanish" town. Like in
all South American cities, there's a main square, Plaza de Armas, with
park, fountain and statues. Many
people strolling. Sunday mass in
the stunning cathedral where I exchanged handshakes of "peace" with
Amerindian worshippers. A feeling
flew from Arequipa to Cuzco. For
a long time the terrain looked Martian, later there were terraced patches, ever
increasing in number, tiny, on steep slopes.
Near Cuzco the land was turning green, with trees.
I chose a small "hostal" at the main square, opposite
the huge cathedral. Numerous altars
in the church glittered with gold and silver, flaunted elaborate carvings, next
to paintings by local artists who imitated the style of the European 17th/18th
city tour took me together with a busload of college girls from Lima to the
ancient cult sites of the Incas and their predecessors.
Some of the girls spoke better English than the guide of Quechua
descent whose English had to be guessed rather than understood.
I enjoyed the ruins and their spiritual atmosphere. Remainders of Inca temples are embedded in a catholic church
and convent. The incredible
of the Inca times withstood severe earthquakes better than
the European buildings, but not the destruction by the conquistadores.
Fun went along with the sightseeing. There
was music in the bus. I was asked
to dance with a beautiful woman from Israel, stopped when we almost flew out
through the windscreen. At the end
of the tour I had to kiss all the girls - and the sprinkling of older women - as
well as the (female) guide..
ferry tourists (allegedly 1000 or more per day!) from Aguas Calientes up
to Machu Picchu, the mysterious Inca town.
I preferred a two-day walk along the ancient Inca trail.
The local train to Aguas Calientes filled up solidly soon after Cuzco.
Halfway through the journey I climbed over people and bags to get to the
toilet. It contained a pile of
canisters and sacks, on top of them a woman crouching.
She obligingly clambered down, shifting a couple of bags on to the heads
and shoulders of people wedged in at the open toilet door.
I mounted the pile, attempting to target the toilet bowl. Feeling the gazes of the people in my back, I couldn't get
myself to perform. However, I was
surprised at this example of the local attitude to make the seemingly impossible
achievable. Having climbed back to
my seat, it was still there waiting for me!
small group of hikers left the train at the start of the two day trail, packed
sleeping bags and ground mats, had lunch in one of the temple ruins. The path
follows a narrow deep valley, water rushing far down at the bottom.
At times the path is cut into the hillside with only a "foot"
to spare between an almost vertical drop and the hikers.
At times the path drops into jungle not too dissimilar from lush New
Zealand bush, at times endless steps lead up to temples and terraced patches.
This is grand, near vertical country, mountaintops being deceptively
close, separated by yawning clefts. The
altitude (3-4000m) forces stops upon ambitious walkers.
I preferred to move slowly but consistently.
were pitched next to a chalet near the temple of Pacsamama (Earth
Mother), two hours away from Intipunku, the Sun Gate.
We got up at 4 am to arrive at Intipunku for sunrise.
There, way below, Machu Picchu slowly disrobed from the mist, warmed by
golden rays. A breathtaking view of
the mountain shoulder carrying the ancient temples, dwellings, sacrimonial
plazas, irrigation channels, terraces. Behind,
the tall sugar loaf of Huaynapicchu, of postcard fame. We descended to the sacred site (?), refuge (?), fortress (?)
- theories vary, well before the place swarmed with other tourists.
We were able to experience the atmosphere, imagine the original purpose,
the bygone life.
mid-afternoon our group retired into a restaurant in Aguas Caliente, the
township and railway station at the bottom of the Inca mountain.
Only one person continued exploring, guess who!
I wanted to see the Temple of the Moon on the far side of Huaynapicchu.
Having reached the base of the "sugar loaf", I felt such a
strong urge to climb it, that I changed my mind.
Near the top, the path is forced to thread through caves and to scale
boulders. Abruptly it vanishes into
the sky. You're left standing on
what seems a thimble sticking up high in this giant landscape.
Go on, dare to glance down. There's
a different view of Machu Picchu, tiny, remote.
A rainbow jumps across the empty space, clouds billow towards the
statuette that you are, daringly protruding into the realm of thunder and
train trip from Cuzco to Puno at Lake Titikaka took 10 hours, a
pleasant trip in Pullman Class. And scenic! The
hilly landscape, with clay hut villages and green patches stuck on, receded as
we were nearing La Raya Pass, more than 4000m above sea level.
It resembled New Zealand’s Central Otago and - hold on -
wasn't this New Zealand’s Mt. Cook, with its white profile
rising above grey tussock land? Perhaps
a bit bigger? Much, much bigger!
Then we rolled down into a boundless plain extending as far as Titikaka, at
3800m the highest navigable lake in the world, the largest in South America. Its size overwhelms, at 8300 km2 it's almost 14
times the size of New Zealand’s Lake Taupo or more than 15 times the
size of Europe’s Lake Constance.
enjoyed a day on the lake, visited Los Uros, the floating islands made of
bundled reed, now serving more as a tourist attraction than their original
purpose as fishing families' living space, I suspect.
