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SOUTH AMERICAN SPECTACULAR
By independent traveller – Sandra Cathie

Most of our group departed from Melbourne after a night at the airport Park Royal Hotel and, whilst waiting for our connecting international flight to Santiago from Sydney, we were joined by three ladies from Brisbane and two from Sydney. 

             

A flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires and our accommodation at the Brick Hotel no doubt left everyone tired but eager to begin our adventure, which started at Piegari Restaurant with the most delicious steak of the trip. 

On a beautiful clear morning next day we met our Irish (yes I did say Irish) bilingual guide who took us through the area known as La Boca, a fascinating area of unique buildings and street art, comprised of colourful and complex graffiti murals and also some sculpture relative to the area and its history. 

The Barrancas area followed and there the street art was mainly in mosaic form.  At the impressive main square we learned about the efforts still being made by women trying to discover the fate of their loved ones during the terrible time of the ‘disappeared’. 

Lunch was at the very popular Café Tortoni with its huge decorative skylights.  Our afternoon consisted of shopping and resting before a tango show and excellent a la carte dinner at the Esquina Carlos Gardel theatre.  Our balcony seats afforded us the best view of a very entertaining and generous performance.

The following day, with its perfect sunny weather, we spent the earlier part of the morning at the cemetery, with its very elegant mausoleums, including that of the Duarte family, which is the last resting place of Eva Peron.  The cemetery is almost like a miniature city with beautiful and varied architectural styles and decorations featured in the many mausoleums.

A change from the city surrounds followed as we drove through the pampas to visit an Estancia where we rode horses before watching an expert display of how it is really done by the gauchos.  After lunch in the delightful hacienda grounds, there was a display of traditional dancing – a very relaxing day in the countryside.

On arrival the next day at Puerto Iguazu we were driven to the only hotel located within the Iguazu National Park.  Our rooms at the Sheraton overlooked the Devil’s Throat, one of the most spectacular areas of the Iguazu Falls.  I was delighted when a monkey walked along the railing of my balcony but, unfortunately, I did not have my camera at the ready. 

That afternoon we were also introduced to the coati, a cute and seemingly tame animal.  Don’t be fooled though.  They are vicious, with teeth like something out of a horror movie.  We also saw a couple of toucans, but no jaguars. 

On our second day at the falls, we rounded a bend in the path to see before us a table spread with all sorts of savoury delicacies and the biggest and most delicious looking fruit platter I have ever seen – just for us.  Many an envying glance was cast our way as we enjoyed the food and drinks at our private party.  After more viewing of the falls along the 1600 or so metres of catwalks suspended above the water we donned our ponchos for the ‘up close and personal’ boat ride in the teeth of the falls.  We finished the day drenched but happy.

Our next destination was Rio de Janeiro and our hotel on Copacabana Beach, the Belmond Copacabana Palace, but not before we had seen the Devil’s Throat from the Brazilian side.  A small number of our party also indulged in the views from a helicopter.  We arrived in Rio on a Sunday so we got to see just how popular Copacabana beach is with the locals and in the early evening we enjoyed a walk along the famous black and white mosaic path which separates this playground from the rest of the city. 

A dense fog enveloped the city the next morning as we left the hotel for Corcovado Mountain and Christ the Redeemer statue.  Nothing could prepare us for how enormous this statue is.  Fortunately, there was brilliant sunshine at that height, but we had to be satisfied with views of Rio from ground level. 

Copacabana is not the only beach in Rio and we also saw some more beautiful beaches before arriving at Puro restaurant, where we had a floor to ourselves, and a truly amazing lunch.  I think a little more wine was enjoyed than Jacquey expected. With the fog now cleared a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain by cable car finally allowed us an overview of the city. 

After a further day soaking up some of the historical areas, but also a spectacular modern circular cathedral and murals by Eduardo Kobra, it was time for lunch at the Cafetaria Colombo, another very decorative restaurant.  The afternoon was very entertaining with our visit to a Samba School.  No this is not a dance school but a studio/factory where the floats for Mardi Gras are constructed and we were able to model some of the costumes.  I got the Carmen Miranda outfit, complete with enormous fruit headpiece.

A very early flight next morning took us to Lima in Peru.  This time on arrival there was a little rain, more drizzle really, and our guide called it a deluge of biblical proportions.  In other words, it doesn’t rain much in Lima.  We had our first of many shopping opportunities in Peru at a large handicraft market where, of course, many of us indulged. 

