Abstracted from the travel story “Surprise Studded Crossing of South America”

Joe Paul

(Click here for the illustrated version)


I 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.


Before 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  Aren’t they selective, often out-of-date, inevitably biased?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!


First surprise: Buenos Aires and Santiago are modern, almost elegant cities, particularly Santiago.  More 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 victim. 


However, 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!


Lima 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. 


The 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. 


Then 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 of closeness.


I 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 centuries. 


A 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 mortarless masonry 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..


Buses 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!


Our 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.


Tents 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. 


In 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 lightning.


The 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. 


I 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.


Returning 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.


From 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. 


We 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.


I 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. 


Visitors 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?


A 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 dry riverbed. 


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.


Tupiza 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.


Within 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. 


I 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 followed me. 


The 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.


The 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! 


Another 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. 


Then 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"?

No 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!


A 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.


The 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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