I went on to Taquila Island with neatly terraced flanks rising
from blue waters, with colourfully dressed inhabitants, no cars, slab paved
paths adorned with arches, a Mediterranean island in a sea stretching to the
horizon. Oh yes, a few smudges over
there belong to neighbouring Bolivia. I
remember the superb fish I ate.
to Puno at dusk brought an anticlimax: Saturday
night turmoil. Dropped off
allegedly near my hotel, I got lost. Stalls
everywhere, shoppers, revellers, cars jammed in narrow streets, cacophony of
noises, a band of Peruvian Indians dancing through all of this.
Everything looked different. I
kept on searching, close to tears, needing a loo, water, a rest.
In desperation I snatched a policeman engaged in customary whistling from
a busy intersection. He gave me
blank looks at the mention of my hotel but helped me asking.
Somebody knew the way. "All
the best, amigo!" He shook my hand and returned to his whistling.
Puno to La Paz, the Bolivian capital, it's a day's trip by bus, involving a
scenic journey along Titikaka’s hilly coastline, comparatively smooth border
formalities, for which everyone must leave the bus, a short stop in the lakeside
resort Copacabana, a crossing of a lake arm where buses float on rafts
while passengers travel by motor boat, and an uneventful ride across a drab
plain. This is the Altiplano
extending at 3500 - 4000m through most of Bolivia.
A thin layer of snow was spreading gracefully over mud in the desolate
settlements we crossed.
stopped at the edge of the plain. Below
us, a conglomerate of blocks spiked with a few spires tumbled down a brownish
grey canyon: La Paz. A deluge
paired with heavy earth movements would threaten to sweep the city of a million
inhabitants away into oblivion. Destitute
shacks were clinging to the canyon walls, condensing to the now separate city of
El Alto at the canyon rims. Drizzle
accompanied our descent into the shabby messy despondent streets. I felt goose pimples on my skin, commiserating the central
European Jewish refugees who, over 60 years ago, were forced to make this place
their new home.
The following day
eased my discomfort. Wandering down
the centre - all the major thoroughfares run downhill - I encountered many
beautiful churches and palaces and noted with pleasant surprise the city
council's efforts to keep the place clean.
flew to Sucre, the town considered by its denizens as the real heart of
the Bolivian government. The main
square and its immediate surroundings boast a pretty collection of colonial
buildings which I found worthwhile looking at before continuing to Potosi,
the world's highest city, where an architect friend of mine had already booked
me into the hotel he was staying in. We
went out to have dinner in a restaurant tucked into a remarkable museum about
silver mining. Noticing our
curiosity, our waiter took us on a night tour through the surrounding grounds
where a complete silver mine is being reconstructed.
The following day I confronted harsher reality, visiting one of the co-operative mines around Potosi. Gangs of miners work these mines on their own accord, using their own tools, own dynamite, following contorted seams containing zinc, lead, antimony and silver. All the work is done by hand; the ore is taken out by wheelbarrow or on back, through horizontal and vertical shafts that often are just wide enough for crawling through. The conditions are atrocious and I've been warned that just about every safety rule is being broken.
to the mines bring dynamite, coca leaves, ammonium salt and cigarettes as
presents for the miners. We were
encouraged ourselves to chew coca leaves to help us tolerate the physical
efforts at 4400 m altitude. However,
if you don't chew some alkali (like ammonium salt) together with the leaves, the
amount of cocaine absorbed is marginal. By
the time we arrived at a vertical shaft where a rope with knots offered access
to the lowest current level of the mine, our group had shrunk to a few younger
men who were keen enough to lower themselves down seven metres, quite a
challenge at this energy sapping altitude, particularly when nursing a camera. Climbing up again, I almost doubted I would make it.
If a visitor let go of the rope, would they bury him (or possibly her) in
a disused pocket of this warren?
taxi dropped me in a shambolic area of the town to board a rickety bus for a
night trip to Uyuni. The night was cold, pale moonlight allowed vague perceptions
of the landscape gliding past my window. I
was unsure whether our bus was jostling along a genuine road or just inside a
Salar de Uyuni is an immense salt pan (12000 km2) and was part of a prehistoric salt lake covering most of southwestern Bolivia. I went on a 4-wheel drive tour across this snow-white expanse, where only high mountains indicate distant shores. It's now a national park just outside which lone groups of shelters house people harvesting lime. An attraction in this vastness simulating an icescape is a hotel totally built of salt, including its furniture. Further on, an island of jumbled rocks forested with giant cacti rises from the salt.
We stayed overnight in a village at the foot of Tunupa.