A visit to the Huaca Pullan pyramid, nothing like those in Egypt but no less fascinating with its unique mud brick construction, was followed by lunch at the covered but open air restaurant at the site.  This is also the site of my first Pisco Sour but not the last. 

Victor Delfin, aged 90, is a well-known artist in Lima and we were treated not only to a visit to his studio but also a meeting with the artist.  Our hotel was the Belmond Miraflores Park, a lovely location and another in the chain, which is part of the Orient Express company.

Six of us started the next day with an early morning walk and discovered a statue of Paddington Bear ‘from darkest Peru’, complete with his suitcase and Union Jack coat.

Our sightseeing began at the main square with its cathedral and other historic buildings.  We learned that the buildings were constructed of wood, bamboo, adobe and gypsum plaster because of the earthquakes.  Near the main square is a residence of conquistador descendants and we had an interesting tour and insight into the lives of the Spanish in colonial days.

In the afternoon we had an extensive tour of the Larco Herrera Museum which houses exhibits from the Pre-Columbian era.  Our guide had a thorough knowledge of the history, which made the whole period and its artefacts easy to relate to.  This museum also had a semi-open air restaurant and we fortified ourselves with another excellent lunch before entering the museum galleries.  Next to the restaurant was an upmarket shop of the Kuna chain.  We were to come across many of these on our trip.

The following day involved a flight to Puerto Maldonado, a short bus ride through the town, then by boat on the Madre de Dios River to the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica Lodge, our accommodation for the next two nights.  We stayed in individual cabins set in tropical rainforest gardens and every effort was made to have a minimum impact on the environment.  The dining room was dimly lit and after dinner we walked back to our cabins with oil lamps lighting our way.  These also greeted us at our door and inside, where the mosquito netting had been lowered in our absence, ready for a safe night’s sleep, which we woke from in the morning to hear the forest birds calling. 

Our activities included a night boat ride to see caiman, a small alligator like reptile and capybara, a large guinea pig-like mammal, walking above the rain forest on suspension bridges, a canoe ride on a lake to see the bird life and generally exploring the forest – a delightful tranquil interlude, which we could easily have extended to another day or two.

Leaving the Amazon Rainforest behind we entered the Sacred Valley of the Incas and stayed at another excellent Inkaterra hotel, the Urubamba, once again in individual accommodation.  Climbing up the hill to our rooms at this altitude required a breathing stop or two. 

A visit to the Awanankancha Cameloid Centre gave us information about llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicunas and an up-close view of the animals.  A market with artefacts and quality clothing lightened our purses.  That night we enjoyed a talk and demonstration of various South American musical instruments. Gustavo Flores is a very talented musician who was able to play every one of the instruments for us. 

We were welcomed to a local village where village life and its organisation and culture were explained and we learned about the large array of medicinal plants the villagers use to maintain health.  We were also given a demonstration of hand ploughing and planting.  Corn and potatoes are crops widely grown in the valley and there are 3,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru, including one with yellow flesh which was frequently on menus, made into a cold dish called Causa.  Delicious!

Afterwards, we drove on to open agricultural areas and came upon a field with a view of a pleasant lake where tables were set up under sail cover.  This was our lunch stop, another of the many delightful surprises arranged for us.  We enjoyed a number of tasty local dishes, washed down with wine, of course, while nearby a family ploughed their land with oxen.  There was even the luxury of a toilet tent.  On our way back to our hotel we saw a fascinating, terraced salt mine.  Also Moray, an ancient circular terraced area, which the Incas used for crop experimentation.

Next day we visited Ollantaytambo, a thriving town on the Urabumba River, with Inca constructions, terraces and a fortress, where the Incas had a major victory against the onslaught of the Spanish.  We then boarded a train for Machu Picchu, enjoying a very good boxed lunch while the train followed the Urubamba River with the Andes mountains rising from the banks.  Many a photo was taken of the majestic scenery. 

On the train’s arrival at the town of Aguas Calientes we checked into yet another hotel of the Inkaterra chain, again where we had individual accommodation.  We also had plenty of time to explore the extensive local market and contribute to the local economy.  In the evening we enjoyed a slide presentation and talk on Machu Picchu. 

The following morning was quite wet and our ponchos came in very handy while waiting for the National Park buses to take us up to the most famous of Inca sites.  Needless to say we were rather disappointed to have rain on this day of all days and my first few photographs of the site show nothing but the white of the cloud swirling around.  However, after a few minutes the cloud cleared, the rain stopped and there before us were the ancient ruins.  We had plenty of time to explore the entire site, with our guide’s discourse never faltering.  After a late lunch at Café Inkaterra we were once again let loose on the market.

Around 6pm we walked to the station to wait in the first class lounge for our departure on the luxurious Hiram Bingham train.  While waiting we sipped champagne and were serenaded by a small musical group.  The white cloth covered dining tables in our carriage were set up for a five course dinner and the whole experience was like something from a movie.  Dinner occupied us for a large part of the trip and it is safe to say that ‘a good time was had by all’, but one table definitely displayed their enjoyment more than the rest of us. 

Arrival in Cusco was quite late at night and we were definitely ready for our beds on arrival at the Marriott Hotel, tired but happy.

We woke to a beautiful sunny day and our first visit was to Sacsayhuaman, an Inca sacred site with foundation stones even larger than at Machu Picchu, with the same tight fit.  Another amazing engineering and transport achievement as these stones had to be moved considerable distances.  We drove downhill to the city centre to visit the Santo Domingo monastery.  This was built over Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun), the most sacred of the Inca temples and originally decorated with thick layers of gold. 

In 1951 the monastery was largely destroyed by an 8.5 earthquake and has since been rebuilt.  The Inca walls however remained intact, a testament to their building prowess and knowledge of this earthquake challenged area. 

Once outside the monastery we witnessed another parade, this time simply to advertise bread rolls.  A produce and craft market was next on the agenda.  One of our fellow travellers claimed it was like the Queen Victoria market on steroids.  Huge and fascinating! 

After lunch we went to the studio of Martin Chambi, whose photographs presented Machu Picchu to the world a couple of years after discovery by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s. 

Another flight took us to Juliaca, then coach to our hotel on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.  Our hotel was the Titilaka, right on the shores of the lake with only a few villagers’ houses nearby.  What a location!  It appeared that some sort of celebration was taking place on a headland near the hotel, with brass band and dancing by women in costume.  We walked and climbed to where we had a closer view.  Apparently they were making a tourist video.  This continent and our tour offered surprises at every turn.

In the evening a large fire was lit outdoors and we all sat around with our preferred drinks and watched the sunset.  That was the night we discovered panoramic photographs on our mobile phones.

Setting off at 8am by launch on another sunny day, we headed for the floating reed islands, transferring to a reed boat for our landing at our chosen island, anchored to the bed of the lake to prevent it floating.  The families living on these islands have a very basic lifestyle but, with the aid of solar power, they can indulge in something indispensable in our modern lives – television.

Back on our launch we headed for the island of Taquile and our next outdoor lunch.  Six families live on Taquile, with their own ‘royalty’ governing their island and the families alternating their farming activities each year between crop raising and stock farming.  We learned about their particular culture and after lunch watched a couple of the women weaving in what appeared to us to be a very uncomfortable and backbreaking position.

 

We left our lovely peaceful spot on the shores of Lake Titicaca to say farewell to Peru and enter Bolivia.  This proved to be quite a rigmarole, but definitely an experience.  After formally exiting Peru travellers walk the no-man’s land to Bolivia.  This particular morning there was a celebration of some sort and we had to walk quite a circuitous route.  Judging by the number of people involved this was quite an import event, with the men all in western style suits, the women in national costume and a very large brass band playing.  It was all very colourful and more fodder for our cameras. 

Once in Bolivia we drove to the town of Copacabana, still on Lake Titicaca, and were taken to the main square where the novelty of the blessing of the cars was explained to us – yet another fascinating and colourful aspect of South American culture.

Our next form of transport was by hydrofoil to Isla del Sol where we hiked up a fairly steep path to our outdoor lunch with more beautiful views.  Our hydrofoil then took us past Moon Island and we transferred to our coach, which took us to the Altiplano Museum, showing the progression of Inca to colonial Spanish life and culture. 

Our destination that night was La Paz and we got there in a novel fashion.  High above La Paz at 4,000 metres is adjoining El Alto and the government is creating a public transport system of cable cars to serve commuters and link El Alto with La Paz, removing large numbers of vehicles from the congested roads and transporting up to 3,000 people per hour at very reasonable prices.  Each line has a different colour and the latest, presently under construction, is the white line.