This volcano was hiding a stunning surprise in a cave overlooking a dry gully.
Brilliant morning sun warmed our rocky ascent, the saltpan reflecting and condensing the light, pretending to be a huge cloudbank below us. A blotch in it, 60 km away, indicated the island with the cacti forest.
We crawled into the cave. Crouching
against the walls, a group of mummified bodies wrapped in decaying material
stared at us from lifeless eye-sockets, seemingly untouched bowls and other
artefacts spread out before them.
is stuck in an area where a variety of weird landscape forms meet. The colourful canyons, monoliths, chasms, and eroding cliffs
might as well have been ripped from the national parks of the North American
South West and thrown together here. I
spent the fading daylight hour up on the plateau above Tupiza, watching a giant
"town of stone" change colour and shading.
a day I dropped about 2000 m down from the arid Altiplano to verdant Salta,
a middle sized town at 1200 m, in North-Western Argentina.
I liked Salta's warm pleasant climate, its Mediterranean atmosphere, its
carefree spirit. The town basks in
a large fertile basin surrounded by mountains.
Picturesque quebradas (canyons), lush jungle, exciting
archaeological sites, colonial architectural gems, tobacco plantations and
vineyards, the daring "Train to the Clouds", are all within easy reach
of the city.
sampled a cross-section of the area's attractions, strange creations of rock
sculpted by nature in the Quebrada de Cayafate, artefacts created by
local artists, a ghost town with a German name, a variety of wines in the "bodega"
of a vineyard, including wine making facilities and a wine making museum.
In one of the canyons I took off my sandals and climbed up several steep
rocky stories into a narrow amphitheatre. In
the sky, sheer walls formed a horseshoe created by an ancient waterfall.
I almost expected any moment thundering floods splashing down into the
now sand filled pool, but stillness lasted, I remained alone, no one had
following day I first gorged myself on pretty remnants of Salta's colonial past
in the Cabildo museum. Then,
stripped to the waist, I climbed Cerro Bernardo in the heat of midday,
drank cold beer on the top, enjoying the view; descended by cable car. Later in the afternoon I would get on a bus for a 24-hour journey to the Iguazu
Falls in the corner of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil.
Falls are like a beautiful dream. Do
you want me to give you an idea? I’m
afraid, that's hardly possible; you've got to see them yourself.
They are not the world's highest, but they carry the greatest volume of
water. They sweep out from the
jungle and tumble down into a riverine gorge in all shapes and sizes, creating
mini-landscapes of rocks and plants. Would
they scare off animals? Hardly.
Colourful butterflies jitter in the spray, Jote Black Head (birds)
flutter above. Above the Falls,
serenity reigns. I floated gently
in a boat down a sidearm of the river tucked away in the jungle, where the water
is eerily placid till a stone throw away from the gorge!
boat ride was less peaceful. You
pay for being taken close to the cataracts at the bottom of the gorge.
Expecting a wet ride, I had taken off my shirt, but hadn't bargained for
being dunked. Just as well, my
financial reserves and my passport in my trousers were wrapped in plastic,
though not well enough for having a shower.
In panic, I stripped on the boat. A
group of elderly women in raincoats waiting for analogous experiences pointed at
my tiny swimming togs. "This
man's been dressed appropriately!" I
shook my head, demonstrating my dripping slacks.
Having peeled my valuables out of them, I gave them a rinse in the river.
Almost four weeks' travelling had stiffened them beyond acceptability.
I went on a 6 km walk on a jungle path, not only to get my trousers dry but also
to experience the sounds and light effects of the jungle dusk.
A pamphlet cautioned not to get close to jaguars and pumas, to keep calm,
try to appear bigger, make some noise; but then there was this incredible
printing error: "always race the animal".
How would those poor tourists feel, who knew that these cats easily reach
speeds of 60 km? Or would they, in
time, realise that the "r" should have been an "f"?
visit to the Falls is complete without including the Brazilian side.
Getting there involved two bus rides and a border crossing.
Then I enjoyed the breathtaking panoramic view, which varied as I
followed the path along the canyon wall. Again
a dream, albeit different!
19-hour bus ride placed me back to the starting point of my round trip: Buenos
Aires. I wanted to use my last day
in South America for a train ride along the shore of the "Rio de la
Plata" and a boat trip on the canals separating hundreds of islands in
the immense delta of this "River of Silver".
I did and was surprised about the extensive likeness of Venice the portenos
(as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are called) have created.
Argentineans claim that no visit to their country is complete without seeing a
tango show. I checked one of them
out and enjoyed it. It took my memories back to the time when I had been training
in a club for ballroom competitions. Then,
every move had to be practised until it was perfectly smooth and elegant.
Here, in Buenos Aires, I found perhaps a smidgen less elegance and
perfection, but - perhaps more acrobatics and more unrefined passion?
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