Our day in La Paz and El Alto included an overview of the two cities from Killi Killi Viewpoint, the old colonial area, main square and San Fransisco Church, where mass was in progress accompanied by very trendy and loud music.  There was also music outside where a political rally was being held, once again with costumes and a band.  We also went to the Valley of the Moon, an area of clay, sandstone and pebbles shaped into small and large pinnacles by water action.  There we overlooked the highest golf course in the world.

Next day we flew to Uyuni and transferred to four-wheel drives, which were to be our transport for the next few days.  We left El Alto from the world’s highest international airport. 

Our stay in Uyuni was very brief, just long enough to check out the small handful of shops or have a coffee.  Before getting to the Uyuni Salt Flats we visited a unique cemetery—for abandoned old and rusting trains.  Then it was on to the 12,000 square kilometres of the Uyuni Salt Flats where we were treated to another under cover outdoor lunch.  What a stunning spot!  A stop at Incahuasi Island afforded us a climb to the highest point where we had the most spectacular views.  We explored various areas of the salt flats, hurtling along at 110 kilometres an hour with no traffic regulations or restrictions.  Our hotel for the next two nights was at the world’s first salt hotel, Palacio de Sal, where the ceilings of the rooms were built of salt blocks and were curved like that of an igloo.  Timber walkways throughout the public areas were surrounded by crushed salt and signs saying “Please do not walk on the salt”.  Needless to say there was going to be more than one person who inadvertently stepped on the salt.

The following day began with a visit to a family-run salt processing works.  It was too small to be called a factory.  We visited another island where we hiked up to the cave of the Coquesa mummies, where there are several skeletons.  Back down on the pasture flats, we walked through a herd of llamas to our cars, parked near a small wetland area where flamingos were feeding. 

Lunch was another marquee-covered outdoor experience.  We never got tired of those.  During the afternoon we went to different locations where we discovered the different ways the salt is harvested, then it was back to our amazing hotel for some R and R.

Back in the four-wheel drives for a very early 7am start on yet another bright clear day and our first stop was an area called the Valley of the Red Rocks, enormous rock formations coming out of the sandy desert.  As we continued our trip towards the border of Bolivia and Chile we encountered interesting coloured lakes and some small geysers.  We left our four wheel drives at the border and drove for quite a distance before getting to Chile Immigration.

Our destination that night was San Pedro de Atacama, a delightful town in the Atacama Desert, our hotel set in tranquil and private grounds.  Sightseeing involved a pre-Spanish village, desert scenery, high plateau lakes and another salt/wetland area with a large colony of flamingos. 

Our second day in the Atacama area began in the dark as we drove to see the geysers at sunrise.  With several layers of clothing and blankets draped around us we were still freezing.  When we walked back to where our bus was parked, breakfast was waiting and we warmed up on hot chocolate and muffins, even hot toast and the best scrambled eggs I have ever tasted. 

On our way back to San Pedro we saw vicunas up close, some even crossing the road in front of us.  We had plenty of time for shopping and saw another very colourful and noisy parade while walking back to our bus.  Leisure time in the afternoon was followed by a sunset tour and barbecue dinner.

A late start next day took us to Calama Airport where we boarded our flight to Santiago, where it all started.  Calama is a mining town in copper mining territory and is serviced by a very modern airport.  We settled into our hotel then walked a short way along the street to our restaurant dinner. 

Our day in Santiago started with the main city area around the presidential palace and on to Plaza de Amas, Santiago’s main square.  We were right on time for the changing of the guard at La Moneda Palace, an event, which takes place every 48 hours.  We also went to the central market where we sampled fruit juices and had delicious soups with a local (alcoholic) drink.  We explored the flower, fruit and vegetable, meat and fish sections of this enormous market then went to a restaurant nearby for an excellent seafood lunch.  We were not exactly starving after what we had sampled at the market but we managed.  Our afternoon was spent at a shopping area within walking distance of our hotel – our last opportunity to help the local economy.

We had our farewell dinner that night and this was the last of our sensational travel experiences in South America.  This has been my first tour with Jacquey and already I am looking forward to the next one in Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.  The organisation was faultless and each day delivered something interesting and surprising on top of what we were expecting.  So if you want a first rate travel and really special memories to treasure, along with some new found friends – Vamos – let’s go.